Reviewing Reviews

Review scores, and review readers, are fickle things. We’ve seen this in full recently: the Eurogamer Uncharted 3 review, the Batman: Arkham City 6/5 review from Yahoo, and the response every time Jim Sterling gives a famous game an 8/10.

Focusing on the Uncharted 3 review and the Arkham City one, these two reviews represent the divergence of philosophy in game reviewing: one heading forward, the other back. Simon Parkin’s review represents a move forward into a space where we, as critics, question the games we’re playing. The Arkham City without a by-line represents the cold, faceless reviews of yore, where companies paid for their reviews and reviewers treated their products like tractors for sale in a magazine.

Parkin’s review feels like a film critic review followed by one and a half star out of four. It criticizes the experience for being The Same Game Again, a technically proficient work of duplication. It’s a Michael Bay blockbuster, and the critical reception of those types of movies does not matter. No one really cares what Uncharted 3 scores with critics so long as it sells a billion copies.

Except that’s not how video games work. Video game companies act under this assumption that critical and commercial acclaim have to be one in the same. Do you see how ludicrous this is? Game companies have cut out the middle man: instead of making “prestige games” (in film, serious movies that raise the reputation of the company through awards wins; the big budgets rarely win awards, after all, because people are dumb) they’ve decided that, since mainstream game reviewers adore graphics and fun above all else that the big blockbuster has to be the prestige game, too. Or, rather, that they don’t need to make good games, just ones that are received properly. Game “critics” like explosions and guns, so they don’t need to make other games. “Even when we do,” they say, “they end up like Catherine, coolly received, or they sell no copies like Beyond Good and Evil.” “They should do the second thing,” we respond, “because they’re supposed to generate goodwill.” “You rated the game less than Battlefield: Madden Edition,” the publishers retort, “so why should we give a fuck?”

I read Parkin’s review as a breath of fresh air. This game is what you think it is, he says, but it’s not a particularly good game. It’s The Same Game you played a couple years ago, it has no replay value, its multiplayer mode is pretty good for that sort of thing, but it is a formulaic action blockbuster. It’s emblematic of our broken system that he gave it an 8/10 after this: I imagine an earlier draft had a lower score attached until editors brought it up (but this is just speculation). An eight represents, to us, an average game. Eight is average. We’ve seen this in Jim SterlingGate after SterlingGate: he reads Destructoid’s review system to the letter, and an 8 is a very good game. 9’s and 10’s are superlative.

What the hell is a twelve, then? There’s been significantly less backlash over the Arkham City score, except among serious critical types. Here’s a review with no fucking by line (really surprised how little this has been brought up) that says the game has major problems left unfixed from the previous game, reads the plethora of slurs directed at Catwoman as a positive, and gives it a six out of five. It’s a sickening reminder both of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go, where publishers and petty journalists can give games absurd ratings to “counter-balance” other sites.

Go to the Metacritic front page for me now. Look at films. Excluding the two outliers (the four review Adventures of Tintin in films and the supposedly dreadful Cursed Crusade in games), the highest rated film is lower than the lowest rated game. “Blockbuster” films like Paranormal Activity 3, The Thing, and The Three Musketeers are getting shit reviews for good reason: they’re probably bad films. Battlefield 3, a dumb, big budget shooter, and Batman: Arkham City, a superhero game that, even according to the 6/5 has a lot of niggling problems, have gotten reviews only Oscar winners would get. And there’s no dissension in video games. The median scores are always much higher in games because everyone has the same opinion. If you slag a game in text you still give it an 8/10 to not alienate a publisher. In film criticism, you give a movie a half star and if the publisher doesn’t like it, there’s nothing they can really do about it. Look at it, and marvel how far we have to go.

How do we fix it? The common consensus among games reviewing types is that gamers have to be better, but this is a crock of shit. When Roger Ebert gives Transformers half a star, people flip out but he doesn’t care. The good reviewers don’t care what people think, because they’re giving an honest assessment of the title. And they get more hits with negativity. No, at heart, the problem is twofold. The first is publisher attitude, which cannot change. The second is the big publications, which need to offer better support to their reviewers. This, too, is unlikely.

So how do we deal with it? I honestly don’t know. Rebellious internet users have decided that swarming game pages with negative user reviews is an option, but it’s an awful option that allows for classy, intelligent games like Bastion to be unfairly targeted*. The thing that will really help is for small sites, whose reviews make up surprisingly the bulk of Metacritic’s rankings, to become more honest in their reviews. Give a major title a six if that’s how good you think it is. Don’t be afraid of gamer reaction or publisher reaction. You can use all that ad revenue you made from ten thousand angry page views to buy that developer’s next game, and you’ll feel better at night having honestly given an assessment of a game.

Of course, you could still do that with an 8/10 review, just to be safe. Christ.

*For the record, preempting the comment, I do not think bad reviews of good games from semi/professional reviewers aren’t bad. Christ, Jim Sterling wrote the second lowest scored review for Bastion.


