PressSpotting: Are You Done With That Game?

Do reviewers really finish all those games <i>in toto</i> before writing down their opinions? PressSpotting investigates.

In a perfect world, every game reviewer would be able to play every game to completion before crafting a thorough and well-researched critique of the gameplay and narrative. Of course, in a perfect world every game would be perfect, so there would be no need for reviewers at all. Unfortunately, we don't live a perfect world, and practically every professional reviewer admits to falling short of the ideal, play-it-to-the-finish standard at one time or another. The reasons behind these lapses range from the practical to the personal.

"When you reach a point where you know there's nothing that a game can do to change your buying recommendation, I'd argue it's fair to mark it from there," says freelancer Kieron Gillen. "If a game has been awful for 10 hours - hell, even less - there's no way you can recommend it. It is a bad game." Gillen also argues that the opposite is true: "If a game has been excellently entertaining for - say - 20 hours ... I'd say you could recommend it strongly. If you can say 'If the game stopped at this point, I'd still give it a rave review,' you can be justified in doing exactly that." Of course, not everyone agrees with that take on things. "Years ago, Halo 2 hooked me with smooth controls, intense battles, an excellent multiplayer system and all that good stuff, but the horrible ending soured every experience that came before," said freelancer Brian Rowe. "Had I only played 99.9 percent of the way through Halo 2, my opinion would have been vastly different. Just because a game begins on a high note does not mean that the developers can maintain that pace through to the end." While standards vary for different outlets, most American specialist magazines and web sites insist that their reviews be based on a full playthrough of a game. "There's a real need for us to strive to give readers a definitive take," says Wired's Chris Baker. "A game is a work of art and a piece of software, and it demands to be addressed in depth on both of those levels in our criticism." That said, Baker admits that this sort of comprehensive coverage is not always possible. "Wired magazine has a three month lead time, so getting access to final code is incredibly difficult. ... Given the nature of games, and given issues of timeliness and access, I think that there has to be room for other sorts of coverage that don't aspire to be an exhaustive critique." New reviewers learn quickly to make the most out of situations where the game is long and the deadline is short. "When you're handed a game rated at 40+ hours and you only have two days to get the job done, you do the best that you can and leave it at that," says Rowe. "It's not the optimal situation, but reviewing games is a business. It doesn't matter if your writing skills make Hemingway look like a talentless hack. If you can't get a review published in a timely fashion, the readers are going to move elsewhere. Gamers have money to spend and they don't want to wait until next week to find out how to spend it." p> Many reviewers cite these epic, sprawling RPGs like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion as the bane of their tight schedules. "I'd much rather knock out three or four action games than spend the same amount of time on one RPG," said veteran GameCritics reviewer Brad Gallaway. "Since story and characterization are such an integral part of the RPG experience, they're games that usually demand being played to completion in order to be discussed with any authority. ... It's just not time- or cost-effective." Freelancer Raymond Padilla agrees that the economics behind reviewing make RPGs a tough sell. "If you have a choice between [reviewing] a mainstream action game and a Japanese RPG--neither of which you're too interested in personally--you'd be an idiot to take the RPG."

Should readers be aware if and when a review is based on an incomplete playthrough? Many reviewers seem to think so. "The launch of Grand Theft Auto IV should be a boon to reviewers," said freelancer Chris Dahlen. "Most of the critics admitted they didn't, and couldn't, finish the game before they went to print. While some of the reviews were premature and uncritical, the whole blitz raised the reader's awareness of the fact that meeting a deadline while finishing 40+, or 100+ hour gamestory is impossible - and anyone who tries would skim over everything that makes the game worth playing in the first place."

But others don't think the amount of time spent by the reviewer is vital information. "I don't tell readers when I don't finish a game," freelancer Rowe said. "I know it might sound shady, but I guarantee that it's standard practice. If every reviewer started listing play-times in reviews, readers would start flocking to whichever publication has the highest completion ratio, as opposed to the most worthwhile opinions." Of course, this fast-and-loose attitude towards review completeness can lead to important ommissions in a review. "There's been a number of times when something pops up in a game in the middle or at the end," says GameCritics' Gallaway, "and I'd say about half the time when I check other reviews to see if that same issue is mentioned, there's not a peep. I'm not pointing fingers, but the smart money would say that those reviews were written in the early 'honeymoon phase' that just about any game can provide. But, is a game good all the way through? That's the real question that a good reviewer should try to answer." Still, some reviewers argue that there's no reason for a reviewer to finish a game when most readers aren't going to complete it either. "The last figures I saw for Half-Life 2: Episode 1 said that only 50 percent of the people who bought it completed it," says Gillen. "And that's on a game which lasted four hours. Even for the increasingly common six to ten hour games, you wouldn't expect a completion rate [that's] any higher, let alone the 80 hour RPG epics. Hell, failure to complete [a game] doesn't even mean that a player dislikes the game - they can get distracted and move onto other things, but still love their time with the game."

"The normal state of gamers is to leave a game uncompleted," Gillen continued. "A reviewer doing likewise isn't the same as a book reviewer stopping halfway through." [Editor's Note: It is GameSpot's policy to not review a game unless the reviewer has completely finished its main storyline. For more our review policies, practices, and experiences, check out Under Review, he GameSpot Reviews Blog.] For more about PressSpotting, check out the introductory column or peruse the PressSpotting Archive. Kyle Orland is a freelance journalist specializing in video games and based out of Laurel, MD. He writes for a variety of outlets, as detailed on his personal site, and he's also the co-author of The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual. Orland's views do not necessarily reflect those of GameSpot. Questions? Comments? Story ideas? Bitter invective? Send it to Kyle.
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