Games are getting too easy. There I said it. I have absolutely no evidence to prove that I’m in any way better at games at 30 than I was at 13. Case in point, following a house move last year I uncovered my original Game Boy. This was the proper grey brick which let’s face it was about as easy to hold as, well, a brick! In a world with ergonomically designed gaming controllers for optimum comfort and precision this was a massive retro moment of hand achingly enjoyable fun….hmm might rephrase that! The point is the Game Boy today looks truly analogue in a digital world. The controls are simple, the screen not even backlit. (Fans may remember a separate light could be purchased to allow the user to indulge in late night gaming). The graphics, if they could be called that, were simple yet endearing of a period where the industry was still very much in its infancy. The games have a playful innocence about them from the addictive Tetris through the various iterations of Super Mario and beyond. However, one thing that set this era of games apart for me is the fact that they are not easy. At all!! Recently I spent something in the region of two hours just trying to get through the first level of Star Trek 25th Anniversary to the point where I gave myself a headache just through the concentration. Maybe I’m old, maybe I don’t have the same cognitive capacity I did as a eight year old playing these games for the first time but one things for sure, I loved every minute and the sense of jubilation when at last I broke through to level two was epic.. In my opinion this is something that has been missing from games during the past decade or so. Perhaps this is a change in the nature of gaming as it stepped out of the shadows of mothers basements and became a multi-billion dollar industry. Sales are the key now and to get those you need many people buying your game. For that to happen people need to be able to achieve stuff in it quickly and gain that near-instant gratification so desired by the new generation. Failure to do so can lead to biblical strops and online promises to ‘never again buy x’s game’. I don’t think I ever once rage quit Sonic the Hedgehog!
I’ve noticed this particularly in racing games. Back in the day you had the chance to set the AI difficulty level and that was pretty much it. Take Formula One, the original Playstation title. That was actually quite difficult all things considered. You couldn’t just blast full power round each track and expect to win and it was the same with Codemasters’ iconic Colin McRae Rally and TOCA Touring Car series. There was a clearly defined border between ‘arcade’ (Ridge Racer, Outrun, Burnout, V Rally) and ‘simulation’ (Gran Turismo, Formula One, TOCA) when I was growing up in the 90’s but increasingly developers seem to have melded the two together to effectively provide an arcadey feeling ‘sim’. That’s like presenting someone with a bottle of Verve Cliquot that’s been filled with lemonade. EA is particularly good at doing this. They managed to produce a few seasons of really outstanding looking F1 titles that had all the stress and difficulty of a gentle afternoon nap. Fans of sportscar racing were over the moon when word came out about Need for Speed Shift, a title that brought the FIA GT Championship to the console market. What they neglected to tell the fans was that the cars would be able to drift around every circuit and that each track would have been paid a visit by Banksy. Don’t even get me started on the circus on the Brands Hatch infield. It was a racing game for people who didn’t care about racing. As someone who had stood trackside in all weathers experiencing the real roar of an MC12 or a C6.R firing down the Hangar Straight at well over 150mph that game was an affront.
Even Codemasters bent to the will of the new gen gamer, adding unnecessary storylines to its later Race Driver titles. Who ever thought a racing game could be ‘pepped up’ with the addition of stories? Racing fans and online racing groups manage perfectly well with their own narrative without some ludicrous subplot built in by the developer. If anything that detracts from the racing. These days, racing games have so many assists, so many ways of reducing the risk that you may as well kick back and drive around the track in a Google Car. There’s no danger of finishing last. The AI plods along happily at three quarter speed like some old dear on her way to the Post Office, braking hard for every kink in the road. For some, this is the limit. And that’s fine. But for the rest of us, the motorsport fans who dream of haring down the Mulsanne Straight at 200mph we need a little more. Dumbing down the difficulty just feels like cheating. Pleasingly the raft of releases in 2016 seem to be returning to that ethos of challenging gameplay. DiRT from Codemasters is an absolutely fantastic title. The best in its genre by a country mile. (Though WRC 6 is considerably improved over previous editions) The cars are heavy and tough to master. The courses are tight and tricky and mesmerising in the dark. Mistakes are punished hard but the huge rush when you complete a stage on top is well worth it. It’s the same with F1 2016. I went into this latest iteration of the Formula One gaming business highly sceptical as to what to expect, after all the real sport isn’t much cop these days! I was very surprised to find an accomplished (and challenging) title that really made me work for any success. Even the often skippable Free Practice sessions had a purpose now and essentially became a game in their own right. Last year Project CARS brought a new level of difficulty to the console racing genre after years of being spoilt with Forza on Xbox. It allowed sim racers to revel in the challenge of a range of GT machinery, each with their own characteristics and difficulties. Now we have Assetto Corsa offering PC levels of detail on consoles too. So what does this suggest for the future of actual sim racing on consoles? I’d really like to think that the message has gotten through that we gamers don’t want to be wrapped up in cotton wool. We can handle losing from time to time.