Difficult (But Still Fun) Games

In my last post, I laid bare several of Borderlands 2‘s worst flaws, and I consider its frustrating difficulty to one of the chief reasons why I haven’t played it in almost a week now. While I will readily admit that I prefer my games to be a bit on the easy side (I crave progression and despise forced repetition), I’ve played plenty of games that offered just enough of a challenge to make me feel like I’ve got to turn on the ol’ brain and earn my progress (Portal 2, Pikmin 2, Telltale’s adventure games). I don’t usually play ultra-difficult games because I find the payoff dwarfed by the endless hours of pain and suffering, and I’m not interested in completing games solely for bragging rights. But despite my preferences, I have found myself legitimately enjoying a handful of maddeningly-difficult games over the years.

Part of the reason why I stuck with the following games is that despite the monumental death toll, the core gameplay was so fun that I had to keep playing. Another reason is that I was eventually able to master all of these games, but it took a lot of practice and patience. My skills have since faded, but even when I was at the height of my power, there were some sections of these games that I just could not beat, and with my aging reflexes, my window of opportunity for 100%-ing these games has long since passed. But I came damn close, and for a time, I was caught in the grip of some of the hardest games the market has ever seen.

F-Zero GX – I remember bringing my GameCube to a friend’s party back in the day. We set it up next to a kid who was stubbornly playing PS2 while the rest of us did our best to run each other off the road on F-Zero. At one point, the PS2 kid (who was playing Gran Turismo) looked over at our screen, and I could almost hear his jaw hit the floor. F-Zero GX was a shockingly fast racer for those brought up on more realistic sims, and it boasted some gorgeous visuals (courtesy of SEGA) and a punishing level of difficulty to boot.

F-Zero GX is the kind of game where you die if you don’t exhibit a godly level of precision over your racer. In the earlier levels, you’ll probably just bounce off the walls a few times before you explode, but in the later races you’ll immediately go careening off the track into oblivion (instant game over), since there are hairpin turns and no fucking walls. At that speed, the slightest twitch in your thumb and your racer is toast. But I somehow got good enough to beat a few Grand Prix on the highest difficulty with a handful of different racers, and I even unlocked a few AX pilots by beating the excruciating Story Mode chapters on the highest difficulty. My two greatest regrets were that A) I never unlocked the AX tracks (never could beat Diamond Cup on Master), and B) I never unlocked the Rainbow Phoenix, which I thought was the coolest racer (couldn’t beat Story Mode chapter 1 on Very Hard…gah).

Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn – In retrospect, I probably made this a lot harder on myself than I should’ve because I consider myself pretty damn good at Fire Emblem games. I was doing a no-death run and playing without using the overpowered laguz Royals, which worked out pretty well until the endgame, where I discovered it was actually impossible for me to beat the final boss. I couldn’t believe it; I had to restart completely, and over 100 hours of game time went down the drain (Radiant Dawn is a long game). I used the same masochistic rules in my second playthrough, but this time I paid much more attention to my character builds and XP gains. The endgame isn’t the only difficult part of the game, however; in both playthroughs, the final third of the game was spent carefully assessing probability ratios and testing movement ranges, and as a result, each chapter took me over 3 hours to beat. Radiant Dawn is definitely the hardest of the five localized Fire Emblem games, but it’s a game that speaks to my OCD in soft, hushed tones and strokes it lovingly. While F-Zero GX required me to make split-second decisions, Radiant Dawn gave me as much time as I wanted, and I needed every second of it to make sure I had the perfect battle strategy.

Super Meat Boy – I still can’t believe I even beat* this game. While F-Zero GX and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn are generally considered difficult, Super Meat Boy is the only one of the three that was actually designed to be so. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes sought to create a game of legendary difficulty, but not one that would drive people away in frustration, and in my opinion they succeeded. The key is the fact that each Meat Boy level takes under 30 seconds to beat, meaning you could die instantly but still know that you’re only five or six jumps away from the goal. It’s a tantalizing prospect, and one that kept me playing despite my growing corpse pile. The last level might have taken me a full week to beat, but when I finally beat it, you can get everyone in the building knew about it (I screamed pretty loud). Mind you, this was before I bought a wireless receiver for my 360 controller, so I beat this thing using a keyboard. Nearly gave myself carpal tunnel.

