The Fallacy of Scoring

March 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

A common complaint surrounding the video games press is the over reliance on review scores as a means of determining a game’s overall quality. Opponents of such a system argue that a reviewer’s complex opinion is impossible to sum up in a simple numerical score whilst supporters point to scores as an easy way of summarising a length review. Is the importance of scores overstated? Is it right to compare games based upon single numbers? All things considered, does the industry need review scores at all?

To start with, we shouldn’t forget that review scores play a vital role on websites with vast databases containing thousands of games. Scores allow sites to very easily rank games on a qualitative basis, placing better reviewed games at the top, and the very worst at the bottom. Such a general feature is invaluable to consumers that may not have the time to read through dozens of reviews to find the cream of the crop; they can simply select their platform of choice, perhaps a genre or two, and instantly find pages of games worth their attention. Scores are thus a very useful feature in themselves – essentially removing the need for a constantly updated ‘Top Ten’ list – but only when they’re taken in a such a general context.

What of comparing reviews of the same game across multiple publications though? The website Metacritic – which provides an ‘average’ score across dozens of reviews – could be considered the hub of this practise on the internet today. It’s influence is so wide ranging that even huge publishers are starting to take notice. There have been some terrifying reports over the years of bonuses being paid out based upon how high a Metacritic score the title receives.

The first problem with comparing scores in this way is the marked difference in scoring scales. 1Up for example, chooses to review its games based upon a alphabetical scale similar to what teacher’s use to grade work. The best of the best receive As and A+s, which more average games have to settle for a grade closer to a C. Similar problems occur with 5-star scoring systems: Many, such as myself, would consider a 3-star game to be average, but on a ten-point scale the average tends to lie at around 7 instead.

Ironically the biggest problems come when comparing scores from ostensibly identical systems, of which the 10-point scale is the most popular. The British magazine ‘Edge’ regularly receives criticism from forum-posters for their seemingly low review scores. In recent years they’ve given a 7 to Killzone 2, and more recently a 5 to Final Fantasy XIII. Whilst admittedly part of the trend is caused by reviewer preference, the main issue is that Edge’s scoring method is different from every other scoring system out there. Every review site is the exact same way, and as such comparisons between them are a little funky at best, and at worst a complete waste of time.

So surely if we stick to comparing review scores from the same outlet we can avoid all these difficulties? Sadly this is also not the case, and this exact mistake way made by Ryan Paton on an edition of the late 1Up Yours where he complained (again about Edge) that Race Driver: GRID had been given a higher score that Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots despite them being “in different leagues.”

In one sense he’s hit the nail right on its head, they are in different leagues as games. One is, after all a fairly arcade-style racing game, and the other is one of the most expensive action games ever made. The point he’s missing is that when considering review scores, each game’s respective reviewer was considering different scales.

So the fact that GRID got a 9 and MGS4 got a 7 doesn’t mean that one is a better game than the other. What it actually means is that one is a better racing game than the other is a stealth/action game. It’s a fact that seems to pass many gamers by, Super Mario Galaxy isn’t a better game than Assassin’s Creed (at least not according to Gamespot), but it IS a better platformer than Assassin’s creed is an action game. When Jeff Gerstmann awarded Tony Hawks Pro Skater 3 a coveted 10 out of 10 all those years ago (though the unobtainable nature of this score has seemed to have gone to pot recently) he wasn’t saying it was a perfect game, but that it was a perfect skateboarding game.

I think this is a point missed by not only many gamers, but also a large number of people on the other side of the fence who actually review games. I’ve lost count of the number of times a little PSN or XBLA title has received a lower score simply because of the unreasonable expectations of their reviewers who seem to want to compare them to the likes of Grand Theft Auto and Mass Effect. Thankfully in recent years this practise has, however, been in decline.

I hope what people realise is that there’s no inherent problem with placing a review score at the end of your piece. They provide a pretty nice summary for skim reading, as well as enabling the ranking features of many of our favourite websites. It’s important however, to not get too tied up with comparing scores at an individual level. They exist as an imperfect science, and as soon as you start treating them any differently, their flaws become starkly apparent.


