Reviewing Games - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By Chad Awkerman

April 23, 2010

For many out there, being able to review games is a dream job. In my younger days, I always looked up to game reviewers, which I really only had access to through print media in magazines like Nintendo Power and Electronic Gaming Monthly. As time progressed and the Internet became more and more popular, there was an explosion of video-game-related sites popping up everywhere and, so it seemed, everyone and their mother was writing game reviews, for better or for worse.

Some are paid to write, some do it because they enjoy it, some aren’t gamers but journalists forced to play and write in this industry – needless to say, there is a wide variety of people out there right now reviewing games. Who are you to believe? What qualifies them to review a game? How long should they play a game before giving their opinions to thousands of people across the Internet? Is it really a dream job?

First and foremost, I have to say that a video game reviewer should love video games. Not every game that comes to their doorstep is going to be fun for them, however. But, generally speaking, the fun that they have playing games really comes across in their writing and contributes positively to everything they do in the industry.

Far too often I read reviews that are bland and it feels like I’m reading a press release with fact after fact and no substance. It is like eating a pizza with nothing but sauce – you are somehow left lacking. When I read those reviews, I can’t help but think that this is just a journalist who happened to get a job writing for a gaming site and is forced to write these reviews, kind of like a job that you hate, but are forced to go to every day to make ends meet.

Above and beyond that, though, a reviewer should have integrity. While personal opinion is always interjected into a review, I don’t feel that it should blind the reviewer to the good or bad things about the game. So, you don’t like the game’s story, that is okay, it’s your opinion. Feel free to state that all you want. However, to be objective, you have to realize that other people will indeed love the story and be privy to why that is the case.

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Is the story complete? Does it make sense in the context of the game at the end? Even if you dislike it because you don’t understand it or don’t care for the way the writers handled it, being objective would cause you to see that there is no reason to necessarily state a blanket opinion when you know the story is relatively solid, even if you personally don’t like it or couldn’t understand it.

You know what? I don’t like the way Kratos looks at me, I’m going to give God of War 3 a 6/10 and write five paragraphs about how I hate his character model. Could I be any more pretentious as a reviewer, thinking that my opinion of one thing is so important that I have to drag down a game’s entire score because of it? Probably not. That isn’t being objective and realizing that I’m not the only one out there playing this game. Besides, if I gave GOW3 a 6/10, Yaris would fly out here to Iowa right now and beat me until I bowed down at his feet and swore I would never speak the sacred name of Kratos again.

All that being said, I would never want a reviewer to talk about a game in a way that they don’t want to. If they disliked it, I want to know why, specifically. If they liked something that I didn’t, I want to know why. And, herein lies the biggest problem – it is a fine line to walk between objectivity and opinion.

Using an example above, objectivity should cause a reviewer to think beyond himself and see the big picture of a game’s story, but opinion matters too, so he would definitely have to state in some manner that he personally didn’t care for it, and list the reasons.

Is one thing, like disliking a game’s story, big enough to bring the entire game down? Very rarely. I have read reviews of some of my favorite games before where a reviewer really disliked one major aspect of the game and still felt it was a solid game overall. Sure, I would have been happy if everyone liked what I liked, but I understand that people don’t. That’s just how life works. Still, the reviewer didn’t bring the entire game to its knees because of one or two major things they disliked.

One review in particular I remember reading back around the time Crisis Core was released, made mention of how the reviewer disliked this or that, but added the caveat to the effect of, “Whether I like [insert problem issue here] or not is irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, Final Fantasy fans are going to enjoy living and playing in this world again, and that is what the game is all about.”

Perhaps it is being like the difference between Simon Cowel and Ellen Degeneres when it comes to judging American Idol. Ellen knows what is bad when she hears it, but still manages to give constructive criticism and not tear someone down until they’re crying on stage. Nine times out of ten, the performer really isn’t bad, but they just aren’t as good as the others.

To put that into a current gaming context – Final Fantasy XIII, regardless of the mixed reviews, really isn’t “bad”, but it just isn’t as good as previous games in the series. I even heard someone say on a forum somewhere that if it didn’t have the “Final Fantasy” name on it, he would have liked it a lot better.

Ultimately, yes, it comes down to each person’s opinion, plain and simple. If a game is bad, it is simply bad. However, a good reviewer would be as objective as possible within the context of that particular review so they don’t knock the review score down lower than it really needs to go for certain transgressions. Sometimes I get the feeling this happens more than it really should, whether it is for shock value, for site hits or just because the reviewer has a grudge against said franchise, developer, system, etc. Of course, the opposite is true, too. Just because you love Sony and you love their exclusives doesn’t mean you can just paint a blanket 10/10 on every exclusive they have without being objective.

