I write about video games and video game accessories. More specifically, I write about video game mechanics.
Lots of gamers want to start blogs about their opinions on video games and how they would review game X, Y and Z because "Yahtzee, Jim Sterling, IGN, Destructoid, etc. are wrong and my opinion is better, so I must write about it!" No one usually cares and I want to talk about different things.
Game mechanics aren't discussed enough in comparison to reviews and industry practices. Let's try to change that.
The legitimacy of video game reviewers is a hot button issue among everyone in the gaming community. I could make a blog post about my feelings on it but let's be real here. I'm not in the video game journalism industry, so anything I can say on that is speculation at best. There is something related to video game reviews I can speak on, however. This is the topic of the state of thoroughness in reviews.Whether a review for a game is positive or negative, many of the reviews I read are far too vague about the intricate details of a game.
The intricate details I refer to are how the game mechanics actually affect the player's experience of the game. I think that far too many reviewers don't take these things in to account. A review will speak of how game X did their action mechanic so well or so terrible but often times poorly describe why that mechanic is done well or terrible. A reader will hear phrases like "Combat is chaotic/intense/hectic/exhilarating" and while words like that make for a good literary reading, it's not very informative. Reviewers tend to also fail to take notice when a game's mechanics make a subtle shift later on in the game. I'm not talking about something as simple as an action game having a random stealth segment at one point. I refer to times when some new skill, item, character or leveling system fundamentally changes the way you play the game that likely wasn't noticed in development. To put some perspective on what I'm saying, I'll discuss two games and their reviews that serve as an example. And why not start with one more recent, like Tomb Raider?
First, readers should know that I've been playing Tomb Raider on the Hard difficulty from the start, so some of my experiences are going to be subjective to the difficulty but less skilled players may encounter some of the same things on Normal. Reviews I've read from our very own Destructoid, IGN and Gamespot, to name a few, speaks of how the game offers you the option of a stealth approach or an action approach. From my experience, yes but no. Until I reached the moment in the game where I got the climbing axe and the skills Pain Tolerance and Axe Strikes, stealth was damn near mandatory and the bow was the only viable weapon.
Without Pain Tolerance, Lara had the durability of glass and without the climbing axe and Axe Strikes, an enemy getting close to me meant death since her default action of pushing them doesn't buy the player much time to get some distance. Unless I attacked enemies with a fully charged bow strike, the hand gun and even the machine gun were just pea shooters. Two fully charged arrows could down any enemy, but I would have to burn through a clip of hand gun or machine gun ammo without taking the time to line up a head shot. it was far easier to take the time to charge up the bow and hit the enemy somewhere than trying to get a head shot with the gun. The times where the game forced me to take the action approach involved me taking advantage of the AI's shortcomings and the game's generosity with head shots in order to win rather than properly using cover or dodging.
A player spends a good portion of the game without these three important elements to do well in an action approach, so a review telling you that there's action in Tomb Raider's combat will probably encounter only stealth instead for a while. For those who don't want stealth, this could very well make the player quit playing before rushing in guns a blazing becomes viable. It's possible that the game intended this as gameplay expressing Lara's character development but the evidence is not in favor of this idea since the time between getting the climbing axe and Axe Strikes is rather long and the player will fin the machine gun long before they get Axe Strikes. I doubt Lara would still be developing as a newcomer to killing and brutality if the developers handed Lara a machine gun by this point. I still need to finish Tomb Raider before I decide to discuss more beyond that, so I'll move to a game that I have finished, Valkyria Chronicles.
I love Valkyria Chronicles to death but I'm not beyond the ability to critically examine it. Destructoid, IGN and Gamespot again make it clear that Valkyria Chronicles is hard. Not quite. Valkyria Chronicles gets silly easy once you discover that the combat mechanics are rather unbalanced and broken. You'd be better off calling Squad 7 Squad Scout because the Scout class is a cut above the others in terms of getting things done fast. Getting the all important A rank becomes child's play with proper Scout use.
Scouts have the highest movement in the game, having 800 AP by default and 900 when they upgrade. For those who haven't played, the easiest way to compare this to the other classes is by telling you that the class with the next highest AP is the Engineer with 600 AP by default and 650 after they upgrade. The Engineer is largely a trash class because their skills are rarely needed and their only real use is giving Scouts extra grenades for the turn and healing your tank in the rare occasion it takes heavy damage. The highest Evade ratings also generally go to Scouts but the player won't notice this making a difference until later into the game. Scouts also get the Potential Resist Crossfire, which basically steals the Shocktrooper class their claim to fame of being able to rush to fire. What puts the broken cherry on top of the Scout class is the main character's ability to issue what are called Orders. Orders give you the ability to augment units in various ways for a whole turn. Orders are incredibly broken and combining them with Scouts can tackle any challenge. To give you an idea of how broken they are, a class called Lancers are designed to take on tanks but using orders, Scouts can accomplish this task just as well as they can.
Combining a Scout's crazy movement with broken Orders allows most of the game's maps to be completed incredibly fast, sometimes even on the very first turn! Scouts can blitz the enemy's main camp and capture it like nothing. Boost their defense with an Order, then charge the enemy camp. The ultimate form of this tactic has even gotten a name among players. They call it the "Alicia Rush", because of the Scout named Alicia (the girl on the box cover with the brown hair) who can literally solo maps. You won't encounter this until about after the mid-point of the game but when you do, she destroys the challenge. The fight against a villain who's supposed to be one of the hardest in the game, Selvaria (girl with the blue hair on the cover), can be completed Turn 1 with Alicia! I've done this myself, so those who are curious just ask me how. Here's a video demonstrating Scout dominance.
There are many more examples that could be mentioned as it's likely that almost every game review misses these things but I don't want to write on about it forever and I'm sure players are capable of discovering this on their own.
The take home point from all of this is that generally a mainstream review isn't actually going to give you a good idea of how much you'll like a game because the majority of the time they will not cover in depth the finer details of a game. Doing so would require much longer than the standard 1-3 page reviews most reviewers write and they're trying to be sweet and concise since most readers just want to see the score anyway. Play a game for yourself because there's likely going to be things about it you'll either love or hate that a reviewer will not mention. If you are going to look for a trustworthy review, look for one that's in depth to the point where they cover things like Tomb Raider's mandatory stealth and Valkyria Chronicles' broken tactics. To wrap things up, I'm going to pimp a Youtube user who has great reviews if you want an example of a reviewer who goes into great detail about everything in a game. I highly recommend you find some time to watch his reviews. They are long (40+ minutes) but worth it.