Grumpy Gurevitz: Why reviewing games is becoming harder

Gaming websites are very, very popular. Traditionally they were popular as it was the place you went to (if you didn’t wait for the magazine copy) to get the first review of a game. A review was important, really important, as often the review was the first place where you could really find out the details of a release. However over the least five years, the review has become less and less relevant for the large budget ‘super release’ games that are designed to hit the October to January release window.

A whole load of game, requiring a whole load of review.

The games due for release during that period this year such as Batman Arkham City, Battlefield 3, Modern Warfare 3, Skyrim, Uncharted 3 and so on have been previewed to the high heavens. We have seen a plethora of detailed written previews and, more importantly, huge amounts of streaming content. Some content has appeared in edited trailers, and others being over the shoulder camera footage of in-game content. Now this is not to suggest that games don’t need reviewing any more. Of course they do. However, it’s one thing playing the game for 10-30 minutes in bite sized chunks and another playing through the narrative and judging the experience in its entirety. Indeed recently we had the pleasure of previewing Bodycount, the new FPS from Codemasters. I’m happy to say that a ten minute playthrough showed the game had promise. Indeed for ten minutes it was quite fun. However, just see its Metacritic scores and read the well written reviews from a range of sites and it’s clear its content doesn’t hold together well for a full 5-10 hours (if you can get near to ten hours from it!) £40 game experience.

Looks great doesn't it! Plays great too for 10 minutes.

Yet, for many gamers, the reviews of these AAA releases about to be unleashed on us are superfluous. Many have already decided and pre-ordered. Myself included. Indeed the cult of the pre-order, often with the pre-order bonus, has increased this diminution of the role of the final review. To exacerbate the situation the publishers are giving out review copies closer to the release date on some titles, or due to the decreasing margins for websites the number of staff (and hence reviewers) are decreasing, whilst title lengths are increasing.

What does this mean in practicality? Reviewers sometimes play the game through on the easiest level setting. This might be followed by replays of select passages whilst on more extreme difficulty settings to test improved AI, and how the increase in difficulty measures up in terms of overall game experience. Of course, some areas of the game can’t be fully tested, such as many of the side missions (a requirement of many of the third person, open world games on the market) and it’s really hard to fully test the online part of a game before release in terms of robustness. Testing game modes though is something that we can all do, with many developers (not all though) offering open betas, often a month or more before release.

Uncharted 3 for example has had extensive testing, both for all PSN users and for PSN Plus users. Additionally, who interested in Battlefield 3 reading this has not played the BF3 beta that was available on PC and both consoles?

So what purpose does the review serve? Clearly some people don’t follow every article and preview. Some play on their console seasonally and are not aware of the betas. In addition there are still a healthy proportion of owners who don’t like playing online and for whom the single player narrative is the most important element. For them the review is still crucial; but even they have to accept that the degree of thoroughness a reviewer might have is limited and influenced by a great deal of pressure.

For everyone else, the review serves a different set of objectives. For some, they just enjoy games so much that they like reading about games (the same reason someone might choose to read a feature or commentary article like this). They like to see the energy and excitement a game can bring to a fellow game lover, and share in the glory of seeing someone else delight in a superb narrative and interactive experience.

However, there is also a negative reason to read reviews. Due to the betas, previews, video clips and hype games have focused upon them, they have fans and groupies before they even hit the shelves. This is where the review becomes a victim of the marketing machine. If the reviewer dares criticise or celebrate a game suddenly all the readers who have already made up their mind somehow feel personally violated and start attacking or supporting the review; and in some cases making it personal, focusing their attention on the reviewer.

"Modern Warefare 3 pisses on Battlefield 3. You got that? Say YES CHEF!"

This is an ugly and immature culture that is developing. It’s one thing to be into a brand, claiming that you really enjoyed previous incarnations – but to start attacking or supporting a game which you have not fully played is daft! Okay, so the reviewer might not have had the time to experience 100% of what the game offers, but at least they have the release copy and have had significantly more time with it than their readers.

Gaming has always had fanboys, but they mainly focused on arguing about consoles. When they did argue about games it was post release and they could claim to have played them. With publishers hyping games more and more, this situation will only get worse. Reviews will decrease and websites will turn to more news and feature based articles. Already some websites are encouraging reader reviews, which although democratising, can result in lower editorial standards across the industry as a whole.

Criticising is an art in itself. No reviewer has a divine right to know what is good or bad, but by playing a cross section of titles regularly they can develop a good knowledge of what is good, bad, inventive, well executed or clumsily brought to life. In a world where we are being bombarded with more and more content, via XBL, PSN, app stores, etc and still encouraged to purchase expensive £60 titles, we need ways of filtering out the bad from the good. Old fashioned reviewing is under threat and if it is eventually replaced by social reviews, we shall be worse off without it.

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Written by Steven G

Steven Gurevitz is the CEO of 2002 Studios Media LTD and a founder of gaming accessory company Asiiya. 2002 Studios started off as a music production company, but produces a range of content from videos to videogames. The company specialises in localizing content for global brands. He also owns the Urban Sound Label, a small niche e-label. He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor and co-owner CriticalGamer.co.uk. He enjoys FPS, Third person 'free world', narrative driven and portable gaming. He is a freelance music tech writer, having co-written the Music Technology Workbook and is a regular contributor to CriticalGamer.co.uk.

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