Yoshi’s Island is Really Messed Up: but only if You Think about It

March 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Inevitably my quest to complete (or at least play) every single game on Edge’s Top 100 Games to Play Today has this week brought me to Yoshi’s Island, the follow-up to Super Mario World on the SNES. If summing it up briefly I’d probably praise and condemn its lower difficulty level than the other Mario games I’ve played, praise because the series has at points brought me to tears, and condemn for almost the same reason.

Any comments I make with my reviewers hat on however, are simply going to feel outdated and a little redundant at this point in time, so instead allow me to wax lyrical about some of the finer points of the game, namely how messed up the whole thing is.

From what I can gather, the art style has divided opinion since the game’s release. For what it’s worth I like it. The hand drawn colouring-book art style is appealing to me just because of how unique it is, and whilst I could do without having to listen to Mario bawl his eyes out whenever I lead Yoshi astray I think the idea of a baby Mario is – in itself – not a bad idea.

In places however, the art style raises very important philosophical questions that I feel need answers. Firstly, why did Yoshi’s Island change so much whilst the Mario brothers were growing up? According to this game, there was a time when the whole thing looked like it had been drawn by a four year old (albeit a very competent one), what happened? Did Bowser or one of his maniacal crew turn up in Mario’s absence and bully the island into growing up?

If this was the case then why did Bowser leave? I can’t believe that he would just redraw an entire state of dinosaurs and then bugger of from whence he came. Does this mean there is more than one saviour of Yoshi’s Island? Is there some other blue-collar worker who works in tandem with Mario to keep the kingdom safe? Actually come to think of it, we don’t know if the Island is a monarchy, or even if it’s its own state. The Yoshiss clearly rule it judging by the name, but is there a head honcho who tells all the others what’s what?

It could also be the case that Yoshi’s Island is a living thing, and has over the years grown up exactly as Mario has. The mountains in the background have faces on several occasions, which frankly raises further questions. The fact that they have eyes I can deal with, but the mouths suggest two things, firstly that they can talk, and second that they can eat.

Now I don’t know about you, but the concept of a mountain needing to eat is terrifying to me. Does it simply open its mouth and wait for unwitting hikers/Yoshis/Mario to fall in? Or is a more active roll necessary? Are there Yoshis who’re tasked with the job of feeding these leviathans? What do they even eat? Are they carnivores? Also WHY ARE THEY SMILING? What could a mountain possibly have to be happy about?

I don’t know about you, but the existence of narcotics in the Super Mario world simultaneously shocked me whilst confirming within me suspicions I’ve held about the games for quite some time now. You know the levels I’m talking about; the ones where if you touch the huge floating dandelion seeds the screen starts to pulse, and Yoshi finds it hard to control himself whilst his stomach bulges comically. Now I’m no politician Nintendo, but is comedy really something you want to derive from casual drug use?

Unquestionably the most messed up thing about Yoshi’s Island is your ability to suck up enemies and then immediately turn them into eggs. I can only think of two ways Yoshi may be able to achieve this. The first involves him pushing the creature through his system at phenomenal speeds, and propelling him into an egg waiting happily in Yoshi’s colon (another interesting point, is every Yoshi called Yoshi? Or is there one dinosaur called Yoshi, with all the others belonging to the same unnamed race?). The second, more disturbing explanation is that eating animals provides Yoshi with the energy needed to produce an egg. If this is true, it means that Yoshi’s throwing his own eggs at enemies in order for baby Mario to pass safely. That’s commitment, it really is.

Actually it could be the fact that this game reveals the existence of more than one Yoshi that bothers me so much. In retrospect it was crazy to think that every Yoshi you encountered in Super Mario World was the same guy, but why is he always the same colour? Was there some sort of plague that wiped out all the non-green Yoshis? Perhaps more disturbing is the thought that maybe the Yoshis had some sort of racial uprising in the time between Yoshi’s Island and Super Mario World in which all the non-green creatures were removed from the island.

