I would take it a step further and suggest that game reviews go far beyond merely useless, and are in some ways actually counter-productive when it comes to the secondary goal of fostering creativity and encouraging developers to make better games.
I used to love reading PC Gamer. I have a heap of old issues from 1998-2003, which I still read from time to time. The reviews read more like a collection of thoughts on the game itself. How does the combat work? How is the story? Where could it have been better? What new gameplay elements are there? I remember those reviews. I loved those reviews. Outside of blogs, I haven’t seen a review like that in ages. They weren’t all great, but there were some gems in there that were insightful and interesting, even when I disagreed with the reviewer’s conclusion or score.
Here are five ways reviews work against the common goal of making and playing great games:
- Reviews tend to encourage the poisonous trend of riding the bleeding technological edge instead of making a fun, stable game.
Now most reviews seem to be adolescent gushing about how a game looks. “You’ll drool on your keyboard when you see the new DirectX 11.01c dual-pass bling mapping! After that the trilinear shine buffers will have you humping your monitor!”
System specs and performance used to be a lot more important. Now reviewers just assume I’m dumping $300 into graphics cards every eighteen months. Reviewers don’t usually bother playing the game on machines with the minimum requirements to see if the game is still playable. They should.
- Reviews tend to encourage making games that are less accessable to new or casual players.
Since they play videogames all day (and then most likely head home and play some more) reviewers tend to have an entirely different idea of how difficult games need to be. Their large supply of game-playing time mixed with their higher skills make them voracious and unstoppable players. Developers, not wanting to bore the reviewer, will calibrate the game for the reviewer, not regular people like me. If a developer wants to “challenge” them, then the game needs to have some formidable obstacles. “Let’s have a series of tricky jumps that must be performed while under fire. And if the player misses a jump then they start the level over.” I’ll admit that this sort of thing does indeed help lengthen the game and might even slow down some reviewers, with the side effect of making the game a total waste of time for someone with my moderate skills and limited supply of gaming hours.
- Reviews give developers a free pass when it comes to anti-piracy annoyances.
Over the last several years copy protection has gotten more onerous and invasive, although you would never know this by reading game reviews. Case in point. I have a copy of Fable here, and on the disc it says “Do not lend or make illegal copies of this disc.” (Emphasis mine.) If I were a reviewer I’d spend a couple of paragraphs raking them over the coals for something like that before I talked about the game itself. It’s an outrage, and by omitting it reviewers send a message that this sort of asinine behavior is acceptable.
- Reviews give publishers a free pass (or nearly so) when it comes to bugs and stability problems.
Bugs used to be a terrible sin. I remember PC Gamer taking the hard-line stance, “We don’t review Patched games”. They played the game as it came out of the box. Maybe they’re still doing it, (although I doubt it) but most online reviews have no problem with letting the developer release an incomplete game and patch it later.
- Reviewers focus on mega titles and overlook old-school and indie games.
I can’t blame reviewers too much for this. They have to review games people are interested in, and more people play Sim City 4 than Virtual Villagers. Still, indie developers benefit far more from a review than some A-list game with a huge marketing campaign. It seems better to support great games, as opposed to great big games.
Remember Oblivion? That game was accepted and well reviewed despite its punishingly high system requirements, the dishonest requirements listed on the box, and the fact that the game was full of bugs and broken quests that required a user-made patch to fix. Bethesda should have walked away from that game with a few bruises. Reviewers should have taken them to task for these shortcomings. It should have gone down as a fun but flawed experience that needed more work to truly shine, but the reviewers were too busy talking about OMG! SHINEEY PIXILS!!!! to notice the damn thing was a mess.
So the publisher got away with releasing a shoddy game. Actually, they didn’t just “get away with it”, they were rewarded for it. At the end of the year they had a trophy case full of awards for a buggy game with a tepid plot that they didn’t didn’t even bother to finish. Question: Do these gushing reviews and awards make them more or less likely to correct these flaws next time around? Bonus question: Is this good or bad for PC gaming?
So reviewers encourage or reward developers for making games slower, buggier, more punishing, and with increasingly annoying copy protection. These are my three biggest priorities, and they will barely get a mention in the average review. Developers deserve the lion’s share of the blame for making software that sucks, but I don’t envy the position they are in: Make a game that sucks and reviews well for lots of money, or make a decent, stable game with less focus on visuals which gets tepid reviews and makes less money. Reviewers are the ones that put them into this position. I’d say that makes reviews a stretch worse then merely “useless”.
I still enjoy reading the occasional review, but I don’t do it as part of my purchasing decision. If I want to know if a game is an FPS or a RTS, I’ll read the review. If I want to know if the thing is worth playing, I’ll Google around for blog posts on the thing.
Reviews used to be part of by buying decisions, and they could be again, but they would need a major re-alignment of priorities for that to happen. Until then, I simply have no faith in them as a source of information.
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