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.