This month we have managed to shock a few readers by giving four of the year’s biggest releases – Fallout 4, Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, Star Wars: Battlefront and Rise of the Tomb Raider – three stars out of five. All are decent in a lot of ways, all have intriguing ideas and look beautiful – but each of them is lacking in fundamental areas, whether that’s about original content, the depth of the mechanics, or basic functionality. Three stars, though, means they’re fundamentally good games. Three stars does not mean we’re haters.
That people are surprised by three star reviews for AAA games is indicative of an era in which effectively reviewing a video game on launch is becoming increasingly untenable. Until five years ago, it was a fairly straightforward process. The publisher would send a new game out on disc, several weeks before its release date. This disc would contain everything the final game had to offer. The reviewer would then play it for a few days, often to completion, and then write a definitive impression – complete with a score. There were occasions where reviewers were forced to assess an incomplete version of the game, in which case the publisher would send a list of known bugs and beg that you ignore them, because they’d all be sorted before release. Usually they were. That’s how game reviews functioned for about 30 years.
Things are different now. For a start, publishers don’t send code out weeks in advance anymore – that would be too risky in an age of bit torrents. Instead, publications determined to get a review out on day one will be asked to attend special events, where access to the review code is strictly controlled and monitored. You get two or three days with the game in a hotel or office, and if there’s a multiplayer mode, you’ll play it on a local area network. Furthermore, most modern console and PC titles are released in an incomplete state: publishers can rely on the ability to provide post-release patches and updates because our contemporary machines have broadband internet connections. So that’s what they generally do. This is why at the Guardian we rarely publish reviews on launch day. Our writers play the games at home, with standard internet access, and on public servers. Or else, what are you actually reviewing?
The product released on day one is now usually only part of the story. There will also be lots of online functionality, which can only really be tested post-release, because it has a tendency to collapse (see Battlefield 4, SimCity and Grand Theft Auto: Online); there may also be free or paid-for downloadable content, which often forms a key part of the experience. For example, The Last of Us was already an amazing game, but a complete appraisal must now also consider Left Behind, the brilliant DLC story sequence that brought considerable extra depth to the character of Ellie.
The major game publishers no longer view their products as games, they see them as platforms. Destiny got mediocre reviews on its release, but the original version of the game was only ever a sort of pilot for the experience to come – yes, it was a pilot that cost gamers £40, but then, all early adopters in the online multiplayer sector are effectively taking a punt; they’re gambling on enough other players joining in to make it fun, and to make supporting the online infrastructure financially viable for the developer. These days, you’re not a consumer when you buy a new game, you’re an investor. That’s a weird psychological leap to make.
At the same time we have the rise of the early access model where certain titles, especially in the indie community, remain largely unfinished for years. Should we review them when they reach alpha, or beta, or when they’re finally “launched” several years later? Should a review score evolve alongside a game? That is what the game site Polygon now believes, often tweaking the score for individual games at different phases in their release process. In this way, criticism becomes a sort of progress report, a medical examination. The idea of a definitive assessment is fading away in an era where there are no fixed release dates, where everything can be patched.
But there are also more fundamental problems lurking beneath all of this. Since the very beginning, game reviews have operated in a confusing no man’s land between arts criticism and product assessment. Games writing emerged from the specialist computer magazines of the late 70s, where they’d be assessed in the same way as new disk drives or dot matrix printers. Reviews would compartmentalise each game into its constituent parts – graphics, sound, playability – with each often separately rated in ever more complex conclusion boxes. This approach reached its logical conclusion with the 1980s magazine ACE, which reviewed games out of 1000, and provided a “predicted interest curve”, which attempted to map out the longevity of the game – like the lifecycle of a vacuum cleaner.
Now, however, as games have become more readily accepted into the cultural space alongside movies and music, a new approach has emerged – something much more subjective, but also more informed by wider critical conventions and systems. Games criticism now comes from broader standpoints, for example feminist or queer, just like every other area of the arts. But in the games industry, a once closed community steeped in its own outsider status, this has led to fear, antagonism and suspicion.
Now, what are deemed to be negative game reviews find themselves subject to furious scrutiny. Writers are accused of being “biased” against a genre, or being too subjective, or lacking knowledge. There is a conflict between the idea of a review as a piece of information and as a piece of entertaining criticism, and as our reviews seek to provide the latter, we often receive the ire of fans. No one really wants to read a review full of caveats, exceptions and lengthy genre exposition, yet without those elements reviewers are often accused of not knowing enough about the game they’re covering.
Why do people get so angry about game reviews? Partly it’s because they are passionate fans and fandom becomes part of identity. In this context, critical reviews can be read as attacks on people’s preferences and passions. No one wants to hear that they’ve invested time and money in something that wasn’t worthwhile. We see this in all areas of specialist writing and reportage, from film journalism to football match reports – in a consumer society, people can be savage when their tastes are questioned. We also have the skewing nature of comments sections, subreddits and forums, which only ever represent the most vocal, and often the most caustic, minorities. But essentially there’s this whole friction between games as products or hobbies and games as an artform that deserves to be explored and exposed for its failures and foibles.
What is a game worth?
In some ways, though, the most complex area of the modern games review is the concept of value. Games are pretty expensive – around £25-50 depending on the platform. People want a lot from them – indeed, throughout the history of games, developers have taught us to expect just that: a lot of content. Adverts for role-playing adventures will often boast about featuring over 100 hours of gameplay. But exactly how much should we expect for our investment? When I reviewed Star Wars: Battlefront, I felt that the game lacked any sense of longevity – I felt I’d seen everything I wanted to see in about six hours. But is that poor value? What about the intensity of the experience?
Similarly, take a game like Destiny, which may cost players over £100 if they’re buying the main game and the DLC – are they being ripped off? Well considering a significant number of players are now putting in three hours a day, that £100 pound investment is looking pretty acceptable – it compares favourably with a massively multiplayer game subscription; and very favourably indeed with a gym membership. Even my first six hours with Battlefront was cheaper than spending those hours watching three movies at the cinema.
Those games scored three out of five because they were good games that nevertheless presented a lot of flaws in their basic foundational experiences. We didn’t attend review events, we played the game that everyone else played, and we based our opinions on our days with those games. The moment you try to turn reviews into predictive systems, you lose something of what they are – human reactions to emotional and exciting cultural works.
No contemporary review, then, will ever capture more than a fragment of the whole experience, bent through the prism of personal understanding and expectation. Even the most “objective” review, just like the most impartial news report, brings in a myriad of basic assumptions and preferences about what has been seen and felt. But unlike books or movies, games are now evolving platforms, open to updates and improvements. Today, you could buy an old Nintendo Entertainment System and review Super Mario Bros, it works just as it did 30 years ago. But in 30 years time, will we still be able to review Destiny? Or Witcher 3? Or anything on Steam? Most current titles rely on some sort of connectivity to a server. One day those servers will be switched off. All art forms are subject to erosion, but with games, that impermanence is now built in like a self-destruct mechanism.
As a consequence, reviewing games is like reviewing a relationship: you only know what you have in that moment, and even then, nothing is certain or solid. Both the author and the reader need to understand that now.