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Slow Burn – Deathkings, Metal Gear and Difficulty

‘Hexen: Death Kings of the Dark Citadel’ and ‘Metal Gear Rising’ are both highly challenging games.  Each implements difficulty in their own way, but my response to how each game applied their challenge was strongly polarising.  One strengthened my determined to overcome the challenge presented, the other prompted me to uninstall the game in rage.

After completing Metal Gear Rising I reflected on the feelings that emerged each time I died during one of the many very tough boss encounters.  As mentioned in the review, each death occurred further into the fight than the last or, revealed more of the encounters mechanics.  Either way I was compelled to reload and get right back into the battle.  Next time I would try to push the boss further, or try out a new tactic.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes not,  but each death encouraged a change in strategy and increased eagerness to try again.

Hexen:  Death Kings of the Dark Citidel (DKDC) prompted the opposite response.  DKDC is an Expansion pack for Hexen:  Beyond Heretic.  I did not dedicate a full review to this game but I will copy my Steam review here to give you an idea as to why:

“An absolute obnoxious ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥ of a game. It offers nothing new over Hexen. No new weapons or enemies, just 3 new map hubs. I can’t recommend it even if you liked the original Hexen. It’s not just ‘More of the same’ but the difficulty is lazily increased by enemies continuously spawning into the map – constantly interrupting your ability to focus and find the required switch or key. Enemies jump and spawn from everywhere seemingly endlessly, but ammo is still limited. Environmental traps are impossible to intuit so you will be regularly killed out of the blue when fighting the endless waves of monsters. I had to quit by the end of the first hub, it was clear that the completion of the game depended on attrition tactics – constantly die until the combination of luck and switch memorization gets you through.

You probably have this game if you have Hexen, as I believe it’s just the one bundle, but if you don’t, then don’t buy it. It’s the same game as Hexen but designed to punish and offers almost no enjoyment.”

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Traditionally, progression through old school FPS’s involved entering an area, clearing out the inhabiting Demons, Monsters, Nazi’s etc, and finding the key/switch that unlocks the next section.  The process is repeated until the end of the level.

Death Kings follows this formula but with a small difference – once an area is cleared a steady stream of enemies will continue teleport into the level.  I cannot say if they spawned endlessly, but they may as well have in a practical sense.  I would clear out an area, hit a switch at an opposite end of the map, and on returning to the original area (with a now opened door) find it to be packed with enemies once again.
Enemies may spawn in a room you purged moments before.  They can spawn behind you, or in the sky, making them difficult to spot and avoid their first attack.

Spawning enemies alone would not have been enough to make me abandon the campaign, but it appears that the other challenges were not designed with waves of spawning enemies in mind.

For example, ammo does not regenerate, so you have limited ammo to fight potentially unlimited enemies.  At times I found I had collected all the ammo in the map but was still afraid to use any in case it was needed later for a more crucial situation.  I resorted to sprinting from one side of an area to another, hoping to find and/or activate a switch without getting killed.  Deaths were frequent, and if I survived my health was considerably reduced by multiple projectiles fired from the many enemies.

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As with the original Hexen, switches tend to be deliberately difficult to spot, such as behind a rock sitting among other similar coloured rocks – that also share the same colour pallet as the wall.  A switch could be on the side of a 4 faced pillar, inches opposite a wall in a room of about 20 other support structures.  Other times they are textured almost identical to the supporting wall, such as a green mossy switch on a green mossy wall.
Clearing out a room and finding the required switch was made exponentially more tedious as ‘clearing out a room’ is rarely a possibility.  Eliminating all current enemies may award a few moments to breathe but usually never enough to orientate yourself or  starting hunting for the required switch or key.  Enemies will begin to spawn, and all satisfaction is lost.  You aren’t the victor of a skirmish – the skirmish is endless.  There is little or no time to locate the required switch – there’s just constant pressure.

Finally there are the environmental traps.  The Hexen series has a tendency to make traps virtually invisible until activated, forcing the adoption of  the ‘now you know’ approach,  reloading and repeating the section with the newly acquired ability to see into the future.  DKDC’s constant onslaught of enemies would direct me straight into a death trap because an enemy would spawn inches from me, necessitating quick movement or retreat – usually straight into a pillar of fire, or an enormous spike launching from the ground.  On one occasion flipping a switch would result in the collapsing of the  surrounding walls, leaving me exposed in an arena surrounded by literally dozens of enemies.  It was essential to run to cover immediately, but the arena is littered with spike traps that cannot be seen unless they are in the triggered position, which is usually too late.

