I've always been a tactile kind of guy, so after a year of watching my WPM plummet on the iPhone 4s' touchscreen keypad (something about snails, molasses, and coital grandparents goes here), I finally relented and went back to my old Blackberry. I text like a pro once more, but in the process I unwittingly traded one social faux pas for another: I was now the guy carrying around two pocket electronic devices.
Since I'm already prematurely graying and slightly overweight, I figured Mother Nature had set me too far behind the 8-ball to go about giving hip folk any more of a reason to look at me sideways. So I brought my erstwhile phone to the nearest game store, traded her in for a handsome amount of store credit, and went about spending it on games I had been too cautious to buy when there was real currency at stake.
The first--and only one of relevance to this post--was inFamous 2, the follow up to one of my all-time favorite games. You might ask, "Why so skittish of an anticipated sequel?" Well, the review, of course.
Okay, not so much the review as the review score. GameSpot gave it a 7.5.
To be fair, that's not a bad score. But when games cost $60 plus tax, I ain't looking for a good time, I'm looking for a great time. You will find no indy darlings in my (predictably small) current-gen game collection. I only play the hits, sweetheart.
Yet as I rode the powerlines around New Marais, snuffing out redneck militia with blasts of blue lightning from my fingertips, I couldn't shake the feeling that I had been duped by some rogue reviewer. As it happens, the review was done by Tom Mc Shea, professional contrarian and general na'er-do-well (who is no doubt attending boot camp in anticipation of Medal of Honor: Warfighter. You know, realism and all that). Had I known this at the time, I would have dismissed it out of hand. Of course, had I actually read the damn thing, I would have seen that all the stuff I liked about the original was back and, in most cases, bigger and better. Based on his review--in other words, the words--I would have bought the game on release day.
Tom gave an accurate review of the game, and our disagreement was simply in the weight given to each of the disparate aspects. Where he lamented the lack of gray in the morality system, I felt its clearer lines gave each playthrough (one paragon, one rat bastard) a more distinct feel. While difficult morality decisions throughout the game may have been more interesting, I didn't feel any loss in their absence.
Next, Tom will LARP a six-month stay at Walter Reed for wounds sustained in Battlefield 3
The point is that I stayed away from a game that I ended up loving, all because of an arbitrary number. I say arbitrary because, for all intents and purposes, it seems to be exactly that. Consider Game Informer's review of inFamous 2, which hits all of the same notes as GameSpot's, yet hangs an 88 on it. Maybe the best example of this is in the mixed reviews for Resident Evil 6. GameSpot gave it a 4.5, IGN gave it a 7.9 (oh call it 8 already), and the reviews say pretty much the same thing.
It could be argued that sites like Metacritic, which compiles all of the major critical scores and puts a number to them, can give gamers a basic idea of whether or not critics liked something. Even then, the more telling numbers are the tally of good, bad, and mixed reviews, as opposed to the average score. For inFamous 2, I found 77 positive, 13 mixed, and 0 negative. Based on that, I could say the general consensus is that I'll like this game. But consider that GameSpot's 7.5 is considered "positive," rather than "mixed," since the categories are segregated by--you guessed it--numbered score as opposed to substantive review. So even at Metacritic, we're just looking at a bunch of arbitrary numbers, and not getting anywhere closer to finding out whether or not you will like this game.
Yet these arbitrary numbers matter. In a recent study, it was shown that review scores can actually affect a gamer's experience, and have a huge influence on whether or not they'll make a purchase. Unlike film and television--which has a second life on disc and the digital marketplace--gaming's secondary market doesn't put a dime in publishers' pockets, making those initial reviews all the more vital. Given this, isn't it time the gaming media revisited its review system?
I recently purchased Arguably, a collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens. Many of them are book reviews, and each could be treated as a companion piece to the work itself--an in-depth and qualitative review of the material--without employing a number, star, or point system. While I don't expect anything on GameSpot for an essay by The Hitch, it would be nice to eschew the scores while highlighting the substantive reviews. It could expose gamers to a wider range of quality titles, while potentially keeping smaller developers and publishers in business. And since gaming has always been driven by the innovations of smaller developers, isn't their survival something we should be striving for?