Now that the subject of objectivity is out of the way, comes another tricky topic – how long should a reviewer play a game before publishing his review? That, indeed, is the million dollar question. In reality, I would venture to say that very few games get played to completion for some reason or another, whether it is deadlines, long game play completion times or the fact that some games just don’t have an “end”. And, whether or not it is important to play a game to completion varies wildly based on the genre and the review specifically. Let me explain.

Some games just have too much to do and very, very few reviewers are going to sit around for 100+ hours to finish an RPG to 100% completion or, these days, a platinum trophy or 1000 gamerscore. It is a generally accepted practice to play until the story is complete, but this isn’t always a necessity, either. However, if you are going to talk extensively about a certain aspect of the game and have strong opinions on it, my feeling is that you had darn well better finish that aspect of the game and know everything there is to know about it before you go ranting and raving that you didn’t like it for several paragraphs of your review.

If you talk at length about how much you disliked the story, and you didn’t actually finish the story, you lose credibility immediately, whether your review is spot on or not. However, if you’re talking about a battle system in an RPG, you will probably know everything there is to know about it before the end of the game, so if you want to rip into that, then it may be acceptable to not quite finish the game if time constraints confront you.

Of course, this is all subjective, as well. Different individuals, publications and reviewers will have different standards to meet when it comes to reviewing a game. So, what is the average gamer to do? Find a site that meets with your definition of how far someone should go to review a game.

Finally, I’d like to talk a little about preferences. One thing that annoys me above all else when I read a review is seeing that it was written by someone who dislikes the genre of the game she’s forced to write about. This can almost always be discerned without the reviewer coming right out and saying that they hate [insert genre here]. You can tell in the way they write about it, they’re typically superficial and the writing doesn’t have an energy about it that they would have if they were writing about a genre they love. What is even worse is if the reviewer comes right out and says that [insert genre here] isn’t their thing. At that point they just lose all credibility, period.

Outlets that review video games should assign their reviewers games that suit them, games they’re excited about. Sure, not every single game is going to be the absolute perfect match or the crème of the crop of any given genre, but you can get it pretty close, instead of just assigning games willy-nilly, or letting someone review whatever they feel like. For example, I don’t review general sports games (although I like the racing genre) or straight FPS titles. Why? Because they just aren’t my thing, and the other editors here know it. Yet, I will review a title like Mass Effect 2, which, yes, is a shooter, but also has RPG elements, because RPGs are my thing.

When someone reviews an RPG – let’s say a less-than-stellar RPG like Risen – and blatantly says in the review that they dislike RPGs and PC games (which is where the game’s roots lie), it completely invalidates everything they said in their review and makes me wonder if they even finished it or bothered to try at all. The review will tend to sound flat and not explain things very well. This goes back to the point above about how you can tell a reviewer isn’t “into” a genre just by seeing the tone of the review.

So, let’s be smart about this. While objectivity and game completion are subjective and there is a lot of opinion involved in those areas, who to assign a game review to should be pretty black and white if the editors of an outlet know their staff well.

In conclusion, the ultimate point I want to get across is that the readers have to figure out what reviewer or review outlet fits their needs the most. It isn’t a horrible thing to read several different reviews from different outlets that have different standards – not in the least. But who are you going to base your purchasing decision on?

If you’re on the fence about buying a game from a genre that you enjoy, but aren’t fanboy-ish over and will purchase no matter what, would you want to read a review from someone who has no clue what they’re talking about because they just don’t like the genre, or someone who is well versed in what makes the genre tick and what they see in that game that will please fans of that genre? Most likely the latter.

Would you rather read a sensationalist review that is there to seemingly just get hits, or a serious review from someone who is being objective as much as humanly possible? Probably the latter. It is always up to the reader, but the choice seems clear.

To answer one of the questions I posed at the beginning of this article, yes this is a dream job. But it is just that – a job. It takes work, research, trial and error as well as skills in objectivity and creative writing. It is just like any other job, it has ups and downs, it has deadlines, schedules, expectations and triumphs. You have large publishers watching you, waiting to see what you have to say about their games.

It can, at times, be a bit nerve-wracking. Overall, though, you are playing games, having fun and dealing with like-minded people. That is what the industry should be all about.

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Chad Awkerman

Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.

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