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How to Review?

Adam Tingle Posted:
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Let's face it, the majority of so-called 'games journalists' are hobbyists that have access to a word processor. Largely our love for Princess Zelda has informed our need to write extensive prose, rather than some sort of natural talent to forge letters and sentences. Ultimately, we just like videogames and we have a platform with which to indulge in hyperbole.

Which, for the most part, can only be frustrating for some readers. And because our particular niche of criticism lacks the maturity of say, international affairs, or even covering a mud-wrestling competition, we run the gamut of quality.

And this is something I can hold my hands up to honestly. I started writing about videogames because I needed to validate my own existence in some way. At 18 years old, and at a loss of what to do with my life, I spent the majority of my time playing with joypads and keyboards, and reading magazines like PCZone and PCGamer. I'd always wanted to write, but not in a particularly journalistic capacity.

I found my way into getting comfortable with putting thoughts onto (virtual) paper came easier when I began to sound off about EverQuest or Age of Empires. These pieces of entertainment provided me with a way in to express myself creatively and like opening up a tube of Pringles, as they say, 'once you pop you can't stop.'

It was a hobby that I started to love, and in an attempt to wrangle with the English language I carried on getting gigs at small publications, and finally getting a break here at MMORPG.com. No formal training has ever been sought and with a few nudges from friendly peers along the way my career as a writer of words has largely been self-directed.

Which is where a few problems start to arise: unlike writing for a traditional newspaper, there are very few conventions for us 'games critics' to follow. Reviews, previews, and articles largely differ from person to person, each with their own idea of how the format should look: and sometimes we just don't always get it right.

A review of Eve Online published by a major games site caught my attention recently, essentially because of its naivety. A review is an exercise in whether something is good or not - but there are always caveats. Criticising anything is always going to be subjective, and those that claim to be objective are either liars or fools, but there can be a degree of understanding.

Personally, I've never much been a fan of space, ships, or a combination of the two. I find the setting lifeless and empty, and unless there's a wookie involved I'm unmoved. So when it comes to Eve Online, I do know that it will never be my particular cup of intergalactic-themed tea. This does not however make it a bad game.

Which brings me back to the review. Eve Online is perhaps one of the greatest, if not the greatest, MMORPGs on the market right now. It delivers and achieves everything promised by its developers. It is a space simulator, in which a human being can pretend to be a  pilot simply because of the content offered up by developers, CCP. In terms of what a videogame can actually be: the guys at Iceland have pretty much constructed the bar.

The review itself criticized the game for being exactly what is meant to be whilst being snide about its audience - and this is something that is common. Very few games critics actually review the software on its terms. You cannot denounce Call of Duty because it isn't like Madden, and you can't describe Eve Online as boring because it isn't Wing Commander.

In trying to understand exactly what makes a good review, I've always subscribed to the late great Roger Ebert. At times we, the dabblers of Mario and Sonic, have a tendency to get out a soapbox. We rarely err on the side of indifference - usually reviews come in two formats: 0-4 or 8-10. We rarely get the middle ground, the 'there are successes but also negatives.' We either love or hate.

It is with some understanding that readers can get  annoyed at unfair reviews. If you love a game, and you feel it hasn't a fair shake at the stick, then a certain amount of vitriol can be afforded. Critics have too much of a tendency to declare that their tuna just doesn't taste enough like apple. It's a problem that isn't going away.

Another bugbear is the tendency for all reviews to completely give the game away. When we read about a film, rarely does the author mark the last-gasp plot twist out of ten. We don't hear about new things being thrown in at the one hour mark. With games however, once a review is devoured, what surprise is left? We've heard about the guns, the levels, the characters, the features, the environments. Everything is spoiled. No detail is ever vague. Is this really how we want our criticism to be?

So what I'm trying to say is: we aren't perfect. The majority of us are hobbyists and enthusiasts. At MMORPG we try our best to give each game a fair appraisal, and regardless of our feelings, will at least try to determine scores and criticism on the games' terms, rather than our own bias.

Of course we will get it wrong, but that's where you come in. Tell us when we're wrong. Tell us exactly what you think. Never stop trying to make us better.

 Adam Tingle / Adam Tingle is a columnist and general man-about-town for MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and FPSGuru.com. He enjoys toilet humor, EverQuest-themed nostalgia, and pointing out he's British: bother him at @adamtingle

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Adam Tingle