Monday, March 25, 2013

A Review on Reviews and Reviewing: The Review

"Judged as a piece of entertainment...It's pretty close to perfect." Destructoid. Score 10/10.
"Awful in nearly every way." IGN. Score: 2/10.
"Entertaining and unpredictable...delivers more shocks than schlock." Gamespot. Score: 7/10

These are all reviews from reliable sources and all from different games obviously. Right? No? You mean these are all from the same game, Deadly Premonition?

Well, how about this:
"Loses focus and fails to accurately assess which of its elements are truly worthy of being included." IGN. Score: 7.9/10 (Wouldn't expect that score with that kind of intro would you?)
"A mishmash of elements put together without any sense of care or direction." GameSpot. Score: 4.5/10
"Big, brash, and full of memorable moments." Gametrailers. Score: 8.8/10

These have to be for different games. What? They're not? They're all for Resident Evil 6? Well that's odd.  It sounds like, just maybe,

Reviews are just people's opinions!

Think about it: do you have the same interests as everyone else?  Does everyone agree with you about what is cool?  Does everyone love anime and JRPGs?

Everyone loves this game, right? Final Fantasy XIII (2009)
Sure, these are all people who play and rate video games for a living, but they all obviously have pretty different ideas on what makes a game enjoyable.  Some really love certain genres and will be either incredibly critical of any game that fits in that genre or give almost every game in it a pass.  Others have that one game or series they compare everything to, even when it doesn't make sense to.  And some, for the most part, try and look at what the developers were trying to do and see if they delivered to their audience in an enjoyable and meaningful way.

So why is it important to discuss reviews?  Because many gamers use reviews to see if they should spend their time and money on a game.  No one wants to plop $60 down on a game that they end up hating.  They want to make sure they are getting their money's worth.  So they see what the "experts" say.  But here, many people run into bad researching habits.  I blame the school system personally, but still, it's there.

One of the largest mistakes is only looking at the score. "8.2? Might be worth a look!" "9.5? Holy cow! Gotta buy that!" "6.1? Eh, probably pass." "3.8? Who would buy that crap?" Sure, scores are great ways to get a quick synopsis of what the reviewer thinks, but it doesn't tell you at all why the reviewer thought that. Maybe he loves any game that has Patrick Stewart?  Maybe she wanted the game to focus on the plight of the poor in Venezuela instead of using helicopters to fling tanks into fuel tanks?  Maybe he or she is just a moron?  But if you don't read it, you have no idea if you agree or disagree with their assessment of the game.  You may find that you completely disagree with why someone gave a game a low or high score.  Don't believe me? Go read several reviews for a game you played and remember well and see how much you agree with the reviewer.  You may be surprised.

I mean, this is all you really need in a game anyway. Mercenaries 2: World in Flames (2008)
Another common mistake is just to look at the average of reviews.  Take the two games mentioned above.  Deadly Premonition got a 68/100. Resident Evil 6 got 67/100 or the Xbox 360.  Pretty average you may say.  But let's look at the breakdown for these scores. Deadly Premonition mostly has reviews in the 70 to 85 range, but several reviews rate very low.  It appears most reviewers had favorable impressions for this game, but a few people despised it and so brought the average down. Resident Evil 6 has a pretty even spread across 60, 70, and 80 with a few scores above that and a bit more below.  Seems reviewers have quite widespread opinions about this game.  However, you would never gather this just by looking at the average.  Even worse, this just compounds the score problem mentioned above.  Instead of just reading a synopsis of a review, you are reading a synopsis of a synopsis!  Why did some reviewers hate this game while most liked it? Why does this game have a large spread in its reviews?  Unless you read the actual reviews, you have no idea.  Maybe most of the reviewers' idea of what makes this game good isn't the same as yours?  You go into a store, confident you are making a good investment, only to realize, to your horror, you just wasted $50 and 20 hours of your life on a game you would have hated had you only heard a summary of it.

So what do you do? Speaking for myself, I have found the best reviews come from people I know.  For one, you know the person giving the review.  It's not just some journalist or blogger telling you this game is great or terrible, it's your friend.  Someone whose tastes and interests you know.  You can ask questions about what you think is important.  You can maybe even just borrow it for a day or so and see what you think.

