Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The All-Hearsay Holiday Buyers' Guide

The Gang of Four neatly summarize my experience of the winter release schedule:

Most of it's passed me by, since I've spent all this time playing Fallout 3. Forty-Nine unstintingly virtuous hours later I polished off the main quest. I am duty-bound to tell you, as a consumer advocate, that it is a fine game. It has very high playtime-to-dollar and brainworm-to-soundtrack song ratios.

Aside from this Fallout binge (it is less a game than a subtle form of hypnosis) I've played some of that LittleBigPlanet game (verdict: I am just not this game's intended audience) and some Left 4 Dead (verdict: brilliant.) Since I have never allowed my ignorance to get in the way of having an opinion, however, I've decided to conduct a whirlgig tour of the conventional wisdom on this season's notable releases. Call it all-hearsay game reviewing (A near cousin of Mitch Krpata's “User-Submitted Previews”). As a games enthusiast writing on the internet, I'm going to hew to the policy of having my consumer choices decide my critical evaluations: Fallout 3 is the game of the year.

Fable II: Apparently, you can surmount most of the lifestyle-simulator elements by farting repeatedly in the town square, or playing Links for a few hours in the smithy, and this is rather disappointing. But in the end, whimsy carries the day.

Dead Space: David Ellis sez: “Now That's What I Call Survival Horror!” Not so much a game as a compilation, excepting the stuff with the HUD. All the merits and demerits that go along with this description.

Mirror's Edge: An inspired set of core gameplay mechanics in search of a game. Call it Assassin's Creed '08. The mixed critical response to Mirror's Edge led N'Gai Croal to come out of his hiatus and write a great piece on the place of innovation in game design. (Good to see you back, N'Gai!)

Here's my take: First, the fact that most professional reviewers have to assign numbered scores to their reviews (not that they like doing this) feeds into the idea that elements like innovation, graphical design, controls, and the narrative are things that can be assigned specific weights and that the merits and demerits in each area are being weighed against each other to produce an evaluation. And sure, sometimes it's like this, but in most case a critical take is a matter of how these elements work together in an organic whole. Second, there's a reason Portal and Resident Evil 4 are both landmarks of innovation, rather than false starts. It's because their designers built a tightly constructed game around their novel mechanics. Often, but not always, doing this comes down to level design.

Far Cry 2: Apparently, it's what we call a “grower.” Like when I listened to Sea Change the first ten times I wasn't impressed, but then the 11th time rolled around I was like “Whoa, this album is off the hinges, permanently.” You spend all this time wandering around the savannah and trying to repair your jeep and dying of malaria, and you think you hate Far Cry 2, but then at some point it all clicks and you decide it's total genius.

Valkyria Chronicles: This is cheating, because I've actually played the demo, but I have to say that this game is a total sleeper hit. Had I not spent the last 49 hours of my gaming life playing Fallout I would probably be frittering away my latenight hours conducting manoeuvres. Why couldn't this game have come out in March? Sheesh.

Gears of War 2: Over the last few years, the folks at Epic Software have been hard at work building a better meatgrinder. Like Super Mario Galaxy, it shines in the areas that expertly constructed Nintendesque entertainments shine: level design, control, funness.

Ah, making all these uninformed asessments makes me want to buy certain of these games. Alors. I'm off to finish making creamed corn gratin with bacon and onion rings (aka “dishfull o' cononary”) for the Pliskin family Thanksgiving festivities, here in the Cleve. I wish you all a hearty meat coma!


Anonymous said...

I think you're correct in your assessment of how the score thing affects reviews, and I think what follows from that a bit is that there is a sense that I get from a lot of these better paid reviewers is that what they yearn to do is not reviewing so much but criticism. And yet the biggest problem is that there's a Metacritic driven business model that their employers can understand for the former, but no real semblance of one for the latter. So really if they want to make money writing about games, they're kind of chained to the yoke of the score driven Metacritic model. Sure, they might sneak some stuff in here or there or convince their editors to allow them the occasional feature piece with in-depth critical coverage--but when they do a one-off look at an individual game it's going to be a review and not criticism, because that's mostly what drives the clicks.

I'd like to see a videogame critical method that was connoisseurship a la Farber, but I'm not at all sure where the money comes from for someone to make a living at it.

Lastly, you should try Far Cry 2. That's my game of the season so far, though I'm only 4 hours or so into Fallout 3. (But I'm not really loving it, so far).

Nels Anderson said...

"... feeds into the idea that elements like innovation, graphical design, controls, and the narrative are things that can be assigned specific weights and that the merits and demerits in each area are being weighed against each other to produce an evaluation."

While I find this problematic, what's even more troublesome is many seem to think these evaluations are objective. I would be elated if we, as both an industry and as an audience, could embrace reviews' inherent subjectivity. But the "bonuses based on Metacritic scores" doesn't really jive when admit those scores are just opinions.

As for the games themselves, Fallout 3 and FarCry 2 were where I decided to focus my efforts (aside from L4D, but that's a bit different) and I haven't been disappointed in the least. Fallout 3 had me absolutely hooked, and I'll be going back for another round before long, but FC2 is worth checking out. It's unabashedly about shooting people, but it does so in countless clever ways. I definitely had the slow burn experience as well. The last straight-up shooter I enjoyed this much was Bioshock, I think.

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