Control Part 3: Unbalanced by Design

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Oct 8, 2019

Filed under: Retrospectives 118 comments

Last time I whined that there was too much combat in what should be a slow-burn mystery thriller. But that’s not my biggest gripe with the game. My biggest gripe is how the game manages difficulty. For you. 

Death-Based Difficulty is a Terrible Idea. Please Stop. 

Minor nitpick: The game constantly auto-generates these timed Hiss Node missions. The missions fail if you die. So every death creates an announcement that you failed a quest you weren't doing and don't care about. It's weird.
Minor nitpick: The game constantly auto-generates these timed Hiss Node missions. The missions fail if you die. So every death creates an announcement that you failed a quest you weren't doing and don't care about. It's weird.

I should have remembered that Remedy is fond of auto-balancing difficulty based on death. That’s a system where the more guys you kill, the harder the game hits. The more you die, the more foes are nerfed. In racing games we call this “rubber banding”, where the other cars will drive faster if you’re ahead and slower if you’re falling behind. It makes the race exciting and interesting until you spot the cheating, at which point it ruins the entire experienceFor me, anyway. The practice is so common I figure it must be what most people want???

The last chapters of the original Max Payne were an exercise in obsessive save-scumming to compensate for the ridiculous insta-deaths you’ll experience when entering a new room. Once you’ve killed enough mooks without dying, the rest of them are turned into flawless killbots with millisecond reaction times. You’ll open the door and instantly three mooks will snap fire directly at your face for an abrupt and unavoidable trip to the Game Over screen. When this would happen, I’d deliberately charge face-first into the room a few times and let them murder me until the difficulty system had backed off again. 

It wasn’t a very good system.

A system like this will, by necessity, always ramp past you, so you will inevitably die at intervals to bring the game back down to your level. It sort of guarantees a “one death every N encounters” sort of deal. I hate this system. It’s like a magical dumbell that increases weight so you can never lift it more than once, no matter how strong you get. Am I getting better? I can’t tell! I’m here to master a video game and feel myself getting better, and an auto-balancing system prevents me from having that experience! 

Imagine a version of Quake where the difficulty increases every time you beat a level and goes down when you die. After a few levels, you’re either dead or you’re on Nightmare. Even if I can play on NightmareFor context, I’ve beaten Quake on Nightmare mode with permadeath, so I can indeed play on that level., maybe I don’t want to play on Nightmare right now, you know? That’s a very intense experience. I might go for something like that if I’m looking for new challenges in an old game, but for a first play-through I really don’t want to have to push that hard. Once I’ve been alive for an hour or so, the fights start taking a lot of time and it kills the fun, empowering feel that the game seems to be going for. 

My goal is to not die. If I’m dying, then I’m not good enough. At the same time, I want to feel like I could die if I get sloppy. I want the game to keep me on my toes, but if I’m doing my job then I shouldn’t be dropping dead. But here the game designer has decided that a death every N encountersOr perhaps N foes. is the “proper” experience, and they’ve decided to force that onto everyone else. If you suck, the game will ramp down until you only die every N encounters. If you get better at the game, you’ll have successful encounters until the game escalates to the new equilibrium and then you’re back to dying every N fights. 

In Batman, I can tell how well I’m doing because my foes are a fixed, known quantity. They’re not going to take a dive if I’m rubbish or cheat their ass off if I’m “too good”. They just play the fucking game according to the rules and everyone has to live with the result. Same goes for Dark Souls. The designer doesn’t feel the need to put their thumb on the scale to make you “feel” skilled, they just put up a barrier and you can try to climb over it. 

Let’s Compare this to Half-Life 2

It's been 15 years, and this game still holds up visually. Strong art trumps fancy graphics every time. (Although to be fair, this game had both.)
It's been 15 years, and this game still holds up visually. Strong art trumps fancy graphics every time. (Although to be fair, this game had both.)

Half-Life 2 also tries to fudge the numbers in the name of balance, but that system is based on player health instead of deaths. When your health is low, health pickups give you more healing and foes do less damage. When you’re healthy, the reverse is true. This sort of funnels everyone into a same-y experience where everyone has health in the mid-range and if you manage to max out then it will get taken back down very quickly. The game tries to keep everyone into a state where they feel like they can’t be careless. 

Both games punish skilled play and reward failure. But Half-Life 2 does it based on player health and Remedy games do it based on deaths and kills. Half-Life 2 makes it feel like you could die at any time if you get sloppy, while a Remedy game requires you to actually die at regular intervals regardless of your skill level. Moreover, Half-Life 2 has multiple difficulty levels for the player to choose from, while Control adopts a one-size-fits-nobody approach to balance. If you’re bored and want the game to keep the challenge high even if you die, too bad. If you’re frustrated and want fewer setbacks, too bad. If you just want a constant experience to measure yourself against, too bad. The game doesn’t have any way to adjust that. 

Auto-balancing based on deaths is a system that obfuscates mastery in order to push everyone into a homogenous experience that makes a lot of unfounded assumptions about the user’s frustration level. This might be acceptable if not for the 30 second post-death loading screenNo, I’m not playing from an SSD. Yes, I’m aware that would speed things up. But my SSD isn’t NEARLY big enough to hold my library, and splitting your library across multiple drives is a huge pain in the ass.. What is that thing even for? You get it even if you’re respawning in the same damn room! What’s my computer doing with those 30 seconds and why can’t I spend them playing the game?

What are you loading? I died 10 meters below the spawning point. I could physically climb this distance faster than the game takes to move my character back to their start position.
What are you loading? I died 10 meters below the spawning point. I could physically climb this distance faster than the game takes to move my character back to their start position.

To be clear, I can’t prove that Control is using death-based auto-balancing. The game uses health bars without numbers so you can’t track damage values to see if / when the game is fudging things. But Remedy has been a fan of the practice in the past and my experience with this game was consistent with that design. 

An experiment: I died to a super-aggressive foe. So then I killed myself six times in a rowI endured three solid minutes of loading screens for this knowledge. You’re welcome.In the research area there’s a spawn point right beside a handy ledge for some terminal skydiving.. When I went back to the encounter, I found the foe was far less aggressive. His attacks were very far apart and they were very well telegraphed. Regardless of what the invisible difficulty slider was doing, the attacks always did the same damage. The first hit took 75% of my HP. The second took me down to 1 pixel of HP. Then one of the lesser mooks would finish me off with their low-damage firearms. This was always true regardless of how large or small my HP bar was.

Without visible damage numbers it’s impossible to tell how the auto-adjustment works, but it’s clear the game is doing something to tip the scales for or against you. These observations are based on just two playthroughs with different builds, and only with a limited number of foes. Even if I’m wrong about the mechanics of Remedy’s rubber-band difficulty, I can say with confidence that the abilities to upgrade your health are garbage. Those upgrades are indistinguishable from a placebo.

An Example of the Problem

I was distracted and forgot to capture footage of this mission, but the fight in question takes place in this room.
I was distracted and forgot to capture footage of this mission, but the fight in question takes place in this room.

To illustrate both of my grievances with the game, let me spoil one of the isolated sidequests. Skip to the next section if you’re not in the mood for spoiler-y things right now.

The mission in question is called Self-Reflection. You have to enter a haunted mirror and de-haunt it.

I was into this. I was expecting some kind of reverse-text or reverse-directions puzzle on the other side. Maybe someone designed a puzzle like that for this adventure, but then someone scribbled MOAR COMBAT all over the design notes. So when you get into the mirror, you have to fight… yourself. 

I was really expecting the game to do something interesting with this idea. Maybe the trick is that damage is reflected back to the attacker, so the solution is to go passive and let evil-you kill themselves by shooting you? Nope! Maybe you need to remain passive and just catch their rockets and throw them back? Nope! Maybe you need to lure them into shooting at a reflective surface and hurting themselves? Nope! 

It’s just a fight. Like any other gunfight. Except mirror-you has (deep sigh) a gargantuan health bar. 

Fine. We knock down this screen-spanning health bar to-

MOAR COMBAT!!!

Okay, we have to fight the mirror image twice to-

MOAR COMBAT!!!

Damn it. You have to do the fight three times, back-to-back, with escalating difficulty, and if you die you get kicked back to the opposite side of the level and have to start the whole process over. Not only is this doing nothing with an interesting premise, but it’s belaboring the point beyond reason.

This mission kicked my ass. Mirror Jesse was insanely aggressive. She’d spam rockets like crazy. I’d dodge one and it would hit the wall to make a huge cloud of debris. Then ANOTHER one would come sailing out out of the smoke and I’d take it right on the nose with no hope of dodging. At close range she’d kill me with unavoidable face-rockets and at a distance it was a long, slow job to wear her down with my pistolShotgun wasn’t much use at that distance.. The rockets bend to seek the player. They move fast with a tight turning radius, so dodging too early is just as bad as too late. Sooner or later I’d flub the timing or I’d get caught on a corner or a bit of scenery and eat the rocket and then it was back to the last control point. 

It was a loading screen and a long hike to get back to the fight, so after my third death I looked on YouTube. This person is supposedly doing the same mission, but it looks like they’re playing a different game. Mirror Jesse is practically docile in that video. She rarely attacks. She can’t shoot straight. Even her shotgun pellets look slow enough to dodge. She mostly keeps her distance and sometimes she just stands still to eat a bunch of bullets. Her rockets travel in a straight line instead of curving to hit you. I’ve never seen them do that!

This game doesn’t offer a way for the player to adjust the difficulty, which means this discrepancy can only be attributed to the auto-adjusting systemEither that, or the game is balanced differently for consoles. But if that was the case then I think someone would have noticed by now.. My guess is that the moronic auto-balancing is out of whack when it comes to boss fights. 

What started out as a fun mystery and a cool idea became a dumb, unbalanced, unimaginative, frustrating repetitive fight. 

MOAR COMBAT!!!

Get help, man.

