Writing an in-depth outline of some common sloppy arguments in video game reviews is basically an exercise in shoving your opinion onto someone else. To try to compensate for this, I shuffled around on Twitter and got advice from several people on the most flawed arguments they see in game reviews. Contributors include 10rdBen, Nelsormensch, SparkyClarkson, mrduranpierre, PopSchiller, mkrpata, Iroquois Pliskin, traceylien, 8bithack, plushapo, Simon Ferrari, and several others. The consequence of using these outside opinions is that I’m personally guilty of several of these flawed arguments in my own reviews. Objectivity is, in many ways, impossible for any one person to manage. But that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it. Inherent in all of these critiques is the notion that a video game should be judged by the intent of the developers and how well it delivers that experience rather than some personal view that all games should be X or Y.
The controls suck.
Declaring that a game’s interface is bad is usually dependent on comparing it to another game. This game controls like this and I like it, this game seems similar so it should control the same way. Kane & Lynch, for example, got a lot flak for its auto-cover system because it was contrary to how Gears of War worked. The best way to elaborate on the controls sucking is to explain that the game wants you to do X and the controls are making that hard. The issue that comes up is gauging whether or not you’re trying to make the game do something its developers didn’t really intend. It helps to remember that for the average AAA game, a lot of people have played it before it reached you and they all seemed to think it was fine. Assuming they aren’t serving paint chips in the cafeteria, there is usually an ideal way of playing a game that the developers really wish you’d adopt. Do they get that across? Why not? Why would it be better for them to do it your way?
I’m not having fun.
A game review is a consumer report that explains how well a piece of software generates an artificial experience for the user. If you’re not having fun, the game is either trying to give you an experience that doesn’t revolve around making you happy or something is broken in the system. Your job is to explain what’s busted, not tell us your feelings that day.
The graphics are terrible.
We’re talking about an artistic medium that started out as a green dot on a round screen. Everything from text to blocky 8-bit graphics has at one point been considered a great video game. The question is whether or not they communicate the information the game needs properly so that it doesn’t inhibit gameplay.
There are no new game mechanics.
Video games by their nature rely on the pre-existing skills of the player. Part of the way a game appeals to an audience is by being like other games, an FPS plays like an FPS and a Third Person game works on the same basic principles. So it’s inherent for there to be a lot of overlap in any game while changing up weapons and play styles. If you find yourself thinking that the game needs new game mechanics, it’s probably due to dull level design and not working with what it has creatively. Also, complaining that there is no new gameplay in an episodic game series is pretty mind-boggling for the exact same reasons: episodic games by their nature are content delivery systems. The person who plays them does so because it stays familiar, not because they want to play a tutorial every time they fire it up.
The game is too easy.
The odds are that someone who writes reviews of video games has probably been playing them a long time. They are, as a consequence, better at video games than the average person. Staying objective here usually means just playing a game at its normal setting and having some kind of standard based on the game’s intent. Call of Duty 4’s difficulty works because if I go running ahead of my squad and start firing everywhere I’ll die. Bioshock’s kinda breaks down because I can just kill a Big Daddy with a pistol on Normal. If anything, a game that’s too hard even for a game reviewer is the most problematic because it’s catering to a niche audience way more than a game that’s too easy. Does the difficulty stay rational and maintain a sense of fairness about what’s expected of you?
The mini-games don’t have any depth.
I’ve actually read this before so there is apparently some kind of expectation that a mini-game be anything other than a short diversion. The basic use of these things in something like Grand Theft Auto or Zelda is to give you something to do when you get stuck or tired of the main game. Beyond Good & Evil took it one step further by having the entire game be made out of a string of mini-games, but that’s a different bag. The point is that they’re functionally icing on the cake. You aren’t supposed to automatically want to sit there and play them for hours. If you do, like a fishing game or bowling, then the more the merrier. But it’s not really a valid complaint to say that a superficial diversion is, in fact, a superficial diversion.
Criticizing gameplay elements in isolation.
This would be the classic scenario of “Resident Evil 4 sucks because you can’t move while shooting” or “Bionic Commando sucks because you can’t jump”. Which is a totally legitimate reason to not like a game and people should be told that. But taking it as a reason to knock the entire game misses the point the design is trying to make. Bionic Commando wants you to use the arm, Resident Evil 4 stays scary by making you vulnerable when you’re shooting. If the overall game design doesn’t really come together that’s one thing, but taking one tiny portion and considering it inherently bad misses the forest for the trees.
Complaining that a fighting game doesn’t have a deep story.
Seeing this in a review gives new meaning to the term “reaching”. For some genres plot is very important, for others it’s barely even a factor.
Complaining that a Game Doesn’t Have Multiplayer.
This is one of those criticisms that didn’t even make sense back when people made it ten years ago. When the original Darkforces came out, most magazines labeled it as inferior to Doom because it didn’t have multiplayer. The problem with that complaint is that 1) the levels wouldn’t even remotely work for multiplayer and 2) the guns were ridiculously unbalanced. It was an FPS trying to deliver a solid single-player experience and they didn’t have time to balance and organize a game that wasn’t one-sided. Now, thanks to years of people dropping this mindless complaint, games will add piss-poor multiplayer without much development or planning. Should the price change if the game doesn’t have multiplayer? Definitely. Is it a flaw to not be able to go online inherently? Not really.
Complaining that a re-released classic title is old.
This is a real head scratcher. Complaining that ChronoTrigger is the exact same as it was 16 years ago is a bit like whining about Oliver Twist still being the same old book. The game is a JRPG classic and when someone buys it, that’s what they want. The same applies for retro-remakes. If they’re blatantly trying to remake a 1980’s style game for older gamers (the average age is 30, remember?), that’s what they want. Getting annoyed at The Dark Spire for making you need graph paper, being ridiculously hard, and requiring tons of grinding misses the point that it’s a pitch-perfect homage to Wizardry. If the developer’s intent is to appeal to nostalgia, you have to gauge how well they do it, not compare it to today’s standards. A younger gamer can just read “It’s old school design” and know what they’re getting into. There are, believe it or not, people of all ages and backgrounds playing video games regularly.