That's great but what if the game just came out?  For starters, don't just look at the scores or, worse, the average of the scores.  As mentioned, this is a terrible way to determine if you will like the game.  Second, look at reviewers who you have had a good track record with.  You will find that some journalists have similar interests to you.  Maybe run across a journalist and find you both agree completely on what makes a good FPS.  Then whenever you see a new FPS, you can see if he or she has done a review and get an idea if you would like it or not.  This isn't foolproof of course because no one is exactly the same as anyone else and the journalist isn't a close friend you know well or can question, but it's a good starting point.  Finally, read lots of reviews!  Obvious, I know, but it's amazing how many people don't do this.  Reading a lot of reviews, unlike getting an average score, lets you get many different perspectives.  From all these perspectives you can get a better understanding of the game, certainly better than if you just read one person's perspective.

Some of my favorite games that I've played for hours have been games many critics panned.  I've also been bored by games that many critics loved.  Reviews are great, but they can only get you so far.  Research wisely, ask around, and you can find those lost games you fall in love with while avoiding the popular games you know you will hate.

In case you just skipped to this.

Words by Joshua Matern

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Coolest Dad Ever?

You may have already seen/heard this story as it has been running around the gaming sites last week. Mike Mika, a game designer, is now an official candidate for the Coolest Dad Awards. As seen on Reddit and Mike's own YouTube channel he has hacked the classic arcade game Donkey Kong in order to appease his child's desires. Here's the story in Mike's own words:

"My three year old daughter and I play a lot of old games together. Her favorite is Donkey Kong. Two days ago, she asked me if she could play as the girl and save Mario. She's played as Princess Toadstool in Super Mario Bros. 2 and naturally just assumed she could do the same in Donkey Kong. I told her we couldn't in that particular Mario game, she seemed really bummed out by that. So what else am I supposed to do? Now I'm up at midnight hacking the ROM, replacing Mario with Pauline. I'm using the 2010 NES Donkey Kong ROM. I've redrawn Mario's frames and I swapped the palettes in the ROM. I replaced the M at the top with a P for Pauline. Thanks to Kevin Wilson for giving me the lead on the tools and advice."

Behold, the result of Mike's work:

Should you know of any girl gamers who would also prefer to play this classic game as Pauline instead of the go-to savior Mario you can download the Pauline DK patch from the above YouTube page. For more see Mike's own article over on Wired.

This is the second time that Donkey Kong has brought about a compelling real-world story in recent years. Seek out the much under-appreciated documentary The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters to know what I'm referring to.

Monday, March 11, 2013

An Open Letter to Video Games: Recent Thoughts on Recent Things

Dearest (These Things We Call) Video Games,

How are you? I feel like we haven't talked in forever. So many things have happened since I last wrote to you...

Behold, the future is in your hands... with PlayStation 4.
The inevitable eighth console generation continues with Sony announcing the PS4, due out this year's holiday season. I just got a PS3 last Thanksgiving. Great. Microsoft has yet to announce the next Xbox (surely it won't be called Xbox 720, surely), but I suspect they won't let Sony have all the shelves to themselves come fourth quarter. Then there's all this chatter about the Steam Box, which makes very little sense to me. Couldn't you just refer to any gaming PC as a "Steam box"? Not to mention there's going to be a smattering of varying versions and specs... People buy consoles so they don't have to worry about those details. The whole idea behind this is bewildering to me. And how about the Ouya? Worst name since Wii U aside it looks the part of a sleek gift from the future and bears a price that no home console can dare beat. While Android holds no candle to the iOS market it's yet an another option in an industry bent on giving power to the players. That's important for the health of the industry and to each and every one's personal preference. However, all these systems and, more importantly, the games that run on them are going to be harder than ever to keep track of going forward.

One slice of civilization in an upcoming fantasy open-world. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (2014)
I've been trying to keep up on news (reviews and previews too). Just finished reading the GameInformer cover story for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It's a medieval fantasy RPG series that already has two successful (first and foremost critically) games on the market. From everything I've seen/read/heard about the series it's a much-needed maturation to the genre and game-type. I always got an Elder Scrolls by way of Gothic vibe from it. This third outing is bringing players into an open-world that's 20% bigger than Skyrim, a game and province I still have much left unseen and undone. The Witcher 3 is coming out on PC and whatever "next-gen" (that perpetual term) consoles are ready for it sometime next year. Video game generations are only measured by the consoles... Frankenstenian gaming computers just evolve, don't they? I hope to catch up with the first two in The Witcher series before this one arrives. Also, developer CD Projekt RED's thoughts on DLC and updates brought hope to an otherwise growing and bleak trend in the "additional content" arena. I recommend looking into it if such aspects have ever interested or frustrated you in recent years.