Another Theory

I was at full health a second ago, but then a mook spawned behind me and hit me in the back with a rocket. Now I'm one good sneeze from death and I'm effectively blind for several seconds. The game acts like you're supposed be be aggressive and highly mobile during combat, but the randomly spawning goons punish you for that playstyle.
I was at full health a second ago, but then a mook spawned behind me and hit me in the back with a rocket. Now I'm one good sneeze from death and I'm effectively blind for several seconds. The game acts like you're supposed be be aggressive and highly mobile during combat, but the randomly spawning goons punish you for that playstyle.

Weeks after writing the rest of this article, I’ve come up with an alternate / additional theory: One of the main things to kill me in this game is homing rockets. The mirror mission I discussed above is a good example, but you fight guys with homing rockets all through the game. The turning radius of these rockets often seemed really unreasonable to me. I’d dodge sideways and then the rocket would make a J-shaped turn and hit me in the side of the head. I do not see this happening in the footage of the game I see on YouTube.

This would suggest that I survived long enough to get the auto-difficulty system to adjust to some level above what these other players have reached. I dislike this explanation since it requires us to believe that I’m that much better than all these young kids, and I’m sure that isn’t the case.

I was running the game at 144fps. Could the rocket turning be based on framerate? I don’t know. This would be hard to measure conclusively. You can’t accurately measure angles and turning radius in the middle of a chaotic fight, and more importantly I’m not interested in doing the experiment. I’m just throwing this out there as something to consider.

Wrapping Up

I still love the incredible effort spent on the environments, from the huge office spaces to little rooms like this one. Nothing feels like lazy copy-paste video game arenas.
I still love the incredible effort spent on the environments, from the huge office spaces to little rooms like this one. Nothing feels like lazy copy-paste video game arenas.

I enjoyed Control’s world and I’m sure lots of people will enjoy chopping all this firewood, but I’m convinced that both the gameplay and the story would be stronger if they weren’t in the same game. This slow-burn mystery story needs more breathing room and tension between combat encounters, and the relentless combat would probably be better served in a more energetic game where there aren’t so many cutscenes of guarded conversations between sedate characters.

It’s not as bad as I make it sound. I know I spent a lot of page space complaining about the combat, but mostly I was just trying to avoid all the variants of “git gud”, “you’re playing it wrong”, and “You’re imagining things”. It takes a lot of careful demonstration to head off those types of dismissals, which is why I spent so much time on the topic. 

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this game is an unplayable mess of frustrations. It’s a mostly good game with a couple of design decisions that really rub me the wrong way. 

This is a wonderful exercise in worldbuilding. It’s a brilliant gameworld to discover and explore. It’s a fine story with a couple of interesting twists. The graphics are amazing, the animations are cool, and the faces manage to not be creepy except when they’re supposed to be. It has an interesting combat system built around a couple of (admittedly overused and one-note) superpowers.

The main thing wrong with it is that the designer decided to take the difficulty slider away from the player and hand it to an invisible algorithm that’s designed to make the game more “fun” by gradually making fights more ponderous and then even more “fun” by punishing you for no good reason. The other main thing wrong is that there are about four times as many fights as there should be. These two flaws exacerbate each other and manage to piss me off in a profound way, but I don’t think they’ll be a dealbreaker for most people. I’m even willing to bet the auto-adjusting difficulty is invisible to most players. 

I still recommend the game, but I really wish I could get a version with fewer combat encounters.

 

Footnotes:

[1] For me, anyway. The practice is so common I figure it must be what most people want???

[2] For context, I’ve beaten Quake on Nightmare mode with permadeath, so I can indeed play on that level.

[3] Or perhaps N foes.

[4] No, I’m not playing from an SSD. Yes, I’m aware that would speed things up. But my SSD isn’t NEARLY big enough to hold my library, and splitting your library across multiple drives is a huge pain in the ass.

[5] I endured three solid minutes of loading screens for this knowledge. You’re welcome.

[6] In the research area there’s a spawn point right beside a handy ledge for some terminal skydiving.

[7] Shotgun wasn’t much use at that distance.

[8] Either that, or the game is balanced differently for consoles. But if that was the case then I think someone would have noticed by now.



From The Archives:
 

118 thoughts on “Control Part 3: Unbalanced by Design

  1. Asdasd says:

    ” It makes the race exciting and interesting until you spot the cheating, at which point it ruins the entire experience[1]. ”

    Nail on head there Shamus. Like most forms of manipulation, rubber banding is effective until the person you’re deceiving notices, at which point you undo all your gains and then a whole lot more.

    Strangely though I had no idea this was implemented in the Max Payne games. I just thought they got harder as a natural consequence of the difficulty curve.

    If a game is up-front about difficulty adjustments upon death, I’m more comfortable with it. For an admittedly obscure example, take Goemon’s Great Adventure for the N64. The bosses at the end of each castle were Nintendo Hard, but after dying once to them the game would place power-ups that upgraded your weapons in the arena, and after two deaths the power-ups would upgrade weapons and armour, making the fights significantly easier.

    This had a pretty substantial effect on the game, removing the need to refight the bosses many times to develop a strategy to beat them. However, it replaced that obstacle with a different one: now you needed a strategy to reach the boss with at least three lives. So the net effect was that the power-ups modified the game’s challenge but didn’t completely trivialise it. And most importantly, it didn’t make the player feel manipulated.

    1. GargamelLenoir says:

      Even as a kid even I didn’t have a name for it I thought rubber banding was total bullshit. If I’m crushing this race, just give me more points and opportunities for harder races, don’t teleport all those slowpoke right behind me!

    2. Joshua says:

      You can see this happen a lot with Tabletop gaming and some GMs.

      Players are doing well? GM starts mentally adding HP or fudging rolls to start hurting the PCs.

      Getting their butts kicked? GM starts pulling their punches. To be fair, it’s a LOT harder to disguise this than it is to secretly bump the monsters up a bit. I remember playing a 3.5 game where the 2nd level party ended up against a Drow Wizard who was at least level 10 or so. The GM started having the Wizard spreading around the damage ineffectually, like casting a Magic Missile and having one missile hitting 5 of us instead of 5 hitting one, and it was obvious she had drastically underestimated the power of that monster. That’s why I’d rather fight one intelligently played Goblin or the like instead of a moronic Big Bad.

      It’s all exciting to get through a fight by the skin of your teeth until you realize what the GM is doing, then you get into the mentality of “What’s the point?”?

      1. Mr Compassionate says:

        Speaking as a DM I have to say there really isn’t any other way. If you designed a normal D&D adventure and then you find out at least half the players are using optimal builds then the game is gonna get awful boring after 5 weeks of breezing through trivial fights. The players didn’t make those broken characters because they wanted a boring game, they made them so they could kill bigger stuff sooner. I disapprove of fudging die rolls under any circumstances and of course you should let your players have some “normal” encounters so they can enjoy the power but sooner or later the players need a sense of danger or they’ll stop being invested in threats of the adventure.

        Consider a party that has, let’s say, 2 sharpshooter crossbowmen, 2 bearbarians, a divination wizard and a healbot cleric. If you throw a “level appropriate” encounter at them you are wasting both your time and theirs. If these guys are even only level 5 you better be ambushing them with high level demons or pitting them against a mummy lord.

        My players have just reached level 20 and I am having to constantly homebrew up ridiculous monsters with thousands of HP and hundreds of AOE damage just to keep up. At this point I could throw 3 Terrasques at them and it wouldn’t be a bother, last session they killed an adult red dragon within the first turn.

        1. BlueHorus says:

          bearbarians

          Coming soon, to a forest near you:

          BEARBARIAN

          Part man…part bear…and ALL angry!

          1. Mr Compassionate says:

            That’s not a typo by the way, that’s a pro build. The durability of a bear combined with the durability of a barbarian means somebody that is basically invincible.

            1. BlueHorus says:

              I did wonder that and looked it up. I assume it’s the Totem warrior variant on the class?

              I still like my idea more.

              1. Asdasd says:

                Can you dual-class a bard and a bearbarian? In two distinct ways, for a bearbardian and a bardbearian? And then dual class those into one another?

                1. Joshua says:

                  For the joke-sounding name, you could, although it would probably be an awful mix for gameplay reasons. Barbarians can’t use Concentration spells while Raging. Guess what most of a Bard’s spells are?

        2. Steve C says:

          There is another way. A DM can train their players. It is hard to do, but extremely satisfying for everyone if done well.

          It involves smacking down stupidity in lower stakes fights where they can run away, get help etc. For example, using monsters with bad stats in creative and intelligent ways that make sense. Where the *monsters* know they are outclassed and react accordingly. It trains players to recognize early if they are outclassed later. While also using unintelligent or dumb monsters to let players have stat vs stat straight fights so they can feel their power too.

          Like if *I* had a Wizard spreading around the damage ineffectually, (like casting a Magic Missile and having one missile hitting 5 of us instead of 5 hitting one,) *my players* would think something was up. That the wizard was deliberately trying to lose for some reason. Or maybe charmed into a fight or something where they are only fighting to technically obeying their master. Most of the time they won’t figure exactly what is up. They will figure out that something is up and react in interesting and fun ways both for them and for me as the DM. I love it when my players surprise both with their intelligence and their stupidity.

          Basically it means that as a DM you should always know of an out to the players that makes sense. Hopefully they know of it themselves (like a teleport scroll) or something as simple as knowing the PCs are happy to cut and run. Really it can be anything as long as it is logical in game.

          It can’t be done on a spur of a moment though. It takes deliberate forethought and incremental steps.

          1. kdansky says:

            The actual trick is to not play DnD. The game is all about combat and powergaming, and rewards it appropriately. If you’re not playing that kind of game, then you are playing the game “wrong” (as in: not as intended by the writers). Sure you can get away with it, and you can have fun with it, but it’s like playing WoW as if it was a narrative experience. Maybe you can make it work, but you will have to fight the system for every inch of the way.

