Tuesday, January 14, 2014

By Jamaal Ryan

I say this not as one who writes game reviews recreationally, but as one who plays games as a hobby. Getting some insight into the review process of games – particularly the review schedule assigned before the embargo lifts – I have a new found concern (perhaps fleeting concern) on the validity of the game reviews we read on gaming publication outlets.

I’ll use Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag for example, the surprise hit that in the eyes of most critics, has saved the franchise from its unnecessarily constricted mission design around mundane tasks before the actual assassinations that plagued AC III. Though the press, reviewers and members of editorial teams alike enjoyed Black Flag immensely, one reviewer had harsh things to say about its design.

On my way back home from work, this reviewer mentioned in a podcast that he completed this game in three days for review. Over the holiday break, he jumped back into AC IV to clean up much of the sea based objectives. It was here, he admitted, that he began enjoying the game again and questioned his score. That is, until he delved back into the single player, in which his cringing feelings towards the game quickly resurfaced.

Listening to this, I saw a number of inconsistencies around the review process for Black Flag and his attitude towards the game. First, I think it’s incredibly unfortunate to have to burn through a massive game like AC IV in just three days. In this short period of time, I’d imagine that much of his experience was spent trudging through the game’s main story, which I agree wasn’t very good. However, game reviews are supposed to be critiques that paint a vivid picture of what we can expect our experience to be like playing the game.

I feel confident in stating that the vast majority of folks who played Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag didn’t feel pressured to burn through the game in three short days. Most spent weeks sailing the Caribbean seas sinking and/or plundering ships, destroying forts, hunting sea creatures, and chasing Animus Fragments and chests; everything but the story. His review was based on a three day experience, something that will unlikely be representative to the rest of our experiences with the game. What’s interesting is that after his review and while revisiting the game over the break, his attitude towards the game lightened up a bit as he played the game in a way that’s more representative of how the general population would play.

This then turns into the question: How much stake can we put in press reviews? A whole lot I’ll still say. I’m not here to vanquish the credibility of game critics; there’s a reason why they’re hired to do what they do. But sometimes, it helps to build a better understanding of the review process. In many cases, reviewers won’t have the time to build up to the kind of experience the rest of us would have.

We are the ultimate decision makers in what games we choose to play, and particularly for a vast open ended game like Assassins Creed IV, perhaps the best recommendation is hearing those you trust around you talk about the game, or simply just your gut feeling.

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