Saturday, July 10, 2010

On Game Reviews + Games Writing + Sports Writing Is Cool

Did anyone else read the "Blacklight: Tango Down" review at Eurogamer? My god. I mean, I don't intend to bite the hand that feeds me, and I definitely don't want to defend a game I haven't played / looks mediocre anyway, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to risk an ungrateful nibble here:
"All the major functions are present, correct and mapped exactly where you'd expect to find them."
So it copied Halo's control scheme on the X360 -- or, as we would say in PC-land, it has keyboard bindings! Awesome.
"The sprint feels a bit sticky..."
I don't know what this means. When you sprint, you stick to surfaces? When you sprint and let go of the button, you continue to sprint? When you sprint, sticks fly out of your screen and poke you in the eye?

Must game controls necessarily feel responsive, or can they be "sticky," whatever that means, by design? (e.g. in Team Fortress 2, the Heavy's slower aiming / movement when firing the minigun) Would you criticize the Heavy Weapons class for moving too slowly, or the Scout for moving too quickly, or the player character in the Graveyard for handling like a shopping cart -- when it is all by design?

If a playtester ever told me that the "sprint feels a bit sticky" or that I had to "tighten up the graphics", I'd probably stickily sprint off to the front of the nearest speeding bus.
"... but the genre basics are pretty much as they should be."
By using the word "but" after talking about sticky sprinting, the reviewer flags this as a compliment. I thought the problem was that this game was too average, and now suddenly it's good that this game follows conventions? And why is it necessarily a strength that the game keeps to "genre basics"? The tone of this review keeps going back and forth between "not different enough from AAA games" and "not similar enough to AAA games." Which is it?
"... it's only really co-operative in the sense that you're playing alongside other people." 
I understand what the reviewer means, but still -- this is an amazingly dumb thing to say because cooperative play means... well, playing alongside other people. It's like saying "it's only singleplayer in the sense that you play by yourself."

But here's the part of the review that originally got me thinking, "what the hell is he talking about?!"...
"At worst, they're throwbacks to the days before developers worked out how to minimise bottlenecking and spawn camping through subtle design. There are maps here that are virtually unplayable thanks to the insanely archaic idea of fixed spawn points."
Bottlenecking is a very important element of team-based multiplayer level design -- bottlenecks are what make de_dust and de_dust2 as great as they are, and it is the tension from having to maintain a frontline of bottlenecks that necessitates strategy and teamwork. On pub servers, de_dust is all about the two bottlenecks at the tunnel and the interior: without those, the map would suck.

And how does "subtle design" minimize spawn camping? What is "subtle design" exactly? Making a hallway wider? Deleting a wall? Raising a brick 1 inch from the floor? Conversely, what would be an example of "blatant" level design? The reviewer wants us to assume these are real things so he can use "subtle design" as a catch-all term because he doesn't feel like thinking more.

Why are fixed spawn points now considered archaic? 2Fort has fixed spawn points. Blood Gulch has fixed spawn points. Both still play very well to this day. They aren't too old or ancient or obsolete.

I'm not debating whether spawn camping is an issue -- the included video shows that it is clearly an issue with that level -- but rather I dispute the reviewer's lack of analysis with regard to the spawn camping and every other problem he mentioned. Yes, they're problems, but how and why?

Plus, spawn camping is usually a map exploit, not a game exploit, so what about the 11 other maps that shipped with the game? And if it's a problem on these maps, then won't the community simply ignore these maps?

It's like reviewing Halo 1 MP having only played Chiron and complaining about the confusing level design across the board. It's like reviewing Counter-Strike having only played de_torn and de_piranesi and complaining that none of the maps support sniping.

There's also the fact that the player base is very new and haven't learned the nuances of the game yet -- as when early TF2 players were complaining about the Medic + Heavy combos being "overpowered" yet Valve was content to let the now obvious counters slowly filter through the community.

In this respect, how can you truly review FPS multiplayer games when the game might be balanced, but the player base hasn't fully developed yet? (I'm not saying Blacklight is balanced, but there's the possibility and argument that it is.) Is it good practice? (I don't know.)

Imagine a reviewer played a few multiplayer games of Starcraft 1.01 and complained about being rushed; nearly a decade later with Starcraft 1.16, there's been several huge paradigm shifts in strategy as star players (mostly Koreans) find new ways to play. Similar to the problem that Kieron Gillen poses with reviewing MMORPGs, more traditional multiplayer games also have evolving communities and conventions of play. Is it fair to grade a game based on a primitive snapshot?

Anyway. I'm sure Mr. Whitehead's a great guy, I'm sure the word limit was awfully stringent and I'm sure he's written better reviews in the past -- but this piece of writing is lazy in several ways and I don't like it.


... So what does good games writing look like, in my opinion? Well, it's probably off the radar of most people who are going to read this, but: sports writing might be the model to emulate. Or maybe that's too crazy of a notion for you, so let's compromise and look at sports games writing. This post about the PS3 game "Backbreaker" is a good entry point.

Sports writing is deeply analytical and highly reliant on evidence -- which is great -- though at the price of being too opinionated and prescriptive for "an artistic medium" like video games. A lot of sports writing is about "how" the game should be played and what is best practice, as in that Backbreaker review linked above. Clearly the reviewer in that article has an idea of how an AI for football should work -- but is that a reasonable standard to hold a video game to, or a fairly arbitrary one? (e.g. "The bots don't bunny-hop at all: what an awful AI.")

But wait. A lot of sports writing sucks. So let's get more specific.

This New York Times Magazine profile of Shane Battier, for example, is a mixture of interview / scrappy American coming-of-age biography / game mechanics analysis. Michael Lewis doesn't say, "Shane Battier has good defense but his shooting feels a bit sticky." Instead, he puts Battier's play in context with the game and draws on examples of his past performance against Kobe. Best of all, Lewis goes into details and looks at how coverage and positioning fit into basketball. The result is a piece of sports writing that is extremely accessible and interesting even to casual fans of basketball (like me, and probably you too.)

Now, I'm not saying every video game review should be incredibly deep and moving and provide stunning insight into the medium, though that'd be nice. Of course there will always be bad games writing out there. But hopefully we'll get more good out there.