            If you want an RPG experience that’s not about optimized builds slaughtering their way through everything, then play a different game instead of trying to make a use a winter coat on your ideal summer vacation at the Bahamas and come up with dozens of rules and tricks to get it to work anyway.

            So if you run into balance issues, increase the monster power level on the next encounter, until it starts to get hairy. That’s what you are supposed to do. Who writes a whole campaign of encounters in advance?!

        3. Joshua says:

          There’s a difference between tweaking later encounters and auto-adjusting the current encounter to get to your desired “just scraped by” state.

          Pretty much the only time I fudge die rolls/stats are to compensate for when one particular player is having a bad night, especially if someone else is having an exceptionally good night right next to them. Give them *something* to feel good about coming that night. Obviously, you don’t have to do much or often so players aren’t likely to catch on.

          1. Steve C says:

            I feel that deliberately aiming for a state of “just scraped by” is the real mistake. There is a much larger range of outcomes that are fun. Just scraping by is also completely based on perspective and not the truth.

            For example I’ve had groups that have curbstomped a challenge without any real danger to themselves. However they felt it was a close and hard won victory. Their perception is they just scraped by. I’ve also had the reverse where my players think they completely cakewalked an encounter. Except I know that they got extremely lucky in tactics or chance. As DM you’ll always have a better view of the truth. The truth is significantly less important than perception. What matters is the amount of fun it generated. I’ve had more fun and memories of amazing flawless victories and horrendous screwups than I have of just scraping by. But all are good results.

            As a player, I personally find campaigns where every encounter (or just every major encounter) where it is balanced to the point we just squeak by to be exhausting. A DM should never consider it the goal.

            1. Joshua says:

              I don’t disagree.

        4. kincajou says:

          It sounds like it might be time for your group to retire those characters and roll some new ones! Did you guys start at level 1? if so that must have been quite an lovely (and long) campaing they’ve come through!

    3. Geebs says:

      I completely failed to notice rubber banding in Max Payne, as well. I guess I must have just been really good at it?

      The worst example of rubber banding in an action game in recent memory was Hellblade. There’s a fight in the Hel section which, if you’re any good at the game, just will not stop giving the enemies more hitpoints until you’re just stuck wailing on one mook for actual minutes at a time.

  2. Ivan says:

    People spawning behind you is one thing I really hated in Just Cause 2, an otherwise serviceable game about blowing things up a lot in a terrible story. The game would constantly spawn dude in pairs behind you, more or less immediately after you killed the last ones, such that it was literally impossible to ‘clear’ an area out. Or, for that matter, to move through a space strategically or cautiously. Once you were in the enemy AI’s alert phase, you just had to kinda run, or hookshot, to the objectives, deal with them, and then leave. Cos fighting the actual enemy dudes was completely pointless. Apparently Just Cause 3 changed that, and only that, for the better. From what I hear we’d be better off if the devs just patched 2 rather than releasing 3, but I’ve never played it so who knows.

    Anyways regarding the dynamic difficulty stuff, that does sound like something that’d annoy me if I ever noticed it, but I can’t say I have.

    1. Asdasd says:

      The need to constantly fight ‘uphill both ways’ to get anywhere has killed many an open world game for me*. It really stymies the desire to explore and encourages the player to take the direct route and ignore side content as much as possible. Which is fine if you’re making a linear game, I guess. But when you’ve gone to all this trouble to make an expansive world, why are you placing so many obstacles between it and the player?

      *Both online and offline. A moment of silence please for my Secret World and Xenoblade playthroughs. Shin Megami Tensei IV is a current offender.. a fascinating world with a staggering amount of side-quests, people to talk to, optional dungeons and even entire hidden areas.. but oh my god, the encounter rate is obnoxiously, psychotically high. What the hell Japan. Just… just why.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        Unavoidable random encounters have killed several games for me. It’s right up there with ‘instantly spawning in another wave once the first is nearly dealt with’ – two things that turn combat in a dull chore, very, very, very quickly.

        1. Joshua says:

          I think respawns are fine when it’s a situation of having to deal with an issue to stop the respawns from occurring. For example, it’s not uncommon to have boss fights with respawning mooks. The point is to defeat the boss/close the portal/etc. to stop the mooks from appearing. It’s also not bad if you know exactly how many waves are occurring and/or there’s a small breather between them. On a related note, I liked the Half-Life 2 scenarios with the Turrets where you had to defend an area against an onslaught, but that’s also because it’s a specific experience that’s used sparingly.

          But yeah, killing 5 dudes and 5 more instantly appear is not much fun as a routine mechanic.

    2. noanoga says:

      I think this is the mood they were aiming for, you sopposed to be thinking on your feet and to fullfill your objectives (such as blowing stuff up) while under fire, eliminating treats and moving from place to place as needed, and when you’re done- blast away from there, not clear the area from enemies and only then do the other stuff.
      Beside in the very beggining of a high difficulty playthrough you are not supposed to be thorough and cautious. I don’t know, I enjoyed the easy-come-easy-go nature of enemies and did feel it was fit for an open-world.
      Anyway I do think that if a state base is 100%ted the spawn get significantly low if not stops completly. and in my expirience enemies usually didn’t spawn just besides Rico.

  3. Chris says:

    As someone who didn’t know about max payne’s difficulty system I always quickloaded when i died, and also quickloaded if i lost a lot of health in an encounter. I was told it was a very difficult game, and when it started to only give me 1 bottle of painkillers per health cabinet i figured the game was testing me. Turns out it gives you 1 to 4 bottles depending on your health and the amount of painkillers you still have. Especially lategame, when enemies all have colt commandos, not dying is just crazy. They jsut you down from across the room in a second.
    I don’t like it at all, since it feels like its punishing good play while rewarding bad play. Its not a challenging fight if you can just lobotomize you enemies by dying a few times. Its stupid in racing games (since you just pick the light character so you can quickly recover from mistakes, as having higher topspeed doesnt help you at all), its stupid in max payne, and its stupid in HL2. If you find a bunch of health you dont feel happy because you know it will be taken form you as soon as you meet an enemy with laser precision, you know that if youre at 10 hp you have a pretty decent chance they wont hit you. If you preserve rare ammo for tough encounters the game only refills your pistol ammo, if you waste your magnum on a common goon it will give it back to you. As game designer, if youre really afraid people are gonna get stuck, just give them an enemy accuracy slider. Or have the “you died 3 times, do you want to bump the difficulty down?” stuff.

  4. PPX14 says:

    Haha oh dear this is like seeing a warning for the list of games that will be spoiled by watching a video titled “fathers and daughters in videogames”, as happened to me. To warn people you must spoil them in the process :D

    I wonder if I’ll notice it when I eventually get to HL2.

  5. Mephane says:

    I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this game is an unplayable mess of frustrations.

    Yet you did. XD

    Seriously though, what you describe here is the final nail in the coffin for me. It doesn’t help that apparently the game uses checkpoint saves exclusively. I have little tolerance for that kind of BS. This game is now on my “no more than 5 bucks with all DLC included” list.

    Like you, I love the premise of the game, the setting sounds intriguing and I am actually a sucker for combat where you can use powers like telekinesis, but this one has just too many downsides for my taste (and pointless ones to boot).

    1. Grey Rook says:

      Same here, Mephane. Premise is cool, writing is good, setting is neat, but the combat sounds like a morass of frustration and annoyance. Checkpoint saves are also a downside. Yeah, I used to figure I’d catch the game whenever it went on Steam for twenty Euros or so, but after reading this article series I’ve decided against it.

    2. Leviathan902 says:

      Mephane: I’m going to have to run counter to Shamus here and tell you to pick this game up. If you like telekinesis powers in games and are intrigued by the concept and premise, just get it.

      I’m not saying that Shamus is wrong about all this stuff (and he’s certainly not wrong about the AMOUNT of combat that takes place), but I do feel like it’s case of something that is more hyper-focused on Shamus’ nitpicks.

      For my part, I didn’t notice any difficulty auto-adjustment AT ALL. Again, not saying it’s not there, but if it is, it’s wasn’t noticeable to me. Generally if I died in combat, it was because I messed up, not some auto-sliding difficulty.

      That said, I did notice that the combat throughout the main campaign is MUCH easier than the side quest stuff. That boss Shamus mentioned? Side-quest. The boss I fought and died to like over a dozen times? Side-quest. I generally found that I was 90% more likely to die during a side-quest mission than I was to a main story quest.

      Just to be clear, this isn’t a “Shamus needed to git gud” post or anything like that. I’m just saying that it’s pretty clearly a case of Your Mileage May Vary as it seems as though Shamus and I had some pretty different experiences. He was frustrated by the combat encounters, I thoroughly enjoyed them (“Yay! Another chance to telekentically grab enemy rockets and throw them back at them! or Throw enemy corpses at their friends!”)

      1. Shamus says:

        Interesting. I didn’t notice the pattern, but you’re right. The sidequests were much more variable in their difficulty.

        1. Leviathan902 says:

          OMG Shamus responded to me and even said I was right! *Deep Breaths* :P

          Kidding aside, I think it’s due to the side-stuff’s tendency to throw rockets at you non-stop including from newly spawned dudes right behind you. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the game, it didn’t take long for me to give up on those timed side-quest things as I got no enjoyment from them whatsoever and a bunch of crafting materials I didn’t want or need.

          I’m assuming the side-boss difficulties are by design. Sort of like the Control equivalent of a Raid Boss or whatever. Extra high-level content for players looking for a challenge. I died tons of times to the thing in the refrigerator and the final incarnation of that security boss a**hole but to literally nothing else. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t do anything to communicate that design to the player which is where I think the feel of see-sawing/rubber-banding/spiking difficulty comes from. I bet if you ignored side content and just played straight through the main stuff the difficulty curve would be pretty gentle, maybe even flat. But since most players played a mix of content you get this weird effect you’ve described in this post.