*Light World only, but that’s more than enough for me. Cotton Alley and the Dark World are for masochists.

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Borderlands 2 Kinda Sucks

While playing through a New Game Plus of Borderlands, I realized that despite the game’s deep flaws (lack of story, phoned-in sidequests, a horrendous PC port), I was actually thoroughly enjoying the game. I was caught in the grip of a neverending quest where the driving mechanic is the hunt for a better gun. I played both single-player and co-op found them equally fun (single-player because I could go at my own pace, co-op because I loved covering my buddy’s ass…uh, so to speak).

Despite Gearbox’s claims to the contrary, Borderlands 2 is almost the exact same game as its predecessor, so I was very surprised to come to the realization that I simply don’t enjoy the sequel as much as the original. Borderlands 2 benefits greatly from a much more engaging story, more fleshed-out NPCs (in Ellie’s case, piles and piles of flesh), and funnier jokes. The slag weapons are a great addition to co-op play and the steps they’ve taken to really differentiate the gun brands (both functionally and aesthetically) are admirable. But beyond these minor additions, Borderlands 2 is proof that Gearbox hasn’t learned from their mistakes and has actually managed to turn this sequel into a game that’s somehow less fun than its predecessor.

I’ll be clear: I actually like the juvenile writing of Borderlands 2, which seems to be a major point of contention among some highbrow review sites. It doesn’t always work, and when it fails, Dave Thier accurately likens it to that annoying friend we all have that tries too hard to be funny, fails to bridge the gap between “crude” and “humour,” and calls it a day. But I’ve smirked at enough of the game’s one-liners to judge the writing enjoyable. Not every game writer can be an Erik Wolpaw; there’s a place in the video game world for guys like Anthony Burch too.

No, my frustration stems not from Borderlands 2’s writing, but from its actual gameplay, enemy design, and mission structure. First of all, the game is much, much harder than its predecessor, and I don’t think that’s a good thing. The original Borderlands straddled the line between satisfying and difficult almost perfectly, while the sequel skews the balance heavily toward the latter. I died a lot in single-player, and playing co-op wasn’t much easier since the difficulty ramps up considerably with extra players. Like the original, checkpoints are few and far between, and quitting the game restarts you at the beginning of the area, not at your last checkpoint. Conserving ammo has become immensely difficult thanks to the fact that the more powerful weapons now consume 2 or more bullets per shot.

Part of the increased difficulty is due to some truly annoying enemy designs. Constructors (especially the first one you face) are nearly impossible to take down solo, with their bullet-deflecting shields, constant add spawns, heatseeking aerial missiles (making most cover useless unless there’s a roof over your head), tracking lasers, and nearly-unavoidable nukes. Suicide Psychos and EXP Loaders run way too fast and cause way too much damage when they explode. Buzzards are the “severely irritating flying enemies” of this game, and as anyone who’s ever tried to kill a fast-moving aerial enemy in an FPS using a console controller will tell you, it’s difficult to peg these guys with such an aggressive auto-aim mechanism. Even Spiderants, already supremely irritating enemies in the original, have become much harder to kill, with their armor and their daze resistance both getting upgrades. Of course, not all the new enemy designs are bad; repeatedly shooting a Goliath in the gut while desperately hoping the gun’s kick doesn’t accidentally walk the stream of fire up to his cranium is an incredibly tense feeling, and it’s a fantastic subversion of the FPS gamer’s natural tendency to always go for the headshot. Getting criticals on Hyperion robots by blowing their limbs off is also satisfying, even if the hitboxes are frustratingly small.

