When Reviews Go Bad, con't.


Why Bad Games get Glowing Reviews

"XXXX, for those who like single player and storyline, is an exceptional game. Gameplay = 4.5 out of 5 stars. Graphics = 4/5. Sound and Music = 4/5. Multiplayer = 4/5. Overall Ė 4.5 out of 5 stars."John Romero on a bad hair day

Can you guess what game was being reviewed above? How about Daikatana? One of the worst games of the last few years, described by Erik Wolpaw as "long stretches of frustration punctuated by tedium, 4.6/10" yet to read this review the game is worthy of its own partition on your hard drive. Another example: Squad Leader, a much anticipated game that was a resounding disappointment, best summed up by Bruce Geryk when he stated in his Gamespot review that "Squad Leader somehow manages to strip most all of the enjoyment out of what could have been a good game (3.8/10 stars rating.)" But, had you read another published, glowing review you would have been told that "Squad Leader is an attractive game with solid options. Öthe program is immersiveÖ" and, in another shrine to reviewer ineptness "Their (sic) just isnít anything to complain about in this, perhaps the best tactical level wargame in recent history."

I picked these examples out of the plethora of reviews praising un-praiseworthy games to make a point. Yes, sometimes reviews differ due to a simple difference of opinion amongst experienced reviewers. Some games have enough good blended in with some problems that opinions can be mixed, based upon the priorities of the reviewer. But some games (such as the two mentioned above) are plagued with enough problems that one can only mourn the waste of polycarbonate used to make the CD. Yet somehow you will still find reviews that try to convince you that these cow patties are steak. They arenít just differing opinions: they either misconstrue or just plain miss bugs and problems that Mr. Magoo could find in his sleep. Theyíre inaccurate, misleading, and just plain wrong.

So whatís the deal? Are these unjustifiably glowing reviews proof of that Usenet cliché, the paid-off reviewer? Or a fear of pissing off an advertiser? Letís address the "advertiser power" myth right up front: in all of my years as a freelancer Iíve never had an editor try to soften up a critical review, no matter who the publisher. For example, I remember writing a very harsh review of one of the EA Sports NHL series hockey sims a few years ago, a full two pages, and wondering how the editor of Computer Games Strategy Plus (now Computer Games Magazine) would take it (advertisers donít get much bigger than Electronic Arts.) Steve Bauman, sports editor and EIC, wrote a short reply: "Give Ďem Hell, Lackey!" Iíve had the same freedom to state my views in Computer Gaming World, and Iíve heard the same from other writers who work for the other major outlets. Freelancers donít give a tinkerís damn about advertising, and editors are generally completely separated from the ad and sales departments. So if a rotten game gets a good review, itís generally due to much more unexciting reasons.

The most common explanation for this type of review is an inexperienced writer. Inexperienced either in the genre being reviewed, computer gaming in general, or (often) both. For example, the review of a hockey sim that starts out with "Iím not really a fan of hockey, and in fact I canít understand how anyone can stand to watch it on TVÖ" but then goes on to review the game, ignoring that fact that the AI is non-existent, the puck physics would be acceptable only on the moon, that real NHL players donít routinely jump 10 feet in the air to avoid a check, and more. Said reviewer then states "this has to be the best hockey game ever produced on any platform, ever!" Likewise, a reviewer may be familiar with the topic but inexperienced in computer gaming. Thus, a real life military aviation fan may play Top Gun: Hornetís Nest and, having never played EAW, Falcon 4, or Red Baron II, not know that the PC flight sim bar is much higher than what he is experiencing with the game heís reviewing. I recently read a review of Triple Play Baseball consisting of 12 paragraphs. Two paragraphs were an intro, discussing Earl Weaver Baseball; five paragraphs talked about graphics; one very long paragraph described sound; one paragraph described very bad AI; one described control problems; one paragraph complained that he couldnít put a pitcher on the bullpen; the last paragraph was the conclusion, which was "this is a GREAT game for any hardcore baseball fan." Sigh. Examples abound in which an inexperienced writer claims that this FPS is revolutionary or that strategy game offers something unprecedented, when in fact said features were present in games of yore, and often executed better in the older games. The reviewer doesnít intend to write an inaccurate review, heís just too ignorant to produce anything better.

There are some factors more insidious than simple inexperience and ignorance that result in higher than justified ratings. While not directly related to advertising or corporate pressure, these factors are a result of the type of relationships that writers can develop with programmers, producers, and PR folks. Once you get fairly experienced in the writing game, youíll find yourself regularly chatting with and meeting the people who produce the games youíre reviewing. Life would be a lot easier if the people who create and promote bad games were evil cretins and the people who create good games were all cheerful saints, but alas, life is not so simple. For some inexperienced writers, it is very difficult to know and genuinely like someone and then write a review that destroys the game to which that person has dedicated the last two years of their life. Thus, you will see some articles in which the reviewer goes out of his way to emphasize the good he can find and blunt the criticism of the bad, desperately trying to avoid hurting someone he knows and likes. The problem, of course, is that the writer works for the readers. And the irony is that the reviewer owes everyone Ė reader, game designer, PR rep, editor - precisely the same thing: a fair, accurate, articulate review.

A related but more grievous problem is particularly dangerous for newer writers, although anyone can fall prey. This is the non-critical review that is written in fear of losing an industry contact, not because a reviewer is trying to avoid hurting the industry playerís feelings out of some misplaced kindness, but because the writer values the relationship due to some ego rush or flow of product. There are some reviewers that somehow believe if they can post "oh, I was talking to Joe Programmer, and he told me some inside infoÖ" then their "status" in the gaming world is enhanced. It can be heady stuff for someone who is a gamer to suddenly have access to the people developing the games, and there are some reviewers who have become notorious for giving games with some significant flaws 5 stars just because the designer made him feel like an insider. In a similar vein, some writers fear that a critical review will cause their source of free games and hardware to dry up. In some rare cases it might Ė but that is absolutely no excuse for lying to your readers. Experienced writers realize that industry access has a lot more to do with your visibility (as reflected in the number of and status of the outlets for which you write,) which is a direct result of your credibility. And no matter what, writers can never forget the prime directive of reviewing: your customer is your readers.

While on this topic, thereís another problem for which veteran freelancer Brett Todd often castigates (correctly) his writing brethren Ė the inflated rating, due to the refusal of some writers and outlets to use the full range of the rating scale. Some examples (again, all real:)

  • (5/10) "loudly, pointedly, and conspicuously refuse to buy this game or have anything to do with it." [So Ė what does it take to get a score below a 5?]

  • (50%) "Öis one of the sorriest first person shooters to come out in years; it has absolutely no redeeming qualities." [I suppose a game with a 30% rating would have to suck the redeeming qualities out of your other games?]

  • (67%) "Öhas been a waste of years of hype and delays, and is better left on the shelf till it hits the bargain bin, comes with an apology, and has a Microsoft-size AI fix." [and yet it scores in the top third of their rating scale.]

  • (77%) "Why did they release this game when the shelves are filled with similar yet better games is a question we canít answer. Just pass it by." [but good enough to score 77/100?]

Why good games get trashed