Reviews-and-You---Or-how-I-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-score Reviews and You - Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the score

   31/10/2011 at 21:15       Tom       12 COMMENTS.
 - Games Reviews, Uncharted 3, Modern Warfare, Games Reviewers, Bias vs Biased

On Tuesday during a break at work, I sat down and noticed that Eurogamer had posted its review of the eagerly-anticipated and largely-hyped PS3 exclusive Uncharted 3. After thoroughly enjoying the previous entry in the series last year, I was keen to find out just how well, or badly, the latest iteration had turned out. And even though that the last month-and-a-half have cleaned me out with the traditional glut of high quality games, I'm always on the look-out for more, because quite frankly, I want to experience them all. What separates Uncharted 3 from the rest, however, is that it is up there on the fabled list of games I will play, regardless of reviews.

I read the Eurogamer review from top to bottom with interest - and it's worth noting that this doesn't happen often - and I was absolutely engrossed with the actual piece itself. Beautifully written by Simon Parkin (who works for Eurogamer as well as Edge, the Telegraph and more) it enthusiasticly describes his appreciation and love for the series and the game itself. But the central concept of the review is a critique of games that are so tightly scripted that there's little scope for freedom of play. Uncharted is not alone in this style of gameplay, of course, but it is a facet upon which the series really hangs its hat. All of its positives and negatives can be attributed to this style, from the spectacular graphical set-pieces to the moment-to-moment gun play. I reached the end of the review and saw the score - 8/10, and I felt myself give out a little disappointed sigh. Not because I disagree with the score, but because I know what the inevitable response in the article's comments is going to be like.

And so it comes as no surprise when I see comments bemoaning the 8 and the focus of the review. Without a hint of irony, the fact Simon has dared to score lower than the Metacritic average comes almost as an insult to them. With a few vehemently demanding he be fired - obvlivious to the fact that he works for Eurogamer on a purely reelance basis. Others scream that Simon and Eurogamer are biased - or, as the ignorant, illiterate internet illuminati usually prefer to claim, the grammatically incorrect bias. Of course, there are some who put together a reasonable, decent argument against Simon's view, which is fair enough but for the most part, the comments remind me of going to the zoo and seeing a load of agitated monkeys hurling themselves around their enclosure, screaming and screeching as loud as they possibly can.

Perhaps it wouldn't bother me as much if I hadn't seen it so many times before, especially recently where both Gears of War 3 and Battlefield 3 also received an 8. Every time there is a review of a major game and it scores 9 or below, there's an outcry that the score is too low. And when there's a 10, there's a vocal minority who will say the score is too high. The reviewers are in the position where they are biased if they do, and biased if they don't.

I have put some thought in to this recently and if you follow me on Twitter you may have witnessed some ranting on this very subject, as I do believe what a lot of people expect from a review is not the same as what they should be getting. Let's start with the big ol' elephant in the room - the score and the importance thereof. For simplicity's sake I'm will refer to scores out of 10. I do not believe this method to be any more or less valid than sites and other publications that use a 5 star system or an 100% method. Here's a statement I will whole-heartedly stand by: 8 is a good score. 8 is a score a developer should be proud of. Sadly, it seems a lot of games reviewers seem to be stuck in a position where 7 - 10 seems to be their entire range, with 7 becoming their way of saying a game is not worth buying. It's something I won't go into any further as it's a topic that has been discussed many times previously, but it seems when sites dare to use the entire spectrum of the scale they get criticised heavily as 7 has become the average baseline rather than 5. Likewise, 10 should not mean a game is perfect. It should allow for flaws but reflect the fact that this game has that polish, that level of quality, that something special to rise above it all and be recognised as a potential future classic.

My second statement is one I can't believe I'm having to make - reviews are the personal opinion of the writer. It represents their view of the game as filtered through their experiences and enjoyment during play. Reviews do not reflect your opinion of the game/series/developer/console. Why would they? So stop treating them as such. If you want to read nothing but overly gushing descriptions of the features of AAA titles you should probably go read the press release. Or IGN. Thirdly, I'd like to add that context is king. I had a short discussion via Twitter today where I was asked why Uncharted 3 was criticised for its focused linearity and given an 8, where as Modern Warfare 2 (the 6th Call of Duty) was given a 9 and arguably does exactly the same thing. I gave a quick response then, and have been considering it ever since, and the only answer I have is that context is king. Modern Warfare 2 in my eyes is a multiplayer game. I cannot remember anything about the single player beyond the controversial "No Russian" level but the multiplayer was extremely well done with the quasi-RPG levelling being refined to near perfection. Single player was little more than a bullet point to put on the box and it has been that way since the original Modern Warfare years prior. Reviews had been in that context, and are also nearing 2 years old themselves now, bringing time into that equation as well (will Modern Warfare 3 make the same critical impact now? I'm not so sure).