Borderlands 2 has received accolades for its open-world game design, but if there was ever a game that could’ve benefited from some linearity, it’s this one. The game is huge, much more expansive than the first in terms of areas to explore and environments to travel. Because the maps are so large and Fast Travel warp points are so few, getting anywhere is a huge pain, especially when sidequests are rarely ever located next to Fast Travel stations. Another problem is that quest markers usually indicate the endpoint of a quest rather than the entrance to the appropriate bandit camp or cave, which resulted in me pointlessly scanning cliff faces and following scaffolding to a potential entry staircase (only to have my hopes dashed and remain stumped as to how to progress the quest) on more than one occasion. The Dust and the area with the Firehawk cult quest are the two worst offenders so far, with the latter being one of the worst-designed quests I’ve ever come across in any game.

Proper quest marking should lead the player to the entrance of the quest area, then from point A to point B to point C until the endpoint is reached; it should not simply show the endpoint and assume the player will figure out how to get there unless it’s very obvious how to do so. The Firehawk cult quest places the quest marker on one side of the map, with several obvious paths to get there…until you go there, and discover they’re all blocked by impassable cliffs. I spent nearly an hour looking for alternate routes before I found one that wraps all the way around the entire map before looping back to lead to the quest marker. This is open-world design done wrong; if you’re going to design a horribly convoluted method of proceeding to a quest marker, you need a linear method of leading the player through the intended path.

Once you actually get to the quest marker, it’s a crapshoot as to whether you’ll actually find the fetch quest item you’re looking for. Most items are so small that they’re nearly impossible to find in an area saturated with bandit corpses, ammo cartridges, and hyper-detailed background elements. Gearbox shows the player what to look for using one of two methods: by highlighting the item in glowing dark green (which blends into the background too well to be useful) or by bathing the item in a white pillar of light (which is the same colour and visual effect used to indicate a bottom-tier weapon or ammo drop, thereby wrongfully prompting the player to ignore the item). And that’s if you’re lucky enough to have a quest indicator that precisely shows you where items are located; some missions inexplicably require you to search a large area for the required items, and the only indication of where they might be found is a “big-ass circle” on your map, as Claptrap accurately puts it. This makes sense for quest items looted from enemy mobs, but not for items sitting on shelves in bandit camps.

The original Borderlands was pretty long if you were planning on hitting all the sidequests, but I found the length within my comfort zone for an RPG, and I didn’t mind doing the sidequests because each one brought me to a new area of the map. By comparison, the sidequests in Borderlands 2 are the worst kind of padding. Several of them require you to trek back through story areas you just completed, respawned enemies and all. When I complete an area of the map, I’m done with it; I don’t want to see that section of the game again for a long time, if ever, and I certainly don’t want to immediately go back through it to complete a sidequest that should’ve been given to me before I ever set foot in that area. Stuff like this artificially inflates the game’s running time without applying a proportional increase in enjoyment level.

It’s not difficult to see why these design choices were made. Recent Nintendo games like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and Super Mario 3D Land were criticized by hardcore gamers for their handholding measures, while Final Fantasy XIII was criticized for its linearity, and the single-player campaigns most modern FPSes continue to be criticized for their short length. Conversely, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls were praised for their high level of difficulty, while Red Dead Redemption received many accolades for its open-world design, and Skyrim received GOTY honours for its impressively long campaign. Gearbox is more in tune with the hardcore gamer community than many other developers, so they likely took these criticisms to heart and made a game that would undoubtedly give the hardcore gamers little to complain about. The problem is that those complaints weren’t directed at Borderlands per se, and the game was already incredibly well-balanced in the categories of difficulty, linearity, and length; they essentially fixed what wasn’t broken. Gearbox may have made a game better aligned with the values of “hardcore gamers,” but in doing so, I fear they’ve turned Borderlands into a game I can no longer enjoy.