You know what you have to do…

Eventually I came to realise that to complete this game I would have to resort to the suicide run technique.  Sprint headfirst into an area and search for the progression device/item before dying.  Once found, reload, run in, activate it, get safe, save.  Repeat the process in the unlocked area, repeat until the game was completed.  Kill no enemies, just get through it as fast as possible.   Essentially a Speedrun.

If someone offered me this game where the only condition was to complete it, then I would refuse.  I would refuse in the same way I would refuse an offer to get punched in the face, it may be free but it’s certainly not pleasant.  Death Kings came with the ID bundle so it probably barely cost a euro – which to me, is worse – I had to pay for the experience.

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Metal Gear Lesson
There was none of Metal Gear Rising’s learning or ability to intuit the appropriate response.  In Death Kings you walk into a room and get killed by an enemy hidden in the corner.  You reload and kill the same enemy only to then step into a pillar of flame.  You again reload, draw the enemy out, kill it, dodge the fire but get killed by an enemy that spawned at the spot you stood earlier.  You reload again and get immediately killed by the same enemy that decided to spawn in 30 seconds earlier.

In MGR’s, choices will either result in progress, or death.  You then adjust the strategy appropriately and try again.

In DKDC, whether you can get from one side of a room to another cleanly or having all but 2 % health taken is an apparent roll of the dice.

My (slightly depressing) theory
I’m of the opinion that the design of DKDC resulted from either arrogance or exploitative laziness on the part of the developers.  Players that purchased this expansion probably owned the original game.  Such players likely established an attachment to the series and the developers could easily exploit any dissonance that a frustrating game would invoke.  Fans may not be willing to speak ill of a franchise to which they dedicated a lot of time, in fact they may become aggressively defensive.

I remember those years of gaming, when games (especially PC games) were still quite niche.  A hobby that (then) had a uniqueness to which a person could attach their identity.  Being told that a game – a core part of their hobby and possibly identity – was poorly or lazily designed could be genuinely threatening; mistaking the criticism as being about themselves and no about the product.

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So, an obnoxiously difficult game would become a ‘hardcore’ game.  If you complained then you were simply not skilled enough to play.  An absolute genius defense as it both empowers the person and resolves the doubt that their hobby is nothing else but perfect.

Do not consider this a judgement, consider it experience – back then I would have mindlessly defended by gaming hobby.  Devoting hours and hours of time into a game or franchise to then hear that it wasn’t considered excellent, or may actually be a low quality product would have been very threatening to me.  I can easily imagine myself defending a game like DKDC, which treated me with no respect, I did this often with other games.  As a form of social escapism it is very threatening to believe that a game is rejecting you too.

I think there is a fundamental difference in the design attitude between the two games.  Admittedly they are 18 years apart, but this makes no difference (there are other excellent games from the same period).  The developers of MGR crafted the difficulty.  Boss encounters were designed to be very tough and mistakes costly but the more attempts made the more noticeable the strategy becomes and reaction cues evident.  Usually this is a subtle flash of light, or a movement of the boss which telegraphs the next action.  After many failures you perfect the dance and  hit the perfect 10.  Dealing the killing blow is intensely satisfying.

Nothing feels crafted with Death Kings.  Levels were created and populated with enemies, but felt that it was either not difficult enough, or that the gameplay did not differentiate enough from Hexen, so the developers just decided to respawn enemies.  Possibly under the pretence of ‘taking it to the next level’.  Knowing that fans, or even just enthusiastic gamers would take over the defence.  The intentions of the developers are unknown to me and I can only speculate, but from playing Death kings I am left feeling very cynical about their efforts.

Conclusion

I’d like to think that it is a mark of independence when you can vocalise your dissatisfaction about something of which you were previously excited.  I was excited for Hexen’s expansion pack, but since it is frustratingly designed with no respect for my patience I am going to cease playing.  It is not worth my time.
For an interesting video on difficulty that hits many of the points that I have discussed (and does way more succinctly) you should check out the following episode of Extra Credits

 

 

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