Month: January 2017

The Folly of Consumer Reviews

by Jed Pressgrove

Many argue game critics serve readers via “consumer reviews.” The argument goes that everyday people don’t have the time or money to play all the new games, so critics do this and then write reviews suggesting what people should buy.

Here are four reasons one should reject this model:

1. Although the consumer review supposedly only gives readers an idea of what to purchase, the term implies we will and should consume. Consumer reviews are published right as games are released, suggesting the time to make a decision is sooner rather than later. This model puts pressure on readers to pay up to $60 for a new game and thus falls in line with what the game companies want, not what people should be doing with their money. For example, if a consumer review essentially says “Buy the new Resident Evil,” it assumes you have the $60 to spare, which may not be the case. This “timely” advice is more sensitive to the needs of the game publisher than it is to those of the reader, as companies will make more money per game sold near game release dates. People typically don’t call reviews published months after a game “consumer reviews,” even though it should go without saying that a consumer is better off spending less rather than more.

2. No game critic or so-called expert is qualified to suggest how to spend your money. The perceived objective quality of a game has very little to do with whether we should purchase it under whatever economic conditions we face. Critics would only be qualified to give such advice if they know your spending and saving habits and have your various personal needs in the forefront of their minds (which they certainly don’t). It is simply not logical to assume a critic should be telling working-class people what to buy, especially in cases where the critic doesn’t even purchase the game in question. (Catherine Vice, a.k.a. Indie Gamer Chick, nobly sidesteps this criticism by purchasing all games she reviews, but she also admits she is more well off than the average person.)

3. The consumer-review model implies games are little more than commercial products. If the purpose of a review is to help you figure out whether you should buy a game for any number of arbitrary reasons, you are less likely to gain insight into what a game actually is. Philosophically, journalism is supposed to be concerned with the truth. As such, a review should strive for truth, even in its most subjective forms. When a writer is primarily concerned with people’s purchasing decisions, the writer aligns more with the interests of companies than with the pursuit of truth. Thus, it’s not coincidental that the overwhelming majority of high-profile games will get at least 7-out-of-10 review scores, on average. The writer’s alignment with company interests explains the absurdity of certain “consumer reviews” that seemingly pick apart games but still give out scores above a 5. Because a 5 out of 10 naturally suggests average or mediocre quality, consumer reviews have offered us, for years and years, the highly questionable notion that most high-profile games are above-average products. But what is the truth about these games?

4. The consumer-review model rejects the review as a form of artistic or personal expression. A review can’t be expressive in this sense if the writer is concerned about what people buy. The model not only fundamentally constrains creativity and honesty; it frowns upon such things.

For these reasons, Game Bias will never publish a consumer review.

Dishonored 2 Review — Metal Gear Stolid

by Jed Pressgrove

The worst plague in Dishonored 2, a game full of rats and bloodflies, is the absence of emotional conviction. During the first mission of Dishonored 2, the script leads you to believe the two main characters, Corvo and Emily, are father and daughter, but the voice acting sounds like two disengaged performers reading their lines for the first time, and the dialogue (“Let’s see how quiet you are, young lady”) urges you to play along rather than understand the relationship. With a cliched pause in the story, the game asks you to choose to play as the father or daughter. Once you make this decision, the other character is turned into stone by a one-dimensional villain. Not only is this separation uninteresting given that Dishonored 2 fails to build a convincing human dynamic in the first place, but you might not care or remember family was involved in the setup by the third or fourth mission.

Just about everything in Dishonored 2 carries a slapdash, blase attitude. Take the cutscenes before the missions: sapped of color, they look like cheap themes for your console dashboard, and their snooze-worthy exposition could use a sudden noise, music cue, or facial expression (as in the NES classic Ninja Gaiden). Between missions you get on a boat and talk to a captain for no compelling reason, an inconsequential approach compared to how Titanfall 2 propels you to the next challenge through continuity of action. The faces of the characters, which often don’t even look halfway alive, reinforce a sense of detachment and reject the articulate humanity in the faces you see in The Witcher 3 and Beyond: Two Souls.

But Dishonored 2 assassinates its emotional potential the most with its lackadaisical execution of play concepts. The game claims you can “Play your way,” which is more honest than the original Dishonored’s bogus appeal to morality, but the options (for example, possessing a rat vs. turning off a machine) seem made for toddler brains compared to the world of possibilities of the first two Fallout games. More problematic, developer Arkane Studios doesn’t grasp the basics of stealth and playability. For example, you can sneak up on a guy resting in a chair, but if you are crouched directly behind the chair, you can’t execute a takedown. To do that, you must face the chair at an arbitrary angle.

