Half Life 2: Difficulty

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Nov 28, 2007

Filed under: Game Reviews 32 comments

Another note on the Half-Life 2 Episode 2 stats from yesterday: About 75% of players leave the difficulty on Medium – the default. 15% play on Easy and the last 10% play on hard. (It’s actually a pie chart, those are eyeballed percentages on my part.)

When I was young and poor I tried to get the most out of my games by ratcheting up the difficulty. I’d play through on Medium, then Hard, then “Nightmare” (or whatever super-hard was called in the given game, if it was available) and then continue to play at the highest difficulty with various self-imposed limits.

The most obsessive was when I beat Quake on Nightmare difficulty without dying. If I died, I started a whole new game over from the very beginning. I suppose you could call this “Sisyphus” difficulty. It took several tries to make it, but it did a good job of squeezing some additional hours out of the game. I can’t believe I did that. I would find that sort of thing infuriating and tedious now, but as I’ve aged I’ve been increasingly stingy with how much time I’m willing to spend re-experiencing the same content.

In fact, I seem to do the opposite now. I start on Medium, but on subsequent play-throughs I’m not really interested in the combat. I’m usually experimenting with scripted situations, looking for hidden areas, and testing alternative solutions to problems and puzzles. When I do this I usually play on “super-easy” by cheating my way through the thing.

In Half-Life 2 the main sort of cheating I enjoy is upping the allowed ammo restrictions so that I can carry tons of whatever weapon I’m currently interested in, and then going to town with it. Allowing myself tons of grenades or (better) alt-fire explosives for the machine gun is a favorite of mine. Those are very powerful and tend to be severely rationed in the normal game, and it’s fun to cut loose and bomb the enemy senseless. It would ruin the game if I did this on the first play-through, but on later trips it can be fun. Giving myself a pistol that does 2,000 damage is also stupid in a hilarious sort of way.

But all of that is just a diversion. The real goal on later trips is to is see how the game behaves when you do things the designers don’t expect. You have to be careful with Valve games, because they are very tightly scripted and thus not very flexible when you leave their tightly scripted rails. (In HL2, during the final push to the Citadel, you have to fight your way past a bunch of Striders. If you kill them before the game intends – before you reach the crate of rockets – you can get trapped because the Striders aren’t around to blow open key walls for you.) Note that in this case being “tightly scripted” (or railroaded, if you will) is not a bad thing. It enables them to fill the game with lifelike reactions from the NPCs and movie-like pacing. The more sandbox the game is, the more generic it has to be. With most games I’m always wishing for more freedom, alternate paths, open-ended play, and divergent choices, but in the case of Half-Life I’m willing to trade freedom for story because they do it so well.


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32 thoughts on “Half Life 2: Difficulty

  1. Snook says:

    I actually tend to do the same “ratcheting” that you describe. With FPS’s, I simply do the same as you. With RPG’s I start imposing limits on myself (playing a monk character in Morrowind, for example.) So on and so forth. The only games I can’t do this with is are full RTS games, which I can’t play quickly enough to do well in. The best I’ve done was to beat the computer on “Hard” in Age of Kings, which was quite a feat for me. Actually, that’s why I like the Total War series…

  2. Joe says:

    The worst self-imposed limit I ever laid on myself was in Return to Castle Wolfenstein. I would restart a level if I took any damage at all; falling, self-imposed splash damage or getting shot. I made exceptions for myself during boss battles, but over the course of close to a month I did manage to beat just about every level without a single wound. It was awesome.

  3. Alexis says:

    In RPGs I usually start a human warrior, since they’re usually a lot less work for a lot more result than mages (which I prefer). I tend to consider playing with a mage an inbuilt disadvantage given the balancing of most games.

    Other games I usually play on medium until I get bored, then cheat so I can get the rest of the story. Shocking really, generation ADHD. My flatmate still does the ratcheting thing but then he works on phones.

    He got Lego Star Wars yesterday actually. I can’t remember if you’ve talked about it before, but there’s something incredibly OCD inciting about it. In a fun way (so far) mind. It has a whole ‘free play’ mode for replayability with lots of extra collectibles.

  4. Kyle says:

    Wow, you seriously beat Quake on “Nethack” difficulty? ;-) That takes some serious dedication!

    Also, I also recently “acquired” Lego Star Wars (The Original Trilogy version), and would definitely agree with the OCD-inciting comment from Alexis! That’s certainly not a bad thing, though, it’s a great game!

  5. straechav says:

    I generally prefer to concentrate on the story and play on fairly easy or medium. Except thief, in which I try to play the most “professional” thief I can be and impose various limits to myself. But even past all these many self-imposed difficulties, I still count managing to finish ADOM without save cheat as the crowning achievement.

