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Bob Muir avatar 4:46 PM on 05.11.2008  (server time)
Rantoid: Conditions of a Review

Necros Says: Hey. It's been a while. As a weekly column, Rantoid is back, for now at least. We'll see how summer break affects its continued appearance.

Within the past year, there has been a lot of discussion in the gaming community about the worth of the review system. It has been posited that review scores are only for fanboys to generate flamewars (and higher traffic) and those who are too lazy to read the meat of the text. At the same time, they're a necessary evil, as the majority of gamers prefer some sort of quick summary to collect the reviewer's thoughts. Sites such as Metacritic and Game Rankings also rely on scores to give a popular opinion of titles, though these systems are routinely undermined by different interpretations of a number's scale. There have been numerous strategies for how reviews can be fixed, such as 1UP's independent letter scores and Kotaku's highly original score-less reviews focused on pros and cons, but gamers can not and will not come to any consensus on this issue.

Now that I have your attention, I'm shifting this article elsewhere. Because seriously, I think we're all sick and tired of talking review formatting to death.

What concerns me is how reliable game reviews can be in the first place. Consider this: every publication and independent review source plays these games under extremely different conditions. Some assume that running through the entirety of the game is the only way to get a true feel for how well the game succeeds at its goals. Others believe that merely getting the general idea of the game is enough to give an accurate opinion of these games. In the past, Gabe of Penny Arcade has called out reviewers on specific oversights in reviews, telling that anyone who played the whole game knows that the review is inaccurate and flawed. I have to agree on this point: if the game changes mid-way, how would you know if, having played through only the majority of the game, a reviewer failed to mention the ending of Bioshock, generally held to be a let-down? The reader simply assumes that the reviewer knows the entire content of the game.

So what can be done? The easy answer would be to assure every review is done after a complete run through of the game. This is completely impractical. How many reviewers devoted the time to covering the 100+ hours of content in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion? I doubt any did. Then what about MMOs? Were reviewers able to reach level 60 in World of Warcraft before it was time to submit their review? And how deep did they get involved in guilds and PVP? For that matter, it's impossible that reviewers were able to determine whether Halo 3's multiplayer would be entertaining enough to last beyond an initial month or two of play.

The problem here is time constraints. An accurate review is always highly desirable, but when it comes down to it, a review released to gamers a week or two after launch can be nearly worthless, much less the comfy period of a month some of these games require. Film critics have it so much easier: 2-3 hours of their time, followed by the time it takes to analyze 2-3 hours worth of content. With games, though, it's a never-ending struggle between balancing a game's length with the deadline.

This deadline also causes a bigger problem: it hinders the gameplaying experience by causing unnecessary fatigue and stress for the reviewer. Picture this: knowing the deadline, a reviewer boots up Game X to see he has only completed four of the game's 15 dungeons (according to the developer) and he must focus his energy to plowing through the game. That was the scenario I found myself in last month for dvddesign's achievement contest. I bought Rock Band early in the month, since I was told completing Band World Tour would take a long time, and with RHWeeeee6 as my bassist, began crashing through the game on drums. It started out fun, but by the end of the month, when we were playing for long bouts nearly every day, the pleasure was quickly replaced with tedium. We lifelessly hit and strummed our instruments, desperately attempting to get through all the cities to meet the deadline at the end of the month. Notably, my bassist's girlfriend asked if we were even enjoying ourselves anymore.

No, we were not. In forcing ourselves to push through a game in too short a time, we had sucked the life out of the game, reducing it to a series of tasks. In short, the game (noun: an amusement or pastime) had become work (noun: exertion or effort directed to produce or accomplish something; labor; toil). There is something extremely wrong with that. So when 1UP's features editor Jeremy Parish writes on his personal blog that he is currently "working on" six RPGs for reviews, you have to wonder how much of a damper is being put on his opinions by slogging through six lengthy games at once; he notes shortly thereafter that he's "blowing off" his work to play the new GTA IV (emphasis added mine - except for the game title, that's just good game title formatting).

At the same time, should experience even play into a game review? I, as do many of my fellow Dtoiders, agree that game reviews are inevitably subjective, and to try and separate bias is an exercise in futility. However, how much should one's personal enjoyment of a game be allowed to filter a review? Before you disagree with me, allow me to turn your attention to 1UP's review of Halo 3. A 10/10 before their switch to a letter scale (resulting in the obvious change to A+), the review's final paragraph clarified that, despite the notable drawbacks that Editor in Chief Dan "Shoe" Hsu took the time to note, the game was still so much fun and offered so much to any gamer that it deserved a 10. I'm not disputing his score, because in that context, it clearly fit; what I question is how much the personal experience of the gamer should factor in to the final review.

As for answers to these questions, I sadly have none. Sorry to disappoint you. The answer of how to analyze the conditions of gaming for a review are too complex to encapsulate in the summary of some no-name writer on a free blogging network. I can, at least, plea to reviewers to make some note of the circumstances of your gaming, even if it's not as blunt as Kotaku's review footer, which notes which version was reviewed and what percentage of the game was actually completed. It might mean some reviews won't be completely accurate, but at least it's somewhat more honest.

Necros spent the last month playing Rock Band and struggling to finish the end of his sophomore year at Syracuse University. When he's not neglecting Destructoid for real life activities, he can be found as a regular on Failcast.

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