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Reviews: Statements vs Scores

An old article I wrote during the initial release of 2017's Star Wars Battlefront 2, highlighting the climate of journalism and review culture. How reviews mean say one thing but mean another and the disparity this causes for readers.

Having to review any kind of product is no easy feat and every critic goes about the task with their own style. The more traditional format generally attaches a score typically alongside a list of pro and cons at the end of the article: while others opt to simply give impressions of the product reviewed. Each system proves to be beneficial in their own way but are far from flawless. This article attempts to delve into and examine one particular review system, that of the ‘review score’ and highlight an instance when such flaws become problematic to the contemporary review system as a whole.

The difficulty of compacting a lengthy article discussing and critically analysing the elements of a text: be it a film, album or video game, into a simple score is a somewhat complex notion. The author must attempt to boil down an already potentially well-crafted piece into digestible buzz words beside a percentage or fraction mark that highlights to the reader the key points they are trying to put forth. It can be seen as an extreme, minimalist version of a conclusion to an essay. Yet, in the same way to an academic paper, if this conclusion is at odds or rushed in comparison to the rest of the text, the credibility of the whole piece crumbles and is at risk.

It could be argued that by being an outsider to reviews and journalism as an industry, certain arguments from those on the outside have little credibility/validity. It’s an old argument that works both ways and has very little ground to it. Readers of a review have a right to disagree with the authors view, that is a given, but it enters murky waters once the reader start to question the authors ability as a critic. It’s a foggy territory that this article is going to step into consciously but also cautiously. It’s easy to get carried away when writing a critical piece and possibly overstepping the mark and missing the point of the article in the first place, hence ‘cautious’.

As of the time of writing this article, the specifics of what its dives into will be ‘old’ news (as far as the internet is concerned), but it the most poignant example of what is trying to be analysed. What I am referring to is Gamesradar’s review of Star Wars Battlefront II. Already loaded with a plethora of its own controversy at this point, this article is not so much concerned with that, but it does hold some relevance. The full article is available here: http://www.gamesradar.com/star-wars-battlefront-2-review/ along with an archive of the page if it is to become unavailable in the future: https://goo.gl/dQytuw.

The structure of the review has three pillars, two being the multiplayer portion of the game and the final being the single-player. The first pillar deals with the positives of the multiplayer experience: detailing its game-modes and their popularity in the authors eyes. The section reads as positive review of their experience with the title, mainly how much it ‘feels’ like Star Wars. Towards the end of the pillar however, is where the ‘narrative’ of the review shifts. The author highlights the issues of the highly controversial “star cards’ and loot crate system, commenting on its needless complexity. It might be worth noting that the author does not delve into the common issue with these systems, being that of the cards and crates providing players with objectively superior stats to their classes, but only how the overall system is poorly communicated to the player. Maybe this issue never made contact with the author during their playtime, but if it did it seems bizarre to leave it out in a review that is structured mainly around how the gameplay is crafted. The final few sentences of the second pillar appear to give a strong sense of the author’s view regarding the game:

“The problem is that everything in Star Wars Battlefront 2’s multiplayer is tied to the opening of random crates, and while you can simply unlock the Star Cards you want with Crafting Points… they’re not as easy to acquire as Credits, which are used to grab those loot boxes. Oh, and if you want to pay real money for crates, then you fork-out for Crystals, which is the game’s third type of currency. It’s a real, real mess.

Shame, because the game lurking underneath this grubby veneer of gambling and money-minding is first-class.” 

(Side note: This review was written before the purchase of crystals was temporarily removed).

The strength and power of the language behind the writing of this section of the review can be seen in many readers eyes as the overall sentiment felt towards the game, which makes the following even more confusing. After tackling the single-player portion of the game in the third pillar, confronting it with lack-luster dismay, the author signs off with final thoughts and a score of 4 out of 5. A state of confusion arises at this moment, as it did with many readers of the article. Many comments point out the seemingly contradictory statements between the main body of text and the overall review score. What seems to be a heavily negative review ends with a score equivalent of 80%. The review, in the eyes of many, is a state of narrative dissonance. The two entities of the review score and text are contradictory, at odds with one another. The major concern that lies here is within the ‘narrative’ the review is attempting to put forth. As stated at the beginning of this article, when the conclusion to an essay feels rushed or at odds with the main argument that it put forth prior, the credibility of it all is in jeopardy. Audience reception to the piece is a prime example of how the review becomes questionable. Much of the response leans towards the authors omission of the then present micro-transaction and pay-to-win mechanics and how what appears to be a negative review garners such a high score.

