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."
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
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,
(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
Why good games get trashed