          Take all this with a giant grain of salt as it’s all just speculation

  6. Forty-Bot says:

    But my SSD isn’t NEARLY big enough to hold my library, and splitting your library across multiple drives is a huge pain in the ass.

    I’ve found that steam handles this rather well. I have most of my library on my HDD and a few games on my SSD.

    1. Mephane says:

      Well, the game is yet another victim EGS exclusitivity, so it’s not out on Steam yet. No idea if EGS supports splitting up the library between different directories and drives, my hunch would be no given the general lack of basic features.

      1. Simplex says:

        In EGS client you can install every game to a different path.

    2. Rick C says:

      Also, SSD pricing has really come down lately, especially if you’re lucky enough to live near, say, Micro Center. You can get a 1TB SATA drive for around $100 (MC has one that’s regular price is $80, and a PCIe x4 for $105).

  7. James Stanfield says:

    This reminds me of SiN: Emergence which also had a dynamic difficulty system, but it let you tweak nearly everything about it including how quickly it kicked in. It was also broken on release so the game never actually dialled down the difficulty, so you’d literally get a conga line of minigun soldiers in the last area of the game.

  8. BlueHorus says:

    That difficulty system sounds terrible, on many fronts. I’m the one playing the game, let me decide how hard I want it to be.
    It’s very, very rare than an automated system (or even someone else) can configure a player’s preferences better than the player, no matter how well-meaning.

    I know I spent a lot of page space complaining about the combat, but mostly I was just trying to avoid all the variants of “git gud”, “you’re playing it wrong”, and “You’re imagining things”.

    So…I get why you do this, but I can’t help thinking that it’s pointless. If someone doesn’t like your review of the game and wants to complain about it, they’ll find a way.
    Usually by ignoring or dismissing what you’ve said in order to trot out one of the classic arguments like ‘git gud’ or similar.
    (BTW, you missed out the fourth classic excuse: the ‘it’s not that bad’.)

    If you worry too much about what people in the internet say, you’ll go bananas.

    1. John says:

      I don’t think it’s pointless, at least not all the time. It was probably pointless in articles for The Escapist, because I’m not convinced that Escapist commenters ever read more than the titles and possibly the summaries of the articles they were responding to. While there are sometimes blog comments like that–the infamous Linux post, for example–blog comments are usually longer and consist of more than “No way! You suck!” I have more faith that people are reading whole articles here.

      1. SupahEwok says:

        No way! You suck!

        1. BlueHorus says:

          Pfft. Git Gud at comments, scrub.

      2. Syal says:

        It’s also entertaining when a troll does show up and manages to make a worse argument than the strawmen.

  9. Ninety-Three says:

    But my SSD isn’t NEARLY big enough to hold my library, and splitting your library across multiple drives is a huge pain in the ass.

    Wait what? I have C:\Steamlibrary and G:\Steamlibrary (also C:\Epicgames and G:\Epicgames, etc), and when I install a game it takes maybe ten seconds to open up the “install to location” dropdown and choose which one I want to use. What on Earth is your process that splitting your library is a pain?

    1. Shamus says:

      Because I have a high turnover on games, and I need access to a lot of games at once. Just yesterday I ran Borderlands 3, GTA V, and Rage 2.

      What happens when I need to move a AAA game off the SSD to make room for my next “main” game? You usually can’t just drag the folder from C: to G:. You have to un-install then re-install, which means re-downloading, which is a problem since I’m already trying to download and install something else. Yes, you can sometimes copy the files to the HDD, uninstall, then have Steam discover the files at the new location and skip the download. But it still means lots of shuffling files around and doing re-installs. And given how often I rotate through games, I’d have to do this on a regular basis. So yeah, it is a pain in the ass.

      I’ve done some research*, and I’m 60% sure that using an external SSD over USB would negate the gains of switching to an SSD in the first place, but if anyone has information to the contrary I’d love to hear it. I’ve got a really old SSD I use for deep storage (massive files I need once in a blue moon) and it has an annoying habit of needing 5 or 10 seconds to “wake up” after a period of inactivity. Obviously a feature like that would be a deal-breaker for a dedicated gaming drive.

      * Research = I Googled it and found one or two forums where strangers of unknown expertise argued about it.

      1. boz says:

        Shamus you may want to look into Windows Symbolic Links. You can just put whatever you want whereever and then point the installation folder to that place.

      2. Droid says:

        Steam has a new-ish feature that will move the installation from C:\ to G:\ for you, you just have to tell it that you want an extra Steam library on the other drive (one-time) and then you get the menu option to move any of your games to the other drive. Of course that will take its time for games like Shadow of War (which is fricking 120 GB for absolutely no reason), but it won’t tax your download, since it copies from C:\ to G:\ (or the other way round).

        1) Right-click on the game in your Steam library.
        2) Go to Local Files tab.
        3) Click Move Install Folder.

      3. Simplex says:

        Check SSD prices, you’ll be surprised how cheap they’ve become. Instead of wasting time and getting aggravated at having to move games between drives just buy a big-ish SSD and these problems will vanish.
        For example, 1TB SSD – 130$
        https://www.newegg.com/samsung-860-evo-series-1tb/p/N82E16820147673
        If you buy a less known brand (ADATA) you can easily go below 100 bucks.

        1. evilmrhenry says:

          That’s, what? 10 AAA games?

          1. Syal says:

            Not that I have a whole lot of AAA games, but my whole computer has 1TB storage and I’ve had no storage issues. You don’t have to keep the games installed unless you’re going to be playing them again soon. Send ’em to the bench and boot up the new hotness.

            1. Abnaxis says:

              You’re a lucky one then. I have a 1 TB SSD (I hate long load times) and I’m constantly needing to manage which games I want installed on it at any particular time.

      4. SupahEwok says:

        Somebody above mentions that Steam has an option to move games between drives now, but I’ve had a couple of issues with that working. I had some program I got from somewhere that’ll transfer Steam games between drives for you. Works pretty smooth. Don’t remember the name since it isn’t currently installed, but you can probably Google it up.

  10. Ninety-Three says:

    Searching the internet, I can’t find anything about Control having auto-balanced difficulty, including interviews with Remedy (there’s even one where they talk about having an “AI Director” handling procedural spawning and never mention scaling to player performance). It also seems wrong to say Remedy are “fond of auto-balancing difficulty based on death”: the last major game they made with it was Max Payne 2 in 2003 (did MP2 have it, or only the original?). Alan Wake and Quantum Break both had standard selectable difficulty.

    This makes me want to give it more than Shamus’ few minutes testing. Maybe get to a section with a scripted enemy encounter and measure time to death while standing still, see if it goes up as you keep dying.

    1. Lino says:

      I’m 99.99% sure that Max Payne 2 didn’t have auto-balanced difficulty. It had several difficulty levels you chose at the start (the last of which even led to an alternate ending). It’s been many years since I played it, but as a kid I’ve beaten it more than 10 times, and I could tell the difference between the different difficulty levels.

      1. W says:

        Max Payne 2 did indeed have auto-balance. I think the chosen difficulty levels put a ceiling/floor on the auto-scale system. I played quite a bit on PC with the debug display on and you could watch the difficulty scale up and down as you killed enemies. Good times!

        1. Lino says:

          Really? I had always prided myself on knowing the game by heart, but I guess I didn’t know everything. I might give it a replay soon – now that I’ll know what to look for, I’ll probably be able to notice it.

    2. Shamus says:

      I did the same search and came up empty, too. I could be wrong about how the game works, but there’s SOMETHING different about the game I experienced vs. the game I see on YouTube. (I just noticed in the linked video that the player seems to eat a rocket and only lose 20% HP. I ALWAYS lose something in the 75% – 80% range. Always.)

      To be clear: Auto-adjusting difficulty and selectable difficulty aren’t mutually exclusive. Max Payne had selectable difficulty, but it also had some sort of auto-balance. (Which does make you wonder what difficulty selection is for or what it does. I always played on Normal, and the game always ramped up to “instant headshot mode” by the time I got halfway through the game. And if I suicided a bunch of times the mooks would go back to Imperial Stormtrooper levels of marksmanship.)

      1. Victor McKnight says:

        In an admittedly short search, I could find nothing about Control having damage or rocket tracking tied to FPS, but I distinctly remember this happening with the PC port of Vanquish. Apparently there are instances of FPS affecting things in other games as well.

        I don’t have Control, but if there is an option in the menu to lock your FPS, it seems like you could test this in game, if only empirically.

      2. Trevor says:

        Rockets do 75% of my HP, too. Also the guys who tear up the sections of the floor and throw them at you. They, too, do a ton of damage.

        I think it might be an RNG issue. You get blown up by a guy with a rocket, respawn, come back to the area, and its full of regular assault rifle mooks who are easy. Is that because of an auto-adjusting difficulty feature, or just because you drew a bad collection of enemies the first time? I don’t know, but I can see how the Max Payne experience would lead you to think the former.

        There were a few encounters I had (mostly on side-quests) where the spawn locations mattered a lot. The rocket guy who spawns close to you never gets to shoot his rocket, but he’s deadly when he spawns across the room, behind the desk, with time to line you up.

      3. Abnaxis says:

        To be clear: Auto-adjusting difficulty and selectable difficulty aren’t mutually exclusive.

        Indeed, most of my hatred of auto-scaling stems from the likes of FO3, Oblivion, and Skyrem, which all had both a slider and auto balance. Although, at least we got some good comedy out of it.

  11. Darren says:

    This is really interesting!

    I noticed that the Ashtray Maze sequence was noticeably easier than everything leading up to and following it. I assume it is locked to ensure the set piece works as intended without being disrupted.

    Now I’m wondering if I would be able to brute force the Mold and floating guy boss fight sidequests if I just endured a bunch of deaths.

    Also, I had no idea that Half Life 2 did anything like this. The only game I’ve played with that feature is Resident Evil 4, and I didn’t know until years later.

    1. Thomas says:

      A lot of games have features where when you’re low on health, enemies shoot more slowly and less accurately.

