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Reviewing the reviewers part 2: Fairness

Mike Doolittle's picture

Going easy on old favorites

I couldn't help but notice that with the release of Orange Box, critics have been going pretty easy on Half-Life 2: Episode 2. According to MetaCritic, it's averaging a 91%, which is pretty darn exceptional. But it's not the score that bugs me. I've played Episode 2, and you know what? It is an exceptional game. There are few games that have such great storytelling or such excellently scripted gameplay. It's never a game that feels like you're just walking from one room to the next and emptying it out; each section has a unique design and present a unique set of challenges.

But critics seem to be pretty passive about some of the other aspects of the Half-Life series. Am I the only one who noticed that this is one of the few games left where the protagonist carries an arsenal fit for a small army? That doesn't seem to jive with a game that strives for believability in so many respects. And what about all the crates of medicine and bullets that just happen to be scattered everywhere? How did those get there? How is it that I'm in some underground tunnel filled with radioactive waste, and suddenly there's a crate there that just happens to have all the supplies I need for my super-suit and my massive array of weaponry? And what about the exploding barrels that just happen to be sitting out on the street where the Combine are scripted to run? Aren't these aliens supposed to be superintelligent? Shouldn't they figure out another place to store barrels of explosive waste? Worst of all are the "crates of infinite ammo". When the game wants you to beat an enemy a certain way, it just sticks a crate there that has an infinite number of rockets, grenades, or other such weaponry that just happens to be exactly what you need for that situation. Again, that kind of clashes with the believability of the game.

So the question is, why are critics so easy on this stuff? Why does nary a review of the Half-Life games even mention these abundant cliches? The job of a critic, in my opinion, is not just to make claims about what is good or bad in a game, but to suggest how the bad stuff could have been better. In my review of Half-Life 2, I spotted these cliches and gave my thoughts on what might have worked more effectively. That's because I feel it's important to hold developers to high standards. If Halo comes along and improves the way weapons and health are handled, shouldn't we take games to task when they cling to dated contrivances? I feel as though many critics are a little soft on established series that have a special place in the hearts and minds of gamers, but if anything, those are the games we should really be looking at to continually raise the bar.

Disclaimer: For the real gaming experience, please play this game on "Hard".

Speaking of Halo, something related to it popped into my mind recently as I read negative reviews of Clive Barker's Jericho. Jericho for the PC has rapidly become one of my favorite games of the year. Gorgeous, atmospheric graphics complement a unique twist on squad dynamics that mixes the best of old and new styles of gameplay.

But the game has been panned in some spots, which I attribute partly to the fact that the Playstation 3 version is apparently quite inferior, partly to the fact that it's not an established franchise like Halo or Half-Life, partly to the fact that it didn't have the high-minded pre-release hype of something like Bioshock, and partly to the fact that a lot of reviewers probably played the game on the "Normal" difficulty setting.

Back when I played Halo, I really enjoyed it. When I reviewed the game, I gave it a 10 out of 10. But I didn't write that review until after I had played the game on "Legendary" mode, and in my opinion if you haven't played Halo on Legendary, you haven't really played the game. On "Normal" difficulty, the game is pretty much a straight-forward run-and-gun affair. There's not much depth or strategy to the gameplay, and as long as you're competent with the basic mechanics of the game, it shouldn't be too tough. But on Legendary, the game transforms into one that requires careful planning, lots of strategy, and a high level of skill. It truly is like playing a whole other game.

There's a lesson to be learned here. Games that are more challenging tend to be more rewarding, hence more enjoyable. Games that are easy tend to be quite boring and don't provide much sense of reward or satisfaction when its challenges are conquered. When people criticized Jericho for being easy, as many reviews did, my thought was, "Hey Mr. Reviewer Guy... if it was too easy, why didn't you change the difficulty setting?" Difficulty settings are there for a reason. If you've never played a first-person shooter and you rarely play videogames at all, you could play the "Easy"difficulty until you get the hang of it. If you've only played first-person shooters here and there, but you don't play them regularly and you're not very good at them, "Normal" should do the trick. But if you're a seasoned gamer who plays many games and has played lots of first-person shooters – as most professional game reviewers are – you have no business playing a game on anything less than the "Hard" (or equivalent) difficulty.

Some people might argue that the default difficulty is how the game is "supposed to be experienced". But the problem with that line of reasoning is that in games that require a high degree of motor skills, developers have to make the difficulty applicable to a broad array of gamers, from the most casual weekend gamer to the most hardcore "all-nighter" gamer. They tend to make games easier because they don't want to put off all the casual people who they want to purchase the game; but they leave the higher difficulties there as options for seasoned gamers. As my experience with Halo taught me, challenge makes a big difference. Playing Halo on Legendary doesn't alter the game in any fundamental way – it just makes it so it requires a higher level of motor skill. If you are a seasoned gamer, you owe it to yourself to be playing games on higher difficulties.

So while some reviewers complained that Jericho was too easy, that players can just plow through wave after wave of monsters with little strategy or skill, I found the game to be highly challenging. I was forced to use the various squad members' powers in creative ways to overcome enemies that were able to quickly turn the tide against me if I didn't use all of the tools available. When I played the demo for this game, I thought it was a little too easy. So when I purchased the game, I played it from start to finish on "Hard" and got a deep, pulse-pounding, rewarding game. For others who didn't adjust the difficulty of the game to fit their level of skill, it was a walk in the park, and about as exciting as one too.

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Excellent point about difficulty settings

Thanks for bringing this up Mike. How many times have you heard a reviewer write something like "Things do get more challenging on the harder difficulty, but..." and then go on to mark the game down a point or two because the default difficulty is too low?