    Dark Elf Ranger named Drizzt (just for fun), of all things. Instant healer, blinking and with innate ability to control teleport. Man, he was badass.

  6. Axcalibar says:

    If a game is unreasonably difficult as a result of balance issues, I’ll cheat. Case in point, Oblivion. When I started the main quest at level 24… I had like 20 daedroths coming at me at one time. I didn’t take it. I fought as many as I felt like and power word “kill”-ed the rest. When I felt a dude needed it, I’d reduce his strength to 0 and fill him with arrows. Good times.

  7. Phlux says:

    Playing through games with arbitrary restrictions like that can be pretty fun. Everybody has had that situation occur where you accidentally quick-saved with no health, no ammo, and badly outnumbered. SOmetimes it’s an auto-save, or sometimes you save 3/100 of a second before a sniper bullet rips through your skull.

    Those situations can be really entertaining. Having to get through a whole level with no health, one pistol clip and a knife can be pretty satisfying.

    It also makes you better at the game, I think. You learn how to avoid damage, conserve ammo, etc…

  8. Daemian_Lucifer says:

    I used to play on hard and higher difficulties,until I started thief.After that,I always play on medium for the first time,and up the difficulty later.

    My feat was beating the original civilization in 24 or so hours with no saves(my amiga was broken,and I couldnt save anything).I did that quite a few times.I doubt civIV can be beat like that though.

  9. Dev Null says:

    I finally played Dreamfall despite your dire warnings (I loved Longest Journey, and Dreamfall was $20 on Steam) and I’ll take your comment on railroading sometimes not being bad and double it. The most annoying parts of that game were the bits where they tried to make me feel involved by throwing some plot-irrelevant FedEx quest in with “choices” – I just wanted them to get on with telling the tale. Whats interesting to me about you saying it about HL2 is that this sort of lumps it in with the “story more important than the action” games. Of course the action in HL2 is pretty damn good too, but in retrospect I’d say its the story that pulls me through it.

    (Oh, and the end of Dreamfall bugged me too, though not as much, I think, as it did you. More annoyed by the loose ends than the wanton destruction, if I can attempt to be vague enough to not drop spoilers. If they get off their butts and release a sequel _which ties things up_ soon enough, I’ll probably end up not having minded. If they ramble on in episodic form trying to milk it for all its worth it will be a tragedy, as you have previously noted.)

  10. Zukhramm says:

    Peronally, I almost allways play on the easiest setting possible. I don’t really see much point in making things harder for myself. (If I wanted things to be hard I’d do something IRL instead XD)

    Also, I rarely replay games. If I do, and if I chose a higher difficulty it would be because there’s something unlockable only by doing so.

    Of course, there’s the exceptions, Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan is the only one comming to my mind right now tht I have played on a harder difficulty just for the fun.

  11. McNutcase says:

    I tend to leave the difficulty as it defaults, unless I’m dying a lot. Replays tend to be attempting to do it another way, get a different result, or just try out something cool I read about. Although I have yet to get the grav plates fitted to my car in Fallout 2…

    The sole exception on difficulty is the Marathon series, where I tend to have the difficulty set to Total Carnage (the highest level) for multiplayer purposes. In single player, Total Carnage does exactly what it says; ALL the monsters are the “Major” versions, and there are LOTS of them; the lower difficulty levels actually base off Total Carnage and tone down by nerfing a proportion of the monsters and completely removing a proportion, decided at load time, and at Kindergarten by toning down damage as well, but that’s by-the-by.

    The reason I play at Total Carnage is readily apparent in multiplayer: Total Carnage removes the maximum ammo limitation. Instead of up to four rocket packs, you can have up to (I seem to recall) 65536 – which is an overflow limit rather than an arbitrary one! Multiplayer is a lot more fum when you don’t have to worry about running out of shells for your akimbo WSTE-M5 combat shotguns…

  12. Nixorbo says:

    I usually play through a game on Normal first, just so I can get the story and some modicum of challenge. Afterwards I’ll go back through on the hardest difficulty – even since TMNT: Tournament Fighters for the NES (that I can think of offhand), developers have put in rewards for beating a game on the hardest difficulty. Nowadays, in the era of in-game achievements, this is even more apparent.

    After I’ve done that, I’ll screw around on the easy setting, doing stuff like my speed runs on the various Halo games.

  13. Chris Arndt says:

    I think ratcheting up the difficulty is often stupid. If it is done for the sake of it is stupid.

    What exactly difficulty means in a game is always different, depending on the makers and it is hard to divine what exactly is means. Quite often what “Normal” is is how the game is supposed to be and any other setting is bastardization of that way in one direction or the other.