      This bit I don’t mind -as long as it’s constant- it just means the failure level to dying is a little bit further than it looks. It increases tension because you’re surviving for longer with a slim healthbar, but at the end of the day winning with low health still comes down to skill.

      My favourite implementation is actually Assassin’s Creed. Your last health segment takes two hits to remove instead of one. Elegant, consistent and they don’t try to hide it

      Remedy’s adaptive difficulty on the other hand sounds insane. It’s not based on a static feature like health – you could play the same encounter twice and get a different experience.

      Another quirky feature is a lot of games program the AI to attack you less from behind. When they get the balance wrong, it can make turning around and running backwards a legitimate strategy.

  12. PeteTimesSix says:

    I hate, hate, hate mirror fights when games do them. Not because of the concept – there are so many interesting things to be done with it – but because they always cheat. Healthbar the size of a hundred you’s. Invulnerability phases. Infinite ammo on the strongest gun you’ve got. Chucking rare consumables like they’re candy. Immunity to stunlocks that are normally crippling, while dishing those same stunlocks at you even though you cant do that. Damage reflection for them but not for you. The list goes on. I know its a hard problem given the usual glass-cannon nature of a videogame protagonist, but it’d be nice if someone occasionally tried.

    I guess the last boss of Transistor kind of counts?

    1. Timothy Coish says:

      Ninja Gaiden Black has a mirror fight that’s extremely well done. It helps that the combat in that game is very deep to begin with.

    2. shoeboxjeddy says:

      The last boss of Transistor was my favorite! Because he doesn’t really cheat at all. Or to be more accurate, he cheats but in the exact same way you’ve been cheating all game to the other enemies. He gets multiple health bars? So do you. He freezes time and lines up multiple hits on you? Uh yeah… that’s been your whole deal all game. So you suddenly have to deal with how BS and unfair your own powers are, and beating him is a matter of being MORE unfair and broken than he is. Okay sure, you can freeze time. Before you get to though, I’m going to stab you, throw you into a wall, cover your position in mines, and then flee to the other side of a bunch of cover. Have fun!

      Another interesting mirror fight was in Force Unleashed (1). That guy used all the different powers against you… but that was stupid of him to try. Some powers are WAY better than others. So beating him involves just bullying him with the best powers and laughing off when he uses a suboptimal skill set.

      I’m trying to think of a mirror fight that I HATED… I’m sure there’s been plenty, but none comes to mind at this second.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        I remember one in the Hordes of the Underdark expansion pack for Neverwinter Nights, that benefitted from the ‘hands off’ style of the combat (it was all behind-the-scenes dice rolls, so the mirror image is EXACTLY as good a fighter as you are), but also because it was just a random encounter.
        Rather than building up the fight into a Boss, it was just a nasty trick that a crazy wizard put in his labyrinth.

        1. Decius says:

          It was a mirror of opposition copy of you, versus you and your allies.

          And the AI of NWN was horrible. Allies would just cast a spell of their highest level at random until the rat was dead, which was fine until you had a sorcerer who knew see invisibility- they would spend many rounds casting it over and over for no effect, rather than risk using a less powerful spell.

          1. BlueHorus says:

            Oh yes, I got a lesser burden from the AI. I always played casters, so the companions I had rarely had to do anything more complex than ‘fire ranged weapons’ or ‘hit enemy with axe’.

            Still had to turn PVP off because the Leeroy Jenkins was strong with them…if they could run into my AoE effect spells, they damn well would. Pretty sure they made a point of it.

    3. Ander says:

      I agree that the last boss of Transistor is a good mirror fight. The AI is exploitable, but it was a thrilling fight anyway for me, and it felt about as fair as possible.
      Some Bloodborne fights (haven’t played a Souls game) against hunters felt fair, too, especially when one of them parried me. I know their health bars are larger than mine, but since I respawn and they don’t I guess that evens out the “fair” feeling for me in that context.
      The rival fights in Pokemon and the Red fight in Gen II also come to mind as good mirror fights.

      1. Hector says:

        Regarding Bloodbourne, the big complaint in Hunter battles was their infinite stamina meter, not health or equipment.

      2. Ninety-Three says:

        The boss of Transistor annoyed me greatly, because it uses totally different mechanics than the rest of the game. I came around to it on its own merits as a puzzle fight that’s interesting to solve, but it’s weird to make the final encounter a puzzle instead of a test of the combat skills you’ve been practicing. Also, the boss totally pulls the “zillion times more health than you” trick that every game does.

        1. shoeboxjeddy says:

          The boss uses different mechanics, yes. Specifically, it uses YOUR mechanics. Because that boss is using the other mega super special hax weapon. And calling the fight a “puzzle” is not really correct, it’s more a brutal final exam on using your abilities to their fullest. The big difference from the rest of the game being, if you don’t spare any thought to defense, you’re about to be in a WORLD of hurt.

          1. Ninety-Three says:

            It’s not a final exam because you haven’t been preparing for it. It’s not testing you on how to do something you already know only harder, it’s inventing a totally new challenge to overcome. It is absolutely not using your abilities to the fullest because it negates a ton of previously viable strategies. I stand by calling it a puzzle because it’s much less a test of player skill than previous fights. The solution is not to practice dodging and attacking, it’s to die to the super special hax attacks until you figure out an easy-to-execute strategy that keeps you safe, at which point you stomp the boss. Unlike the midgame boss, I wasn’t left with the feeling “Woohoo, I’m good at this challenging combat” but rather “Well that was easy as soon as I was smart enough to figure out what to do”.

            1. shoeboxjeddy says:

              There’s just a lot of mistakes in your thinking here. “It’s not a final exam because you haven’t been preparing for it.” You have been preparing, by using your Transistor skills the whole game. Every one of his mechanics is YOUR mechanics. He can freeze time to pull off combos, then he has to wait to use that skill again. When he takes enough damage, he loses one of his abilities but can then keep fighting. You’re right that it’s a new challenge, but it’s one that makes perfect sense based on the ENTIRE GAME you’ve been playing. “The whole game, you could pause to line up damage and to put yourself where you need to be. Okay, now do that with the knowledge that the enemy is ALSO going to try to do the same thing. So you need to think about counterplays to that now.”

              “I stand by calling it a puzzle because it’s much less a test of player skill than previous fights.” I would call this indefensibly wrong. What could be more of a test of the player’s skill than finally giving the enemy back the advantage you’ve been taking the whole game? The entire game, the enemy has to sit still and wait while you lay out their destruction in safety, finally they get to return the favor. How is the part where you get to manhandle the enemy without consequence a greater test of skill? That’s nonsense.

              “The solution is not to practice dodging and attacking,” correct. Because Transistor isn’t a real time game where dodging is a reasonable solution. It’s a real time with pause game. You’ve had an entire game to try out different strategies and powers, to know their ins and outs and etc. Now that you have all that knowledge… stop them from killing you with those powers, using only those powers. If you’re looking for a real time action game, Bastion was that.

              1. Ninety-Three says:

                There’s just a lot of mistakes in your thinking here.

                Because Transistor isn’t a real time game where dodging is a reasonable solution.

                Transistor can be played entirely realtime and it’s extremely reasonable to do so, because by avoiding the use of time stop, you avoid the period of being locked out of abilities and intensely vulnerable while time stop cools down. You calling me mistaken without understanding that simple detail is my cue to leave, as this seems unlikely to be a productive discussion.

                1. shoeboxjeddy says:

                  Yeah, Transistor CAN be played in real time, and I bet speedrunners even take down that final boss guy without ever pausing. That doesn’t make it a particularly smart way to play, and the end guy is the thesis statement of why not. If the game gives you TIME STOP powers, I think it’s a little ridiculous to be mad that it expects you to… maybe use those incredible powers to overcome the challenge it presents? That’s kind of like never using iron sights in a shooter, just relying on hip fire. I mean… sure, play like that if you want to. It’s a bad idea, but go for it!

                  1. Ninety-Three says:

                    Well I correctly assessed this as unproductive and bowed out, but if you’re going to put words in my mouth I have to at least correct them: I was never mad that the game expected me to use time stop (heck, part of my figuring out how to easily beat the final boss was “use time stop less”).

                  2. Hector says:

                    I’ve had my disagreementa with “93” before, but in this case he is correct: the final boss of Transistor is quite different in kind than the preceding game. You are allowed to enjoy this departure from the game’s difficulty curve, but its undeniably a new, different challenge and not merely an increment

                    1. Decius says:

                      It’s a new, different type of challenge that doesn’t introduce any new mechanics.

                      You know how the boss’ powers work, because they are the same as yours. Now instead of beating up enemies that have a distinct inferiority to you you have to fight an equal.

                    2. Hector says:

                      It won’t let me reply to Decius, so this is my reply to Decius:

                      That’s exactly my point. The player has to adjust to fighting a single enemy with a far broader powerset than anything before. Saying that the player has experience using their own skillset doesn’t really clarify how to oppose somebody using that skillset, especially as the PC may not have equal experience using all the abilities and doesn’t know exactly how the AI will play. Like “93” above, the player has numerous options for how to approach encounters, but that experience is negated under the circumstances and the player to devise new tactics on the fly.

                      Again, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to introduce an evolutionary challenge to the final boss. However, this is definitely a revolutionary challenge regardless of whether or not is it objectively “difficult”. That’s actually a shame, because fights against similar opponents would have been a good addition to scatter throughout the game.

                    3. shoeboxjeddy says:

                      Hector, I see what you’re saying, that lesser mirror fighters would help train the player as to what to do, but I think that would really blunt the impact of “OH shit… a second Transistor!” that the finale of the game is punched up with. I think the idea that because it’s “different” it’s not an exam means you might have been taking shitty classes though. It’s VERY common in say, a math or science course for the teaching to be about how a method must be done, step by step and then the exam to be a practical problem with those skills. 93 complains that the boss didn’t match the way he usually played, and you’ve pointed out that maybe the players aren’t familiar with all the powers.

