A Different Kind of Review

By Shamus
on Apr 29, 2008
Filed under:
Video Games

Sometimes I feel guilty about putting up these long-winded reviews and over-analysis on ten year old games. I enjoy doing it so much that I just assume I’m being horribly self-indulgent. I’m lucky in that many people seem to find this sort of thing entertaining, and so together we form a nice symbiosis – I get to scratch my itch for esoteric blather, and you get to read stuff that (I’m assuming) you can’t find elsewhere.

But whatever faults and excesses I might engage in here, at least I know I’ll never do anything as goofy as writing a nine-page print preview for a still-buggy pre-release game and giving it a 10 out of 10. That article has scans of the review of GTA IV from XBox 360 magazine, where the reviewer dings the game for various bugs and shortcomings and then gives it a perfect score anyway.

I’m glad it’s not my job to review GTA IV and try to assign a numerical value to it, because it’s essentially an impossible task. It’s greatness is directly related to what aspects of the game you cherish. I don’t like the stories. (Ugly and meandering.) I don’t like the main characters. (Wearisome thugs.) I don’t like the core gameplay. (DIAS.) But I derive fantastic satisfaction from inhabiting and exploring a sprawling simulated world of lavish detail, and no other series can hold a candle to what GTA has in that department. Since you have to slog through the parts I loathe to get to the parts I crave, I’m at a loss as to how I might rate the experience. How do you rate a restaurant that serves mouth-watering steaks for $5 and a punch in the face before the meal?

Other people have other value systems and a completely different perception of the game. I am generally not fond of these people, not for their opinion but for their constant insistence that I must be an idiot for not reveling in the perfection that is the core GTA gameplay. Everyone has their reasons for playing this thing. Are you here for the mission-based story of murder and jackassery? For the hooker-punching, car stealing, car-exploding, cop-evading, freeform rampage? For the open-ended exploration and experimentation? The mini-games? The car races? The driving sim? The quasi-RPG character building? The graphics spectacle? I can’t assign one score to the game, because it’s half a dozen games and I hate half of them.

Yes, assigning numbers to games is a ridiculous task anyway. I’ve probably given that dead horse more than my share of whip marks. But the review discussed above is an even more ridiculous problem, in that it’s assigning a score to a game before it’s completed. While such a review is of no real value to the reader as a guide to purchasing, the benefit to the editors and the developers is obvious. The editors want to sell magazines. The developer wants to sell games. At some point the two forces realized they could do lots of both by working together to blur the line between journalism and advertising.

Jon Hicks, author of the XBox 360 review, stands by what he wrote. Just as I’m glad I don’t have to figure out what numeric value to assign to something as nebulous as personal opinions, I’m even more glad I don’t have my name on reviews like this one. I don’t think he’s trying to dupe gamers. I think he’s just trying to pay the bills at a job which has been rendered a sham by forces beyond his control. The firing of Jeff Gerstman was a fairly public execution of a critic who was perhaps more critical than the system was prepared to tolerate, and I think it had the intended effect. People like Hicks must continually make the choice between doing their job and keeping their job.

Note that I’m not going to be playing GTA IV anytime soon, so I’m not all that exercised about this review in particular. It’s just another new low, and it’s always good to mark these sorts of occasions.

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From the Archives:

  1. Deoxy says:

    “How do you rate a restaurant that serves mouth-watering steaks for $5 and a punch in the face before the meal?”

    That made me laugh.

    But yeah, I haven’t bothered reading any magazine game reviews in years – they’re essentially useless, just advertising by another name, which you pay for the privilege of reading. Gag.

  2. Craig says:

    One of the reasons I love zero punctuation. http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/editorials/zeropunctuation
    So beautifully honest and funny.

    Xplay on G4 (or Tech TV, when it was still good) also was pretty honest, which I liked. People don’t seem to get the idea that an enjoyable, serviceable game should get a half-way score (5/10) and something that gets a perfect should be a trailblazer or the most fun you will have in your life. Or I guess they do, but are paid to freak out every time that tony hawk or madden add a SINGLE NEW FEACTURE! ZOMG! sigh…

  3. Robert says:

    I used to write game reviews for Computer Gaming World, back in the beforetime, in the long long ago. I hit this problem – although back then, the editorial forces were still doing a pretty good job of honest reporting – as well as another, related one: what if it’s a good game, but just one that you don’t care for? The game I was reviewing was called “Tone” or something like that, and I just didn’t like it – but I could see it was a really cool game for people who would like it. Should I review it badly? Review it well? Say “it’s cool for thee but not for me?” I ended up kicking it back to the editors, telling them “if I write the review, I’m going to say it sucks, but probably half the readership would love it. Find someone who likes this kind of game.”

