Monday, September 13, 2010

Sorry, what?!?

It was brought to my attention today that I should no longer pay any heed to "professional" review sites whatsoever. Why, you ask? Because of IGN UK's 10/10 review and rating of Halo: Reach. As an admission of bias, I must confess that I have disliked Halo ever since I played it through on a PC. So you may want to take my opinions on the game itself with a fair amount of salt. I could explain at length why I think the Halo series as a whole is horrendously overrated and the only valuable thing it did was make FPS games accessible for the console. However, I won't get sidetracked by that argument.

My complaint is not with the series itself, but the disgraceful (and increasing) trend of "professional" review sites dishing out high scores to games even while identifying significant weaknesses. This trend is why I now feel forced to resort to Zero Punctuation for a decent review. His acidic tone along with his crass language and imagery may not be to everyone's tastes, but at least when I'm watching one of his reviews, I know that the flaws in a game will be clearly (and usually brutally) identified. His review of Halo 3 (very strong language alert) pointed out many of the things that I thought were rather prominent flaws in the game.

At least Halo gave us Red vs Blue

Hrm, it seems I accidentally got sidetracked on an anti-Halo rant despite my assertions that I wasn't going to do so. I'd apologise, but I'll instead tell you to hold onto your seats as we get onto the meat on IGN's "review" and focus on some key quotes. Note that I've not played the game, I'm just going on what has been explicitly stated in the review.

Regarding the "campaign that stands as one of Halo's best": "it's certainly more direct than the incoherent tangle of lore that was Halo 3 it's no more engaging."  And, "the rest of Noble team [apart from the player] are little better than a grab-bag of cliches". This is waved away because "if you're playing Halo for a well-told story you're frankly in the wrong place". Sorry, I know I rate story more highly than most people, but if you're presenting a campaign that is supposed to have a story, then it had better not be "sci-fi pulp that takes itself too seriously".

Then the review mentions the "nine or so hours that it'll take to crack the campaign on Heroic". So playing on the second hardest difficulty, the game is about at long as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, a game that despite its brilliance was also criticised for being too short.

Next up we have "an amazing array of set-pieces, and if Bungie is perhaps a little too keen on aping the highlights of its last nine years it does at least seem determined to bring its experience to make them shine like never before". Wait... what? We're being given recycled and touched-up set pieces from the previous games in the series?

But it gets worse, because "the level design is Bungie's best, and while the blend of open battlefields and labyrinth interiors may be superficially familiar it's never been as well executed as Reach's set. If you've a favourite moment from Halos gone it's likely to be referenced here". So not only does Reach copy set-pieces, but levels as well? Exactly what is the game doing that is original?

Let's jump the warthog. Again.

So keeping all the above in mind, exactly as what point did Halo Reach demonstrate that it was worthy of a score like 10/10? I know that the Australian review scored it 9/10 and the US review gave 9.5/10, but based on these few quotes, it hasn't demonstrated it's worthy of those scores either. Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I actually like the Australian review more for its more candid take on the game, despite the somewhat casual delivery of the review.

What is the point of having review sites if they do not accurately and impartially address the faults within games and then mark them down in the rating scores that are delivered? More importantly, if review sites cannot provide an adequate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of games, then why should gamers bother reading them?


  1. Hmm, did they not talk about the very fun multiplayer? I've played the Halo 3 multiplayer extensively, and Bungie has changed it "dramatically". The entire feel is different, and in that, it's very original. Then, there is the firefight aspect, which they made a lot better as well. Finally (not that I actually use it, but I have friends that do) there is the re-vamped forge modes, which allows players to make their own custom maps, and share them with friends.

    I haven't played it yet either, but I think if you take all of those things as a whole, if they're done better than Halo 3, then it's worth the rating.

    If they only glosses over these features, then I guess I could see why you're confused.

    Just my opinion anyway.

  2. Yeah, this comment is important, I think:

    "But it's the multiplayer that qualifies Reach as truly exceptional."

    This is important, because for people that *do* like Halo, the majority of them are there for the multiplayer. There's still hundreds of thousands of people playing it online today, damn near 3 years after its release.

    For me, I'm getting it for the multiplayer, and if it's even remotely better than Halo 3, then in my book, it's a 10. Halo 3 pretty much defined my entire gaming experience for 2007, and I expect no less out of this one (though Call of Duty: Black Ops multiplayer will be up there as well).

    In the end though, it's just one person's opinion...

  3. I've abandoned "professional" reviews for any sort of impression on what a game might deliver. Too often do they get caught up in hype themselves. Also, while I'm not gonna be the guy who'll talk about "oh they're bribed by big publishers" and all that stuff, I will say that many of the big sites are far more lenient towards a big release in terms of flaws and stuff.
    And occasionally you'll have a slightly low-budget game (or even indie game), and the reviewers will happily tear into it like a bunch of hungry wolves, pointing out flaws that they so easily forgot in their big-title reviews.

