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Most reviews aren’t worth reading

posted on March 6th, 2009 by jackson

It’s not very often that I actually read a game review. Over the years I’ve realized it saves a lot of time to just check Metacritic’s aggregated score, or maybe read the excerpts that it lists.

Why don’t I actually read what the reviewers have to say? Because their score is all they have to say. It was a while ago when I first realized that all their words are only there to validate that number. I don’t think anyone cares if the reviewer has something to say about a game, it’s the final percentage that matters.

Reviewers get their fair share of criticism though, and a lot of resounding complaints. Are they being objective? Are they getting paid by the publishers? Is the score fair? I have my own to throw in. Is the reviewer a talented writer with something interesting to say? The answer is almost always “no.”

I don’t dislike reading reviews. For example I love Roger Ebert’s reviews. I like him not because he’s not getting paid to advertise, or because his scores are completely fair, or because his perspective is unbiased. It’s because for every movie he reviews he has something insightful to say. I’ll read reviews of his movies that I don’t plan to ever watch because he’s simply a good and intelligent writer. His tastes are often completely different from my own, and he’s certainly biased, but that doesn’t stop him from being worth reading.

Reviews can be very good and even popular. Books of reviews are published and widely read. Imagine that! Ebert has published plenty due to his popularity, and there are other good ones like Harlan Ellison’s Watching. Why would someone pay money to read a review for a movie that they’ve already seen? Because the reviews are interesting and thought provoking, and simply well written. Can you imagine paying money for a volume of IGN’s reviews from over the years? It’s bad enough reading them one at a time for free.

Not all game reviews are bad. I enjoy “indie” reviews such as those by my colleagues here on videolamer. Zero Punctuation is one of my favorites because of the way it makes entertaining and intelligent comments about games and the industry as a whole, even if it completely misses the point of the game it’s reviewing. Reviews don’t have to be 100% objective and methodically evaluate every aspect of game design. Games aren’t a math equation with a variable for graphics and controls and so on.

If games want to be taken seriously as an art then their reviews need to be a serious art. Stilted uninteresting reviews make the game they’re reviewing look bad by association. If you want me to actually read what you have to say, then say something worth reading.

4 Comments

  1. jay said on March 7, 2009:

    I happened to stumble upon the Diehard GameFAN site today and the review structure struck me as hilarious. They have a long About section that trumpets how they do things differently –

    “Also unlike other reviews, we have eliminated a numerical score. We feel that due to the lack of actual journalism in the industry, too many readers, as well as publishers look at the number associated with the review rather than the content itself.”

    But then the actual reviews are chopped up into a dozen little pieces and each one gets its own score, only here’s the thing – and get ready to have your mind blown – instead of numbers they use words ranging from “Bad” to “Unsurpassed.” Here is the final verdict on a game:

    “The Scores
    Story: Above Average
    Graphics: Poor
    Sound: Good
    Control and Gameplay: Above Average
    Replayability: Good
    Balance: Bad
    Originality: Poor
    Addictiveness: Good
    Appeal Factor: Bad
    Miscellaneous: Good
    FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME”

    I guess it’s something that they at least do lip service to the idea of being journalists and giving readers something other than a Consumer Reports laundry list of crap.

  2. christian said on March 7, 2009:

    I know the following argument is old hat, but Consumer Reports style reviews are bullshit for so many reasons. For one, the actual Consumer Reports buys all the products themselves. That leads to a great elimination in bias that game publications simply cannot (or will not) do. Second, so much of reviewing is subjective. I’d say it is pretty easy to state whether one vacuum cleaner picks up more dirt or runs longer. But saying that a game clearly has excellent graphics? Not so easy. Personally, I think the Killzone 2 demo looked like shit, and telling me how many polys it is pushing won’t change that, because they are not used well.

    I know these are expensive products, but continuing to ensure that Racist Bobby, age 16, isn’t wasting his allowance (because god forbid he gets a job) preordering a piece of shit is not worth it.

  3. Mark B said on March 9, 2009:

    I’d buy the IGN book, used, Once it was one cent with 3.99 shipping at Amazon.

    Like with Ebert, if you can get a feel for who the reviewer is, that helps you know what’s going on. Any composite ranking, however, regardless of if it is Metacritic or morons reviewing the shipping of their God of War game at Amazon, is useless unless it has at least 40 or more reviews.

    Better is looking at what a several people who gave it five to seven out of ten had to say. They will mention the good and the bad. When you read four people say that the plot is moronic, voice acting of the Engrish is horrible, but the customization of your robot/sword/car totally rocks, then you get a feel for what’s really going on.

    However, “control is iffy” disqualifies all games, even if only one person says it.

  4. pat said on March 15, 2009:

    i agree that reading the least favorable reviews is the best strategy to determine whether i will like a game.

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