A good review should focus on several disparate aspects of the game itself:
- Main campaign story and any secondary/tangential subplots,
- The mechanics of the gameplay (both in the main single-player campaign and in ancillary modes like co-op or multiplayer), and
- The presentation as a whole (sound, graphics, etc.).
Each facet of the game should be evaluated individually, because they are all of equal importance to a game that's done right. As such, every part has to have its own important evaluation in a good review. If the review itself only addresses gameplay and ignores the rest, in true fan boy behavior – or worse, covers everything except gameplay in an attempt to be "cerebral" – then the review is the problem, not the game.
In addition, the review has to be intelligently written (speaking of fan boys). I'm not saying a reviewer needs a degree in English, but an expert command of the language and gaming lexicon is an absolute must. Skim any customer reviews on Amazon for a general understanding of why this matters. There are product and book reviews there that read like a 9 year-old boy got on Mommy's computer while she was out at the store, inevitably wasting the consumer's time and oft seething with inaccuracies (giving a 1-star review because their PC didn't meet the requirements, for instance). They're great for a quick spot-check of quality, but don't provide the depth needed for finalizing decisions.
This is even more true if it's well written, but biased. What is often perceived as a problem, but shouldn't be, is the subjectivity of game reviews. Of course it's subjective. Any review will be subjective. That's one of the reasons to either read multiple reviews, or find a reviewer whose past evaluations you agree with, and then form your own opinions. Ultimately, that's what a review is: an individual's opinion.
Yes, a reviewer should try to be as open-minded as possible, but to be completely unbiased about one game, when he or she loved (or hated) the previous game in the series, or from that developer, is impossible. If the last game I reviewed in the Aliens franchise was awful, and I'm a huge fan of the films, I have to be honest about my biases up front in the review. I need to state that I'm going into this new game with high expectations, because I'm a fan and I'm tired of every Aliens-related game being awful. If the game gets a lower score because it, too, is awful, a reader should be able to tell why from reading that review, whether they are familiar with my previous evaluations or not.
That's where most of the issue arises. As a reader, don't get hung-up if you think a reviewer is biased. S/he is. It's a fact. Instead, read through to see if the reviewer states their bias openly, so you can evaluate the review (and thus the game) within the context of that bias.
As for the structure of the review itself, it needs to cover a bit of everything. We've already talked about the elements of good storytelling here, in our analysis of Diablo III's lazy story, and in our KOTOR/Mass Effect story comparison. A well-written story can make up for many failings in a game because gaming is about immersion. Most gamers aim for escapism, diving headlong into a different world to experience something new. Storytelling lifts the heaviest weights in that regard: A good story is what pulls you along at 1:30 in the morning when you know you have to be at work at 8:00. You just can't let go, because you need to know what happens at that next checkpoint.
Conversely, a poor story can break the immersion in an instant. Hell, even a mediocre story can drag a game down. And much like a book, if the story doesn't get good until the end, the gamer may never see the 'good' part.
Yep…dirty little secret. If a game's story is still hackneyed, contrived, or clichéd after 10 hours of play, then it sucks. I don't need to finish it to know that. So I probably won't finish it. But if that's the case, I have to make that point plain in the review to keep any credibility.
Even worse is when the game is so bad I don't want to finish it. No one in their right minds thinks a reviewer having to force their way through the end is somehow a good thing. He'll be in a worse mood at that point than if he had just quit and given the game a low score. And since all reviews are subjective, that emotion will come out like noxious toxins all over the page.
So, clearly a dependable review must cover the story arc, character development (player's character and NPCs), and any early unique aspects that will grab a reader/gamer's attention. That doesn't mean spoilers. A review that spoils major plot points should never be published without warning in the first place. If it is, be pissed at the reviewer and his or her editor. An exception is made when the article is specifically analyzing the game's story for faults or successes, as we did in our earlier-linked Diablo III story analysis; in that instance, the reviewer is now writing in the style of a game post-mortem, hoping to provide useful insight to series fans.
With immersion, the same holds true for the mechanics of gameplay. A compelling story that is frustrating or mind-numbingly boring to play won't cut it. If the game is hand-holding-ly easy or too difficult, that too must be taken into consideration; the control scheme needs to be intuitive and addictive. The review should reflect that.
Many reviews run into trouble at this point, due to a lack of clarity between reviewers and gamers. Too often, arguments about a write-up come from dedicated fans of a particular game or franchise, where the argument has nothing to do with what the fan loves about the game, but claims the reviewer simply doesn't love the same thing 'enough.' This is the dreaded, "You're just not playing it right" debate.
This isn't a strategy issue; it's a mechanics issue. Nevertheless, it is often decried as poor strategy on the reviewer's part. The online outrage shows up over write-ups that, in one fan's personal opinion, don't properly appreciate or focus on the unique and favorite element that individual loves. As such, the cry usually comes as the reviewer "playing on the wrong difficulty level," or "trying to run-and-gun in a stealth game."