    Nowadays I tend to just look at communities I'm apart of. Usually I know which people are somewhat level-headed, and who may share the same tastes as I do, and read what they write instead. And also, doing research on the game and just what it is before I buy.

    The consequence of this approach is that it's been a really long time since I bought a game that I was unhappy with. It's also made me buy games that I probably wouldn't have if I relied solely on reviews (Alpha Protocol for example).

  4. Here's quotes from a game review, not of Halo but another game

    "a terribly flawed reality -- one rife with bugs, burdened by an awful GUI and less user-friendliness than the One Ring, and wielding graphics that would look right at home in a Dire Straits video....

    the A.I. is dumb to the point of silliness:....

    A huge contributing factor to both the ease-of-use (or lack thereof) problem and the A.I. idiocy is the total failure of $game to provide you with anything like a decent to control units in that tactical interface is left completely up to you to figure out,...

    this game just isn't fun. ...

    Even if the major issues above had been ameliorated by the day-0 patch that the game shipped with, it still crashes, hangs, and bugs up without warning at virtually every conceivable juncture. "

    There's also no multiplayer weeks after release, despite it being a promised feature.

    The reviewer gave it a C+.

    The answer is grade inflation. It's almost impossible to get a bad score. Giving a game a bad score means no more sneak previews, beta access, invites to dev day for further upcoming games.

  5. Challseus: I think the problem is that if the single player campaign is derivative and poorly written, then I consider a score of 10 to be completely unjustifiable. 10/10 is a perfect score, which should mean the game is perfect or as close to flawless as one can get. I'll admit that I don't care much for multiplayer FPS gaming (mainly because bad ping makes them frequently frustrating to play here in Australia), but a game that is multiplayer and single player must consider both aspects of the game when providing a review. But as you say, that's just one person's opinion.

    I think Kamal might have it right in that giving a bad score likely means cutting your "insider" access to further games. That said, I'd rather wait a week or two after a game's release and get a "good" review than have one on launch day that's coloured by self interest.

    An Australian show on video games recently reviewed a game and effectively described it as unequivocally terrible yet still awarded it 5/10. After saying a game is shocking, you can't then award it a pass.

  6. By the current standards to games and grade inflation, a 10/10 score for Halo: Reach is easily justifiable. I don't buy into the journalist-publisher conspiracy, but the reviewers have definitely painted themselves into a corner. I'd pick another game (maybe Kamal's example) to address the ridiculous grade inflation going on. The Halo games tend to have a very strong singleplayer component (minus story) although overshadowed by its multiplayer.

  7. @ AmstradHero

    Fair point.

    As you don't play multiplayer, I don't play singleplayer, so for me, it will probably rank as a 10. It's so damn hard to objectively review a game, which is why I look more at the aggregate sites, gamerankings or metacritic, as well as what friends who like the games I like say.

    I did just watch the gametrailers review, and they said the same thing about the SP, but ended with "You know you're buying this game for the multiplayer, so we'll say, it's GREAT!". They still gave it a 9.3, which I assume would fall in line with what you would expect.

    As to the other comment about certain sites not giving a certain game a low rating, I'm sure that's the case. If I'm not mistaken, a reviewer from Gamespot gave a really bad review for an Eidos game, that was literally advertised all over the site. He now works at :)

  8. Good article. I think games journalism is rife with corruption. How can it not be? Games sites and magazines rely on publishers paying for advertising and granting exclusives to survive. Publishers rely on getting goods review scores to help sell their games. The guy who Challseus mentioned, Jeff Gerstmann, left or was fired because of the low score he handed out to Kane & Lynch, which Eidos had spent a lot of money advertising on Gamespot at the time.

    It's hard enough trying to earn a living in the current climate. Your average 20-something games journalist probably isn't paid very much and isn't going to risk losing their job by giving their editor the one-fingered salute over a game review. Editors and site owners will do all they can to maximise profit for their publications. It's naive to think they won't bend their integrity for the continued goodwill and marketing budget of the large publishers. That goes double for print publications, some of which have such low circulations now that they are kept around mostly to act as shills for the publishers. I’m not naming any names, but check out the scores Kane & Lynch 2 received and note the ones which were well off the average. Those same scores found their way onto the game cover. Do we really believe the reviewers who handed out their scores weren’t under pressure to be generous?

    As far as gaming sites go, the enthusiasm with which a hot game is reviewed can impact the number of visitors a site receives. A highly-anticipated game which receives a monumental score will have users flocking from far and wide to check out what all the fuss is about, which raises the site’s profile and advertising value. Of course, overly negative reviews for a big title can have the same effect but without winning the favour of the publisher.

    Starwars made a great point. When a game comes along from a second-rate publisher who isn’t flashing the green around or whose long-term favour isn’t of paramount importance, you suddenly witness a startling change in game reviewers from slack-jawed fan boys to hardened critics eager to pick out every flaw. There seems to be a fairly high “minimum” score for blockbuster games that disappoint, whereas diamond in-the-rough indie or low budget games get to “benefit” from the entire 100-point scale.