There's been a bit of a kerfuffle in the past week with critics, developers, readers and fans alike all getting themselves into a bit of a muddle over review scores for Gran Turismo 5, a number of reviewers having lambasted the game's damage modelling without necessarily acknowledging the fact that realistic damage unlocks at level 40. There's been a significant amount of criticism across a wide number of sites, ours included, levelled at the reviewing process, asking what constitutes a 'thorough' review. A defensive reaction would have been to simply say nothing as others have done, or to perhaps angrily retort against slights against our professionalism in these respects, but quite frankly it's a subject that needs to be talked about.
This is not a defence piece by any means. Brendan's review was a fair and honest appraisal of the game and, let's be fair, a predominantly positive one that garnered a good score. Rather I hope for this to provide something of a backdrop to a wider debate about approaching video games and the review process in general.
There can be no doubt that it's far easier to review some games than it is to review others. Any relatively self-contained, singleplayer game - such as Super Mario Galaxy, Dead Space or The Force Unleashed - is a simple process. You play the game, you beat the game, you maybe check it out on a few difficulty levels, you review it. Games that have a relatively linear strutare a cinch, it's all very straightforward. But so many games offer more these days, even before we move into the realm of multiplayer.
RPGs can take entire days to play through, open-world sandbox titles tend to have a story that allows the reviewer to give their approach some structure, but 100% completion can take ages and, with the yearly calendar filling up more and more each year, sometimes that's just not feasible.
Then there are the more expansive titles, as I like to call them - games that require you to sink some sort of predetermined length of time into them before you can legitimately say 'that's enough'. Sports titles are the first that spring to mind. Let's take FIFA or PES, for example. There are things to tick off - checking out all of the game modes on offer gives the reviewer a nice list to work through, but even then do you need to play four live seasons, or complete a half decade in Master League? Where do you draw the line? And then, of course, you have to study how the thing actually plays on the pitch, which requires time and a certain amount of dedication.
Driving games like GT5 are broadly similar and the question that every reviewer asks themselves when confronted by a game proudly bearing the tag 'Time Sink' is 'how much is enough?' It can be a two way thing. There'll be games that seem excellent to begin with only to find out later on that there's as much depth to the thing as a paddling pool (average yet glossy hack and slash titles come to mind). Conversely, there are games that start off terribly, but later blossom, butterfly-like into solid titles with real merit (ahem...Final Fantasy XIII).
But everyone's experiences and approaches are different. Reviewing requires a certain methodical approach, but technical checklisting can ruin a game's experience, as can overexposure. And what are you supposed to do when confronted by sheer mediocrity and awfulness. Do you give a slapdash party game the same 30 hours you would a triple-A title? And what about never-ending games? What about MMOs?
From an honest, editorial perspective it would be naive to suggest that time is not a pressing factor, particularly for online games coverage. Video game websites are not the niche they once were, and it's a heavily competitive environment. Whilst I'm not attempting to justify sloppy workmanship, being pragmatic means recognising that there are mitigating concerns that go alongside managing the content of a website. You're constantly aware of release dates and the actions of your competition.
Being on the front line means exposure. Exposure means traffic. Traffic means virtual life. In an ideal world we'd all have as much time as we like, there'd be no competition and people would flock to our writing like moths dry humping a lightbulb. But the world of online games journalism, unless you're one of the big boys (and even then there's a lot of pushing and shoving) is akin to standing in a packed room, filled with noise and activity, trying to make your voice heard to someone on the other side. Without traffic, websites die. It's as simple as that. It means offering something a little different or, if you're a small site looking to make your way in the world of online games journalism, it means getting the jump on your peers.
More than 'what', though, reviews deal with 'why'. Why you should consider purchasing or not purchasing the game or, more pertinently, why you might enjoy it (or not) if you do. Wikipedia can tell you what you need to know about what's actually in the game, a review is there to let you know if it's any good. The authoritative voice that many reviewers adopt (and we've all done it) sometimes suggests that there can be no quarrel with the material. But reviews are far from definitive, they're simply, at they're core, someone's opinion. Reacting to said opinion as if you'd expected it to be gospel truth is frankly ridiculous.
With that in mind, let's come back to the issue of damage modelling in GT5. Is it wrong that a reviewer doesn't grind their way up to level 40 to unlock realistic damage? I don't think so necessarily. The fact that you can sink 30+ hours into that game and not even approach that target says a lot, and there's a far more interesting debate to be had as to why the hell it's not an option from the start in the first place. (The hastily announced damage patch only serves to underline a certain amount of trial and error). We're starting to see far more in terms of staggered reviews. Games TM, for example, will deliver a frontline review and then follow that up a month later with a supplemental appraisal of the game's multiplayer mode. Sites like Joystiq will often follow up an initial review with a detailed counter a few weeks further on. For our own part, we've recently trialled a few follow-up pieces of Halo: Reach, Black Ops, Move and Kinect and we hope to continue that going forward.
As reviewers, there's no doubt a certain amount of respect to be shown to those who've worked hard to deliver the games in question, to give their fruits of labour a balanced and fair appraisal, but that also extends out to readers, to you as well. And with that in mind we'd love to know what you think, not just about reviewing games but your approach to playing them too. What games you've maybe found offputting to begin with, but rewarding at the end, or titles that you've had to simply throw down in spite of optimistic promises later on or a bright start that's faded quickly. This article hasn't answered a great many questions and has posed a number more, but such is the nature of a critical industry still rather in its infancy.