Again, the issue at the core usually has nothing to do with strategy. The issue is with the mechanics of the game.
For example, an FPS motion capture game that puts the giant self-destruct button next to – or overlapping – the firing mechanism may be lots of fun for you, but that doesn't make it a great game that's above reproach. If a reviewer can't figure out how to get past the first five minutes from the instruction manual, the tutorial, the community boards, and the FAQs, then "you're doing it wrong!" isn't a valid argument. That's a game problem, not a gamer problem.
At the same time, a reviewer can't just hang his hat on "it's subjective, so whatever I like is great" either. Said reviewer may prefer a particular controller configuration, or a specific set of macros, or just a new zoom design in their favorite FPS franchise; these things shouldn't automatically elevate a game's score if they're there, or lower the score if they aren't. The review needs to, as objectively as possible (accounting for bias), evaluate the dialogue, movement, and fighting/shooting/action mechanics. If there are areas that could have been or should be better, then the review must say so. As an added bonus, our reviews often offer the better options in subsequent "how we'd do it" paragraphs, which are written for two reasons: (1) The developers read our reviews, so it aids them in the future; (2) it helps readers understand what we hope to see in the future.
Then we come to the big picture. To write reviews for a top shelf, "they-got-everything-right" game is easy. Same goes for the truly awful ones. The fact is the bad ones may be more fun to write (and will garner more traffic), even if the level of the writing won't be as good. But neither review is hard, because everything we've already talked about is either solid... or it's horrible. The big picture aspect of the review is where analytical problems can pop up, and that's the best place to focus your analysis when determining how much credence to give a reviewer.
Even if the mechanics are flawless and the story is aces, it can still be a challenge to review, so it must be done skillfully.
Suppose the game has solid writing, looks like a work of art, but is dreadfully repetitive. After a few hours of play, even though the mechanics and story work just as they should, it just stops being fun. No one gives a damn how it looks or 'reads,' because it's now become boring.
The trees are great, but the forest as a whole? It's just 'meh.'
Worse still is a game with nice graphics that's fun to play, but has terrible or annoying voice acting. That one aspect can drag down an otherwise solid game.
Don't believe me? Talk to the witch in Arcania: Gothic 4.
Without shooting yourself.
Seriously, lock up all firearms and swallow a Prozac before trying this.
Still with us? Good.
That's where the overall aspect of the presentation comes into play: Graphics that show a tremendous amount of responsible detail (whether the muted drab of a cyberpunk city's alleyways or the vibrant hues of a fae forest); voice acting and musical score that not only complement the player's actions but also enhance them, or even subtly influence them; mechanics that feel "right" and flow.
That's where a reviewer separates the 'pretty good' from the 'go buy this now.' The review for the former is a lot tougher to write than the latter, but a potential game-buyer shouldn't be able to see that in the writing.
When a reader looks at a review, they should read what's actually there. In many cases, they'll be able to see where a gamer had to give it a lower evaluation in spite of some very strong design elements. Perhaps it's because the publisher made the devs put multiplayer in a game that would have been better off without it (looking at you SpecOps: The Line), or maybe the devs focused so narrowly on a few aspects that it worked to the detriment of the game as a whole.
Regardless what the issue may be, a good review will seek to outline what the specific failings are while accentuating the positives. It's harder to do because it opens the reviewer up to controversy and the attacks that follow it; it's also tough because sometimes you just can't put your finger on what the game's failing is, you just know that it's there. It's irresponsible for a reviewer to give a so-so score without explaining his or her reasoning.
Why? Because a 'pretty okay' game can still be a lot of fun to play for some people, and those people might not know that its only drawback is something they don't care about anyway.
Because of this, I have to register at least one personal complaint – the composite score.
Who the hell thought this was a good idea? A 5-star scale, or a 1 to 10, or whatever…yeah, that'll never be a problem. In fact, at GN, we've eliminated this scoring structure entirely with our site's recent redesign.
The very FIRST inevitability of this is gamers comparing one 8.5 game to another. Never mind that one is only an 8.5, and less than a 10, because it's a decent FPS sequel but it doesn't bring anything new to the series, and the other is as high as an 8.5 because it's a 3D indie puzzler that is a phenomenal first effort from a new development house, despite its limitations. Human nature says people will compare the two and nitpick which one is the better 8.5.
Don't. Do. This.
Read the review. Understand the basis and reasoning for that score. If the review doesn't give good reasoning, then discredit and move on.
If it were up to me, there wouldn't be a score at all. But of course, most publications won't print the review if it doesn't have a score. Even reviews that have all the aspects I've outlined, and then some, and have given tremendous depth of reasoning for each -- they still gotta have a number.
So until human nature (or at least gamer nature) evolves, we'll be stuck trying to figure out the best number to encapsulate that new MMO expansion.
Then fielding all the tweets and emails telling us we're 'rong'…er, wrong.
You, the game-buying public, can help by looking for these aspects of a dependable review; let your wallet – rather than your keyboard – speak the loudest.
- Jake Nantz.