Evolving the Review

Computer game reviews need to adapt to the new gaming reality

The one good thing that came out of the entire Fallout 76 (my god, I get tired just thinking about that game) debacle for me was the discovery of the Skill Up channel. For those of you who don’t know, Skill Up is a very talented game reviewer on YouTube. His reviews are more akin to long form essays that are well researched, brilliantly built, wonderfully presented and just tied up in a nice narrative ribbon. Just from a writing perspective I must give him mad props.

Now after sucking off Skill Up’s proverbial… thing, I wanted to address one of the points he made in his videos. In his review of Destiny 2, Skill Up dissented from the wider critic praise given to the game, instead calling it a more shallow copy of the first game. Of course, if anyone remembers the original launch of Destiny, it would make them scratch their heads. After all, Destiny 2 seemed to have launched with a lot more features and a lot more content than its predecessor.

Skill Up of course, had an answer for this seeming contradiction. While it was true the original launch of Destiny was a lackluster affair, the game had since been patched and iterated upon with downloadable content and expansions to the point that it quite surpassed its sequel in many areas. The sad fact though, was that many game critics didn’t play that final version of Destiny. Most of them played it around its launch window and after writing their reviews continued on to the next game launch. You can’t really fault them considering their job is to review games. Unlike consumers that often buy a handful of titles a year, game reviewers who wish to remain relevant must keep up with all the major releases in a year.

A good example is Zero Punctuation. Zero Punctuation is one of my favorite game reviewers partly due to his wit and partly because of the way he approaches game reviewing itself. The man posts a video a week, with only the end of the year video being a re-post. This means he reviews 53 titles a year. That said, not all of his reviews are of games themselves, as at times he may highlight important events in gaming history or just pull a sneaky retro review during a barren post major release season. Even so, around 80 percent of his videos would still feature games published in that current year.

Think about the amount of work each review entails as games continue to grow in size and complexity. To give a personal example, one of the early reviews I wrote was for Battletech. As a MechWarrior and MechWarrior Commander fan I was excited to see a new take on the franchise a la XCOM: Enemy Unknown. I must admit I wasn’t disappointed as the game was pretty much everything I wanted and more. Yet before sitting down to write the review I had sunk more than 50 hours into the game in order to finish the main storyline and explore many different options and other side content before I felt confident enough to give my final verdict.

Of course, game reviewers who make actual money reviewing games have the luxury of time compared to amateurs such as myself. Still, just looking at the amount of time I invested in a game such as Battletech, it is comparable to a working week, without taking into account the script writing, the filming, editing and other activities needed to produce good reviews. The amount of work is staggering, and the worst part is that launch seasons can pile the work unevenly. October is already referred by many as “Broketober” due to the amount of major game launches that hope to capitalize on the approaching holiday season. Being a major game reviewer during that time must be quite stressful.

Thus, game reviewers have very little time to invest in re-visiting old games. In another video, Skill Up re-visited No Man’s Sky and reported how the many features that the game was lambasted for missing had since been added, along with myriad of fixes and other improvements that made the game resemble its initial trailer rather than the blend, featureless mess we received at launch. However, most reviews of it still up will be of its launch build because game sites can scant afford to have staffers review old games when new ones are constantly published at a wallet strangling rate.

The problem is, with most major publishers moving towards a “games as service” format (I got plenty to say on that subject but will do so in a separate article) the old style of reviews becomes inadequate. As Destiny proved, whatever faults the game may possess at launch, as time goes by, more and more content is added on a yearly basis, enriching the game and often times fixing a lot of the initial complaints. By the time the game is more or less “complete” it may be radically different than what it was at the beginning and old reviews will not reflect that or give accurate information to prospective buyers, which is kind of the point of game reviews in general.

Another factor to consider is the technological shift. In the past, you shifted a physical copy and that was that. Cartridges, floppy disks and CD-ROMs represented a final version of a game. The moment they were out, that was that, over. If developers wanted to iterate upon a game, they needed to make a new boxed product and have it shipped as well. This meant that reviews could also be final since there was no real way to change or add to the game.

Of course, nowadays games get shipped broken all the time and subjected to day one patches thanks to internet connectivity. Almost every gaming household has a stable internet connection and with game launchers and digital distribution platforms like Steam, applying patches has become an easy and automated process. With the elimination of the need for physical copies comes greater freedom for developers to iterate on their games. Prominent examples are the Paradox Interactive games, each the subject of numerous expansions and downloadable content packs.

Stellaris is my favorite all time Paradox Interactive game. It is the game I have sunk the most hours in other than perhaps EVE Online. The fact is, every year sees new content added to the game with expansions and free patches that fundamentally alter core mechanics. Just last year the Le Guinn free patch (paired with the release of the MegaCorp expansion) saw a complete revamp of the game’s economic systems, changing the way many players including myself play the game. Any review predating it is now factually incorrect, doubly so to reviews from the time of the game’s launch in 2015. Even my own review of the patch is guaranteed to be obsolete within a couple of years as new content and changes are made.

The last example are online games. I already mentioned EVE Online so allow me to elaborate further. EVE Online is a complex game filled with politics and espionage. It is the game that ignited my writing passion. I started by writing battle reports on major engagements where hundreds, even thousands of players fought each other in a myriad of wars and conflicts. It is a living massive multiplayer online game where player interactions drive the narrative. Stepping away from it for a few months and only recently returning both to the game and to writing, I was amazed at some of the major political upheavals that happened in my absence. To catch up to the current political landscape, fleet doctrines and other mechanical changes will take me weeks. Keeping tabs on it all is a full time job considering the amount of player contacts you need to make and maintain.

All of this pretty much proves that the old, set in stone, game review model just doesn’t fit the constantly changing, shifting reality of modern game development. Games have become to some extent living breathing things. Constantly changing and updating by their own nature or the vision of developers and publishers. Thus what was true yesterday no longer applies to today and even less for tomorrow. Navigating this constant change as a consumer can be a real nightmare, as you are deprived of reliable sources of information.

Some outlets have recognized this shift in the gaming landscape and have made strides in hiring staff to write either exclusively on certain games or have existing staff return to older titles to give them a second look. That said, I still think this is more of a stopgap than a real solution. Some reviewers online dedicate themselves to covering certain games or gaming genres and thus often give updates on the same game regularly, while others re-visit their old work to try and see what changed.

That said, I have no real solution to offer. Even Steam user reviews are not a good metric to use since some could have been left by players that have since abandoned the title. Consumers though, need guidance. They need reviews that they could trust and that would give a full picture that will enable them to make an informed choice. So far, some games are being passed over due to bad reviews that refer to earlier builds, while others coast on good reviews that have since become obsolete due to unwanted additions such as microtransactions (looking at you Call of Duty: Black Ops 4).

Whether its a constantly updating review page for a game or weekly re-review of older titles, some sort of system is badly needed. Unfortunately, like the rest of you all I can do is just to keep up to date with my favorite games and write a new review with every major patch or content release.

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