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Don't be afraid to go one step above the norm

I think it'd be fair to say that the default difficulties in video games these days present little in the ways of challenge to most seasoned gamers. And by seasoned gamer, I would mean someone who has played numerous other types of games in the same genre as the one presented before them. That is subject to scrutiny, of course.

The generally lowered difficulty of games these games should not come a surprise to most. Do you remember how in many older games, there were no difficulty levels available and by default, your balls may or may not be ripped off mercilessly until you learned the ways of the game fluently? Of course, those days have passed, and nearly all games today ship with various difficulty levels.

The default, usually referred to as "normal" in someway or another, truly does reflect the state of the industry. The norm for games these days involves a lowered default difficulty as a smoother entry curve to entice a new market and new fans. You might call them casuals, and hell, I might call them that, too. But not in a derogatory or condescending manner. It's a business, and it makes sense to bring in new customers with this tactic. Some of those casuals may grow to become veterans themselves. If all goes well, they may even become as embittered and hateful of an industry we invest so much time in, too!

As for the rest of us, who have already been knee-deep in the market for some time? We have options, luckily. Hard mode, or whatever nomenclature your game chooses to bestow upon the difficulty one level above normal, should be seen more frequently as the go-to difficulty for veterans on their first play through.

Until recently, there existed a fear in the back of my mind that went something like this: "Oh no, hard mode might bust my balls, kick my ass, stab me in the kidney, and ruin this game for me! I...I'll just choose normal mode, and play the game at the default difficulty, the streamlined experience intended by the designers! All should be fine, right?"

I was wrong, as illustrated by two recent examples.

The first is DmC 2012. Disregard the massive controversy around it for just one second. Devil Hunter is the normal mode and I was inclined to go with it for my first playthrough. Nephilim is one step above, but its description is what sold me. For veterans of the Devil May Cry series. Granted, I had only played 3 and 4, but I enjoyed them thoroughly and understood the basic mechanics behind the game. I had also read multiple reviews that encouraged fans of the series to undertake this difficulty. These factors bolstered my staggering confidence enough to allow me to take the dive.

And I had a blast. To be quite honest, after I finished the game, I found myself saying that I wanted to play on hard mode. Flabbergasted, I realized that's just what I had finished. I came to the conclusion that normal mode would have bored me. Hard mode kept me on my toes, as foes did moderate damage compared to their pathetic strength in normal. It was a fair challenge - what "normal" modes were once supposed to provide. More importantly, playing hard mode on my first playthrough made the difficulty curve smooth in conjunction with purchasing character and weapon upgrades. It just felt right. And I could feel my mindset change.

Hard became the new normal for me.

Then came Dead Space 3. I am a huge fan of the two previous games, but played them both at first in normal modes. I jumped into harder modes later with New Game+ (I LOVE New Game + options by the way), but I couldn't truly call it hard due to all my upgrades trivializing basically everything. The Plasma Cutter at max upgrades was truly a cut above the rest (I'll slap myself for you later, don't worry).

Once more, the description for the hard mode of Dead Space 3, aptly named "Hard" instead of some other needless descriptor as in the previous games (see screenshot), recommended itself for series veterans. My fanaticism with the previous games led me to smash the A button on this choice with no hesitation. At all. Of course, I am also opting to play solo for my first experience. Co-op can come later.

About 7 hours into the game, I had my shit wrecked a few times. A first for me in any Dead Space game. And I loved it.

But let's rewind. About 30 minutes into the game, after the first couple of Necromorph skirmishes, I found my inventory full. That's right, full. Three spaces were occupied by ammo and a stasis pack. The rest were HEALTH PACKS. I found myself getting cocky. This reminded me of my previous playthroughs of the older Dead Spaces, where I constantly had more health than I could use.

About an hour later, and all those health packs were gone. I found myself scrambling for resources to create more health packs, but at the same time save enough to upgrade the health units on my suit, given that it was my first playthrough. Even for hard mode, the enemies this time around were incredibly active and a bit unforgiving. They charged me with little hesitation and slashed away at every opportunity. They often cornered me when I chose an awful time to reload, which led to an ironically bloody death filled with chopped off limbs for me. And hell, even those sequences where an enemy grapples you and you have to mash the A button to get them off were much more exciting in hard more than in normal. Even if I managed to escape the grapple, I ended up losing nearly half my health from full. I swore I mashed as hard as I could. In previous games, I disregarded these little grapple quick time events since they did so little damage, and Isaac's counter upon freeing himself did more damage to them than they did to me. Not anymore.

Anyway, 7 hours in. I scrounge for resources and ammo at every opportunity, not out of compulsion or habit, because I truly need them and go through them like tissue paper. Of course, there are still times when I find myself loaded with health packs - but there are also times when I found myself completely empty. That would have likely been a literal impossibility in normal mode, for me. I stomp every downed corpse in desperation for loot. Every battle is intense and, a scenario where I make a few minor slips and pay for with them with a gruesome death is a very real possibility, unlike on normal. And I'm loving it.

It's all thanks to hard mode. I have yet to play normal, to be honest, but I imagine it would be just as trivial as in the previous games - not to say that it wouldn't be fun as well.

In short, I guess I'm saying that I've finally reached the point where I can derive more enjoyment from games by starting them on hard mode from the start. Normal no longer cuts it, in most cases. These two examples use games where I had experience from older titles in the series, but I may begin trying this with games and genres I'm not so experienced in.

TL:DR - If you feel even the slightest comfort going into a video game, try it on hard mode first. You can always switch, but sticking with it can provide a more visceral, more enjoyable, more challenging experience. It may not be for everyone, but I truly think it's worth a shot. And try not to underestimate your skills as a gamer, no matter what level you think you're at.

P.S. - This was my first blog here on the Destructoid community, and I may have come across as more long winded than initially intended. Whoops. In any case, time to finish Dead Space 3.
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About Philiptang42one of us since 9:11 AM on 02.06.2013

Enamored since childhood by the Super Nintendo, I have been following video games ever since. Or maybe they've been following me? Either way, we've become attached and I have no intention of separating from them.

I try to look at games with an unbiased and critical eye, but that's not exactly possible is it? Perhaps minimizing these personal inflections is - but a piece of writing devoid of opinion would be a piece of writing completely devoid of personality. Devoid of fun. And people like fun.

...Don't they?