Reviewing Reviewer Reviews?

6000 words?
Then it’s a poorly written review DivDevlin.

6000 words would be about 10-12 magazine pages, give or take. That’s a ton of space to devote to one game that the reviewer doesn’t think anyone’s going to want to play anyway. There have been times when our entire review section was that long, if I recall correctly.

Overall, it’s sounding like this review might be a mixed bag.

Isn’t that the A-Vault minimum? :wink:

Thankfully. I’d hate to read a review from this mythical blank slate. “Madden 2004 continues to build on the excellent series” and “Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness doesn’t add anything to the already tired franchise” and “Unexpectedly, this Army Men game is pretty good.” are all informative to a reader. A reader who, being a video game fan, has preconceptions.

Instead of “preconceptions”, he should have said “prejudices”.

“Yet another installment in the Madden series” is fine, and even preferable in many cases. A reviewer should DEFINITELY be aware of and appreciate the fundamental aspects that define any genre or series (even if they are tired cliches). Games don’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s stupid to judge them like they do. After all, games aren’t created in one. And just as both movie critics and directors reference classic movies as well as modern cinematic greats of a similar style, I think it behooves the reviewer to bring a sense of context to the game by comparing and contrasting it with other titles, even if the design goals aren’t explicitly identical.

“Lord, I don’t see how you grunting chimps can like sports games”, however, is not the perspective of a good reviewer for Madden. Reading a review of, say, Xenosaga from a person who hates narrative-driven anime fetish RPGs isn’t going to help anyone who’s interested in the series, nor will it please those who’ve already played it and made up their minds.

False expectations are a prejudice, of sorts. I try and review games based on what actually shipped in the box, not on promises made by the developer in some crappy E3 interview with a fansite, for good or aught. If he promised “600 widgets and full bump-mapping” but only delivered 100 and with no bump-mapping, I still compare the end result against what’s on shelves, not against the promise. That cuts both ways - the final product gets a fair shake compared to other products that have shipped, but if cutting those widgets really hurts the gameplay, then I’ll run 'em up the flagpole. Genre expectations work the same way - if Joe Designer makes an RPG that doesn’t use HP, I won’t grant/dock points until I’ve seen the result and played through it. In design, innovation is great, but iconoclasty is awful.

A good reviewer should be able to immediately make this simple assessment when firing up a game for review and playing for 15 minutes, with one of the following outcomes:

1.) “This game appears to be good and I have a frame of reference for discussing it, being a fan of the genre/subgenre.”

  • or -

2.) “This game appears to be bad and I have a frame of reference for discussing it, being a fan of the genre/subgenre.”

  • or -

3.) “I’m enjoying this game, but it’s in a genre/subgenre I really don’t know the history of nor have a great deal of experience with.”

  • or -

4.) “I’m not enjoying this game, and it’s in a genre/subgenre I really don’t know the history of nor have a great deal of experience with.”

(Occasionally, we get 5) “WHAT THE FUCK” but that’s an edge case.)

It’s amazing how often 3 gets confused with 1, and the end result is a stupidly glowing review (see: IGN’s MoO3 review). It’s likewise amazing how often 2 gets confused with 4, and the end result is a completely inaccurate review (see: every review by The GIA of a dungeon hack title).

A good reviewer can immediately identify whether or not the game’s basic design ambition and premise synchronize with his/her own experience and taste. After that, it’s a question of deciding how well the design ambition was met and how well the premise was executed.

While I frequently offer my opinion on games I don’t like the premise or subgenre of, I sure as hell try to never review them in any official capacity. I’ve turned down a lot of chances to review MMORPGs, that’s for sure.

Jeff Lackey has it right.

Of course you should express your opinion in the review. But make sure that opinion is backed by enough hard facts (rather than “bashing”) that someone who has different criteria in deciding what makes a game good can form their own opinion.

I’ve written positive reviews of flight sims with canned missions, and I’ve criticized dynamic campaigns that I thought were shallow and boring. In both cases, I included enough information about how things work that the armchair pilots who live and die by campaign structure could decide for themselves whether they’d like the sim or not.

I think the biggest obstacle reviewers have to overcome is seperating gamecrit within a genre they understand, while balancing their preconceptions of the games’ genre within the review itself. How can you fairly review, for example, another Sims expansion? By almost every barethread standard these tired, money grubbing expansion don’t hold a candle on a price/content basis to most games, yet they sell like those damned proverbial poppyseed hotcakes. What do you say to an audience of Redbook and Southern Living readers about the state of the women’s magazine genre? Maybe there should be more frequent editorial State of the Unions but much less editorializing within reviews themselves? (just hypothetical suggestion). Besides, for me most of the time its how the review is written, and not so much what it says, thats the most important. Most gamers are savvy enough to know ‘shovelware’ beforehand and adjust expectiations accordingly, its only the relatively rare unknown quantity that compells research. Best example off the top is Homeworld 2; a good predecessor, apparently good graphics, but gameplay and value are still unknown. [edit: most minds will be decided by its previews, as in most games. I think the value as a reviewing tool of the preview isn’t always obvious.]