    That didn’t go down well with them, because the OTHER imperative they labor under (other than “sell more games so our advertisers buy more ads”) was “fill the column inches by the deadline”, but it was probably better received than a 2 star out of 5 review would have been.

  4. Dev Null says:

    Thats part of it Shamus – the enjoying listening to you have a bit of an articulate rant – but part of it for me at least is that these are genuinely useful as game reviews. I’m often playing things 5-6 years out of date, so I’ve found quite a few “new” games by listening to you rant about old ones – case in point, I’m off to go track down a copy of Deus Ex, which I never played.

    You should do a review out of 10 of peoples reviews out of 10… but I always hate shooting the messenger for just trying to keep his job when its the marketeering sell-outs dictating the message that I’d rather get in the crosshairs. Maybe you could do a review out of 10 of game review mags.

  5. Jason says:

    Shamus, you must be an idiot for not reveling in the perfection that is core GTA gameplay. How dare you express a different opinion!

    But seriously, the beauty of GTA is that there IS so much to do. There are times that I just turn on Vice City, sit in my lambo and crank up the V-Rock. Other times I’ll find the Apache and go on a murderous rampage. Or I’ll see how far I can jump a fire truck. I don’t have to do the same thing twice, but I do because the aspects I like never get old. It combines aspects of just about every game I like.

  6. Daemian Lucifer says:

    If I had to review some of the GTA titles Ive played,theyd get at least 7/10.Sure,the story was lame,I hate dias,many missions are dull,and I dont care for computer violence,but its vastness and openness(is this a word?),its mini games,races,humor(especially on radio stations),numerous types of cars and weaponry not only make up for the half I dont like,but made me play and enjoy the game for very,very long.

    And I find it quite funny whenever a preview gets a mark,no matter what it is.Thank goodnes that the local gaming magazines gives marks only to full reviews,while previes are just text and no marks at all.I also find it funny how a buggy game can get a perfect score.

    Besides,everybody knows that only starcraft and portal deserve a perfect score,and the rest of the games can only get as high as 9/10:D

  7. Brandon says:

    People like Hicks must continually make the choice between doing their job and keeping their job.

    Ugh. Too damn true. Not to bring the thread into the realm of the “real world,” but this is a huge problem right now in America, and it is certainly not limited to the video game industry.

    I live within 10 miles of a nuclear reactor, referred to as an “Emergency Planning Zone” (if it were a bomb instead of a reactor, it would be called a “No-Survivor Zone”). This nuclear power plant has had cooling towers collapse, pipes leak, walls crack, etc, simply because people (mainly inspectors who are supposedly paid to notice problems) knew that if they spoke up about a potentially serious problem, they’d be out on their ear, unions be damned.
    It doesn’t help that the PR people for the plant are the same people who do PR for things like Blackwater USA and Phillip Morris…

  8. Phlux says:

    I can absolutely understand why a person wouldn’t love the core game mechanics in GTA games…I think that some people (such as myself) are suckers for punishment. I hate failing the same mission over and over again…but yet I find a sense of perverse enjoyment in the challenge.

    In some cases I think there’s a difference between what you call DIAS gameplay and what I call YMBTTR (You Must Be This Tall to Ride). I might hate a mission that I have to replay a dozen times, but as long as they aren’t being unfair, I’ll keep enjoying myself on some level, as I hone my skill to the precise edge necessary to proceed.

    The key there is that the challenge must be fair. I don’t like it when the computer cheats me out of a victory, and I don’t like it when I can’t win because the game isn’t clear on what I’m supposed to be doing.

    A better example than GTA is the X-Wing/TIE Fighter series. If you fail your primary mission objectives you have to start over again and do it right. In those games you usually don’t fail for “unfair” reasons. Sometimes you just have to practice to get better at dodging missiles, making strafing runs and for gods sake don’t wander away from the ships you’re escorting just to take down one enemy fighter.

    It’s a fine line, and games cross it all the time. There are definitely some straight up DIAS moments in GTA, but by and large I find the success after repeated failure to be extra sweet.

