Review the Game You Got

Posted by on Nov 29, 2011 in Fantasy, Movies, Musing, Question, RPGs, Video Games | 5 Comments

Again with War in the North.

I’m using this game to explore some questions because (a) I am currently playing it and (b) because it’s a relatable property even if you’re not playing it—I feel safe assuming that many of you have seen the Lord of the Rings movies or know of them. War in the North is a third-person action RPG set in the movie-adaptation version of Middle-earth (or something so close to it that its familiar characters and locations resemble actors and designs from the films). It focuses on a cast of new heroes battling Sauron’s forces mostly in environments drawn from Tolkien’s lore but not seen in the films.

This isn’t really about War in the North, though. It’s a flawed, fun game that I’ve been enjoying as a fan of Middle-earth and as a gamer looking for light RPG elements, a dose of combat, and some handsome scenery. Still, I can understand why it’s not connecting with some players and reviewers—it’s not a richly complex combat challenge or a deeply varied RPG experience. It’s a light, straightforward affair for casual co-op play and a good deal of Middle-earth sight-seeing.

No, I’m singling out War in the North again because of Game Informer‘s review of it, in which Joe Juba writes:

The conceptual framework is solid, and with some extensive tuning and polish, it would be fun to play. Just thinking of War in the North reimagined as an old-school isometric adventure (à la Dark Alliance) gets me pumped up…but it’s too late for that now. [via]

That bit got me thinking (again) about how games get reviewed.

How much should a game be marked down for driving a reviewer to want the game in a different form? Is it fair to penalize a game for not being another game? How much responsibility does a reviewer have to buy into a game’s premise when reviewing it—and how much of the premise must be accepted?

I mean, if a reviewer thinks that RTS game would make for a great shooter, is that a fair mark against the game—the fact that it is not some other game? I feel like that’s somehow analogous to complaining about a film’s genre or casting; these can be legitimate gripes (“The lead actor was a bad fit for the part”) but they can also go too far (“Tommy Lee Jones should have played the curmudgeonly mentor—I like Tommy Lee Jones—so this movie isn’t what it could have been”).

It’s not that a reviewer is out of line to say “This game made we wish for a new isometric RPG” or “This developer has had greater success with isometric RPGs” but to what extent should a game be faulted for not being something else?

I’m all for reviewers reporting their honest opinions. Isn’t there a difference between reporting one’s opinion and faulting a game for not sharing them, though? To some extent, I should not review RTS games because I objectively suck at them but were I to do so anyway, I think I’d separate my opinions of the medium from a value judgment of the game’s success at fulfilling its own promise. The very best RTS game still makes a crappy FPS.

To what extent should a reviewer grant the game its premise and measure how well it executed that premise—and not how close it came to what the reviewer’s prefers?

I think you should review the game you got. That can be tricky, though, especially as borders between game categories continue to blur. A game with RPG elements might make for a lousy full-on RPG but a great shooter. If a game’s marketing plays up its RPG elements, but the actual game focuses on its job as a shooter, is it fair to fault the game for the expectations set by the marketing department?

As artworks, as products—reviewing games is a complex business.


  1. James Wallis
    November 30, 2011

    Back in the day (the day in question being one in 1996), a reviewer in glossy games magazine Arcane marked down my storytelling card-game Once Upon A Time because you couldn’t tell cyberpunk stories with it, and he liked cyberpunk.


    When Hogshead published Nobilis 2e I tried to warn the market that this was not a game for everyone, it would appeal to a particular type of role-player, and others would be turned off by it. Initially I was lambasted for my efforts (‘How dare you tell us what we will or will not like? You suck’) and then the reviews came out and said exactly what I’d predicted (‘Graah I do not like this game it is too different for me ergo it is a bad game and James sucks’).

    In conclusion, therefore, people are idiots.

  2. Benjamin Hayward
    December 2, 2011

    I feel that a reviewer (or anyone trying to make a point on anything) must not only consider the counterpoints to his statement, but must exhibit an awareness of those counterpoints in his statement.

    If this awareness is revealed too openly, however, the point gets bogged down in apologies that take more time to get through than the actual argument. Counterpoints aught to be acknowledged and defeated swiftly.

    Not to be too critical, but the original post here reads as a 4:1 ratio of apology to argument. My previous statement uses the reverse of that ratio.

    Game reviewers who find their statements defeated by counterpoints aught to reconsider their argument. The ultimate counterpoint to a reviewer’s opinion is “who cares?” — and any reviewer who essentially says “this RTS makes a terrible FPS” definitely did not stop to think on that counterpoint. If you find yourself reviewing a game that’s ‘not for you’, then probably no one cares about your opinion on it.

  3. Will Hindmarch
    December 9, 2011

    That’s not too critical at all, Benjamin. I’m aware of the apology ratio in there and it’s not an accident. I don’t have a complete argument here yet. I’m musing. Maybe that’s not good enough to warrant a post, but sometimes we think out loud here at Gameplaywright. So it goes.

    If all my post does, though, is draw in commentary like yours, then I call it a success. I have new things to think about now and I’m grateful for that. So, thanks for writing!

  4. Dale Robinson
    December 11, 2011

    I’d say it’s fair for a reviewer to say “this would have been great in a different format”, but should grade the product for what it is. Incidental to your last question, a reviewer should definitely say “this game’s not exactly as advertised,”. It’s only fair to let the gaming public know when a marketing team’s trying to feed them a line.

  5. Will Hindmarch
    December 12, 2011

    Right on, Dale. I think I agree on both counts. I think reviewers are free to say all sorts of things, for the sake of putting their review in context and wearing any biases on their sleeves for all to see. Clarity is good.


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