Brutal honesty, it’s the key to any successful or insightful critique. Bottomline.

Doug Erickson certainly has a firm grasp on the elements I love to read from a review; but when I look for an educated opinion on how to blow my cash, nothing disturbs me more than exhaustive diatribe that candycoats a title with manufactured pretenses if only to garner raised interest. (Hint: interest in some form already exists if said person is reading your words to begin with)

Don’t whore the game; just give me honest, informed facts that imply research, experience, and some form of commitment went into the analysis. Anything else is just pandering, and I find it quite insulting as a reader.

Quickie example: The various Wind Waker reviews that circulated earlier this year with the pretense of implying a need to quell the anger felt by a contingent group over the cel-shading debacle just felt like an act of desperation. Unnecessary banter that makes me wonder who is convincing whom in such a review. The quality should speak for itself, and through the words presented. It is the consumer whom has to make the decision afterall; laywers are ‘called out’ for leading witnesses at a trial, don’t lead the reader.

Opinions are a grey area certainly. It’s my experience that too much cynicism or praise only raises more questions to be answered which is never a good thing to leave a reader with after finishing a critique. It often leaves me back at square one often with even more doubt than I entered with. Insight is one thing, goading is another.

I do want to add that most often my favorite form of review is the classic roundtable. Nothing gets me more excited to hear what you professionals have to say more than within an unscripted open forum, often it’s the most honest way to get solid info and I love to see it happen more often in print and online.

(BTW Tom and Brian was it? I loved the nice play by play feature in the recent CGW detailing your session of Rise of Nations. Now that was informative! I applaud it.)

As others have pointed out, 6000 words is a bad review. No computer game is worthy of a 6000 word review, and precious few people will read a 6000 word review. Tell your reviewer to try to hook 'em in the opening 3 or 4 sentences, inform them in an entertaining way for a few paragraphs, then close with a couple of sentences summarizing their opinion and recommendations. I wrote a review for Softalk MANY years ago (1982 or so?) that was as garrulous as I tend to be - it was probably 2000 words (and they needed about 700.) The editor told me to give her a 4 sentence review. Took me an entire damned day to boil it down to that, but it was a great exercise. Then she let me expand it to 700 words.

“Hate”, IMO, really has no place in a review. For some reason some people seem to think it’s “cool” to come across as vitriolic as possible. What’s acceptable in newsgroups and forums isn’t good professional reviewing. Many will disagree with me, but when Daikatana came out I thought there were far too many personal jabs at Romero in the reviews, jabs that had little to do with the game itself. If a game really, really sucks you have to tell the readers, and it doesn’t have to be in a robotic voice (I once wrote in a review that a game was so bad that if you see it on the shelves, you should hide it behind some other games so that no uninformed shoppers purchase it) but visciousness to show how cool you are is out of place.

Tough judgements - this is why editors all get The Big Bucks. ;)

I have to agree. I still feel some embarassment for the raging review I gave Anarchy Online, when it first came out. It was a title that had so utterly betrayed the expectations of fans, and I was going out of my mine, reading the sugarcoated 60 and 70 percent reviews in other sites, where what they were actually reviewing was the POTENTIAL of the game, rather than the state it was in at launch. That felt like a real betrayal of the responsibility a reviewer has to his readers, so I took it on myself to “over-correct” for their negligence. I wish, in hindsight, that I hadn’t done so: it’s never a good, or professional, thing; to allow other people to influence your work in that manner.

I got more hate mail than you would believe for that review - although most likely less than Tom did for Deus Ex - but oddly enough, almost an equal measure of fan mail. (Here’s a link to the review, for the curious. Not plugging the site - I don’t update it anymore.)

I don’t. Maybe it’s a good idea in Brianland (official motto: “Why say it in five words when you can say it in five thousand?”), but most readers have exactly zero interest in researching the author of their reviews. Hell, a good number of them can’t even be bothered to read the review itself–that’s why we have ratings.

A well-written review doesn’t need all that ancilliary garbage, anyway. If a writer can’t adequately explain what he thinks of the game and why in the review itself, then you need to get a better writer.

I agree with Jeff and Co. on the subject of review length, too. 6000 words of review does not equal “more informative.” It’s just lazy writing. My first drafts often run quite long. Then I fix them.