When we walked through Namco's booth at E3 2011 in Los Angeles, playing various games and talking to the developers, one thing was apparent: these are not games you'll master in a day or blow through. With three of their premier titles, a higher difficulty level than what's seen in a lot of mainstream games was on display, and it made for a unique gaming experience.
The latest in the Ace Combat franchise, Assault Horizon was first up, offering flight simulation dogfighting with both jets and helicopters. Now, the controls are tight and well laid out; it's not that flying these metal giants around was difficult because the controls are bad, it's that flying jets and helicopters is difficult because flying jets and helicopters is difficult! The added realism may put off fans of arcade flight shooters like H.A.W.X., but it does set Ace Combat Assault Horizon apart. The plus side, of course, is that it's that much more satisfying when you blow an enemy out of the sky successfully, and it will set the people who take the time to master the game clearly apart from their more casual competitors.
In the fantasy world, Dark Souls wants you to learn from your mistakes. The thing is, you will make a lot of mistakes, you will die a lot, you will fail. A lot. But for some reason, you'll find that massive failure to be all too much fun. This is a fantasy action game, but rather than having massive powers that will take out 10 enemies at once, you'll have tough, brutal sword fights with enemies that can and will swarm and destroy you. When you go through the level again, you'll see a ghostly image of your prior try, or those of others online at the time, so you can see exactly how you, and your friends, have done things the wrong way. It lets you then make some changes and see if you can get a bit farther. You're constantly learning, and basically playing the game against, and for, yourself. It's a unique idea, and takes the idea of frustration from difficult gameplay, turning it on its head to make it fun.
While some first and third person shooters are content to continue more of the same, it's nice to see some companies taking some risks and playing with the technology at their fingertips. In Inversion, the gravity manipulation that has been played with by games like Half-Life 2 and Wolfenstein is taken to a new level, with missions that take place on floors, walls, and ceilings, and an ability to lighten or increase gravity in a big way. Slam enemies down into the ground, then increase gravity again to crush the life out of them. Float a hard-to-reach ammo box or weapon upgrade into the air with some light gravity, then pull it toward you with a telekinetic tractor beam. On top of this fun manipulation, the game is a solid cover-based shooter with AI that uses cover, group attack tactics, and even some of the same gravity powers you do all to great affect. Inversion was one of those games we went into E3 2011 knowing literally nothing about, and came out of E3 2011 still talking about days and weeks later.
Will Namco's difficulty-focused games be a hit with gamers, or is it too late to teach this generation of gamers that hard can be fun? We'll find out over the coming year.