                      But actually, the player is heavily incentivized to switch powers and learn them all. There’s lore entries (and achievements) that can only be earned with each power by trying them out in each role. And the fact that each power does different things when slotted differently is obviously done that way so that the player won’t just stick in gear at the start of the game and then try to stay in that configuration forever. And finally, the way failure is handled is to disable a power to FORCE the player to try something else out of their comfort zone, so even a player who refuses to change equipment will NEED to if they fail encounters and need to swap to actually functional gear for the next fight. Every building block of design is set up for learn the powers, THINK about what they can do in a broader sense, and experiment. The dev can take the player to water, but they can’t make them drink in the end. I’m probably being too defensive on the game’s behalf, but I think they tried some really interesting and smart things and get REAL frustrated by “my attempts to ignore the design in favor of what I ALWAYS want to do was interfered with by the design.” Ugh.

    4. John says:

      My favorite mirror fight is in the original Prince of Persia. You win that one by not fighting. My least favorite mirror fight is in Hordes of the Underdark, in which your mirror-duplicate can’t make up its mind about which of the weapons in your inventory it wants to use, doesn’t cast spells effectively, and goes down in a matter of seconds.

      1. BlueHorus says:

        My least favorite mirror fight is in Hordes of the Underdark, in which your mirror-duplicate can’t make up its mind about which of the weapons in your inventory it wants to use, doesn’t cast spells effectively, and goes down in a matter of seconds.

        Wow, you got lucky.
        Mine instantly cast Touch of Death and killed me in one hit!

        1. John says:

          I almost never play Wizards. That probably helps. When I play a Bard or a Cleric, the mirror-duplicate usually wastes a lot of time on buffs.

      2. Decius says:

        FF4 has a decent mirror fight as well, which can technically be won by fighting but is faster to win by not fighting.

    5. Christopher says:

      A mirror fight against someone who is exactly you usually means the boss would die in seconds. That’s a fun thing to say but it’s not exactly an exciting boss fight.

      There are so many fun mirror/rival fights that I think it’s hard to choose just one, but Vergil in DMC3 is just masterfully done, so I’d go for that, although Blue from the original Pokemon gen might reach those heights too. Rivals have a lot of advantages over pure mirror matches, though. Like I’m sure I’ve played lots of games that just have you straight up fight your double, but they’re so forgettable ’cause it isn’t much of a character. It’s more interesting to fight against someone who’s in the same vein as you, but opposed to you, not just your same model but with a different color.

      Dark Souls 3 could be a good example I guess. If you got into a multiplayer fight with a person with the exact same health, build and equipment as you, that’s not necessarily a super memorable opponent. But the boss that’s based on different player archetypes, beefed up, that it switches between… that is a pretty fun boss.

    6. Axebird says:

      I was really disappointed by the last fight in Transistor. It was over in about 10 seconds, and the game ended with me asking “That was it? Seriously?” I loved the rest of the game but that was such an awful way to close out the gameplay it left a sour taste in my mouth for the whole game.

      A fight against a boss with similar characteristics to the player is probably going to resemble a single encounter in a multiplayer shooter- that is, usually no more than 15 seconds long. That’s a really disappointing way to cap off a level or game, so developers usually don’t do it.

    7. Dreadjaws says:

      For real. What’s even the point of making it a “mirrored” fight if the enemy is going to have major advantages? At that point just make him your mentor or someone who happens to be a higher-level student/user of your abilities for other reasons. You know, someone who has an excuse to have all your same abilities and excel at them in a way it’s literally impossible for you to do so (at least at the point where you find this fight).

      A good example is Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. In the story, your master is kidnapped and both you (Nathan) and his son (Hugh), who are his students, get separated while trying to find him. Very late in the story you run into Hugh, who’s been corrupted by the castle’s caretaker due to his jealousy against Nathan for being chosen as his father’s disciple instead of him. This works in several ways:

      1) Hugh is not a mirrored version of Nathan, but actually studies under the same master, so it’s understandable that their fighting abilities are the same. He’s also been roaming around the castle since Nathan started doing it, so it stands to reason that he’s collected similar weapons.
      2) He’s been corrupted by an evil force, so it’s perfectly reasonable that he’s stronger and more resilient than Nathan is. But even if he wasn’t corrupted, being an entirely different person gives him a good excuse anyway.
      3) Nathan defeating him in battle despite his greater power cements their master’s decision as the correct one, which works properly for the story.

      I wish more games took a similar approach if they’re not going to be willing to give us a fair fight.

    8. Ofermod says:

      I thought that the Doppelganger in GW1 was a great example of a mirror fight. In raw stats, it’s better than you, but not excessively so (except on Hard Mode). So you’ve got to beat it by being smarter than it. Which, against the AI, isn’t always difficult, but it’s at least a neat puzzle.

  13. shoeboxjeddy says:

    In the Crash Bandicoot games, every couple of deaths, they’d give you a mask (aka extra hit point) to try the section you were failing at. A lot of the time, that was enough to help you bust through it. My only issue with that system was, sometimes you’d spawn with the mask and try to make your way and fail, then you’d respawn and… not get a mask? Uh, Naughty Dog, if I needed the mask last time and still couldn’t cut the mustard, why wouldn’t I need it this time too?

    Nintendo has a thing in their recent games that if you die, it’ll give you the option to skip or use a super power up. And that’s cool, Splosion Man even copied this. It’s a good concept for helping out people who just want to kind of get through the game without being forced to absolutely MASTER every second of it. You know what sucks? Not letting me turn that system off! Every 5 deaths or so, ‘Splosion Man is like “hey dude… this is kicking your butt, want to skip it?” and I have to make sure to click NO every time or I lose all my progress towards 100%ing this level. The game is super hard, you designed it to be that way. So stop being like “You okay there, little buddy? Want me to skip the ouchie wouchies? I will have to punish you and remove your achievement progress if you say yes…” I WILL (and did eventually) 100% every single level, so BUTT OUT! You’re REALLY adding to the annoyance of this situation by adding a “do you want to delete your progress accidentally, Yes or No” pass/fail test for me to get through every couple of deaths. GOD, it’s annoying. Seriously, just add a toggle for “turn the helpful options OFF permanently” in the menu. That’s all it would take.

    Another variable difficulty annoyance: games that keep your resources spent if you die and checkpoint. Like… if I spend all my rockets on the boss and die, then respawn with the boss at full health but all my rockets are gone… how is that fair?? If that first try “happened”, then why isn’t the boss still hurt? If it didn’t “happen”, where are my rockets?!

    1. Ninety-Three says:

      You’re REALLY adding to the annoyance of this situation by adding a “do you want to delete your progress accidentally, Yes or No” pass/fail test for me to get through every couple of deaths.

      I was never bothered by the dexterity test, but I always found those options insulting. “Hey, you seem to be dying a lot. Are you sure you should be playing this videogame? Maybe you should try baby mode Golden Tanooki Suit mode. That’s an option you know, because you clearly suck at this.”

      I want the option to turn those things off just so I can stop hearing the voice of the developer telling me that I suck so bad he thinks I might not want to play.

      1. Syal says:

        Had an idea a while back to have a character do that throughout the game, and then make that character a superboss. (Cutscene Clive will cut you!)

      2. Nimrandir says:

        I remember the first time I saw a message like that, in Spec Ops: The Line. It took most of my willpower not to put the controller through the screen in rage.

        1. Higher_Peanut says:

          At least in Spec Ops that was the intended response to the taunt. I find it even more maddening when it’s supposed to be “helping” me and I can’t get rid of it.

      3. BlueHorus says:

        One particular example I’ve been reminded of: the original God of War for the PS2.
        So the main gameplay periods of (fun) melee combat were broken up by really annoying instant-death platforming sections. One slip-up and you either fell back to the beginning, or died and had to start again.

        Anyway, on one particularly bad example of this, the game gave me the classic ‘would you like to lower the difficulty?’ option. Yes, I say…

        …and the platforming remained exactly as hard as it was before. The option just made the combat less fun.

        Yeah, I never finished that game.

    2. Dreadjaws says:

      For real. In Super Mario Maker for the Nintendo 3DS you get medals for completing certain goals. This means that, whether you’re good or bad at the game you’ll be dying a lot trying to complete the goals, because you might miss a collectible or mess up a jump and end up in an area you can backtrack from, which means you’ll have to kill yourself to restart quickly. Despite this, the game keeps showing every few deaths a message telling you they can give you a special powerup to complete the mission if you’re having trouble, even though you can’t win any medals while using that item, which makes the whole deal not just annoying, but counterproductive.

      I understand the purpose of those messages, but dammit, let me turn them off!

      1. Nimrandir says:

        In Super Mario 3D World, the invincibility suit was put inside a power-up block. I can’t remember if the game ever called attention to it or not.

  14. Tablis says:

    I have a problem with this post. Critisising auto-balancing of this kind is fine, but why is it discussed as a post about Control if we are not sure to what extent it is present there? There is really not enough information available to make a judgement in the case of this game. I can easly imagine that for example the difficulty is rising, but there is an upper limit and it is not “die every N enemy kills”.

    In my playthrough I did not notice auto-balancing (outside of the varying enemy damage, this one is obvious). Still, I would not call this game well balanced. There are not enough enemy types, you get used to them and it causes the reverse difficulty curve. The ending in particular was a joke. Bosses are bullet sponges which is not always bad, but it is bad here because it does not fit the health system in this game (you are healed only at cheackpoints and by enemy drops). I hated the one-eyed boss because of the insta-kill holes in the floor. The boss is up, the holes are down, the camera points only in one of these two directions and is a bigger enemy than the boss himself. The mirror Jessie was also more frustrating than fun. The rest was mostly fine but not particularly impressive.