  1. B.M.

    I think the biggest issue with video game reviews isn’t quite the reviews themselves, but what it is being reviewed. The difference in movie reviews vs. game reviews, for example, is that movies are often reviewed more for artistic merit than pure enjoyability, whereas games primary criteria is “am I enjoying playing this?” We don’t use the same scale for games as we do movies, (and I don’t think we should) so why expect the same scoring system? I for one know I enjoy movies that aren’t “good” movies, like Zoolander or Tommy Boy; I wouldn’t give them good reviews even though I want to watch them over “better” movies like The Kings Speech. When a game is bad though, it’s a different story. When a game is bad, I don’t want to go near it. I don’t enjoy them. I won’t waste my time on them. There are precious few “bad” games that are worth playing, Deadly Premonition comes to mind and Disgaea (I hesitantly say Disgaea, but I know I’m not about to praise it even though I love playing it) perhaps, but otherwise it’s a very short list.
    Moreover, why do we need to hold the reviews to the same standard? They’re different mediums and they have different requirements that they’re expected to meet. We expect to walk away from a movie having taken something away from it, an idea, a lesson, or even just a new perspective. At least speaking of good movies we do, Michael Bay blockbusters aside, and they’re reviews express that. When we pop in our new game disc though, we expect first and foremost to be entertained. Whether its trying to solve crimes in the 40’s or shoot the 12 year old who just got done tea-bagging you doesn’t matter. Fluid controls, graphical smoothness, and immersive gameplay all matter more than what we walk away with, and again the reviews show it. A riveting story and great lesson can’t make up for clunky gameplay. Games are simply designed to be played first, appreciated second, and reviews will reflect that.
    As for the reviews you cite, I don’t quite understand where you’re getting the negativity from. The Drakes Deception review seems to speak pretty highly of it. The only negative comments, to me at least, are more about what it isn’t than what it is. And while critiquing a game for lacking certain elements that overall hinders the package is fair game, going too far in that direction is self-defeating. No game can be everything, to pretend it can and dock it additional points is asinine. Yes it’s derivative, yes it’s more or less a railraod, but when was it ever not supposed to be? Is it still something I want to experience? Yes, absolutely. I’m not going to look at it any less favorably for not being something that it never said it was. It is still a very good game and received a score that very good games receive. As for the Batman review, I don’t see the “major problems” you refer to, just a couple of minor quibbles, and nothing even close to a demerit. Difficulty to me is a non-issue, and getting lost is something I would be upset about not happening in a city. While the 6/5 might be slightly exaggerated, I don’t find it all that upsetting, although coming from Yahoo it does make me roll my eyes a little. Why am I ok with it? Because it has set a new standard in games. If nothing like it has come before, why judge it by a scale that is no longer pertinent? How best reflect the fact that nothing has reached the level it has other than by giving it a score that no other game has achieved? Unless this is something Yahoo does regularly, I don’t have a problem with it. Sure, Batman may not be a life changer, but it sure is a game changer, and that’s what we expect from our video games.

    Sorry for such a long winded response, (I hope it makes sense) but it only seems fair to reply to a topic you yourself are so obviously passionate about in such a way.

    • Tom Auxier

      Starting at the back: I picked those two because the internet’s been blowing up about them. Seriously, search for the U3 review online, a neogaf thread about it. People are *crazy*. The Batman review, I honestly disagree with you about it (I *hate* getting lost, and they published an article before reviewing it about how Jim Sterling was a fuckhead and then gave it a score to counteract his score…more than, “This game is incredible”, it’s a “Other people’s opinions about this game shouldn’t matter” score).

      As for why game reviews should be as they are, you raise a lot of good points. The problem, in my eyes, is this: right now games aren’t being reviewed by the right standard. Film isn’t the right standard, of course. I don’t really know if there is a 100% right standard, but when people can be so hilariously up in arms about a review that dares questions the sanctity of a franchise (and then gives it a great score!) then something is wrong.

      In my ideal world, you’d be able to review a game on the basis of fun, and you could give it a score reflective of that: how much fun you had. I could then go in and use my own criteria, give it the score I think it deserves, and not be afraid some other website’s going to ludicrously counter it out/people will make death threats against my family/hack my site. I want there to be different standards, and I want to be able to read a plethora of reviews about a game from every perspective if I so choose, not just the lawnmower and fun ones.

      • B.M.

        Ok, I’m not familiar with Jim Sterling, that was some background research I’ll have to do, so I can see how people doing things solely to get back at him is bull. As for people who freak out over games that get too low of a score, well, it’s the internet. Luckily, the comments of the spoiled masses are easy to ignore. Now if a site really does get hacked, well that is a different story, and that really isn’t a fear anyone needs to have.

        Now, I know I’ve heard that some publishers will threaten to withhold reviewer copies if a site continually gives their games low scores, (pretty sure I heard it from Adam Sessler, via G4) and while I can’t say with certainty whether that’s true or not, I would think that would be a huge motivation for giving big name games undeserved scores.

        And wouldn’t you know it, I tried finding the video I heard that from and saw Adams episode from last week speaks on this very issue. Not the video I was thinking of, haven’t watched it yet, but definitely seems relevant.