    Some people don’t though, and I can absolutely understand why. I’m just some sort of video-masochist.

  9. MPR says:

    Dev Null says:

    I’m off to go track down a copy of Deus Ex, which I never played.

    I’m so jealous of you right now. I wish I could erase the parts of my brain that remember that game, every side quest, every hidden door and passage, all the alternate paths to the solutions, just so I could go back and re-experience the whole thing.
    Enjoy.

  10. Deoxy says:

    The key there is that the challenge must be fair. I don’t like it when the computer cheats me out of a victory, and I don’t like it when I can’t win because the game isn’t clear on what I’m supposed to be doing.

    So true!

    A better example than GTA is the X-Wing/TIE Fighter series.

    Loved those, and yet, there certainly were some serious DIAS levels later on, where you needed to know in advance to take the right weapons load (despite that not being even a reasonable choice, given the actual scenario description) or hang out in the right part of the map to block the suddenly enemy presence that shows up there unexpectedly. Luckily, those sorts of things were usually near the end of the game, where only the relatively serious players got anyway, but they were certainly there, and they were certainly hardcore DIAS.

    Also, I second most of what Brandon said, except this:

    It doesn’t help that the PR people for the plant are the same people who do PR for things like Blackwater USA and Phillip Morris.

    The problem with painting those PR people (or even those companies) as bad is that the press is going to viciously attack them for many things, some of which will be terrible things that should be attacked and some of which will be perfectly normal things that are just conveniently spinnable to gin up outrage and sell media. The skills needed to defend yourself from the latter are just as easily used on the former, so even a lilly-white company that never makes a evil choice will be engaged in PR behaviour essentially identical to the PR behaviour of Satan’s own Big Bag Evil Corp.

  11. maehara says:

    I could see it was a really cool game for people who would like it. Should I review it badly? Review it well? Say “it’s cool for thee but not for me?”

    I review anime DVDs as a sideline, and I run into this quite often (usually when they’ve sent me the latest teenage-angst-fighting series – Naruto is the current bane of my existence, although it has it’s moments). Fortunately, I’m also my own editor, so I’d usually mark it how I see it and add a rider that “If you liked series X, you’ll probably also find this one fun”, to cover all the bases.

    The big advantage of reviewing for love of the media and not for paid employment is that you can be brutally honest – and fortunately the publishers I get screeners from don’t seem to mind too much if I meet their latest sure-fire hit with something less than enthusiasm. I doubt I’d get away with it if I was a paid contributor.

  12. Bogan the Mighty says:

    You know this reminds me that I looked up the review for Starcraft on Gamespot the other day. It made me laugh looking through it. Basically it said it followed the formula exactly of games before it, namely Warcraft II, but was the best game made with that formula. The funny part was that they gave it a lower score then then Warcraft II and III which have both basically died off for the most part while Starcraft is virtually the national sport of most Asian countries. Anyway I only really like looking at reviews as long as they can describe the mechanics to the game then I’ll put my own score to how I think those mechanics will work out.

  13. Cineris says:

    What’s horrible is that, despite (because of?) Jeff Gerstmann’s honest review of Kane and Lynch, the game was still successful. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the intelligence and maturity level of the kids buying the game.

    And, yeah, I’m not sure exactly why Rockstar continues to follow the same formula gameplay wise. GTA games must have one of the worst “game” experiences ever, with repetitive missions that are arbitrarily hard as hell and frequently leave you totally in the dark about the real success or failure objectives. If it weren’t for the genius of the “world” experience I wouldn’t give it a second glance.

  14. Vegedus says:

    About the “dislike half the games” thing, I’m under the impression the reason IV’s getting such rave reviews (in general at that) is that it improves on all of the aspects of the game. Even the story is said to be good.

    But geez. Judging by the reviews it’s getting, it either really is good, or Rockstar simply bought out the entire reviewing industry.

  15. Danel says:

    I’ve only played it a little so far, but it does seem to be an improvement in a number of ways – the main character is weary, and so far dislikes violence despite his talent for it; there are also a number of other characters who aren’t entirely hateful. Of course, I’m also still at the stage where it’s easing me in gently, so DIAS hasn’t kicked in so far…

    Of course, it has to be over-rated – the sheer number of 10’s all round – not to mention the Midnight openings and selling out in minutes that’ve happened. But it does seem pretty good.