  15. Liessa says:

    The slightly-less-annoying cousin of auto-balancing difficulty is the tutorial fight that suggests a difficulty level for you. It’s not so bad because at least you can still choose, but I still got caught out this way in The Witcher 2. Since I don’t play a lot of action games, the game noticed my ineffectual flailing and went, “…yeah, sweetie, you probably want to be on Easy mode.” Of course, by half-way through the game I’d got used to the combat and controls, and was finding all the fights stupidly easy.

    Regarding ‘mirror’ fights, IIRC there was one in Dragon Age: Origins that was reasonably fair. If anything the ‘doubles’ were actually less tough than your party members, at least on normal difficulty.

    1. Joshua says:

      That’s why I like games that have difficulty sliders you can change at (almost) any time. If there’s no special reward for completing the game on different difficulty levels other than self-accomplishment, why not let the player make the game easier/harder later?

    2. Platypus says:

      Had weirdly the opposite problem when i was new to action games. On one if the modern warfare games they make you do like a timed army training course at the start and recommend a difficulty based on that. Even tho i was a fresh faced teenager who hadnt really played any other shooters i managed to ace it since it was easy as hell and it told me i should play on “Veteran” This i noticed when i was being dumped on by the entire Russian army in the middle of an American Suburb half way through the Game, was a mistake.

  16. Dreadjaws says:

    I don’t know about Control, but I know that Netherrealm fighting games pull this difficulty crap, but somehow worse. You’ll breeze through a couple of fights, and the next couple will be way harder, then you’ll reach one where the opponent has impossible reaction times, is able to use combos and powers in a way that’s physically impossible for a human to do so (as they lose any charge time we have to put up with) and they move faster than your eye can react.

    You will die. It’s inevitable. And then when you restart the fight the opponent will just stay in place, sometimes walk around a bit and maybe, if he remembers, throw a punch. That’s right, they don’t lower the difficulty a level or two, they do it to its absolute bare minimum. It makes it so noticeable that it loses all its appeal. If it wasn’t for their interesting story modes I wouldn’t even bother with the campaigns.

    1. Higher_Peanut says:

      That sounds rough. I’m used to seeing fighting games that stick you with a boss with inhuman reaction times, input reading and special boss powers. They’re total BS most of the time but at least they stick to their guns so you can bash your head against them to your hearts content.

      Do fighting games systems like Smash Brothers and Dragonball Fighterz count as adjusting difficulty? Whenever you lose or fail to reach the proper performance they drop you down a tier of difficulty which locks out content, but at least they’re honest about it. If you want to see the super final boss you have to complete an unbeaten run on max difficulty like you had permadeath on.

    2. John says:

      Well, I’ve never noticed anything like that in Injustice, but to be fair I never play that game’s story mode. (I watched a fair amount of it on Youtube though. Interesting is not the word I would use.) The other single-player modes I’ve tried don’t seem to have that kind of dynamic difficulty adjustment. I suspect the intent is to allow absolutely everyone who attempts story mode to complete story mode, which is understandable. It’s a shame they were so clumsy about it though.

  17. Mark Cheverton says:

    The Twenty Sided website itself reminds me of the Oldest House, in all of it’s confusing and sprawling glory. The author’s links redirects you to another website associated with them rather than just their post history and the text becomes more corrupt and broken the deeper you go into the site

  18. Higher_Peanut says:

    I can understand why people would enjoy some rubber banding in kart racers or more arcade styled racing games where blowing up your opponents is encouraged, being out of a race after one fight would ruin the mechanics. But I have no idea why anyone would want it in a racing game that’s solely about how well you could race.

    I wouldn’t be surprised to see a whole bunch of game mechanics end up tied directly to frame rate, it seems quite common. If it turns out they are I’m sure some speedrun setup will abuse it someway so we’ll end up finding out.

    1. Nimrandir says:

      I remember hearing tying stuff to frame rate was a problem with the PC port of Dark Souls II, because gear durability was tied to active frames. When the PC version wasn’t capped at 30 frames per second, players’ weapons wore out too fast.

      1. Higher_Peanut says:

        It led to hilarious bugs with Dark Souls 1. When PC modders inevitably upped the framerate to try and compensate for the god awful port in a bunch of places you would just fall through the floor.

  19. Teltnuag says:

    Same goes for Dark Souls. The designer doesn’t feel the need to put their thumb on the scale to make you “feel” skilled, they just put up a barrier and you can try to climb over it.

    Good thing they got rid of World Tendency from Demon’s Souls, which actually made worlds harder when you died in human form.

  20. Clareo Nex says:

    I spent a lot of time trying to design an auto-balancing XP curve, when I suddenly realized I could split the level ups into skills vs. power. The system would allow players to make themselves a demigod with only one attack or a wet noodle with a vast array of options. Faceroll build vs. space shuttle control panel build. Mildly encourage the latter and voila the player automatically selects the level of difficulty they like and you can no longer over-level by accident. (Heaven forbid your RPG combat is actually fun and your player, you know, plays around with it.)

    The fundamental problem with autobalance is that the game has to punish you for succeeding and reward you for failing. It will encourage players to fail on purpose as opposed to taking the game world any kind of seriously. It reveals that perhaps early 8 bit titles which had no character-altering mechanics at all were secretly especially well designed; games that reward you for succeeding challenge the worst players the most and the best players the least.

    E.g. if you’ve played a Dragon Quest game before you may know the maps and thus get all the treasures and see the fewest encounters, while a newbie fumbles sees a massive MP-sapping horde of monsters, and doesn’t know that functionally ‘run’ is the strongest strategy. In Metroid or Zelda the veteran player knows where all the stuff is hidden and thus has access to vastly more power than the newbie, who also has to deal with not quite knowing how to aim yet.

    Technically the player can fix this but again you have to not take the game world seriously, and it always involves not playing parts the game. You can make sure you’re challengingly under-leveled in an FF or DQ game, but it means running from most encounters and you’ll never use most of the spells. You can limit your power in Metroid, but it means playing an exploration game without exploring.

    1. Timothy Coish says:

      This is a really interesting comment. However, that seems something that also exists in FPS games, and is solved through difficulty levels. For example, in Halo:CE, I have memorized basically every advantage that there is, not through intentional learning, but naturally. I know ahead of time which flood drop the shotgun, I know to throw grenades down x hallway at y time, but don’t bother with z hallway no enemies spawn there. I know which rooms are going to have repeating spawns. Etcetera.

      And yet, the game is still nice and challenging because I can throw on the Legendary difficulty, which still absolutely kicks my ass much of the time. I can also self-impose challenges like “no dying on this level”, or “use x weapons”, which ramp up the intensity further. My years of playing that one game and those 10 levels means that Easy/Normal are basically baby difficulties, but I often play on Heroic for a sort of relaxing experience which still requires intelligent play.

      There’s no reason that an RPG can’t do something like this. In fact, one of my favourite games of all time, Star Ocean: The Second Story, did exactly that. The first time you played the game you could play on “Earth” difficulty. If you unlocked more voice tracks, you could go up to “Galaxy” difficulty. Even more voice tracks and you unlocked “Universe” difficulty, which was really hard. At that point, even though you could almost break the game through Item Creation, and just general knowledge, the game was still really challenging because of the inherent difficulty. Keep in mind, this is a game released in 1999.

      It’s sort of weird how something viewed as so critical for action games is often an afterthought in RPG’s.

  21. Grygor says:

    A better comparison for dynamic difficulty might be God Hand, in which the difficulty is an explicit game mechanic.

    In God Hand, there’s an actual difficulty meter on screen; it goes up when you hit enemies, and goes down when you get hit. If the meter is filled, the difficulty level increases, and when the meter is depleted the difficulty level drops. (And rather than just scaling damage and health values, difficulty affects enemy AI, enemy move sets, and spawning rates for particularly difficult enemies.) Additionally, there’s a special move that will reset the difficulty to the lowest level. However, the difficulty level is also a factor in your score, which doubles as the currency you use to buy upgrades. So you have a game which is very transparent about the current difficulty and gives you tools to adjust it if it’s getting out-of-hand, but also encourages you to maintain as high a difficulty as you are able to.

    And to top it all off, there’s also an Easy Mode (which among other effects locks the difficulty to the two lowest levels) and an unlockable Hard Mode (which locks the difficulty to the highest level and, of course, removes the “difficulty reset” move).

    1. Christopher says:

      I like how transparent God Hand is, and it’s a pretty good way to adjust the difficulty. It’s feels good when there are cheers as it says “LEVEL UP”, but even getting decked and see a “LEVEL DOWN” fall down the screen to “aww”s from an offscreen audience is funny.

      I think it might be one of the ones that revealed the trick to everyone, though. That and Resident Evil 4. Everyone know about dynamic difficulty now, and lots of games seem to have used it earlier than those, but I don’t think people used to be that aware of it.

  22. Zaxares says:

    Like so many others here, I LOATHE games that employ dynamic difficulty settings and rules (including rubberbanding in racing games, auto-leveling enemies in RPGs, hidden buffs or extra resources for enemies in strategy games etc.) Nothing ticks me off faster than knowing that the game is not playing by the same rules that I have to adhere to. Just stick to a fixed difficulty, developers; implement different difficulty modes if you have to, and if it’s too hard, well… that’s what mods and cheats/trainers are for. :P

  23. Platypus says:

    Speaking of Max Payne, the Rockstar developed third one had a good way to balance its difficulty if you were getting your arse handed to you. If ya died like half a dozen times the game gave you an extra slosh of bullet time and a free painkiller to make things abit more fun again, couple that with the borderlandsy shoot the dude who shot you to survive gizmo made payne 3 alot more fair and forgiving which is a surprise considering the Brick Wall you run into in most of the Gta gamed with no leg up

  24. etheric42 says:

    This talk of rubber-banding is interesting because I’m implementing a rubber-band system in a tabletop RPG I’m designing and I am curious to see what kind of rubber-banding IS acceptable.

