Getting the challenge level right in games is very tricky.  Or to put it another way, it’s frigging broken in Dragon Age Origins.

Ideally, you’d want a slowly rising difficulty curve, maybe with some long plateaus and spikes for intermediate bosses.  Many games do this quite well.  With puzzle games you get increased challenges as you master the mechanic (e.g. Portal); with shooters and RPGs you get better skills just as you get more powerful enemies to use them on (e.g. Bioshock).

It’s trickier to get this right in a more open-ended game.  Oblivion levelled up all the monsters along with you.  This annoys many people terribly, but I can see why they did it– it maintains the challenge yet allows you to do quests in any order.  (I generally avoided levelling up too fast, and this seemed to avoid any real problems for me.)

Fallout 3 got a little unbalanced at high levels; I think it’s the most fun below level 10 or so.  Mass Effect was also on the whole a little too easy at high levels.

Borderlands just assigns fixed levels to quests and most monsters; some random enemies also level with you.  It mostly works, but the difficulty of a given quest can be very unpredictable, even if you’ve played it before.  Some bosses are absurdly easy, some are absurdly hard.  The game is at its most fun when you’re at risk of death, and with the DLC it’s possible to outgrow most of the quests, though there’s something fun to do for an awfully long time.

Dragon Age Origins is really frustrating me right now; it feels like no thought was put into a reasonable progression of challenge.   If you wander around accepting side quests, you’re going to run into many things you just can’t do.  The game apparently expects you to start with Redcliffe.  That’s fine.  I thought I’d knock off some side quests from there… if the main quest at this point is geared toward level 6, surely the side quests are aimed at a little less than that.  But:

  • One quest depends on finding 3 people; one is in a location that will be unavailable if you wait too long; one is in a location that’s only available later.  Huh?  How are you supposed to know this?
  • In Denerim, I got into  a fairly difficult duel merely by walking past a dude.  (Apparently you can decline it… only to run into him randomly later.)
  • I kept running into chests that Leliana can’t open, in places I’m not likely to go back to.  This made it impossible to finish one particular side quest.
  • One guy offers you some roguish quests– only apparently he doesn’t offer you a set of stealing quests unless you have that skill when you first meet him.
  • A one-off bandit encounter led to a new quest… cool… I went to the Deserted Building and discovered that, as the wiki puts it, this is “one of the more challenging fights in the game”.  Again, huh?

Much of this information is available in the wiki, so you can maximize playability by studying every location and quest in the wiki ahead of time.  Only, jeez, that’s annoying and stupid.  I’m far from a stickler about doing it all myself, but I’d like to at least maintain the illusion that I can figure out the game without taking a course in it first.

If the game insists on so much random level dependence, it should grab an idea from Borderlands and offer in-game level assessments.  (Quests are color-coded by difficulty level, and you can see enemies’ levels.)  That would have eliminated most of these frustrations without requiring constantly pausing the game to check the wiki.

Also, I’m still not seeing the attraction of the combat system.