In any case I’ll freely admit to having next to no knowledge of Mario lore, or at least not as much as someone who’s prepared to write a 900 word article should do. If anyone has any answers to my questions, please do post them below. Admit it though, this game is really weird.

Jet Set Radio Future: A Review

March 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Note: I never owned an original Xbox, and as such never played JSRF as it was meant to be played. This review is one of the game played with the 360’s less than perfect backwards compatibility. I’m fully aware some of the issues I experienced weren’t present in the original, but I’ve only got my personal experience to go on when it comes to this. Taking such matters into account simply isn’t possible.

If any game were to sum up the ‘almost-retro’ fashion stylings of the early double-0s, it would be Jet Set Radio Future. The florescent art style, the ‘street’ lingo characters use, and the omni-present radio DJ all point towards a style that was verging on the ridiculous even when it had a following. Perhaps then this distance from the culture it apes is a good thing, adding a layer of tongue in cheek to a game that would otherwise see its setting plunge into cheese so deep so as not even to be ironically enjoyable.

As it is however, the setting is pleasant, almost whimsical. In a not-to-distant Tokyo a fascist dictator has come into power, intent on making every citizen a slave to his unimaginative, generic take on what art should be. As a result of this several graffiti gangs – all of which sporting inline skates, a fact that’s never really explained – pop up, intent on covering the city in paint and restoring its urban beauty.

Whilst the story does pave the way for many encounters with a very Nazi-esque police force later in the game, initially it tends towards the tedious, and sometimes even the frustrating. A very common task you’ll be presented with is to enter a new area and cover predesignated spots with graffiti. The act of squeezing off paint cans and seeing predefined pieces of artwork pepper the walls is enjoyable enough by itself, but when you’re asked to repeat this task several times over there’s more than a little sense of the grind setting in.

Actually spraying the graffiti is only half the battle though, the other half being just getting to the place. Here, billboards and railings are your best friends, the former providing a means to wall ride and propel yourself around corners, and the latter allowing you to scale sets of stairs. Largely these actions are automated, so it’s just a case of lining yourself up with whatever it is you need to hit, and this removes an awful amount of the frustration-factor, but can also add a host of other difficulties when you’d rather your skates land on the floor than be stuck in a difficult to exit grind.

An automatically adjusting camera causes problems for exactly the same reason. For the most part you can leave the camera alone, safe in the knowledge that it will center itself behind you once you start moving, but in cases when you’re standing still, lining yourself up for a particularly taxing jump, it feels like it takes far too long to get the camera looking where you want it to. These problems pale in comparison to the ‘set-piece’ camera however, when the game feels it necessary to take camera control away from you. In one case (when you’re skating around a cylindrical grind rail) the camera actually pans backwards, making the jump out of the grind much more taxing than it should otherwise be.

Minor annoyances simply cannot mar your entire experience with Jet Set Radio Future when the core skating component feels so right so consistently however. It feels good merely skating along the flat pavements Tokyo has to offer, and the fact that there’s a basic trick system in there (along with a button that allows you to skate backwards) when high scores play next to no part in this game adds to this sense of innocent fun the whole game exudes. Ultimately there isn’t a point to much of the stuff you’ll end up doing in Jet Set Radio Future, but you have fun doing it anyway.

5 Films that Deserve Game Tie-Ins (but will never get them)

March 3, 2010 § 2 Comments

Movie game tie-ins suck, there’s no two ways about it. Development teams are given mere months to bring a project to completion, their control over the IP is minimal at best, and they have to suffer all the trials and tribulations of film editing, which at times can eradicate, weeks of work. A message will be passed down from upper management, “Hey,” they’ll say, “Remember that water level you spend days programming, modeling, texturing and testing? Well they cut that scene from the movie.” This development environment is so hostile one designer who’s had to work on such projects remarked that the best game developers are completely unknown to gamers, because these are the people that manage to pull an average game out of a project that should be utter garbage.