    Tabletop games of course have to work differently than digital single- and multi-player games. Multiplayer can give you an ELO and rubber-band you via matchmaking but for tabletop it is unlikely to have a physical player group that is reliably on the same skill level and will generally be too small for matchmaking (unless you are one of those convention-trotting wargamers). Single player games are fine with you adjusting the difficulty on the fly (usually), are against an abstract pre-programmed difficulty setting that doesn’t really have a skill level other than how “smart” it was programmed to be, and you don’t have to deal with human teammates that may want/need a different difficulty than you.

    I enjoy the gamey parts of D&D, although I have found they are often better served by games like Gloomhaven, but when I play Gloomhaven I miss the rich narrative of games like Blades in the Dark. And it is too easy for the gameyness of RPGs to end up with runaway escalation from the GM that hurts the math and leads to binary encounters and players that are less involved in the system having trouble keeping up.

    So my solution tackles it from a couple of angles. One is to give the GM hard limits on the power they can bring to the table (think D&D style encounter tables, but mandated) and then give the GM two different resources that they can spend. I’ll call them Narrative Points (NP) and Combat Points (CP) for now. Should the players trounce an encounter, the GM is awarded fewer NP and more CP. Should they get obliterated, the GM receives more NP and reduced CP. How well the players do in combat is generally defined by how few of them are reduced to half HP in a combat. Still tweaking the math to prevent it from being a runaway steamroll either direction, but generally you don’t want to hand the GM a stack of NP so you won’t be throwing a combat in order to reset the difficulty.

    As far as intra-party balancing, characters that get dropped to half-hp more often end up having bad things happen to them narratively, BUT that is also how you obtain soulbound artifacts that bump your power level and should even the playing field.

    Now, what’s to stop the player wanting full power from suiciding repeatedly in order to unlock an artifact for himself? I don’t know. The negative narrative effects should stop most people, and you can’t solve for everyone, but it is potentially a problem.

    So from a player perspective, does this just look like cheating and punishing you for performing well?

    1. Syal says:

      Don’t play many tabletop games myself (I’m pretty sure I’m That Guy in most groups), but I’ll quote the old Spoony wisdom of “If you stat it they will kill it”. If you explicitly give the DM numbers, the game will explicitly become about defeating the DM rather than the scenario the DM came up with. I had fun with a game like that a while back (I think it was called Descent), but narratively rich it was not.

      Also not sure what Narrative Points would do. Are these encounters requiring non-standard skills (suddenly accused of thievery and have to talk/bluff/logic your way out; higher NP moves you ever closer to Phoenix Wright-level evidence burdens), or are they Wandering Damage Table things where you can’t avoid the effects.

      1. etheric42 says:

        Narrative points would be primarily for things that are normally big GMs fiat items “Your sister, who is also your caravan’s blacksmith, has grown ill with the plague, guess it’s time to go questing for a cure” (in the assumed setting, you basically take a caravan of refugees/worshipers around with you, which is a narrative trope that I have used in a few campaigns in the past, you likely aren’t going into a dungeon with them, but you’ll want to stake them out a safe spot nearby to act as base camp for your excursions). A lot of the roleplay is very internally focused (taking a cue from Bliss Stage) and a big theme is holding on to a sense of normalcy and preserving/creating relationships with people in the face of harsh conditions and persistent violence.

        Kind of a Madoka Magica meets wounded warrior scenario. The gameplay loop is interact with people to build/repair relationships -> threat builds -> explore the world to find a safe place to relocate to -> threat climaxes -> fight off / hunt down other demigods -> interact with people to build/repair relationships

        But I really like your idea of also using it to ramp up normal situations into places the players are increasingly unable to deal with. Increasingly tempt them into using their god-powers, which draws attention to themselves and pushes the loop forward.

    2. Higher_Peanut says:

      That feels like a very adversarial system for a tabletop RPG, almost entirely based in a metagame of players vs GM. I wouldn’t want to run it in a narrative heavy story as it looks like it would turn the focus on the players rather than the characters. In a narrative sense this is punishing players for succeeding (and also failing), no character is ever going to think of exactly how they perform in a fight so they can manipulate the difficulty of future ones. Story reasons might cover it, but you can only be spied on for so long before you drop appearing weak and go deal with it.

      Balancing is supposed to come from group communication. Organising beforehand approximate power levels of characters and discussing how the campaign is styled where it is likely to be headed. Stacking even more math on top of a GM who is usually stretched thin is trouble and hard limits remove some the freedom that draws people to pen and paper.

      It might work better in a campaign where it’s less of a story and more of a long term board game tug of war between GM and party. Basing it on hp would need careful balancing and could producing an interesting system. It would interact directly with character archetypes and capability of damage soaking. My main concern would be that it emphasises battlefield control even more than usual. If the players have control over the power of the GM fights are likely to devolve into mass CC so each player can safely take the correct amount of damage to limit GM power.

      1. etheric42 says:

        The goal is to turn combat into directly an adversarial board game, and then wrap that into a more freeform storytelling system than you get in games like Descent/Gloomhaven. There are a lot of strong narrative games out there currently, and a lot of good crunchy boardgames, but few that attempt to tie the two (Burning Wheel is one of the rare attempts).

        And an adversarial system has worked in some top-tier narrative RPGs out there. Hillfolk’s “did you get what you want?” “what are they withholding from you” system works like that. As does the lesser-known but absolutely great Bliss Stage (the game ends when there is one PC left and that PC determines the final end to the story).

        As a pure board game, I don’t think it would work well, since the narrative points wouldn’t have much weight. In a game with more story and narrative allows you to set some stakes for why you want to keep winning even as difficulty mounts. When the GM accumulates narrative points, negative things happen to your story. Your village grows sick. The NPCs your character is attached to are hurt or die. It’s bound up in the narrative that the PCs are demigods and there is a metaphysical connection between them and the people they have relationships with. You can go around as an amoral murder-hobo, but you’ll never grow in power and be vulnerable to all the other hungry demigods out there.

        I agree, loading the GM up with more responsibilities is rough. I’m usually the GM so I normally shoulder that burden and I actively select games based on how well they support the GM. The combat system is drastically asymmetrical to ease GM load, and by mandating certain flows for encounter building, the GM doesn’t have to work as hard (select the adversary, select some creatures and/or effects from that adversary’s portfolio equal to your allotted build points, go. Basically able to create an encounter on the fly). Also there’s a sub-GM in the system. The character playing the party’s cleric-archetype holds some of the duties traditionally given to the GM with regards to the plot and NPCs.

        The other reason to bind it to being reduced to half HP, is to avoid the Descent 1st edition problem, where characters may be worth different amounts of victory points for the overlord, but repeatedly killing the weakest link over and over again was generally the best strategy (which wasn’t much fun for that said link’s player). It’s encouraging the GM to spread the pain around and not seek to immediately drop a specific player to improve their action economy (unless doing so would be useful to get other bloodies on the board, so a strategy but not the default optimal one).

        Good point about the CC as the players try to manage damage distribution. Rotation of tanking can be a fun puzzle to solve, but I need to make sure players’ powers don’t make that an unfun grind.

        1. Higher_Peanut says:

          If it’s intended to be an adversarial system, it’s definitely going in the right direction. I like that the overarching GM points system means a single combat isn’t necessarily a win/lose outcome as the two sides struggle over how the combat plays out as well as victory. Encouraging the damage spread for the GM is also neat. Providing reward for keeping more players in the game which is usually a risky move.

          I tend to prefer board/card games with guaranteed outcomes for adversarial play so I’m a bit out of my depth getting a narrative to work with this sort of system. Is the overall story being told also a competition with a win/loss state or is it treated more like the GM is getting to create hurdles and throw plot-twists at you?

          There seem to be a bunch of long term board games with a narrative downtime coming off of Kickstarter now. It’s interesting to see a pen and paper take which should allow more story to develop while keeping a lot of the crunch.

          1. etheric42 says:

            One of my core design goals is to make the rule-set align with the narrative and to properly align incentives. So the narrative position of the GM is one of the major gods of the setting. The current generation of gods came to power by using an alternative energy source from the classic gods (which are gone or in decline). The current gods seed their power onto the world in the form of demigods, grow them through conflict (and consuming eachother), and then at some point harvest them for a net gain in energy. So the overall story is… semi-competitive? Competitive in the same way a rancher raises a herd? The GM’s “goal” is to bring home the most powerful set of adventurers who are also the most socio-emotionally unprepared for a climactic existential crisis. The players’ goal is to discover the story of their world and preserve/protect the human parts of their lives. The sub-GM (see Kyubey if you are familiar with Madoka) is to help the GM grow this particular herd and ensure this herd succeeds in a way that is superior than the other herds their god is (and other gods are?) growing.

            I had initially started this project as a Dark Lord vs Players type campaign, but that ended up leading more to a “board game overworld + board game combat” design than I wanted.

  25. Taxi says:

    Ugh not HL2 as an example of a good game again. Am I the only who who’s always thought that game was mostly garbage? Not to mention it will never be finished because Valve (now Valve Corporation, not Valve Software as most people keep referring to it) is only after Steam money now.

    Anyway MP1 and 2 had 3 regular difficulty levels, easy, medium hard. The manual claimed there’s auto balancing but I’ve never really noticed it. Although granted, it’s probably because save scumming was my gameplay style for those games, thanks to ultra fast quickloads.

    I’ve always found it fun to just keep repeating the same encounter over and over until I get bored and move on. Tho mind you there was a week or 2 when I was finishing MP1 3 times every day (I had a broken CD-ROM drive that could only read the MP1 disc for some reason) so I’m kinda biased.

    Anyway I’ve not played the last 2 Remedy games but from descriptions like this it feels like they are still trying to recapture the oddball magic of MP1. Alan Wake was full of stuff that sorta worked for MP1+2 back in the early 2000’s but were completely unsuitable for a late 2000’s horror/thriller and it seems they’ve still not moved on from that.

    That said this game looks mighty interesting. I wouldn’t mind giving it a shot if I had a this gen console.

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