A Few Games I’m Looking Forward To

Short and simple today. I could’ve ranted about Gawker or torn apart Jason Schreier’s latest travesty of an article, but for now, I just want to talk about a few games that I’m looking forward to this fall, as well as a few summer releases that I missed. I finished Pokémon Diamond Version about a week ago, and right now I’m on the last leg of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, with FEZ up next. After that, though, I’ve got a bunch of possible games to play.

Borderlands 2 – Got this one preordered already, so it’s likely my next game after FEZ. I’ve beaten the original game three times since I first booted it up in February 2011: once as a solo vanilla playthrough, once as a solo New Game+ with all DLC, and once with a friend, and each playthrough was better than the last. Having never played Diablo or World of Warcraft, Borderlands was the game that introduced me to lootfest RPGs and, naturally, got me addicted to them. Something about the shooting mechanics just felt satisfying, too; sniping midget heads has never been so therapeutic. Since the original is already one of my favourite games, I would only want a sequel to make minor improvements and up the story content, and judging by the trailers, it seems like that’s exactly what Gearbox has done. Can’t wait to blast through this one with my buddy.

Pokémon Black Version 2 – This is an odd type of Pokemon game: a direct sequel without new game mechanics or additional Pokemon. It’s more of a new game than Platinum is to Diamond and Pearl, but hardly a leap equivalent to a new gen, like Ruby to Diamond. Black 2 is a game for people who enjoyed the story of Black enough to purchase a full-game continuation of that story, and will willingly pay full price despite not seeing any new Pokes or major gameplay tweaks. I guess that’s me; I thought Black‘s story was a huge step up from previous games, and I actually like starting these games over and building my team from whatever Pokes are available. Black 2 may have all the same Pokes as Black, but since much of the setting is brand-new, their regional availability will be quite different, forcing me to probably build an entirely different team.

Guild Wars 2 – I actually know jack shit about this game, but everyone’s talking about it, and given my recent lust for shiny loot, I might give it a try. I went on the game’s site and found some tree people who look fly as fuck, so…in due time.

Star Wars: The Old Republic – I already own this game, but my subscription expired way back in June, after I levelled to 50 with my Chiss Sniper and prepared my Human Jedi Guardian to level with my friend once he got his new computer. Well, my friend never did get his new Lenovo thanks to a greedy UPS worker somewhere, and long story short, our SWTOR plans fell through. I really did enjoy this game though, despite all the hate it’s received, and I can probably attribute my love for it to a couple things: 1. It’s Star Wars and I love Star Wars. 2. It was my first MMO, so I have no idea how well it compared to WoW or TERA. All I know is that it worked well for me. 3. The story was fantastic, and the grouped story options really made it feel like you were playing a game of KOTOR where all of your party members are player-controlled. Anyway, I’d like to get back into it and keep gearing my Guardian, but the game goes Free To Play in November, so I might wait before shelling out another $30 on a two-month subscription.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords – Late last year, I began replaying my Xbox copy of KOTOR II, and finished about 85% of the game before I got a disc read error. Disc repair kits did nothing, and eBay copies were an unbelievable $90. Eventually I got SWTOR and forgot about it, but this summer, I saw a KOTOR PC collection at EB Games for $20. I figured it was a little high considering I only wanted KOTOR II and I’d have to start all over again…but about two weeks ago, KOTOR II was released on Steam for $10. Unghh. I’d probably get either SWTOR or KOTOR II, but not both. If I was smart, I’d wait until late November, when KOTOR II will drop to $2.50 in Steam’s Black Friday sale and SWTOR will drop to $0 in EA’s “We Failed” Sale. Or I could be stupid and buy them both now for $40.

Pokémon ConquestPokémon Tactics! Was definitely going to pick this one up until I upgraded to an iPhone 4S and bought the slightly overpriced Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions. It sated my appetite for SRPGs, so I decided to pass on Pokémon Tactics until it got cheaper. Although, I could’ve traded in my Mom’s copy of Just Dance 3 at Future Shop and gotten Pokémon Tactics for free…just kidding, Mom.