Why reviews don’t matter (much) to me.

Back in days of yore we had two ways to try to suss out whether we should buy a new game: wait for our friends to play them, or read reviews in a (print) gaming magazine. Sometimes a game would be on store shelves for weeks before we could read reviews. Can you imagine waiting that long? These days if reviews aren’t available on launch day sites feel they need to post an article about “Where is our review of [insert game name here.]”.

Then came the Era of Demos. We’d get demos either in the ‘cover disk’ of print magazines or from online services like Compuserve, AOL, or GEnie. It was a golden age; virtually every game had some kind of demo we could try for ourselves. (OK maybe that statement is colored by nostalgia a bit, but there were a lot more demos than we have today.) Now that demos have more or less died out we have Twitch streams and “Let’s Play” videos on YouTube where we can just watch someone play a game and form our own opinions.

Demos started the decline of the game review as a purchase recommendation tool, I think, and things have just gone downhill from there. I’m sure there are still some people that read them and use them as their primary reason for buying or not buying, but I’m guessing most of us are like me. We might read a review but we put a lot more weight on asking friends on social media and checking out gameplay streams. That assumes we didn’t get into the almost inevitable beta and we didn’t buy into Early Access. If we missed these options we probably know someone who had access to them and we can ask them if a game is any good. At this point I read reviews, if I read them at all, as a form of entertainment rather than as a buying-decision tool.

I was thinking about this because of Star Wars: Battlefront and Halo 5. The first one got pretty mediocre reviews, the second got rave reviews. If you hit up Metacritic the cumulative reviews aren’t that far apart but if you drill in you’ll see the more “serious” sites gave SW:Battlefront pretty low scores. For example Shack News, Giant Bomb and Destructoid each gave it a 60/100. These same outlets gave Halo 5 a 90, 80 and 70 respectively. [This is why the ‘cumulative score’ at Metacritic is crap, but the site is useful just as a handy way to skim review scores of many individual sites.]

The bottom line is that professional game reviewers, taken as an aggregate, think Halo 5 is better than Star Wars: Battlefront.

I own both games, and I like Battlefront more. That’s subtly different from saying Battlefront is the better game. If I were writing reviews of both of them I’d probably score Halo 5 higher as well. But on a personal level, Halo 5 unlocked at midnight on a Monday and and I played it like mad and finished the campaign about 24 hours later. And I’ve barely touched it since. I bought Star Wars Battlefront at launch too, and 5 weeks later I’m still playing it a few nights/week.

The most consistent fault reviewers found with Battlefront is that it is a ‘shallow’ experience. And y’know, I think that’s why I like it. I’ve tried Halo 5 MP a few times and it feels like serious business. People get pissed when they lose, which makes me feel like I’m really letting them down if I don’t play well. Y’know what I don’t find fun? Pressure. I get stressed out just contemplating playing Halo 5 MP. I’m not an e-sports jock and in general I’m not a very competitive person. I play games to have fun, not to feel like shit because I let down a team (and not to make someone else feel like shit for losing, either).

I’m sure there are people who take Star Wars: Battlefront seriously too, but I’m blissfully unaware of them. After my side takes a thrashing and we’re waiting for the next round to start, everyone is doing ridiculous emotes and that’s the only measure I have of their state of mind. I’m going to assume angry people aren’t doing silly emotes. And when my side wins handily…still silly emotes while waiting for the next round.

The game is also chaotic and random enough that I never even know how I’m doing. I’ve been in first place and I’ve been in last place, sometimes on the same night. I’d say I average a little below the mid-point of the scoreboard.

Anyway I’m getting off-track. The point is for me personally Battlefront was the better use of my gaming budget, even though I agree Halo 5 is objectively a better game. Had I only been able to afford one of the two, professional reviews would’ve pointed me towards Halo 5; they would’ve steered me wrong.

How can we fix this? I’m not sure we can. The problem is that most game reviewers aren’t like me, nor can they play like me. If I’d had to play Battlefront for 5 hours/day for a week in order to get a review written I’d probably feel much less favorable towards it. There are a lot of modes in the game and some of them I really don’t like, so I just ignore those modes and focus on the ones I do enjoy. A reviewer can’t do that, s/he has to review every aspect of a game. And almost by definition a game reviewer is more ‘hardcore’ than I am; if they were casual gamers they probably never would’ve gotten into reviewing games.

None of this is speculation. Back in those old print days I was a professional game reviewer and one of the editors of a print gaming magazine. I know that tight deadlines impacted how I felt about a game. Also over time popular genres would get reviewed slightly less favorably because I’d played so many of them already. For me it was the days when real-time strategy games were on top. When I was playing my 25th RTS of the year I had a different view of things from the reader who was playing his second.

I wish I had a suggestion for how to ‘fix’ reviews, but I don’t. The only thing I can fix is me, and my fix is just not to pay very much attention to them anymore and instead ask like-minded friends how they felt about a game, or failing that, watch someone play on Twitch or YouTube.

6 thoughts on “Why reviews don’t matter (much) to me.