If we are to bring MW2 into the discussion then it would be more appropriate to compare it with Uncharted 2, also released in 2009, given a 10 by Eurogamer's editor Tom Bramwell and awarded its game of the year. It is now the year 2011 and while the landscape hasn't changed so dramatically, the games industry is not where it was this time two years ago. But is it unfair to suggest that just because Uncharted 3 sticks to its proven formula that it deserves to be "marked down"? Should games be reviewed in a vacuum of sorts, free from the context of other games and the passage of time? The first question is certainly up for much debate but the fact I've even seen the latter proposed, frankly boggles my mind. Games will always be compared to other games and even other media like film and television. Who we are, our likes and dislikes are governed by our experiences, by what we've watched, read, played and lived. We do not live in a vacuum so we should not expect the same of reviews.

Finally, done correctly, there is no such thing as a "wrong" review. Eurogamer doesn't go out to troll its readers, it's plain daft to suggest so. Yes, I had a sly pop at IGN earlier on, but assuming they're not a paid-for mouth-piece, their high scoring enthusiasm has as much validity as the likes of the hyper-critical Edge scores. In the end, the real beauty of Simon Parkin's review was not what he thought of Uncharted 3 but that he was. able to articulate the why of it all so well.

In the end we'll all look at various reviews and decide whether or not we agree with it or not before we've even played a second of it. That's OK, we can't help it. But the great unwashed masses could do with bearing in mind that if a review doesn't follow the current line set in Metacritic or doesn't confirm what they believe then it's not down to bias and it's not down to a bad reviewer, in fact it may well be the opposite.

So the only question I have left is "Do you agree or disagree?"

User Comments:

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Orpheus - on 31/10/2011 at 21:46 wrote:
Great article. Personally I dislike reviews without any critical component; as you say, you might as well read the press release.

I recently read Gillan's older posts on the 'new games journalism', and some associated texts. While his viewpoint is extremely enticing, it seems to me that focusing solely on the experience of play can (not necessarily always, mind) detract from the critical aspect, which is equally important. I still read a lot of comments that complain the reviewer has merely 'talked about his game time' and avoided technical/gameplay specifics -which is also a valid view, to a degree.

There must be some kind of happy medium between the 'new' journalism and critical journalism. If games are to be accepted as art, the 'new' approach must be taken into account; equally the critical component must not be lost, and in this it may come to resemble other, more established forms of criticism (literary, film etc).

With regard to scores, I often feel that scoring a game is too arbitrary, too empty a judgement to make considering the often large range of experiences some games will offer. How to score something like Skyrim, for example, which will almost certainly be a different experience for everyone who plays it?

On a final note, when reading the reviews of sites like RPS, who do not use scores, the comments tend to be much more balanced. Scores will always be polarising, it seems!

DDevil - on 31/10/2011 at 22:03 wrote:
For what it's worth, although I haven't played Uncharted 3 I think I know where he's coming from. Uncharted 2 was a "9" or "10" for me up until I started a second play through and I realised once you know what's coming the excitement is largely gone. I'd happily play the tank cat-and-mouse segment or the train battle again, but the rest is largely forgettable.

But really, people who moan about review scores just really grind my gears :-D

NewYork - on 31/10/2011 at 22:21 wrote:
I'd pay no attention to the whiners who *have* played Uncharted 3, let alone those who haven't (which is practically everyone moaning about the 8/10, seeing as the game isn't even out yet).

ilmaestro - on 31/10/2011 at 22:31 wrote:
Decent article, 8/10.

ilmaestro - on 31/10/2011 at 22:32 wrote:
Seriously though, I thought this was going to be a slightly different article re: just looking at review scores rather than text, or dismissing games because they are "only" worth 8/10 or whatever.

From the angle you approached it, I totally agree with you.

peej - on 01/11/2011 at 07:43 wrote:
"Eurogamer doesn't go out to troll its readers' - Digital Foundry PS3 and 360 comparisons say otherwise...

