The trouble with game reviews

Rob reviews reviews... seriously

The interesting thing about reviewing videogames, and perhaps the annoying thing about being a reader of videogame reviews, is that there's no "right" way to do it. Say I wanted to persuade you that a game is more important for you to play than any other, then I might talk about how technically accomplished it is, or tell you it's full of original new ideas, or suggest it lays down a blueprint that all future games will try to emulate. But while these things are all very nice, they fail to tell you the key thing you need to know: how it plays.

Professional videogame reviewers get excited about originality and exciting new game engines or programming techniques because they play too many games. You might think that those who play videogames all day and get paid to write about them are in an enviable position, and undoubtedly there are worse jobs out there. But when you look at most typical game magazines or websites, the number of staff they have, and the rate at which they publish reviews, you'll soon realise they simply don't play games in the same way as us lowly hobbyists do, and so their reviews are skewed in an odd and often misleading direction.

Let's pretend that I work for any of the other big videogaming publications, and let's say my Editor's been canny enough to secure the first exclusive review of Fallout 3. He knows that in order to make the most of our exclusivity deal, our review needs to be posted as soon as possible. So he'd probably turn to me and say, "drop everything you're working on, play this game solidly for the next two days, and then I want your review in my inbox in three days time".

At first I'd be delighted to be among the first in the world to play this highly anticipated new instalment in the Fallout series. But then I'd realise that I need to experience as much of this game in two days as most people would get from playing it over a couple of months. I'd do my utmost to complete it in two marathon 12 hour-sessions, with my notebook by my side, and possibly a walkthrough from the developers. I'd race through, scribbling down sections that caught my attention, or where the mechanics felt cumbersome, and then on the third day I'd bash out a couple of thousand words about whether or not it's any good.

Clearly, this is not the way the game will have been designed to be played. When a movie critic reviews a film, he doesn't watch it on fast forward and then try to write an authoritative explanation of its strengths and weaknesses. A music critic doesn't listen to the first thirty seconds of each song on an album before then deciding whether or not it's any good. Videogames are peculiarly special for nearly always offering a lengthier experience than other forms of entertainment, and then also providing the possibility that your first and second playthroughs will be completely different. Yet for the past ten or twenty years (as videogames have gotten bigger and more sophisticated), the mainstream videogames press has refused to acknowledge this pretty self-evident truth. In the eyes of publishers at least, an early review is more important than an accurate one.

So, rushing through Fallout 3, what things would I feel most confident to report back to my readers in my exclusive review? I'd probably start off reiterating what you already knew from previews, talking about how Bethesda had taken over the series and what a tough challenge they faced meeting fans expectations. I might then burn off a few hundred words on the plot, which would have been nice and easy for me to keep track of in my notebook.

At this point however I might start to worry that although mine is the first review in the world, I could be starting to test my reader's patience, so I better start trying to talk about the game mechanics. I'd look at my notebook and flesh out all the scribbles I'd made about the combat and inventory system, I might describe a few of the game's more exciting set-pieces (unwittingly taking the thrill out of them when the reader eventually gets to play the game), how the dialogue trees work, and criticise any points where the game wasn't entirely intuitive. If there are any genuinely new ideas in the game then they'll have been easy to spot, and probably fairly interesting to write about, so I'll probably start off my conclusion by judging how well they've been implemented. I can then finish up by saying something like, "it's an engrossing experience with some interesting new ideas, but fans of the series may be concerned that the game lacks the humour of its predecessors".

Phew, review completed. My Editor's off my back and I can relax.

Yet my non-committal conclusion, and descriptive rather than analytical explanation of how the game works, won't be much use to someone trying to decide if they should buy the game. Whether consciously or sub-consciously, I'll know that I haven't really played the game properly. I'll be a little worried whether my criticisms and frustrations with the game stemmed from genuinely bad game mechanics, or the way I was playing it. But hey, if I give it 9.2/10 and gloss over my main concerns, I know there will be enough ferocious fanboys out there who will be willing to back me up and congratulate me on my great review.

This isn't an attack on mainstream reviews: I started by saying that there is no 'right' way to review a videogame, and I stand by that. There will always be a massive demand for early reviews, particularly for the most hyped games, because people want to know on the day of release whether or not to invest their cash. I also suspect that most people who play videogames and bother to read reviews are wise enough to read with a healthy degree of scepticism. Yet if there is a moral to this little flight of fancy, it's that you need to be extra-specially suspicious when you see the word 'exclusive' on the by-line of a review. If you want to find an evaluation that you can trust, you should consider looking for a site that posts its reviews a little after the early rush, where the reviewer will have played the game at a sensible pace, and have experienced it in a similar way to how you will.

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