  16. I think that it’s perfectly rational to at least attempt to assign a numerical score as part of a review, even of something as complex as a video game, but it’s important to understand the *context* of the numerical score.

    Firstly, the purpose of the numerical score is to roughly summarize the *conclusion* of the reviewer, not the content of the review. I’ve written reviews of books on my blog where I did nothing but point out a list of nitpicky flaws, but my *conclusion* was actually that the book was very good.

    Secondly, the numerical score is always a relative thing and is not going to be very meaningful unless you’ve been following said reviewer’s career over time and have learned the method he uses to generate his opinions. Once you know *that*, you will know how closely your personal likes/dislikes correlate with those of the reviewer and how to determine whether *you* will like a given title based on how he rates it.

    Thirdly, I tend to think of reviews as more of entertaining professional recommendations rather than anything that’s supposed to be objective. This is why I enjoy listening to Ben Crowshaw’s (aka Yatzhee’s) reviews on The Escapist. I disagree with a lot that he has to say about games, but through understanding what he does and doesn’t like, I can usually get a picture of how the game is wired together by listening to him rant. That and he makes me laugh, that’s all I care about.

    I don’t think reviews will ever lose their place, but individual reviewers gain and lose their *following* by how *consistent* they are. I don’t think you need to worry, Shamus, the panderers and the vacillators will only succeed in making themselves obsolete in a world where there are always a thousand opinionated yahoos to replace them.

  17. Chuk says:

    How do you rate a restaurant that serves mouth-watering steaks for $5 and a punch in the face before the meal?

    That depends. How hard is the face punch? And is that American or Australian dollars?

  18. DarkLadyWolf says:

    I love pretty much all of the gameplay experience of GTA San Andreas. Sure, there are a load of bugs, and sometimes the controls get in the way of completing missions, but I’m happy to push those aside and enjoy the huge environments, the differieng missions, the tongue-in cheek storyline. I love poking the game engine to see what happens, then capitalising on that in the game. I’ve been playing that game for over three years. I do something on it at least once a week.

    But that’s me. I can see that the things that I just brush off might be a deal-killer for someone else. For me GTA:SA is perfect, even with the bugs.I’d happily give it a 10/10, because I’ve got more enjoyment out of that game than any other.

    GTA IV (so far) looks like it’s an even more polished and interesting version of GTA:SA, which means so far, for me, I’d give it a 10/10, even with bugs. That’s a very personal score and unless you had a mind that worked something like mine (a scary thought) then that 10/10 means little to you.

    I’m probably going to play IV a lot, and rave about it to people who don’t get it, and wish I’d shut up. In the back of my mind though, I realise that what I see in this is probably different to what others see.

  19. Gahaz says:

    I am just glad the DIAS aspect of the game has been severely reduced. The combat engine has been overhauled to the point it feels like a different game and almost all “timed” events have been eliminated.

    The reviewers are on a payroll, no matter what anyone wants to say they still need to draw a check. The only reviews I like to trust come from individuals. The user review section of gamespot can help alot (if you can spot a fanboy review early on to skip it.) if you read 2 or 3 of them you can get an average “feel” of things.

    Then again sometimes in games you have to just cross your fingers and hope. Thats how I had to be when buying my NES titles, and it still is needed today.

  20. McNutcase says:

    Craig: I read that as Madden or Tony Hawk’s Whatever adding a single new *fracture*.

    The slightly worrying thing is, with the games you mentioned, that would actually fit quite well…

  21. MikeSSJ says:

    Recently, for the first time in about 6 years, I’ve bought a gaming magazine, but only because I finally got around to buying a new computer, and I wanted to get a feel for what’s “out there”.
    Some of the previewed games looked promising (although I loathe the GTA-gamins – too much DIAS, and I get bored of the free-roaming afte about a week or two, if it even lasts that long). I’ll wait until GameFAQs has some user-reviews online before I considering buying anything, though.

    Not because I can go “Oh look, a lot of tens!”, but because I can read well-thought out reviews about these games from people that DON’T get paid for it, listing the games pros and cons instead of desperately trying to keep their job by appealing to the people in charge.

    That, and because I can get a kick out of reading some of those ridiculous over-the-top hating and praising some people do, where you can tell at first glance that these reviews shouldn’t be taken seriously at all.

  22. Daosus says:

    If you want any kind of judgment to be trustworthy, the judge must not have a personal stake in the decision. The moment it became possible to fire a reviewer over the (non-naughty) content of his review, review became worthless as an objective measurement.

