Going easy on old favorites
I couldn't help but notice that with the release of Orange Box, critics have been going pretty easy on Half-Life 2: Episode 2. According to MetaCritic, it's averaging a 91%, which is pretty darn exceptional. But it's not the score that bugs me. I've played Episode 2, and you know what? It is an exceptional game. There are few games that have such great storytelling or such excellently scripted gameplay. It's never a game that feels like you're just walking from one room to the next and emptying it out; each section has a unique design and present a unique set of challenges.
But critics seem to be pretty passive about some of the other aspects of the Half-Life series. Am I the only one who noticed that this is one of the few games left where the protagonist carries an arsenal fit for a small army? That doesn't seem to jive with a game that strives for believability in so many respects. And what about all the crates of medicine and bullets that just happen to be scattered everywhere? How did those get there? How is it that I'm in some underground tunnel filled with radioactive waste, and suddenly there's a crate there that just happens to have all the supplies I need for my super-suit and my massive array of weaponry? And what about the exploding barrels that just happen to be sitting out on the street where the Combine are scripted to run? Aren't these aliens supposed to be superintelligent? Shouldn't they figure out another place to store barrels of explosive waste? Worst of all are the "crates of infinite ammo". When the game wants you to beat an enemy a certain way, it just sticks a crate there that has an infinite number of rockets, grenades, or other such weaponry that just happens to be exactly what you need for that situation. Again, that kind of clashes with the believability of the game.
So the question is, why are critics so easy on this stuff? Why does nary a review of the Half-Life games even mention these abundant cliches? The job of a critic, in my opinion, is not just to make claims about what is good or bad in a game, but to suggest how the bad stuff could have been better. In my review of Half-Life 2, I spotted these cliches and gave my thoughts on what might have worked more effectively. That's because I feel it's important to hold developers to high standards. If Halo comes along and improves the way weapons and health are handled, shouldn't we take games to task when they cling to dated contrivances? I feel as though many critics are a little soft on established series that have a special place in the hearts and minds of gamers, but if anything, those are the games we should really be looking at to continually raise the bar.
Disclaimer: For the real gaming experience, please play this game on "Hard".
Speaking of Halo, something related to it popped into my mind recently as I read negative reviews of Clive Barker's Jericho. Jericho for the PC has rapidly become one of my favorite games of the year. Gorgeous, atmospheric graphics complement a unique twist on squad dynamics that mixes the best of old and new styles of gameplay.
But the game has been panned in some spots, which I attribute partly to the fact that the Playstation 3 version is apparently quite inferior, partly to the fact that it's not an established franchise like Halo or Half-Life, partly to the fact that it didn't have the high-minded pre-release hype of something like Bioshock, and partly to the fact that a lot of reviewers probably played the game on the "Normal" difficulty setting.
Back when I played Halo, I really enjoyed it. When I reviewed the game, I gave it a 10 out of 10. But I didn't write that review until after I had played the game on "Legendary" mode, and in my opinion if you haven't played Halo on Legendary, you haven't really played the game. On "Normal" difficulty, the game is pretty much a straight-forward run-and-gun affair. There's not much depth or strategy to the gameplay, and as long as you're competent with the basic mechanics of the game, it shouldn't be too tough. But on Legendary, the game transforms into one that requires careful planning, lots of strategy, and a high level of skill. It truly is like playing a whole other game.
There's a lesson to be learned here. Games that are more challenging tend to be more rewarding, hence more enjoyable. Games that are easy tend to be quite boring and don't provide much sense of reward or satisfaction when its challenges are conquered. When people criticized Jericho for being easy, as many reviews did, my thought was, "Hey Mr. Reviewer Guy... if it was too easy, why didn't you change the difficulty setting?" Difficulty settings are there for a reason. If you've never played a first-person shooter and you rarely play videogames at all, you could play the "Easy"difficulty until you get the hang of it. If you've only played first-person shooters here and there, but you don't play them regularly and you're not very good at them, "Normal" should do the trick. But if you're a seasoned gamer who plays many games and has played lots of first-person shooters – as most professional game reviewers are – you have no business playing a game on anything less than the "Hard" (or equivalent) difficulty.
Some people might argue that the default difficulty is how the game is "supposed to be experienced". But the problem with that line of reasoning is that in games that require a high degree of motor skills, developers have to make the difficulty applicable to a broad array of gamers, from the most casual weekend gamer to the most hardcore "all-nighter" gamer. They tend to make games easier because they don't want to put off all the casual people who they want to purchase the game; but they leave the higher difficulties there as options for seasoned gamers. As my experience with Halo taught me, challenge makes a big difference. Playing Halo on Legendary doesn't alter the game in any fundamental way – it just makes it so it requires a higher level of motor skill. If you are a seasoned gamer, you owe it to yourself to be playing games on higher difficulties.
So while some reviewers complained that Jericho was too easy, that players can just plow through wave after wave of monsters with little strategy or skill, I found the game to be highly challenging. I was forced to use the various squad members' powers in creative ways to overcome enemies that were able to quickly turn the tide against me if I didn't use all of the tools available. When I played the demo for this game, I thought it was a little too easy. So when I purchased the game, I played it from start to finish on "Hard" and got a deep, pulse-pounding, rewarding game. For others who didn't adjust the difficulty of the game to fit their level of skill, it was a walk in the park, and about as exciting as one too.