tempest in a teacup

the pointless musings of a strange recluse

How not to write a review

I’m a regular watcher of Zero Punctuation, the five-minute review series started by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw on Youtube and later continued at The Escapist. His reviews are basically highly cynical, sarcastic looks at various games and their idiosyncrasies. He’s usually quite funny, but as of late I’ve come to realise that it’s hard to treat much of his work as “reviews.”

The first sign was his review of Super Smash Bros Brawl. He prefaced his video with a claim that he didn’t understand fighting games. That made me raise my eyebrow, but the rest of his review raised some valid points, so I let it slide.

Until today’s review of Soul Calibur IV.

Let’s get one thing straight – I’m not a Soul Calibur fan at all, and I have no idea how expert players regard this latest installment. Yet Yahtzee’s review, prefaced with the exact same disclaimer about not understanding fighting games, rags on inconsequential nonsense like the story, single player modes, AI and create-a-character modes. Unfortunately, the standards he uses to measure the other games he plays are simply irrelevant in the case of fighting games. They’re nice window dressing, but they shouldn’t take attention away from the fighting system, and more importantly, how the game holds up in versus play.

Needless to say, Yahtzee mentioned neither, therefore making his review another footnote (a humorous one, but still nonetheless a footnote) in the history of people who try to review fighting games without actually knowing anything about them.

That goes for all genres, really. Yahtzee’s best reviews tend to be the ones where he reviews games from genres that he likes, like FPSes and action games (although even these have some duds among their ranks).

Maybe I’m taking his efforts too seriously, but Yahtzee has indicated at times that he wishes to be taken seriously as a critic of videogames. However, without the necessary expertise, his videos are nothing more than humorous bile.

There’s a much more comprehensive and better-written take on the same subject here.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not singling out Yahtzee for doing this – he just happens to be the most recent example of a thoroughly irritating phenomenon present in just about all mainstream reviews these days.

24 comments

24 Responses to “How not to write a review”

  1. KK says:

    lol SC IV

    … nah, it’s not bad. Much better than SC III, I’m pretty sure about that, and the online is a nice addition though the delays makes online matches being only a buttonmash fest.

  2. Oro says:

    It does appear you are taking the subject a little more seriously than you should. And it’s not because I have some unwavering hard-on for Croshaw, but because he has the exact same problem that most reviewers have. At the very least, he’s willing to preface his reviews with a small disclaimer.

    Today, it really comes down to the idea that not that many people understand fighting games, especially in Western cultures. There’s a certain dedication required to properly “get” the complexity that has gone into the development of fighters, something usually chain-smoking, swearing, tight-shirt and pants wearing Asians with their bored looking girlfriends who loiter endlessly in seedy arcades truly appreciate. When playing SC IV, it’s painfully apparent when you go online and the majority of the players are mashing out the same 1-2 effective moves while you pulverize them with a modicum of fighting game knowledge. Players of fighting games are in my eyes, are different breed of gamer altogether.

    Now, as for Croshaw, he’s basically reviewing Soul Calibur with the same set of standards that he uses for pretty much every review out there. With his emphasis on story, story, story, story, some gameplay nitpicks, story, cutscenes, and did I mention story? While the standards of every reviewer do differ, its just human nature to apply their own personal biases and standards to the review they write. If anything, reviews are a summation of your personal bias, and people who harbour the same biases as the said reviewer should read or appreciate your commentary. Objectivity is illusion. Take your local movie reviewer who may hate every Adam Sandler movie out there, can’t really blame them, but chances are he or she is gonna hate every single Sandler movie and anything resembling a Sandler movie out there. And like fighting games, it takes a certain type of person to like those movies. If Yahtzee was truly objective, if reviewers were all truly objective, we wouldn’t need so many of them because in essence they should be the same. Plus, his standards really do apply to the majority of gaming genres out there.

    And finally, you think you could truly review MK vs DC objectively? And no, doing it out of spite does not count SS. :P

    • sonictempest says:

      If I were to review MK vs DC, I can’t deny that my own prejudice towards the series would not colour my review in some form. However, the review WOULD be based on how the game plays, not inconsequential rubbish like what colour Superman’s tights are or how big Kitana’s boobs are.

      Bias is unavoidable in reviews (they are after all opinion pieces) but I expect a game review to score a game based on game mechanics, not random fluff. Yahtzee’s fighting game reviews fail in this regard.

      • sonictempest says:

        would not colour -> would colour

        Too many things on my mind right now, graaah

      • Oro says:

        “Bias is unavoidable in reviews (they are after all opinion pieces) but I expect a game review to score a game based on game mechanics, not random fluff. Yahtzee’s fighting game reviews fail in this regard.”

        Game mechanics are not the only important aspect to a fighting game. Graphics, story, and all the amenities are there as part of the whole package. To review a fighting game purely on gameplay is insular.

        • sonictempest says:

          Yes, but they are the most important element. A game that looks fantastic but plays like crap is worth nobody’s time.

          • Oro says:

            Well, I didn’t say gameplay is unimportant, I’m just saying it’s all important. And he touched upon the gameplay in the only way it mattered to a single player….the throw button. I shit you not, it’s true.

  3. Oro says:

    Though you know, he did mention how the throw button is practically the only button you need. And aside from the top of the tower of lost souls and vs. play, he’s got that one down pat.

    But you know, he did touch on many of the grips that all the “legitimate” reviewers complained about. Soul Calibur has always had a pretty rich story mode and what not, and it was severely neutered in the latest incarnation. The create a character while fun at first ends up being a chore of min/maxing your character while looking like a clown. I’m not really defending his review as I am defending that his gripes with SC 4 are just as valid as gripes about gameplay.

