I, like many of you, have been guilty of a heinous crime. It’s one that I am ashamed of, but I hope you understand:
I neglected to read a review and looked at the score.
I know, I know…the guilt has been punishment enough, and I hope never to do it again — but I will. How can I not? How can you not? A score is there to help us — an exclusive summary for the busy gamer. We should be able to look at the review score guidelines for a website and, in the future, judge a game by the score that website deems it is worth. Right?
Hell no. But in these days of Metacritic and Game Rankings, how can we avoid this lethargy within our ranks?
To answer this, we have to look at a different aspect of gaming culture: Fannboisaurus Rex. The fanboy came, saw, and conquered by multiplying. It slipped into gamers’ ears while they became absorbed by their Nintendos, Xboxes, and PlayStations before burrowing its way into their brains and affecting their tolerance and judgement…oh, and their patience too. Ever since the console war of the current generation kicked off, we have seen the fanboy grow. They demand perfect ‘10/10’ scores for their exclusive games and laugh when the rival console lands an ‘8/10’ triple-A title.
As a result, the actual journalism part of game journalism becomes less relevant and those numbers at the end of a review become oh so important. We only need to look at Killzone 2 to understand the immense pressure gaming writers suffer in choosing a score for the game. They can compliment it all the way through their review and have a legitimate reason for its 8/10 – but that’s not enough for the fanboys. They erupt, lava flows and it leaves the rivals to roast the game from their pedestal. Extinction of the Fannboisaurus Rex would be humane.
Killzone 2, at time of writing, has a 94% rating on Metacritic – making it the third highest rated PS3 game behind multi-platform masterpiece Grand Theft Auto IV and cuteness simulator LittleBigPlanet. It’s the second highest scoring exclusive on the platform. The score is impressive and the PS3 fanboys smile in glee as those years of defending its initial CGI videos have paid off. But looking more into the actual text of these reviews makes me doubt the validity of its 94% rating. While the later reviews, from the hardened likes of esoteric-loving UK game mag Edge, will no doubt bring the score down a notch (Total Video Games just landed it with an 8/10; go and check out some of the score-related comments despite its praise for the game), it’s the early reviews that leave the lasting impression. And should later reviews slam the game, it will only heighten the hype and the talking points.
Killzone 2’s first salvo of reviews came straight from the glossy ‘Official Playstation Magazine’ brand. The US and Australian versions of the magazine awarded it 10/10, while the UK version delivered a 9/10. So out of the five 10/10 scores given to Killzone 2, two are from ‘official’ magazines. One is also from a PS3 blog that, admittedly, I haven’t heard of before. I had a look at the website, but considering I don’t speak Swedish, it’s awfully hard to determine what has been said. But I was worried by the anorak-esque inclusion of an image that shows all the upgrade/ranks/medals. The fourth of the five reviews comes from the Portuguese branch of very well respected website, Eurogamer.
After the main Eurogamer portal awarded Killzone 2 with a 9/10, alongside the Portuguese 10/10, head editor of the main portal Tom Bramwell posted an editor’s blog entitled ‘Exclusive reviews?’ – explaining that Eurogamer had regional (European presumably) exclusivity on reviewing the game. It’s an interesting read, but it left me questioning why Eurogamer had to defend their integrity and how we know Sony had no say in the score. Money talks. It has actually made me suspicious of a site I enjoy. So out of the five 10/10 reviews featured on Metacritic for Killzone 2, four have aroused a certain suspicion in me. The fifth is from Gamepro, another magazine that requires purchase.
So of the five full score reviews for Killzone 2, three are in magazines unavailable to me (in the UK) and two are on foreign sites. I don’t want to doubt the integrity of these sites, but it’s hard to match the scores with the text.
Maybe I’m being paranoid here. Maybe I am also falling foul in trying to discount the importance of review scores by analysing them myself. After all, Killzone 2 is a game I want to play. It may not be a 10/10, but it’s apparently the best FPS to grace the PlayStation brand. So who should take that away from PS3 owners?
What I worry about is the pressure that the writers have to cope with; in one ear they have the editor’s voice ringing, while in the other are the fans. Then there are the thoughts of the men ‘upstairs’ that surely swirl around in their heads – ever vigilant of the company’s goals and not to upset certain ‘friends.’
Killzone 2 is the PS3’s most important title. It’s make-or-break time, and the reviews need to be good. Sony knows that, the fans know that, and so do the reviewers. This kind of pressure can only be found on the internet. Fans no longer passively write in to magazines to voice how far off the mark a review is – most of the time those letters end up un-published. Now they just head over to NeoGAF and spout indecencies to the hardcore about this review and that review. You only need to look at the past to understand how important review scores — not text, scores — are to fans and the moneymen.
Let’s go back to ‘Gerstmanngate’. In November 2007, Jeff Gerstmann was the Editorial Director of Gamespot. By December 2007, he was unemployed – sacked by Gamespot. Jeff wrote a review on Eidos Interactive’s Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. At this time, Eidos had been heavily advertising on the website. I remember Gamespot running related competitions and transforming the site into one big ad for the game. Jeff gave the game a 6.0, citing its lack of polish as a major deterrent – a score and an opinion shared by other reviewers. The official story still isn’t known, but the fact that the review was published just before Jeff’s dismissal was telling. Others soon followed Jeff out the door, citing that they could not longer work for a gaming website running blatant advertorials. The fans were behind Jeff and sticking it to the ‘man.’ But about a year previous to this incident, Jeff was the public enemy of Nintendo fans.
Cast your mind back to November 2006 when Nintendo released what was to be the magnum opus of the Zelda world – Twilight Princess. The game received fantastic reviews across the board. But Jeff Gerstmann (at that point, still of Gamespot) was about to buck that trend. He had the audacity to rate the Wii version of the game at 8.8. Yes, 0.2 off of the bare minimum 9/10 review that Nintendo fanboys demanded of gaming sites. The forums lit up, the mass mob of Nintendo’s most hardcore fans slowly marched toward the site (being the internet it was, you know, quite a fast virtual march…) and Jeff was under pressure. But Jeff’s Wii score wasn’t the lowest for the game. According to Metacritic, Game Almighty awarded the game with 78%. Yet because it was an early review and it was the mighty Gamespot, the choice was made to grief it. It was a farce. Yes, Jeff’s points behind why the game was worth an 8.8 were a little iffy, but the fact that other 80-89% reviews also list the exact same points prove that he wasn’t alone in finding it an old dog with a few new tricks.
To sum up, reviews need to change. We can’t just rely on Metacritic to give us an overall score. It’s not as clear as good or bad. It’s personal preference. RPGs aren’t for everyone. Strategies aren’t for everyone. Heck, even FPSs aren’t for everyone. Game journalism needs to evolve, and needs to put more importance on what the reviewers say, not the score printed at the end. On that note…
Pros: Now more democratic than the magazine era, everyone can sound off, good graphics
Cons: Money, advertising, fanboys, too much focus on the score (review, not musical)