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Doom Eternal’s best difficulty option isn’t the one I usually choose

id Software’s latest has some of the best difficulty options in video games

a huge, horned demon covered in flames leers over the player in Doom Eternal Image: id Software/Bethesda Softworks
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Doom Eternal is awfully kind, considering it’s a game about hellspawn decimating our planet. Each stage is filled with ammo and health crates, Easter eggs and hidden rooms. And though the game can be challenging, the developers never punish or shame the player for adjusting the difficulty. In fact, they encourage it. That’s why I recommend something I rarely ever do: Start the game outside of your comfort zone.

The first-person shooter has four difficulty modes. “I’m Too Young to Die” is easy, “Hurt Me Plenty” is normal, “Ultra Violence” is hard, and “Nightmare” is very hard. I typically play games on normal, especially when playing on a limited time frame for review. But a number of pop-ups in the game clarified that I could change the difficulty whenever I needed (even in the middle of a stage) without impacting my progress. So, I went with the hard mode, Ultra Violence. If things got frustrating, I’d just change it.

What I discovered was a perfectly balanced shooter, one that tested my skills but rarely caused frustration. Frankly, I had more trouble with the damn swimming sequences than I did with any battle. On the couple of occasions that I failed a boss fight a few consecutive times, I got the option to load the checkpoint wearing “Sentinel Armor.” The additional armor doesn’t impact progression in the campaign, but it “greatly reduces incoming damage.” It’s a nice little boost if you’re feeling stuck.

I didn’t use the armor, because I could feel myself getting better. But I appreciated knowing that a safety net was waiting to catch me.

I think that’s the magic running through this option. Challenge is less frustrating when it’s just a player preference, not some measure of a player’s worth in which only the most talented players can receive the best rewards. Instead, the reward of more challenging difficulties can be found in the gameplay itself.

On the hard mode (“Ultra Violence”) I had to master the game’s new flamethrower, which melts enemies into precious armor energy. To survive the abundance of ghouls, I learned to make the most of the copious platforms, gymnastic bars, and jump-pads in every arena, shifting my focus from perfect headshots to Olympic-level tumbling. The challenge highlighted all the little details the team at id had added to the game.

I’m not saying everybody should play on Ultra Violence difficulty. Quite the opposite. If you typically play easy, consider normal. Or if you prefer hard modes, try the extra hard setting. Doom Eternal is a chance to try something outside your comfort zone. And if you hate it, no worries. How you slaughter demons and save Earth is up to you, so long as you remember to have fun.

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