by Anand Ramachandran. This article first appeared in my weekly 'Game Invader' column for the New Indian Express
I'm surprised at how easily high scores are doled out at gaming review sites these days.
A close look at the popular review aggregator site metacritic.com throws up some interesting information. While the scores on a specific review site are susceptible to factors such as reviewer bias, the scores on an aggregator are usually good indications of its general critical success. In the interests of focus, we'll stick to the PC platform for this analysis, though console platforms do seem to show a similar trend.
On metacritic.com, the 2007 classic Bioshock sits alongside Half Life and its arguably better sequel at 96 points. This puts it above Baldur's Gate 2, Grim Fandango and Diablo. To anyone who has even a cursory understanding of the history of PC gaming, this is plainly ridiculous. Bioshock was a fantastic title, but it did very little that hadn't been done before. The role-playing elements were a dumbed-down version of the ones found in System Shock 2. Sorytelling in FPS games was done equally well, if not better in a number of games, notably in the Half-Life series. The only area where it was unparalleled for its time was in the audio-visual presentation. But if graphics were the benchmark, then Crysis would be the best game of all time.
BG2, Grim and Diablo were games that pushed at the very boundaries of game creation – either creating new genres or taking existing ones to unheard-of levels. Each game, even today, sits at the pinnacle of its genre. Not true of Bioshock, which is surpassed for greatness by Half-Life, System Shock 2, and even the original Doom.
A little further down the scale, we see a distinctly mediocre game like Mass Effect scoring above classics such as Starcraft, Myth II, Serious Sam and Icewind Dale. This is even more patently absurd. At least Bioshock was truly a great game that paled only in comparison with all-time classics – Mass Effect was ordinary even by the standards of its day.
Further down the scale, things get even murkier, with many of today's rather good-but-not-great games (Dead Space, Ghostbusters) sitting alongside classics from the past (Arcanum, Curse of Monkey Island).
I remember, back in the nineties, a score of seven or above generally meant that a game was good enough to buy. Above eight was a guarantee of a great game, and nine or higher was an absolute classic. While the grading remains reasonably consistent at the higher levels, the lower scores have become something of a free-for-all. Today's gamers will not even look at a game that scores a seven . My questions to game reviewers is this – why isn't the average score five, as common sense would dictate? A seventy percent score indicates to me that a game gets more things right than wrong. So why dole out such a score to a game you say is not worth my money? It's counter-intuitive, and misleading.
In fact, I believe that the whole score / star based rating system is a lazy cop-out for people who can't be bothered to read the review text. My advice to game-buyers is this : read the review, don't depend on the score. Reviewers usually get it right in their text – discussing the finer points of all aspects of the game, but their review scores are often completely incongruous with the content of the review. It's often along the lines of “Gee, this game completely sucks. Let me give it a 6.5”.