Developing a critical eye and ear for gaming will not only allow you to delineate the quality between games, but it will also allow you to be more critical of comments and opinions from any gaming community. Critical Casts is a blog series where I will highlight any noteworthy comments from the weeks worth of podcasts and video reviews. The aim is to give listeners the opportunity to identify and ponder issues and ideas raised in the podcasts and compare their reactions to mine.
For the first entry in the series, I've selected three podcasts from the weeks surrounding Thanksgiving. With the Christmas break ahead of me, I will be more prompt with posting my responses.
GFW Radio 12/5/07
- 29:29: Flip-Flop: "Letting something critical slip through and then immediately back tracking and apologizing it away"
Flip-flopping is fairly common and it was one of the issues I pointed out in my Game Informer Mass Effect Re-reivew. I believe part of the problem stems from a lack of a sound foundation in videogame critique. It seems that many reviews don't know how the conflicting impressions and feelings they have after experiencing a game can exist simultaneously. Understanding the difference between a well designed game and a game where you can have fun requires understanding the relationship and balance between game mechanics and their execution. Without such a working knowledge, it is immensely difficult to write about a complex game cogently in a review. Not only does this require knowledge of game design, but competent writing skills, both of which are hard to come by.
- 40:33: "Disparity between content between previews and reviews"
I've found that when writing previews, many videogame journalists or "enthusiasts" will keep their "niggles aside" under the assumption that the game is still being polished and little issues will hopefully be removed before the release of the final product. However, these issues often go unfixed when the game is finished. Even when they are, such tweaks are often insufficient to warrant the high scores the previews have projected these games might receive. This disparity leads into the next highlight...
- 41:10: Judging early builds accurately. "Dishonesty by omission"
Because developing games is such money and labor intensive undertaking, as the project moves past the middle stages of its development, it becomes increasingly difficult for the game to change in significant ways. At some point, the graphics can't be tweaked. Some issues, however small, would simply require too much time and money to fix. Assassin's Creed suffers from pop-in despite the stunning graphical presentation of its environments. Additionally, Mass Effect has terrible frame rate and loading issues. We were well aware of these graphical issues throughout the multiple previews of the game. Obviously, hoping they would be fixed wasn't enough. These are just two games out of many.
Because of this resistance to change, critically judging early builds of games does have merit. The reviewing industry stresses playing a game as completely as reasonably possible before reviewing it, which is a good policy. However, for the purposes of understanding and speaking critically about games, small sections of a game can provide plenty of material for discussion. Generally speaking, controls, graphical style, and presentation are consistent from the beginning of a game through the end. Lair's lack of adequate controls and Assassin's Creed's lack of variety are two issues that are apparent from previewing the game. Yet, many previews gave glowing reports about the potential of these games. By not talking about these crippling issues, as time has shown, the reporters effectively lied by omission.
For the experienced gamers, often times a bad preview for a game "turns out exactly like you [were] thinking." Keying in to the structures that support the foundations of game design is an effective way of judging whether a game works or not upon limited impressions.
1up Yours 11/30/07
- 15:40 Geometry Wars Galaxies is "unplayable if you don't have a classic controller"
This is a strong statement claiming that the default controls for this game are insufficient. Are we really to believe this? Any critical listener should want such a statement to be supported by arguments or valid points. John does just that. He claims....
- The Wiimote pointer moves the tip of the laser sight.
- The Wiimote pointer controls the extremity of the screen.
- You "wipe it around" to shot in various directions.
- You are unable to quickly and accurately shoot in various directions.
- The control are unintuitive.
A critical listener who has not played Geometry Wars Galaxies, assuming all of these points were valid, would most likely accept John's claim. I, however, own the game and have experience with the Xbox360 version, DS version, and the Wii version with the both sets of control options. For Geometry Wars controls, I have much experience. Here are my impressions...
- The Wiimote pointer shoots where you point and isn't restricted to the tip of the laser sight.
- The Wiimote pointer does not control the extremity of the screen.
- Pointing and shooting is as accurate, intuitive, and versatile than the duel stick counterpart or more so.
The only way our two impressions can be so conflicting is if John played an earlier build of the game that supported an alternative control method. Otherwise, my only other conclusion would be, John is a poor judge for discerning nontraditional controls.
IGN Wii-k in Review11/20/07
- 8:00 "even if you don't have a classical controller, you can still play Geometry Wars [Galaxies Wii]. It plays fine."
Even without having access to Geometry Wars Galaxies, Casamassina and Bozon have stated that the Wiimote controls that were supposedly "unplayable" (according to 1up) are in fact "fine."
- 20:09 "terrible Wii Sports Boxing"... "[Throwing] punches just doesn't feel good when you have no contact"
Being a Wii Sports Boxing fan, I find the lack of support for these bold claims detracts from Casamassina and Bozon's credibility. Technically, you don't have any contact with the tennis ball, golf ball, baseball, or bowling ball in any of the other Wii Sports games. If Wii Sports Boxing is no different, then this claim falls apart with IGN's praise and support of the other Wii Sport Games. "It's like air boxing." Likewise, the whole game is like air sports.
- 22:55 A listener writes in inquiring about IGN's lack of understanding and appreciation of Wii Boxing.
It's disheartening to hear the conversation regress into name calling. With that aside, the only statement Casamassina offered in his defense was that many other reviews dislike Wii Sports Boxing. After making up statistics about the percentage of reviews who dislike Boxing, he goes on to make huge generalizations about how the game is neglected because "nobody" plays it. Unfortunately, this kind of unprofessional-middle-school-antics does nothing to support Casamassina's stance on Wii Sports Boxing. Granted this is an informal podcast, the truth of the matter still stands. Of all the words that were said, listeners still know little about what makes Wii Sports Boxing good or bad.
- 37:23 Forgiving Ambitious Games
Casamassina expresses his tendency to lean toward a double standard for reviewing "ambitious" games like Mass Effect: "If that happened in Galaxy we would knock a point off for that... But I guess because Mass Effect is so huge in scope... you have to forgive all these crazy things that happen... I find it really hard to forgive stuff like that." Fran Mirabella backs him up saying, "When a game is super ambitious you do that. It's hard because you gotta balance out like how you feel about it over all."
Reviewing games is difficult due to the different types of elements that composes a game (art, technology, sound, music, mechanics, design). Clearly here, the reviewers at IGN have to figure out their own way to compare these elements and the short comings found therein.
I feel that the industry as a whole has grown too forgiving toward "ambitious" games and efforts. Any company can be ambitious. It's easy to bite off more than you can chew. Not enough credit is given for the companies who make great polished games within their limits like Super Mario Galaxy. At the end of the day, a bad frame rate is just bad, and no amount of the game's story is going to make the game smoother.