    I have three examples. I don’t have time to write about them in detail now, but the games I will contrast are, in no particular order:

    Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master
    for Sega Genesis
    X-Men: Mutant Academy 2
    I only played it on my Playstation 2, which was
    the 3rd model of PS2 if you are keeping track
    Halo: Combat Evolved
    for Microsoft Xbox

    All of those games, which I enjoyed playing (and one of them I haven’t even beaten still) have different notions of what having different difficulty levels means.

  14. Miral says:

    I usually play on Easy, since I’m more into the story than the FPS. Although it’s interesting that you mention railroading in HL2 games and killing off Striders before you’re supposed to — in HL2:E2 I killed off the helicopter in that first “chase” sequence where you encounter it (and was miffed when I didn’t get the Achievement). All without cheating, too — I just lobbed its bombs back at it, since they were the only things available that could possibly damage it.

    Then I went through a tunnel into the next map and it magically came back to life and started chasing me again. This time I left it alone until I reached the “boss battle” sequence when you’re *supposed* to kill it, and I did get that Achievement at that point. Yay :)

    Though I did eventually decide to cheat in the final battle (giving myself a pistol with 2000 damage) since I detest those Hunters. And even on Easy that battle sucked.

  15. ArchU says:

    I found the harder difficulties in Thief to be incredibly challenging and fun – getting through The City back to Garrett’s house in T2 without so much as knocking out any guards – heck, with patience it can be done without even being seen by any – is a real thrill.

    I don’t enjoy that higher difficulty settings for many FPS just means throwing in more enemies and raising their lethality (only the latter for F.E.A.R. however). When it’s one against all that should be difficult enough, ne?

  16. guy says:


    no, because self replicating demons never trapped him in a solid wall of foes, I’ll bet. it’s nowhere near nethack hard. i’ve played nethack alot. i seriously was trapped by a wall of self-replicating demons. that is why modern summoned DND demons can’t summon more copies. and now you know.

  17. Daemian_Lucifer says:


    “I don't enjoy that higher difficulty settings for many FPS just means throwing in more enemies and raising their lethality (only the latter for F.E.A.R. however). When it's one against all that should be difficult enough, ne?”

    The original call of duty has the highest difficulty setting remove all of the medkits and you can surve 4 direct shots the most(usually you die after the first though),but the number of enemies stays the same.Its quite a nice way to play it like its a real life combat.Too bad the sequels dont use this same thing.

  18. Jeff says:

    The rails are fine, though. You only notice once you cheat.

    I’ve mentioned this in your D&D posts before too – rails are fine if you don’t notice them. In fact, they’re great, for exactly the same reasons you stated.

    My friend and I played Quake 4 interestingly…
    I tend to install games, about half of which I play, and the rest are played entirely by my friends. If I finish a game, I leave it installed until they beat it too.
    Quake 4, I more or less watched him play through the whole thing legit, and then we mapped console commands to spawn marines to the number pad. Then I went through it have swarms of helmeted medics, techs, and marines with assorted weaponry following me (with flashlights!). I think the best part, other than the fact that I was more or less being a semi-active participant in a sci-fi movie, was that I didn’t need to stick with the flashlight equipped guns in the dark areas (have I mentioned they have flashlights?). It was beautiful, you don’t notice unless it’s dark, but they actually sweep rooms (and this is just bot AI, no scripts), and it’s much less confusing when suddenly all the lights focus on once area and start shooting. Very easy of course, having an army with you, but fun!

    One last note: The marine with shotgun is one brave mo-fo. He runs point-blank up to enemies and blasts them or smacks them down. Even bosses… pointblank shotgun blasts up into the face of a critter 20 feet tall. Very badass.

  19. Matt P says:

    “Note that in this case being “tightly scripted” (or railroaded, if you will) is not a bad thing. It enables them to fill the game with lifelike reactions from the NPCs and movie-like pacing. The more sandbox the game is, the more generic it has to be. With most games I'm always wishing for more freedom, alternate paths, open-ended play, and divergent choices, but in the case of Half-Life I'm willing to trade freedom for story because they do it so well.”
    Hear, hear.
    I can’t stand most CRPGs anymore because they’re either blatantly scripted or very bland but I can sit down and enjoy shootan games and their stories as they never pretend to offer me much choice and in most of them the idea of doing your own thing is a bit ridiculous. Soldiers don’t choose their missions after all.

  20. BTW, if you mouseover the pie chart, the exact percentages comes up. So, at the moment:

    Easy: 17.86%
    Medium: 72.86%
    Hard: 9.28%

  21. Shandrunn says:

    I prefer to play Half-Life and such on easy difficulty. I play my games to enjoy the art, the plot, and the well designed encounters. Not to get my ass handed to me.

  22. Tom says:

    Jeff, you’ve just given me a reason to re-play Quake 4; thanks!

  23. Kyle says:


    Actually, I didn’t know that. I’m fairly new to Nethack myself; I’ve only been playing it the past few months (and even then, I have to try to fit it in between HL2 Ep2 and Lego Star Wars ;-).

