In my personal opinion, using a review score serves only to do a disservice to both the reader and game being reviewed. Many people often ask for objective reviews according to how good the various elements of the game actually are. The problem is, not many people agree on those facts alone. The fact is, all reviews are, are an opinion from the point of view of a reviewer. You cannot and should not trust any score given by anyone but yourself. That is to say, ideally speaking, a review should give as much factual information as it can, and leave the conclusion up to the reader if they choose to try it.
Some of you are saying, ‘but we want a quick way to decide if a game is worth paying for and playing’. I can understand that, but I think that that is in all honesty, a cop-out. Its saying you want reviewers to decide what is worth spending your money on, and you want to skip all of the research that a reviewer has done to come to a conclusion. Its saying that you do not care to read the explanation behind the score itself. That in itself, is a disservice to you, the reader.
The core problem of it comes down to subjectivity. What I see as ‘good graphics’ is not necessarily going to be the same as what anyone else sees as ‘good graphics’. Likewise, as an FPS player, I may be a lot more critical of sound than someone that plays RPGs or sports games. Some games may very well discard graphics and go with other gameplay elements to make the game unique.
For example, nobody plays Minecraft for the graphics. People play Minecraft because you can do a lot of interesting things in it. So how do you score something like that? Obviously, graphics aren’t a key part of the game. So, what weight should a review give to them, if they are given next to no weight by the original developers? The problem is, I just simply wouldn’t score it because it is bare bones as it is. Others however would score it and points would be deducted from the overall score by it. That is the kind of disservice that they do to some games. A lot of people will simply quantify good graphics as, ‘Does it run at x resolution at y frames every second?’. I won’t get into that argument in this article, but there is currently a huge disagreement on what the standard is between consoles and PCs games that can often outperform any console ever manufactured. Needless to say, opinions here are rampant, and very few will agree.
As far as sound goes, as an FPS junkie, I am infinitely more critical of sound in most games than many other people. I use sound cues to maintain spatial awareness in relation to any enemy I may encounter. An RPG focused player may not agree with my critique of sound, which like it or not, does carry over between genres. Likewise, as an audiophile, I do care about a game’s soundtrack. Other players may be inclined to say, ‘wait, game x has sound?!’ due to the fact many people play with sound off in order to listen to other things. For those that DO care about sound, my taste in music could and probably does differ from others tastes.
When it comes to scoring storytelling, the waters get even murkier. What is good storytelling? When you start talking about how good writing is, you start to tread into the realm of talking about something that is regarded by some as being close to a form of art. Does it matter if a story is predictable and cliche if its still immersive and well done? Some people hate the prequels of Star Wars and want to act as if they never happened. I am among them. However, there are those that think the prequels are even better than episodes four through six. Likewise, there are those that insist that Han Solo shot first (he did) while the creator of Star Wars insists that Greedo shot first (no he didn’t). Both versions, although minor in details changed (Greedo still dies), have huge implications for what it says about Han the character. Both are cliche. On one hand, Han shooting first portrays him as a bit of a rogue smuggler that isn’t afraid to shoot first in self defense to end a standoff. On the other, Han shooting second portrays him as a good guy that will defend himself, but only after being shot at. Which is better? Obviously, its the fact that Han shot first, because I’m the one reviewing it. This sort of argument is common in regards to pretty much every story ever told. Remember the Mass Effect brouhaha with Bioware pissing off a lot of people, and others ‘getting’ it? How do you judge that sort of thing? How do you score it fairly? I argue that it is close to impossible to be fair about it.
Scoring gameplay makes the waters murkier still. What is good gameplay? What is fun? Fun is defined in the english language as, ‘Enjoyment, amusement or light-hearted pleasure’. What is fun to me, may very well be quite un-fun to you. I enjoy playing alongside and against other players of equal or better skill. There are other gamers I know that absolutely despise multi-player games. In all honesty, that is perfectly fine, because fun is subjective and no two people are likely to ever really agree on what fun is. I regard being in a top outfit in Planetside 1 and 2 to be one of the greatest experiences in gaming that I have ever had. Granted, there are a lot of people that would not enjoy the level of intensity that comes with it. On the same coin, I don’t really enjoy the same kind of day-to-day gameplay that beginners in Planetside 2 are greeted with. That is the gameplay that would have to be reviewed, because it is what is initially presented to any new player. For another example, take ArchAge, a review that I wrote. I had to break the score up for its general gameplay into several different categories to adequately quantify what I thought about it. The truth of it is that, for example, if you are a brand new player, you won’t be able to get into land ownership unless you are either extraordinarily lucky, or you outright buy someone’s plot from them. I scored it according to the assumption that that is what any new player would do. Not everyone would agree with me on it, but it is what it is.
That all said, there was a time when review scores served a purpose. When gaming was much younger, there were fewer games being made, and it was easier to quantify each aspect against one another. It is an old industry standard. It had its time, but now it needs to be retired, because as gaming has grown up so too have the games being made. It now does more harm to each game being made, and to gamers that still rely on them. Sure, providing a short recap is good to summarize the facts around it, but quantifying them into numbers does nobody any good. Even Stephen Totilo, Editor in Chief of Kotaku agrees with me. In a talk with Totalbiscuit he says, “We’re skeptical that you can boil the essence of a game down to a number” and that, “it distorts more than illuminates.”
You can see that segment of the discussion here:
I get the feeling that scores really only exist anymore due to the politics behind industry standards. Infamously, Bethesda withheld a bonus payment from Obsidian Entertainment because Metacritic’s score for Fallout: New Vegas was 84, not 85. This is in spite of the fact it did well over $300 million in sales, and the fact that Bethesda had shipped five million copies by November of 2010. This was done over a number, calculated by people that aren’t held accountable to the public, with methods and practices held in complete secrecy. It doesn’t help you, the consumer, judge weather or not it is worthwhile to actually play a game. We give undue weight to these numbers, and seem to be blinded by dogma and tradition when greater detail about the games being reviewed should be held in higher regard. If we did that, it would give game creators the freedom to not target a number, but look at developing games differently. It would give them the ability to go in other directions and paths not taken. More weight would be put on the fun factor of the game by everyone concerned, and isn’t that what matters most when you talk about how enjoyable something is?