There are few things more disappointing than picking up a game that has received stellar reviews only to discover that it simply isn't very good. Or rather, it isn't good for you-- it's not necessarily the critics' fault that your tastes are different. Of course, over the years, one learns which sites tend to provide the best reviews (or at least the ones that most conform to one's own idiosyncratic tastes). So which one do you trust the most?
In my experience, here are some differences I've noticed between a few prominent sites.
I have to start with these guys, right? Since they're the hosts of this particular blog post, I'll do them the kindness of counting their strengths first.
Overall, I find that Gamespot provides review scores that come closest to my own preferences for games. In particular, they do a great job rating sequels, and take it more seriously than others, dinging games a bit if they don't innovate enough. A great example of this is Bioshock 2, which received a very fair 8.5 here.
Above: Look familiar? It's probably because you had to take down 10-12 of these Big Daddies already in Bioshock.
On the other hand, some sites have a consistent "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" attitude toward sequels. That is, if a sequel provides more of what the original does, then it automatically warrants the same (or better) score. However, I've always felt that a sequel usually fails to capture the full impact of the first game. This effect happens in other media, like film or books, but is especially severe in games, because games are almost always a series of repetitive acts chained together by a narrative. Thus, by the time you play a sequel for a game, you're not just doing the same thing one more time -- you've already done the core game mechanic, be it shooting, or platforming, or hitting a baseball thousands of times before. Do you really love it so much that you can do it another two thousand times without a fundamental change, or at least a substantial wrinkle, in the formula?
I also think they have a really solid rating scale, one that IGN more or less wholly adopted recently. Gamespot goes from 0.0 (ostensibly, I've never seen it) to 10.0, with 0.5 increments. This scale allows for more nuance than a five-star system, which tends to glob too many games together (especially in the four-star range, which seems to become the default for a decently fun game with high production values). But it also doesn't aspire toward an unattainable precision, as in a scale with 0.1 increments. (Is that 9.4 demonstrably superior to the 9.3 that came out a month ago, yet somehow not quite as good as this 9.5?)
With that being said, this site has its issues. One is the dark side of the site's appreciation for innovation, which is that it sometimes hands out a harsh review (meaning below 8.0 for a AAA title) to make a point about a series' failure to improve dramatically. There are a few notable examples that come to mind, most recently the surprising 7.5 doled out to Zelda: Skyward Sword. Gamespot has been growing increasingly caustic toward Zelda in recent years, and Skyward Sword's score must have felt surreal to those fans who were up in arms about Twilight Princess's "low" 8.8 in 2006. Both titles have Metacritic scores of 93 or above, which suggests Gamespot's serious departure from mainstream opinion regarding the series.
Of course, the other negative is the site's arguably problematic relationship with its biggest advertisers. The famous controversy regarding Jeff Gerstmann's firing -- which coincided with his 6.5 takedown of Kane & Lynch, which was prominently splashed across the front page at the time -- has left a lasting stain on the site's reputation, and I always wonder a little about the reviews that I read while the game's advertising plays out in the background. Of course, Gamespot gave Battlefield 3 an 8.5 recently, not a spectacular score by any means, even while that game was all over the site. But I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened had the reviewer wanted to give it a 6.0.
Above: Kane & Lynch, who caused more mayhem in real life than they wrecked on the Xbox 360.
All this discussion of Gamespot inevitably brings us to arguably its biggest competitor, the multimedia juggernaut over at IGN. I always read up on IGN, and think they do a better job of being a one-stop shop, the Walmart of gaming sites. If I want movie news and rumors, the first review of a particular game, or a fun diversion or two, I always stop by IGN.
By and large, however, I don't put much stock in IGN's game reviews, mainly because they are so unrelentingly positive. Bizarrely, the site actually grades loweron average than other game publications, at least according to Metacritic. But I get a sneaking feeling that their lower average score comes mainly from dropping 5.5's and below on terrible games (for example, Lair), while rewarding most well-hyped titles with such high scores that one begins to think 9.0 is the bottomof the realistic scale.
IGN's reviews are problematic, because it's impossible to differentiate true masterpieces from just very competently crafted games. For instance, Jade Empire -- a decent action RPG but by no means a lifetime masterpiece like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic -- received a staggering 9.9 from IGN. Compared to the rest of Bioware's work -- KOTOR, Mass Effect 2, Baldur's Gate 2, etc. -- this seems like a gift. There are less egregious examples, but I still find IGN scores to be largely meaningless, and it's possible to scroll down their list of reviews and keep seeing ones that seem bizarre today: Jak 3 at 9.6, or Resistance 2 at 9.5, ad infinitum.
Above: Think she looks surprised? She probably just read the review of her game over at IGN.
Giant Bomb began as the brain-child of Jeff Gerstmann after his Gamespot days, and I find that their reviews are -- if possible -- even better than Gamespot's in terms of quality of writing and just being on-point about whether or not a game is worth buying. This makes sense, since they're effectively a guerrilla offshoot of this site (the way that Respawn Entertainment is a guerrilla offshoot of Infinity Ward, I suppose).
But the site, although now no longer young, has remained puzzlingly small-scale. Yes, I understand that they want to avoid the same problems of becoming too large and commercialized. But come on -- would it kill you to hire some more staff and review a sports game or two? Madden did get a review this year, but I'm still waiting on FIFA 12, MLB 11: The Show, and NCAA Football 12. Considering this is a hugely important and lucrative genre (just take a look at FIFA's sale numbers year in and year out), you'd figure that the site would prioritize these games a little more.
Above: Interested in what Gerstmann and co. thought about the gameplay improvements (or lack thereof) in NCAA Football 12? Well, you'd better email them, because you're not going to find out on Giant Bomb.
Those are the three sites that I spend the most time reading. What do you guys think?