Even worse, enemies show little evidence of consistent intelligence. In the first mission, I was able to run past a dozen or so soldiers and board a ship without much harm or commotion. At times, foes won’t notice you while you’re almost under their nose, and other times they can see through solid objects to detect your still presence in what the game laughably calls “stealth mode” (when you crouch to enter this mode, the edges of the screen go dark — who the hell are the developers kidding?). Even games not marketed as stealth titles, like Dark Souls and Far Cry Primal, feel more logical in what they allow the player to do undetected around enemies.

Like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Dishonored 2 tries to make up for its regressive understanding of stealth with an upgrade system. You gain superpowers by finding runes, which, idiotically, only show up when you equip a heart in your left hand, the same hand you need for teleportation, for instance. Essentially, the powers are there for you to revel in delinquency; you don’t need them, as you can easily take out enemies with a gun and sword, but the more basic action is so boringly designed that you feel like you need supernatural abilities to give you a jolt. After all, honor and its inverse have no meaning in such a cold, stupid game.

Overwatch Review — Style Is Everything

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is heavily shaped by my preference to play as Pharah.

Developer Blizzard Entertainment’s design philosophy for Overwatch follows Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini’s observation about the importance of style: “It’s not what we say but how we say it that matters.” Thanks to an eclectic cast with unchangeable unique moves, Overwatch is an online shooter that carries the spirit of a fighting game, the only video-game genre that consistently attempts to evoke ethnic pride. The combination of diverse playable heroes, straightforward rules, and a team-centric focus (you can be recognized for healing or defending as much as you can be for attacking) gives Overwatch a welcoming vibe that is unlike anything you will find in online shooters, whose learning curves and macho overemphasis on kill counts keep many newcomers at bay. The joy of Overwatch’s aesthetics — as represented by the dueling tactics of visually distinct legends — counterbalances familiar map design, redundancies in strategy, and inconsistencies in logic.

Much has been said about Overwatch’s characters allowing players of different backgrounds to feel more included, but similar to the case with fighting games, this effect is limited though admirable. Not every culture or identity is represented (Blizzard Entertainment making one of its characters gay in an out-of-game public-relations move is not compelling). And unlike Street Fighter II, where every fighter has his or her own specific stage, Overwatch’s settings are more about the dynamics of conflict than a sense of place, background, and purpose. Overwatch looks far more interesting than Team Fortress 2 and the like, but after a while, a passageway is a passageway, an arena is an arena, and a ledge is a ledge, regardless of what location a map supposedly represents.

Still, the different abilities of the characters make these places come to life, especially in cases where the two teams get locked in a seesaw battle for 100-percent dominion over a single checkpoint. Overwatch is at its best when no team gets a short break, with just enough members on both sides keeping the fight alive until the vanquished respawn and rejoin the chaos. Unfortunately, Overwatch’s design doesn’t make this scenario likely enough. Each character has an ultimate move, but the balancing is off with the attack-oriented ones. Some of these moves are tricky to perform (such as Pharah’s Barrage), while others are hard to mess up because of incredible range (D.Va’s Self-Destruct), so it can feel like you’re unfairly rewarded or punished when using an ultimate.

Another issue is the advantage of stationary shooting, which can create repetitive moments of frustration (especially when Bastion and Torbjörn huddle up). To describe how this dynamic can overturn a more interesting game, Pharah seems built for creative flanking maneuvers, but illogically, you will often have more trouble killing an unarmored individual with an automatic than they will have killing you, despite your flying around from a higher position. So instead of making use of her jet pack, you can perch on tiny horizontal platforms and kill people approaching objectives from ridiculous distances. On some stages, this tactic makes the proceedings downright unfair, despite the fun you can have being a cheap asshole. At the same time, the ability to switch characters after you die does allow opportunities to craft a viable, game-changing counter, as you can see the vantage point of the person who kills you after death.

Overwatch’s limitations are ultimately overcome by its unusual dedication to fun shooting for all. This commitment can be seen in the moments before the gates open to the battlefield, when you can destroy property ranging from arcade machines to nice furniture and act silly in front of your teammates. By the time you walk through the gates, the game is more serious and urgent, yet the feeling remains that Overwatch goes out of its way to ensure players have a good time, in victory or defeat, making it difficult to deny the revolutionary tone of the shooter’s popular appeal.