The Statistical Handicap Idiocy

…or, “Make a proper difficulty adjustment system, damn it.”

I’ll say this up front, I think Fallout 3 is a great game. Sure, it’s got very little resemblance to the original games, but then again, if Bethesda just replicated the gameplay, then people would just complain that they are playing a watered-down version of Fallout 2 (actually, I think they already use this complaint). But if there’s one thing I always hated, it’s the way Bethesda handles the difficulty adjustment.

This isn’t limited to, say, Oblivion and Fallout 3, but those are the examples I’ll work with.

So, for instance, on Normal difficulty, a Pistol shot would do maybe 5-6 damage to a human enemy. But then on a higher or lower difficulty, it would do 2-3, or 7-9, respectively. This is absolute bullshit, not because it’s artificially enhancing the difficulty – that’s the whole point of playing on harder settings – but because it’s artificially enhancing the difficulty in a blatantly visible way.

If it was “enemies have better accuracy” (ala Hell’s Highway), I can live with that. Maybe more enemies, okay. Even “enemies can do higher damage” is fine, but the really critical part is that there are always better ways to make things harder and more challenging for the player without giving a visible defect to the player at the same time.

Let’s go back to Fallout 3. Perhaps, instead of simply increasing the margin between your damage output and the enemies’, you could increase the amount of enemies – don’t overdo it, obviously. Give them better weapons and equipment. Or hell, you know, make them smarter. More reactive, more aggressive, the works.

Here’s an example of how it could be done, curtesy of Infinity Ward and Call of Duty. Every AI-controlled soldier has priority-setting in terms of “what to kill first.” The higher you bump the difficulty, the more likely it is for the enemy to target you instead of Private John Doe next to you. And, short of checking out the game scripts, it’s unlikely that the player will notice.

(Unless it was Call of Duty 2, which contained the absurdity of German Panzershrecks shooting at you before the Sherman to your right.)

Of course, it also altered the damage ratios, so you have less health as you progress up the rungs. Then again, this is balanced out by the fact that the enemies’ susceptibility to bullets does not change; they still won’t be surviving two headshots any time soon.

To wrap up untidily, don’t just throw in a half-assed difficulty setting for the hell of it.

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