    In any case, now I know, and knowing is half the battle!

  24. Lebkin says:

    I generally want my difficulty to be such that I am challenged but not so much that I get frustrated. Unfortunately, most of the time, it is hard to choose what difficulty that is at the beginning of the game. So I learned to make educated guesses. Real-Time Strategy games are always on Easy, Shooters and Role-Playing games are on normal, and Adventure/Puzzle games are on hard. Personally, I like games that let me change the difficulty mid-adventure to fit whatever I need. Multiple variables is even better. The best example of this are sports games. NCAA Football has, I believe, 5 difficulties and then about 20 sliders that fine tune each difficulty even more. This allows me to adjust the game till it is the perfect about of challenge. Sadly, few games allow this customization of difficulty.

    When I reply a game, the difficulty I choose depends on why. If I am replaying to be challenged, I go higher (I have beaten Jedi Academy on every difficulty). If I am replaying for story or atmosphere, I play it on an easier setting (as I do whenever I replay Half-Life). The same is generally true if I am playing to try something new in the game (such as switching class in Mass Effect).

  25. Mujubius says:

    I still love the option to set a puzzle difficulty and a combat difficulty in some of the Silent Hill games… combat can be frustrating in Survival Horror games, so being able to simplify that while still having the puzzles mind-bending was great. Twin variables like this should be in more games.

  26. Dihydrogen says:

    I have always chosen difficulty levels based off their name. If I have a choice between normal and realistic, I go for realistic. However if its a easy, normal, hard, and nightmare I default to normal. However if the game says what the difficulty level does I go with the most entertaining one.

    An example of this would be Crysis which on my first time playing I did at Delta, its “nightmare” difficulty, as it made the enemies speak Korean and got rid of my crosshair.

  27. MeMineWe says:

    I enjoy playing with odd restrictions, though mine were often based around equipment use. I like to play shooters using nothing but a pistol. I tend to leave the difficulty settings on medium and I make an exception for “realistic” difficulty levels. Crysis’ “Delta” mode or “hardcord D&D rules” in the mass of (A)D&D games.

  28. Cthulhu says:

    I beat Metroid Prime without picking up any health upgrades.
    That means fighting the final boss with 100 hitpoints instead of 1500.
    I could only stand to do something like that with a truly great game, though.

  29. MattyDienhoff says:

    I dig the self imposed restrictions idea. I once went through Half-Life 2’s Ravenholm:
    * On Hard
    * Using only the crowbar
    * In less than 25 minutes

  30. Pepa says:

    AWESOME! – I cannot even tell you how much i found myself in your text…..expecially this play style, when you play the game firstly normal, than trying to beat it with hard difficulty, then make up some of my goals for the game and finally mess around with cheats, and discover things, catch gameplay when its not ready for your appearence and this kinda stuff……. As far as I know, biggest fun is doing this in COD4 or COD6…….””but in the case of Half-Life I'm willing to trade freedom for story because they do it so well.”” – And then again – EXACTLY :-)

  31. Sydney says:

    I’m in the middle of two different self-imposed challenge for Mass Effect 1 right now. On my Vanguard, I don’t spend skill points. At all. One rank each in pistols, assault training, throw, and warp. My squaddies stay unleveled too.

    On my Engineer, I don’t use my squad. Whenever a fight breaks out, I order them to run behind enemy lines and hold their position. My own gun doesn’t come out until both are unconscious. Solo Engineer on Insanity is something else alto-freakin’-gether.

  32. Brian says:

    I used to play in medium all the time, but lately, I've come to enjoy the harder difficulties much more, even for the first playthrough. Since I don't even finish games too often I likely won't replay when I do, and so I want to get the most out of them and make them as challenging as possible.
    Then again, I save like a fiend.
    Like in Half-life 2, just before Nova Prospect, when the two gunships show up. It was a fest of reloading and saving, sometimes just because I did a perfect hit without taking damage. Then again, when I really, really want to finish a game, I usually do this in a night up to a few days in a row, putting all my concentration in getting as good as possible as quickly as possible.
    Since a good friend of mine does the same, we often battle each other. It’s a race for who’ll have the game finished first while possibly doing best AND proving to still have gotten the story (we talk a lot about the games while we both play them so that one is easy to figure out).
    As far as other restrictions go, it really depends on the game. In both the Zeldas for the N64 for example I’d only regularly change the spot of ONE item, the other two spots were always the Ocarina and either an empty bottle or a mask, depending on which of the two games it was. For usual I’m kind of a collector and explorer-type, though. I aimed to get all the logs in both Bioshock and Dead Space, for example, and was really glad that the achievements showed me when I did. Achievements can enhance the fun anyway, even though I rarely get all of them, but more than often try to anyway.

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