The narrative of the review plays out much like the narrative of a ‘bad’ film. The film runs with an overall tone that the audience comes to accept and expect something ‘big’ to happen within the final act that will compliment said tone. When the film is in its final moments and suddenly alters its tone to the opposite of what it has been the entire time, the audience suffers from thematic whiplash. When such a problem occurs within other mediums, as it has within this review, is poses many questions that need answering. Some questions will be easier to answer than others, and many not reach a satisfying conclusion at all. This is one of the major problems when attempting to look critically at any kind of review, but it is at least worth attempting.

First and foremost, the example above is a clear indication of why a ‘scored’ review is inherently a flawed system. Many journalistic outlets have begun to internally review their own systems and either alter or change how they work to better represent the product. Mainly seen throughout video game journalism, the complex nature of modern video gaming; with constant updates, bug fixes, etc, these alterations to more traditional formats of reviews are much needed. Applying older frameworks to a new medium only works for so long before they need to be revised. Films are initially digested in a matter of hours and the nature of the review is straightforward in comparison to a video game: who’s narrative ranges from 6-60 hours long dependent of the genre. Outlets like IGN opt for a ‘review in progress’ stance, where the score will dynamically change as the reviewer progresses through the games narrative. It’s a halfway solution to the problem of review scores, and can work if it complements the rest of the piece. The problem still lies with the simple ideology of the review score. It’s been stated many times previous, but attaching a rating system determined by the outlet serves as an injustice to the craft of journalistic writing; and while in no way ‘attacking’ the author of the Gamesradar piece used as the foundation for this entire article, it is the most recent and relevant example currently out there.

It’s possible to brush off the criticisms of the review as the author still found enjoyment out of the game while disliking much of it, hence the high review score; much in the same way a person can view a ‘bad’ film and still thoroughly enjoy it. This is certainly possible to do with video games but when applying logic from one medium to another, it’s never possible for the logic to work 100%. The fundamental nature of a video game, being that it requires an active, physical engagement with the product alters how this mindset works, and the review appears to unconsciously acknowledge this in their writing yet falls short of either realising or accepting it. The author outlines their experience with the game and their personal outcome as to how they feel about it; be it that the game was fun to play but is weighed down by predatory monetization systems that in turn dampen the overall satisfaction of the experience. At this point, the review is relatively harmless, it is within the score that the problem lies. The score, while a numeric reflection of the authors experience of the game, is wholly reductionist of the writing at the same time. As stated, much of the review is geared towards the negative impact the game had while the author played it, yet the ‘outcome’ dictates the opposite. The simple facet of the review system is to inform the consumer of how a released product performs once in the open market, yet the contradictory nature of this particular review only appears to confuse. A simple solution, for this specific review, would be to change its narrative; the author would include more accounts of the game that were positive in their eyes so that the score would work parallel to the written content. Yet this is a prime example of how a review model can negatively impact journalistic work. The outdated model of numerical data to determine the enjoyment of a product is used widespread within creative industries: it is what catches the readers eye, what gathers easier page clicks which gains more revenue, but the system is in dire need of an overhaul.

Revisiting an old system and working it into today’s standards is almost impossible and in is serious danger of falling into the trap that was clearly signposted above; you cannot take an old model/framework from one industry to another and expect it to work 100%. Overhauling the review score model is in turn continuing the practice of using the old for the new. The aim should be to conceptualise review systems that speak to the core ideology of a game and its surrounding industry, the same way the video game medium (in some cases) set itself apart from the moving image or literature, to tell narratives only a video game could tell. A conceptualisation of a new review system may make its way to this site in the near future, but for now it is important to address where the current systems can go wrong before moving on.

 

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