  1. I haven’t given it much thought, but reading this, I think maybe I still read reviews just to get the reviewer’s insight to certain aspects of the game, or possibly its development, that I was unaware of. Also what emotional state, if any, did he express about the game? But I don’t think I’ve purchased a game based off a review for a long, long time.

    If anything these days it’s peer pressure from You Guys� that causes the majority of my impulse purchases. LOL

    But I have noticed a not-entirely gradual trend toward rejecting the YouTube and Twitch scene initially to checking YouTube first today, and watching (at least for a short while) Twitch streams of games I’m curious about but likely won’t jump the fence for. Rainbow 6 Siege comes to mind. I’ve been watching a ton of streams but it’s painfully obvious that success needs communication and I don’t have a gang of friends who I can play that regularly with.

    Not to mention I have issues with the recent trend of charging full $60 prices for MP-only games like Siege and Battlefront that didn’t add anything to the mix to replace the SP content they cut out. I’m not paying extra for half a game, if that makes sense? If the developers had pushed the envelope a bit and created something new to take the place of the missing SP campaign, or at the very least released more MP maps and modes rather than less, perhaps I’d have a different perspective. But they didn’t, so screw ’em.

  2. Tell me again WHY we aren’t running a game review site for older people? XD

    Which is only half-joking. I ditched “reviews” a long time ago because reviewers always seemed more excited about their opportunities to play to the audience they want, which I think does a disservice to the act of providing actual intel about a game. Reviews will always only be relevant to those who agree with them because they wear their objectivity on their sleeves. We need an Edward R. Murrow of video game reviews: no adjectives, no “look how witty I am and how many swear words I know”, just facts.

    I don’t mind the YT and Twitch gameplay, but I’m still of the mind that if the purpose of the video is to ACTUALLY review the product, review the product in real time, but edit the damn thing to touch on the salient bits. No one should sit through an hour and a half of someone navigating menus while talking about the session they just finished (but didn’t record) and what impression it gave. I’d prefer a “let’s learn” rather than a “let’s play” kind of video where the reviewer is recording AND playing for the first time; spoilers, sure, but there’s also the “we’re figuring this out together” kind of vibe that is USUALLY what I (and I suspect many others) are really looking for when they start a new game and have to form an opinion about it.

  3. Go forward, young man, and set a new trend! Let’s Learn with Scopique, a new YouTube channel coming soon! Don’t forget to click that Subscribe button!

  4. Speaking as someone who has believed for over four decades that the review is as high an art form as poetry, novels or any other aspect of the written word, the entire idea that reviews exist to aid anyone in their purchasing decisions is and always has been an anathema to me. George Orwell, Pauline Kael, Lester Bangs, Nick Kent, Clive James and the scores, hundreds, thousands of writers who have used the review as a stage on which to perform didn’t end up having their collected reviews published in hardbound editions because of the value of their buying advice.

    When I read reviews, which I have done since I was twelve or so, I read them for the quality of the prose, the beauty of the language, the wit and insight of the reviewer. Over time, if I read the work of a particular reviewer, I will come to appreciate his or her tastes and foibles and to be able to offset them against my own to make a judgment on whether I am likely to agree or disagree with whatever conclusions are reached or observations drawn. In that way, as a by-product, a review may occasionally be of some small, slight value as buying advice. That’s it.

    In the glory days of the print review of video games I bought every issue of Crash! magazine and read every review. I still own all of them and sometimes dig them out and read them for pleasure all over again. I never had any intention of buying any of those games but I knew sharp, funny, intelligent writing when I saw it. I don’t watch much in the way of YouTube reviewing but the little I have seen has something of that spirit. My main complaint would be that it takes a LOT longer to watch a Let’s Play or a video review or a Livestream than it ever did to read a 500 word review. I just don’t have the time for it.

  5. I skew a little in Bhagpuss’ direction, though not as extreme. 😉 I enjoy long form games journalism mostly for the language, narrative, witticisms – the Kieron Gillen style is what I find most enjoyable.

    A single review I usually take with large grains of salt, the reviewer may like very different things from me. I do give a certain amount of credence to aggregated reviews, more to answer the question of “is this game broken or unenjoyable for a large amount of people?” so that I can steer clear of spending money on buggy content that would impede any chance of enjoyment.

    These days, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on my own personal likes and dislikes in a game and can evaluate just by scanning the Steam page and some screenshots (very rarely a video) whether I will actually spend time playing said game or no.

    It helps to be cheapskate enough to be unconcerned with playing a game at its peak, when everyone else is playing/talking about it. By the time the price drops to a level I want to pick it up at, plenty of people have already assessed it for me. 😉

  6. Publishers seem determined to have reviews online at or before launch (if not, they post something about when their review will be available) which suggests to me that they, at least, think reviews are intended to help educate potential purchasers. Otherwise, why the hurry? If the intent of a review is simply to entertain, they could come out any time.

    So no matter why we read them, I think the publishers still see them as being a tool for consumers. (And then there’s the back-channel talk of payment/bonuses to game developers being tied to metacritic scores that we hear about from time to time.)

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