Surviving The Horror: Dead Space 2’s Hard Core Difficulty
When humans get scared, our bodies prepare to take action. Adrenaline courses through our systems, our heart rates skyrocket, and certain bodily functions like digestion get suspended entirely. This is commonly known as the body’s “fight or flight” response. But while “fight or flight” may have a nice ring to it, the terms suggest a simple duality that doesn’t quite mesh with the reality: our fear response covers not just fight OR flight, but every combination of the two. Furthermore, the fear response varies between people. How you react to something scary may not be how I react to it.
Horror game developers are aware of this range of response, and they design their titles to fit a certain segment of it. Some horror fans prefer games that trigger their “fight” reaction. Others prefer games that trigger their “flight” response. Neither is a more valid horror experience than the other, and, contrary to popular belief, titles like Resident Evil 5 and Amnesia can occupy the same market space.
Enter the Dead Space series. The first game appealed to both “fight” and “flight” enthusiasts with its mix of extreme player vulnerability and engaging dismemberment. The second game ramped up the intensity in all respects. The hero, Isaac Clarke, is faster and deadlier, but so are the bladed undead necromorphs he faces. With added environmental hazards, the player is thrust into situations that constantly challenge him or her. Despite all these new features, the developers at Visceral knew they needed something extra to combat the greatest enemy of fear: familiarity. As the second game in the series, Dead Space 2 would automatically start off in a weaker position. Thus, a new difficulty was included. Hard Core mode would give the player only three saves for the entire game. Checkpoints would be disabled, and death would return the player to his last save, regardless if that was 5 chapters ago.
Hard Core offers players quite a different experience than usual. The cost of failure is not a few rooms’ worth of progress, but rather, entire chapters and multiple hours of gameplay. Similar difficulty modes have appeared in other games, but it’s particularly suited to the survival horror genre. The player is already used to being extra careful about enemy encounters, and the more serious consequences serve to heighten the tension. All this is just fluffy theory until you actually screw up, however.
Then the game changes.
Suddenly, Hard Core become the most annoying, unfair game mechanic ever. Suddenly, the weight of all those necromorphs you fought over all those chapters comes crashing down. You flash back to all those points where you unconsciously breathed a sigh of relief that you were at least done with that part. Your memory starts to taunt you, teasing you with the knowledge that you are going to have to do it all over again. What’s more, you’re going to have to play your very best just to reach the place where you died. On Hard Core, the future disappears. Thoughts of what’s in the next room or next chapter are forgotten because the present battle is so important.
Interestingly enough, Hard Core is technically less demanding than the next-highest difficulty, Zealot. Enemies drop more ammo and money, so resource scarcity plays a smaller role. But the real battle is going on in the player’s mind. Many players will rage quit after the first time they lose multiple chapters of progress, and after the first failure, the pressure mounts with each additional minute played.
Given that the player only has a total of 3 saves throughout the 15-chapter game, the placement of those saves becomes paramount. There are some places where it’s generally agreed that saving is vital – before or after a particularly dangerous sequence, for instance, or after a certain minimum number of chapters complete. But Hard Core players will soon find that they have their own unique trouble spots. A sequence you breezed through on a previous playthrough may prove to be nearly insurmountable on Hard Core, not because it’s mechanically different, but because you’re under so much stress. (Here’s where I freely admit that I placed my first Hard Core save just before the Tripod fight at the end of the hospital. Yes, I know that’s a rather easy boss. But I died WAY too many times to it for some reason and I just couldn’t face doing the entire opening sequence again.) Nervousness will cause you to miss easy kills, take needless damage, and play like someone who’s completely new to the game. You’re not even safe after the credits start to appear. On my most recent Hard Core playthrough, during the very last playable section of the game, during the last SECONDS of player control, I made a silly mistake and lost an hour or so of progress. It was my first and only death on that playthrough. You can imagine the facepalm I did after that.
In the end, that’s what Hard Core really is: a battle of wills not between you and the game, but between you and your own weaknesses. All the bad habits and lazy tactics built up during previous playthroughs get burned away in the crucible of difficulty. By the end – if you reach the end – you’re a hardened necromorph hunter. Your will is iron, your concentration is unshakable, and your execution is relentless. Furthermore, you feel a certain kinship with Isaac Clarke, the guy you control. Just like him, you’ve experienced an incredibly stressful ordeal, and discovered an inner fortitude that helped you survive. Neither he or you will ever be quite the same. You’re both stronger.