Game reviews? They get a 4/10…

Gaming is huge. Gaming is massive. Gaming is ginormous.

In the UK the video game industry generates more revenue than either movies or music, and it’s fast catching up with DVD sales. Not bad for a revolutionary new form of media that has been available commercially for less than forty years.

Gaming does offer exceptional value for money, typically providing over an hour of entertainment for each pound they cost. This may be one of the reasons that the gaming industry is booming even whilst consumers tighten their spending on other ‘luxuries’ in the wake of the worldwide financial crunch.

That said, with games retailing for up to £50 they hardly fall into the category of an impulse buy. Some casual gamers might pay out for a game based on the box art and the words on the back of the case, but most gamers are a bit more discerning with their purchases.

This is where game reviews come in. As well as (hopefully) providing a critical analysis of the game being reviewed, they should also help you determine whether that title you have your eye on is really worth parting with cold, hard cash for. Game reviews are BIG business…

To provide another comparison to other forms of media – book, film and music reviews often do not end with a final score, and if they do then it’ll usually be nothing more than a cursory ‘out of 5 stars’ analysis. In contrast, the score has become the focal point of game reviews, with many commenters and forum-goers of gaming sites admitting they simply skip reading the text and just look at the score.

THIS MUST STOP!

The text should be the most important part of the review as it contains the reviewers’ actual observances and opinions. The text should justify the score, but ideally the reader should be able to formulate their own opinion of the game after reading the review anyway. Scores are useless for judging games that may polarise opinions, or otherwise brilliant titles that suffer from one fatal flaw.

Score aggregator sites such as Gamerankings and Metacritic are fine to get a rough idea of the general feeling about a game, but you can’t really know whether a game may float your boat without actually reading a review. Review scores have been given a level of undue importance by the games industry, both by publishers handing out discretionary bonuses to developers based on how well their title scores, and more recently by Microsoft making Metacritic score one of the deciding factors on which XBLA games will be axed.

This overemphasis on the little number at the end of a reviewer’s critique is in danger of invalidating the very objective of reviewing. With many reviewers at major magazines and websites being offered various ‘sweeteners’ by publishers such as free flights, free merchandise, exclusive ‘first-looks’/previews and of course the right to review the finished product before anyone else, many review scores are being artificially inflated. This has resulted in some outlets’ average score now being 7/10 (*cough* IGN *cough*).

You could argue that with increased production values and more experienced developers that the average game is now better than ever before. But shouldn’t our definition of what makes an ‘average’ game evolve too? Should a game be rated in comparison to other games available in that genre, in comparison to all games, or just on a scale of how much the reviewer enjoyed playing it? These are difficult questions with no easy answers, which is maybe why we need a definitive method of gaming criticism.

The score is not the only problem that games reviews have, as many reviews focus too much on the ‘what’ and not enough on the ‘why’. They will state that ‘this feature is really fun’, but they’ll forget to add the all-important word ‘because…’. With constructive criticism like this reviews can ideally serve the additional purpose of being feedback for games developers.

So are there any solutions to the mess that game critics find themselves in? The few publications such as EDGE who have toyed with removing review scores altogether have received public outcry, so this doesn’t appear to be an option. Making the scores visually smaller can help, but putting the score on a completely separate page could result in even more people skipping past the text.

At the end of the day reviewers just have to do their best to present an objective, critical view of a game and let the public make their own mind up. A heartfelt plea to actually READ what we write couldn’t go amiss though…