I read the review, and I read this piece. This piece is the better piece of writing and it highlights the problems with writing a critique of anything, let alone something as 'marmite' as a videogame. Firstly and foremostly I'll listen to player opinion over a reviewer any day of the week. I'll listen to someone who's spent their 40 quid, spent a good few hours with a game - lived with it if you like - and has come to a conclusion as a result of that. This might be the wrong thing to do because there's a natural bias for people to be more positive about something they've paid cold hard cash for than something that they got as an early promo for nought.

Secondly, big sites all need a hook as they're so close in what they publish and make a story out of. A controversial review is guaranteed to generate more page hits, more discussion and yup, a lovely chunk of advertising revenue from all that extra click traffic. It's getting increasingly difficult to trust sites that offer up a low score that goes entirely against the weight of public and press opinion. I can't single Eurogamer out for that one but it's something I've seen far too often on a few sites who probably need to prop up the numbers.

Lastly, scores. Scores are shit. Scores mean absolutely nothing. Scores take someone's year or two (or longer) of hard graft on a project and dilute that effort down into a number that can make or break sales (as can a shitty / good metacritic rating). This is wrong - but why are scores used? Because publishers and PR won't have anything to do with sites that don't use them. It's all about juggling those marketing figures and you can bet your arse that most of the big name studios that went under in the last couple of years would love to see an end to scores and ratings on review websites.

Great thought provoking stuff though Tom. I'm still passionate enough about games to name a stinker or a star so I try my best to get that across in anything I write, but sometimes it's hard to get a point across in text and sometimes we all get it horribly horribly wrong :)

HairyArse - on 01/11/2011 at 08:09 wrote:
This will no doubt go against 'popular' opinion but anyone that has played a sufficient amount of Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer will know it's well worth a 10.

ilmaestro - on 01/11/2011 at 09:27 wrote:
imo scores were used too long before metacritic (and everything being published by a handful of megapubs) to say that they are solely down to publishers etc wanting them in there.

The way scores are often used now by a lot of sites, and the way they are interpreted by a lot of people, is wrong, but for me scores still have their place. It's still kind of fun to see what score EDGE gives a game, and I would not have paid even the slightest attention to the Batman games (especially the one just come out) were it not for seeing the review scores.

Ace Grace - on 01/11/2011 at 10:19 wrote:
I must admit I rarely take notice of review scores. If I think I will like a game I will buy it. I don't care if it gets a 2,3,4 etc.. out of ten.

I also rarely read reviews now. Can't be bothered (except for AATG reviews obviously). I usually watch the video reviews on ign and gametrailers.

I would much rather see the game in action.

Kay - on 01/11/2011 at 11:49 wrote:
Fantastic article. In a way I agree that scores are shit, and as far as I'm concerned, game reviews only need at three-scale rating system - good, decent, bad. That, plus the text, should tell you if the game's for you.

But then that would make things less interesting, wouldn't it? Everyone is obsessed with rating things. It doesn't matter that Uncharted 3 is good, since we all knew that was going to be the case anyway. More importantly, how does it compare to its predecessor? Or Batman: Arkham City? Or Skyrim? That's what people seem to care about. As much as we criticise reviews/scores, secretly games fans love all that shit. Like ilmaestro said, it's fun to see what score Edge will give to a game. It's like the film industry, and Oscars - that's what the people in the industry strive for. Since we have no decent equivalent in the gaming industry - not one that fans care about, anyway (does anyone remember which games won at the BAFTA awards? Didn't think so) - the metascore is the next best thing, really.

I've said this for years now, but I think proper reviews before a game's release are silly. It would lend the whole thing much more credence if critiques were written a few months after the game's release - similar to the "when the dust settles" articles here - and then get the metascore from that, if necessary. Because let's face it, most of the people complaining about the latest controversial 8/10 score that a site has given to a new game, will probably be the ones claiming that the game felt like a disappointment in hindsight on forums just a few months later.

peej - on 01/11/2011 at 12:01 wrote:
I still love Zzap 64's method. Happy Face if it's a good game, mediocre face if it's average, miserable angry face if it's crap. They did a percentage rating as well but you didn't even need to look at that to gauge the collective reviewer's opinions on a game.

I'd love to see that system make a return somewhere. We used to talk about Zzap as being the model for here but it's an unsustainable model for a site like ours.

Sillothian - on 01/11/2011 at 15:47 wrote:
Superb article Tom :-)

I think the focus on review scores has only been intensified by the rise of Metacritic. Ideally you would never have review scores and people would read the actual review itself to get an idea on how good the game is. Never going to happen though!

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