So let it be known that I’m under no illusions here. If these films were given games to their name, if some studio went out of its way to buy up the rights, and then put something out, it would almost definitely be awful, and would likely sour your memories of the original.

Don’t let this deter you though. No one ever let reality interfere with their ‘What if?’s before. Just think about it, if these games were made in the way we’d want them to be made, they’d be awesome.

Blade Runner

I’ll admit right off the bat here that I’m not a huge fan of the original. I blame coming to it too late, having watched the reams of imitations over the years which have taken everything from the original, modernised, and then repackaged it. By the time I reached the original, the Blade Runner film itself, I wasn’t watching the real movie, I was watching a flashback, something I’d almost seen before through the eyes of all the film makers who’ve since taken inspiration from it.

So the film for me personally, not so much.

But the world.

Oh the world is stunning. A bustling metropolis as tall as it is wide, unexplainable fashions, and crimes so fantastical you can’t help be amazed. Of course I want to be a blade runner, I want to have my own flying cop car, landing anywhere I damn well please. I will not be Harrison Ford, I will not spend my days investigating a single set of clones that are running amok, but I will see him, I will be in his group, his precinct. I will do the everyday detective stuff that is only hinted at in the movie, and then I will become corrupt.

Yes I will become corrupt. I will engage with the criminal underworld, ferrying clone parts around the city in my cop car which will – did I mention this before? – fly. I want to solve crimes, not by shooting everyone in the room, but by chasing people, by running across impossibly high rooftops, leaping into my flying cop car (yes my FLYING cop car!) and chasing them through skyscrapers filled with more people wearing stupid, but undeniably cool outfits.

It’s hard enough making an open world game with two axis of exploration. Alex Ward of Criterion Games summed the problem up perfectly when he said that for a standard game you have to build an engine that can render ‘x’ amount of environment, but in an open world game you need one which can render ‘x-squared’ amount of data. The player can change direction at any time, and the game needs to be ready to cope with this. Following on from this logic ‘x-cubed’ amount of environment would mean a huge amount more work, and make no mistake about it, if I’m going to play a Blade Runner game with my flying car, I want there to be as much to explore upwards as there is to explore across.

So the world will be too difficult to do justice, and once you’re willing to compromise on the world, why are you even bothering to make a Blade Runner game at all? There’s also the problem that after all this time there might not even be a sufficient audience for such a game, but then I wouldn’t really be in the target demographic anyway so who cares what I think?

Serenity/ Firefly

Let’s forget for a moment that an MMO based on the cripplingly short lived television series turned sci-fi flick has already been announced. That was over five years ago, and it’s the future now, and us cool future people are having too much fun with our hover trousers to care about anything those dotcom fat-cats might have said all those years ago.

Much like Blade Runner, any aspirations to play a Firefly-based game revolve around one thing. We all want to be Captain Mal. Let’s face it, he’s ruggedly handsome, doesn’t take crap from anyone, and even has time to own his own space-ship. He’s Nathan Drake before Nathan Drake existed, but cooler, because yaknow…spaceship?

Other things about the series add to the awesome video game vibe of course. The ship Serenity is a magnificent beast, and the crew members Mal flies with are so conflicting and memorable that you can’t wait to sit through hours upon hours of dialogue trees to find out all about them.

Discounting ‘Serenity’ the fact that the plot of Firefly was episodic in nature would make the transition to level-based gameplay much less jarring. Many episodes even come tantalisingly close to showing what a video game could make of the universe, with train heists, robberies, and spaceship chases that should have every gamer salivating.

It will never happen of course. It seems studios have learnt their lesson with Firefly, the TV show never got the ratings it needed to stay afloat and the film barely covered its relatively small budget. Putting the quality of the products to one side it’s hard to see why a publisher would look at the franchise and think a big budget release would be a good idea.

Oh and let’s not forget that Uncharted 2 has already been made.

Stay tuned for Part 2.
The posting of positive comments may or may not hurry the posting of the second part.

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