Our central characters stagger through the post-apoc. The Last of Us (2013)
Three of this year's biggest releases, BioShock InfiniteThe Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V, have all had their release dates pushed back. In my mind this is usually a good thing. The last thing players want is a game that isn't ready. It's more prone to happen in gaming than any other medium for obvious reasons. (It's not like you'd ever go to a museum and come across a painting that needs to be updated or patched - even if you might think it could use some work.) Rockstar Games and Bethesda Game Studios are notorious for having buggy experiences in their titles on Day One and thereafter. As an open-world aficionado I've come to expect and even tolerate this. I cannot fathom the testing and man-hours required of a developer to get all the kinks straightened out before launch. I am eagerly anticipating these long-lusted-after sequels and I am equally as welcome to the new IP The Last of Us from Naughty Dog, the famed team behind the Uncharted series. The previews for each of these leviathan projects is impressive. These are the titles that are pushing our current generation for everything they've got. These are the games that are signaling the future while saluting the past. The passing of the torch from one generation of consoles to the next is always an exciting time for gamers. Our thumbs twitch in anticipation while our wallets shudder at the thought. I was working at a GameStop when we ushered in the seventh generation (Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3) and can attest of the anticipatory spirit that fills the air. That was seven years ago... It's been a good run, but we're ready for the what cometh next.

NRA blames games like Kindergarten Killers for Sandy Hook. News flash: Nobody has played, let alone heard of, that abysmal game!
I'd be amiss whilst addressing the current hour of video game history if I didn't make mention of the hellfire that's been raining down on the industry as a whole since 2012's plentiful gun-related tragedies. The unexplainable events of Sandy Hook begged the need for an explanation. As a result Vice President Joe Biden met with the gaming companies, journalists (gamers and non-gamers) have been debating their respective sides on the issue for months, the social medias I plug into show many are outspoken on the topic while several others remain silent. Nothing is all that new on the video game front. It's just that these outside events have turned over old stones with the same arguments we've heard before... on both sides. I started this site as a place to talk about games on a deep, meaningful and creative level. This site will always be primarily about the games themselves, but it's important to be aware of what is going on in the industry. I sense a future op/ed piece from myself or one of the crew about this issue. We certainly shouldn't turn a blind eye to this but we should always keep an open-mind and can only hope other parties will too. As someone who listens to what any side has to say I am comfortable with concluding that gaming is neither the culprit or an innocent third party, it is merely a factor to consider. By comparison, untreated mental illnesses and the accessibility of assault weapons for those in such a state are much more impending factors. Still, the effect of violent video games on players is an issue I am deeply fascinated by and you can expect more thoughts on it in the months to come.

An actual screen from our server. This was my latest project... Minecraft (2012)
Maybe it's because of recent occurrences that I personally have not been playing a lot of games lately. Though the recently concluded movie award season is also a culprit of my time. Writing and films are my first passions and always will be, but there's an allure of gaming possibilites that ever beckons me. I actually hadn't been playing hardly any games since the New Year, an occasional iOS diversion here and a social multiplayer there, but otherwise none to speak of. That is until last week when my cousin suggested getting another Minecraft server going. With his help (I'm a noob is such areas) we got one going and it's been a mostly incredible experience ever since. Minecraft was my favorite game of 2011 right alongside Skyrim, but it's a prime example of a title that challenges the definition of "video games." I also hope to find occasion to explain my frustration with the term while addressing my complete adoration of Minecraft - whatever it is. 

We've come full circle. I write you this letter of recent happenings and my thoughts that surround them to let you know that I have not forgotten about this site, but mostly that I have not forgotten about you, these things we call video games.


P.S. One of the reasons I acquired a PS3 was to play Ni No Kuni. This has not happened yet but I long to with each passing day. Studio Ghibli + video games! How can I not? Well, it's the JRPG aspect that wearies me...

Words by J.S. Lewis