I recently bought an Xbox 360 since I was interested in playing a couple of recent games. Some of my buying choices were influenced by reviews on websites. Games like Red Dead Redemption were great, but others didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I’ve now had about a handful of experiences were the glowing reception of the games by reviewers didn’t at all match my subjective experience. Thus, I wondered how legitimate video game journalism really is.
I also noticed that some games I tremendously enjoyed, such as Vanquish, received a rather lukewarm reception. Also, I couldn’t help but notice that gaming websites are plastered with ads, so the obvious assumption is that those sites don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them and therefore promote “AAA titles”, while they spend little attention to games that cater to a niche audience. It’s also quite obvious that many mainstream reviewers don’t understand particular genres or, well, just plain suck at playing video games.
Here is a prime example: the Destructoid review of Vanquish by Platinum Games, written by Jim Sterling. He gave the game a 5 out of 10, and every single word he wrote indicates that he just didn’t get how to play this game. Vanquish isn’t a “cover-based shooter” in the vein of Gears of War but instead puts heavy emphasis on offensive play. The game is a bit more complex than in, say, Call of Duty, but you’ll get amply rewarded if you spend a few minutes to learn the controls. This was seemingly too much effort for Jim Sterling, so he wrote:
Sam [the protagonist] actually needs energy to punch his opponents, and once he’s landed a single successful punch, he can’t glide away since the energy meter completely drains. Several times, I punched an enemy, failed to kill it thanks to Sam’s inability to aim his punches properly, and was killed because I could neither defend myself or swiftly escape.
The issue is that the energy meter that enables you to perform more powerful attacks depletes as you do your little tricks. However, there is a risk/reward mechanism built in. If you completely replete the energy meter, your combat suit overheats. You then have to allow it to cool down, which makes you vulnerable to enemy attacks since you can neither defend yourself properly nor quickly evade. The core mechanic is therefore to find a rhythm for your attacks. This is not as bad as it may sound since the energy meter replenishes very quickly. I found the game mechanic to be highly satisfying, and with some practice, it’s quite easy to get into a state of flow. Frankly, I thought that Vanquish was absolutely fantastic and that it reaches a high-water mark for action games. Enthusiastic reception of this game by actual players, like on NeoGAF, seems to indicate that I’m not the only one who had been very impressed by it.
Jim Sterling’s review of Vanquish may be an egregious example, but the average games journalist is hardly an expert. Especially when it comes to niche games they don’t seem know what they are looking at. For instance, one of my favorite genres are shooting games (STGs). No, not the Call of Duty kind, but the modern descendants of Space Invaders. While most games strive to be “entertainment”, and therefore offer at best a moderate challenge, STGs are designed for repeated play throughs, with the goal being mastery so that you can eventually clear the entire game on just one credit. Depending on your skill level, this may take many months, and with the harder games you may never even get there because you’re just not good enough. This can be a humbling experience, but if you master a game like that, you’ll feel a sense of achievement which you just don’t get from games that hold your hand all the way through. Sure, it’s not for everyone, but those games have enthusiastic fans. Yet, the typical mainstream reviewer is quick to dismiss those games because you can just hit “start” again and “see everything in 15 minutes”. The thread Amusingly bad reviews on shmups.com collects statements like that. You can only shake your head.
I’ve now mentioned some examples of games or genres that tend to get short shrift by mainstream reviewers. Now let’s look at games that receive lavish praise, and whose faults either get ignored or justified. One prime example is one of the greatest commercial successes in recent years: Grand Theft Auto IV. It sold 25 million copies, and it’s the top rated Xbox 360 game on Metacritic. I think it’s a decent game, but it has its flaws, like a repetitive mission structure, poor driving, and clunky weapon mechanics. It’s not a bad game, but hardly the masterpiece it is claimed to be. Less than a quarter of the people who bought the game finished it. The other three quarters probably got bored or frustrated.
Another example is Resident Evil 5. It’s probably not a bad game once you get into it, but it doesn’t make it easy for you to like it. My main gripe is that your character controls like a tank. One of the very first scenes has you enter a shack. Then zombies start attacking you from two and then three sides. They first come running at you, but before they reach you, they seem to hit an invisible wall that makes them stop. From this point onward, they take turns attacking you, which results in incredibly awkward gameplay. This isn’t my idea of having fun, so I have yet to return to this game. When Resident Evil 5 came out, reviewers were defending the controls as “traditional Resident Evil gameplay”, and hordes of obnoxious gaming fanboys were eager to tell anybody who dared to criticize their favorite franchise a variation of “the controls are fine, maybe you just suck at the game.”
Seeing that some of the biggest games have quite startling flaws, I ended up wondering whether “AAA games” that are backed by multi-million advertising campaigns get much more praise than they deserve, and not because they are so great, but because “money hatting” buys good review scores. The big games normally don’t dare to be challenging, so even your average video game reviewer can play them. On the other hand, it seems that many journalist lack the knowledge and skills to appraise niche games, and are therefore quick to dismiss them. A glance at review scores on Metacritc, which contrasts user and “expert” opinions seemed to support this hypothesis. Looking for hard facts, I then made use of my programming skills and analyzed their data. I will share the results with you in the next post.