    I’ve always viewed gaming mags as advertisements anyway, but that may be because I’ve not bought very many. I haven’t had time to slowly adjust to what is called a review. I just picked up a magazine, read an article and saw that it was identical in tone to a Sears catalog.

    PS – It is kind of silly that the consumers have to pay for them, really. You’d think that since they’re advertisements anyway, it would move to “gaming companies pay magazine companies to ship their magaine to subscribers for free.”

  23. LintMan says:

    Shamus – I like your reviews because you put a lot of thought into the type of gameplay and I often think “That’s just what I thought, too!” as I read them.

    Reading your DIAS article just now, I completely agree. I’ve become 100% allergic to having my time wasted in a game by being forced to repeatedly replay failed missions, etc. I have a career and a family now, and my free time to play games is very limited, and there’s a lot of games I wish I had time to play. The time I do have, I want to be enjoyable, and replaying some mission 10 times to get it right just sucks. I have no desire to “prove myself” by mastering some game; I want to have fun and enjoy the experience, and then move on to the next game. (I’ll also mention that “grind” in games often triggers the same “wasted time” reaction in me)

    Games like X-Wing and the Wing Commander series burned me out on DIAS games a LONG time ago so I have little tolerance for them now. But I always feel obligated to finish any game I bought, so my solution is generally start using cheats whenever any game triggers the “they’re wasting my time” threshold. Yeah, “Cheaters Suck!” I’ve heard it all before, but I only play single player, so I’m not ruining it for anyone else. I’d rather use cheats to play the parts of the game I like and skip past the sucky stuff to finish the game, than quit the game in disgust and feel ripped off for wasting $50 on it.

  24. MaxEd says:

    I think we need “reviewer’s profile” to go with each review of game. So we would know what HE likes, what’s his credo. Then, we can believe him a little bit more if his described tastes match ours. But first we really need to get rid of “objective review” idea, because it is impossible.

    I say, make each review as subjective as you can – why else on Earth would we need 1000 different review sites & magazines otherwise?! To deliver us coverage of game from different points of view, of course. There should be a “casual gamer” reviewer, “hardcore old-school RPG-lover” reviewer, “Shoot ’em all and fsck the story” reviewer, “I LIKE SHINY PIXELZ” reviewer… We need all of them!

  25. Primogenitor says:

    So if people no longer trust reviews to get information about games, where will people turn? Demos usually don’t exist either, so one of the few ways to try-before-you-buy that remain is piracy.

    Executive : *Bang* Was that my foot?

  26. Mongrel says:

    Another aspect about the rave reviews is, I think, the perceptoin of customer expectation, especially with the sort of dedicated fanbois that Rockstar aims at.

    Let’s say magazine X scores GTA IV at 8/10 – how many customers would just turn round and say “U guyz suxx!!”, potentially never buying the magazine again…

  27. DGM says:

    Shamus,

    This is off-topic, but Frayed Knights came out this morning. I recall you being interested in that one.

    My plug for it is here:
    http://dungeon-games.com/blog/?p=86

    Or you can go straight to it here:
    http://www.rampantgames.com/frayedknights/

  28. qrter says:

    I’m with you Shamus – I just can’t get into that whole “gangsta” thing, it’s so pervasive in GTA games that I can’t ignore it either.

  29. Jacob says:

    I must disagree when you say that its impossible to assign a numerical number to a game like this. Reviews are subjective not objective. The goal of a good review is not to gaze into the ether and somehome divine ‘the true score’ from it, but to give an overall feel of home much you liked it and why you liked it, or didn’t if that was the case. Thats really all a reviewer can do. I guess some like to pretend that they can do an objective review ,but since this is entertainment we are talking about thats pretty much impossible.

  30. lxs says:

    My flatmate is buying it. He’s foaming at the mouth over it. I doubt I’ll play it, I’m not into ‘sandbox’ stuff and the few San Andreas missions I played I found tedious and difficult.

    I tend to like munchkinesque character-building, but only towards a goal of making content easier. When I don’t want to do the main content, it saps all my motivation to play.

  31. corwyn says:

    Well, I’ll be buying it, assuming a pc port, like I bought the others – when it reaches a sizable discount so I won’t mind when I reach the inevitable point when I can’t continue..

    I really enjoy the games but there is always a plot mission I don’t have the reflexes for. But at $20 I still get my money’s worth.

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