    I mean, by your logic, every game should only be reviewed by their defining genre characteristic. Tomb Raider should be graded on how well Lara raids her puzzle filled tombs. RPGs only on story, etc….

    You could argue that in other genres gameplay isn’t the defining characteristic, but as I see it, games are a package the gameplay should be good, the story should be good, the fluff should be good, and the MC’s outfit should be shiny.

    • sonictempest says:

      He said that the throw button is the only button you need based on playing against the AI. Who buys a fighting game to play against the CPU? Fighting game AI is well-known for being little more than a punching bag. He disqualifies himself as a reviewer of fighting games by not knowing what makes them tick.

      The points he mentioned about the CAC mode and such are valid, but a point against game mechanics counts far more than a point against story, particularly when the game is a fighter. Take KOF XI for example – the game looks uneven because of the use of upscaled, filtered sprites on high-res backgrounds. Is this a minus? Sure. Does it matter? Not really, because the rest of the game is rock-solid and very enjoyable to play. If the game system were not as good as it is, I would regard it with much less favour.

      And yes, I do think games should be reviewed on what makes them games – the game mechanics. Graphics, sound and other items are worth mentioning, because they are part of the package, but the main thrust of any review should always be analysing and criticising how the actual game mechanics are put together.

      • Oro says:

        Well, then, does it disqualify him from reviewing FPS because the meat of those games tend to come from the multiplayer….

        As for the KOF XI argument, you know, yes, the gameplay does matter a great deal. If I were to review KOF I’d probably scale the worth of the gameplay past the other aspects, but due to the lack of polish in well, let’s just say graphics, I would deduct marks.

        Every reviewer does it, it’s just that Yahtzee tends to hold some of the aspects to a higher regard, if anything, it shows he’s consistent. But I’m glad you brought up that you think that analyzing game mechanics is the most important aspect to you because then you’re doing exactly what he’s doing. Taking a specific aspect of a game and making it your standard of criteria. And their all valid (within reason).

        I’m pretty sure most people out there who buy and play fighting games play the single player. Probably not amongst our relatively hardcore little circle, but making the assumption that most people play fighting games competitively is very…dunno…something. Alcohol isn’t good for writing up opinion pieces is it?

        • sonictempest says:

          You don’t really have to play fighting games competitively to be able to criticize them. You only need to know what makes them work.

          And yes, I am applying my own criteria to judging fighting games. I just happen to think that my criteria is much better than Yahtzee’s. :P

          The only thing that this discussion has cleared up for me is that I need a wider WordPress theme. Compressed comments ftl.

          • Oro says:

            Yes, I pretty much got that impression anyways. But in this day and age, his criteria is more than enough to form an adequate review for the majority of people who play fighting games. I’m quite certain gamers into fighters would never take Yahtzee’s criticisms on SC 4 or any other fighting game seriously to begin with.

            But then again, my biggest issue with your stance is that if Yahtzee is not an adequate enough reviewer for fighting games, then it makes the majority of reviewers out there equally limp in the same aspect. How many more fighting game reviews of, “the game basically boils down to a button masher but we think there’s depth there” can you possibly read and not feel furious because they’re not engaging the depth they obviously know is there but ignore?

            • Oro says:

              Yes, the compressing box is quite fail. :P

            • sonictempest says:

              I actually do feel that the majority of reviewers out there are derelict in their duty by not actually analysing how games are put together. Stuff like 1UP’s review of a game like Arcana Heart (“I’m sure the game is good, but it’s too hard to learn”) or the PC version of DMC4 (“This game sucks because it doesn’t let you use a mouse”) really get my blood boiling.

  4. Oro says:

    Well, that’s how market forces work, fighting games in general have kind of become some obsolete eastern phenomenon like sushi used to be, the big difference is that people still eat raw fish and nobody plays fighting games. While I do lament the decline of the genre I’ve come to expect this lackadaisical approach of fighting game reviews, and I just didn’t think singling out Yahtzee for his review was particularly fair. Though I guess you being somewhat of a fan makes you take it a lot harder huh?

  5. Shinryuuken says:

    Well that proves once again that most reviews (reviews, not analyze of a game) are to be taken with a grain of salt. But I think it’s a matter of preference and priorities too. Y’know, some people like their fighting games because of the cool characters. And who can blame them?

    • sonictempest says:

      I actually think that reviews should be analysing how a game is put together. That’s the whole point of a review – critical analysis.

      And yeah, people can like fighting games for things like cool characters or extra modes. That’s fine. It’s when they take that perspective and think that they’re qualified to pass judgment on the quality of a fighting game that I take offense.

      • Oro says:

        Should probably just lighten up on that, it’s nothing to take offense over, especially since hardcore gaming is on the decline.

        • sonictempest says:

          I don’t think ‘hardcore gaming’s supposed decline is any reason to not get riled up at people like that – they are acting as an authority on something they don’t understand, which in itself is enough to irritate me.

          • Oro says:

            Meh, being an authority on gaming in general is enough to write a review for any genre of game, especially if it’s catered to the mainstream.

            Maybe you should go into gaming journalism? o_O

            • sonictempest says:

              I disagree :P

              I mean, would you trust someone who didn’t know everything about, say, audio visual equipment to write a review of a home theatre system? And would you trust a review like that when making a decision on what to buy?

              Feels like we’re going in circles here…I think we should just agree to disagree and leave it at that.

  6. Oro says:

    No, I wouldn’t, but I also happen to know that most of the people who work in the audio visual department of Best Buy know absolutely nothing about audio visual equipment. Perhaps it’s really just come down to the fact that I expect failure and mediocrity when it comes to professionalism because it’s everywhere, whereas you actually expect some kind of excellence.

    Yes, we’ve gone in circles a bit, but at the same time given each other things to think about. But I’m fine at leaving it.

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