The thing is, traditionally the harder difficulty settings have been there to accomodate gamers that want an extra challenge after playing the game on 'Normal' mode. At least, that is the case in the majority of games; I'm willing to bet only a very small percentage of players start a game on 'Hard'. And that means you need to play through the game until you recognise that the default difficulty doesn't suit you, which means having to play through it on a more suitable difficulty only on the second playthrough. And let's face it, nowadays not everyone has enough time on their hands to play through games twice. Also, game experiences can differ wildly on a second playthrough, whether they're random-battle-filled RPGs or short'n'sweet shmups.

It's a toughy though. I've reviewed at least 2 games for GC that have only really come alive on a second, harder playthough (Astro Boy and Metroid: Zero Mission on GBA), and on both I've really tried to emphasize and elaborate on what those harder levels/subsequent playthroughs add to the game, rather than discard them in a single sentence. Things get screwy when you're giving a rating, but then ratings are just a bit screwy all-round. ;)

The problem is that some

The problem is that some games just flat out suck the first time on hard mode even as a seasoned gamer, with hard mode being a great way to add replay to the game. The thing is, how do you know what difficulty is the best to start on until you play it? And once I start playing a game on Normal (which obviously, seems to be like the right place to start) and realize it's too easy, I'm not going to start all over again on hard.

I agree that Halo on the harder difficulty settings (at least heroic or legendary) is the only way to play that particular series, but not all games are Halo. I had someone bash me on a message board recently for my first runthrough of Bioshock being on normal (the game was easy). I played again on hard mode (which was also easy having played normal first, maybe even easier) and the argument against me was that the damage was done, that I ruined the game by playing on normal first. For a game like Bioshock, any sort of difficulty seems secondary to the incredible presentation, and unlike Halo, which turns into almost a reflexive puzzle game, you can play the game exactly the same time both times - you just need to have better aim and be a little more careful.

If only there was some sort of way a game could auto adjust the difficulty before I play it, based on a brief test or even looking at your game history (I could see this working on the 360) based on suggestions coded in by the developers.

Seluropnek wrote: The thing

Seluropnek wrote:

The thing is, how do you know what difficulty is the best to start on until you play it? And once I start playing a game on Normal (which obviously, seems to be like the right place to start) and realize it's too easy, I'm not going to start all over again on hard.

I usually do the opposite. I go one up from normal; I stay away from "Nightmare" kinds of difficulties the first time through, but I hit Hard or "Heroic" type difficulties. If I'm getting creamed, I just dial it back.

Is Half-Life 2 Episode 2's believability an issue?

Fun, quality games are not realistic. They take interesting parts of reality, and skew and distort them into a super reality. Games need elements in them that contradict narrative logic. Quality games simply disguise these elements better. Movies behave the same way. Action scenes in "The Matrix" would not be nearly as pleasing to watch if bomb explosions left debris blocking the action, or the helicopter crash into the glass building generated massive amounts of smoke. Some artistic license must be taken. In the case of games, striving to create a game with no narrative paradoxes by compromising gameplay mechanics is a foolish aspiration.

"Realism" isn't it...

The problem isn't "realism" per se; "believability" is something else entirely, which is an absence of obvious contrivances. Take these examples:

- Gordon can carry a huge arsenal. Okay... so, why doesn't anyone else in the game carry that many guns? We're led to believe that Gordon is a pretty average Joe in a cool suit that protects him from various hazards. Gordon being so well-equipped wouldn't feel so contrived if there were other characters whipping out giant guns at the drop of a hat.

- The exploding barrels are fine, except that why is it you only find these things in places where enemies are scripted to be? They're not just randomly scattered about. Their placement is a contrivance that artificially skews the combat.

- The magic crates of infinite ammo are the worst contrivance of all. The whole game, ammo is in finite quantities. But when you happen upon an enemy that can only be destroyed by rockets, suddenly there just happens to be a magic crate of rockets right there! What a coincidence!

It's not about being realistic; it's about using creativity instead of contrivances to drive the gameplay.

Back to difficulty...

Seluropnek wrote:

If only there was some sort of way a game could auto adjust the difficulty before I play it, based on a brief test or even looking at your game history (I could see this working on the 360) based on suggestions coded in by the developers.

In theory, I don't like this kind of auto-analysis. But then, I think King Kong auto-adjusted difficulty depending on your performance, and that was invisible enough not to bother me.

I think having the option to manually adjusting difficulty at any point during the game is the only way to solve the problem. Players should also know what variables the difficulty settings actually change. That should satisfy the players. But I don't know about those bloody game critics. ;)

A few games do that, but

A few games do that, but it's not a foolproof solution. I'm playing Every Extend Extra on the PSP at the moment, and the difficulty of the levels and especially the bosses changes based on your performance, but sometimes it seems a little inconsistent - I'll have a little bad luck and suddenly be in a crappy stage with less potential for scoring and the boss will be smaller at the end (which, though easier to avoid, is also harder to hit, and you're timed).

I just wish there was some way to know the "right" way to play the game for me before I play it.

The problem with this

The problem with this hypothesis is coming at it assuming there's a 'right' way to play ANY game. If the designers offer you a selection of difficulty modes, then picking any of the ones available is the right way to play the game. You aren't circumventing anything, or reverse-engineering; you're selecting options that are given to you by the designers. Past that, the responsibility is in the player's hands for his own experience - at least for games that offer a manual difficulty selection.

When a game is released, it's done. The only way to play it the 'right' way is to play it at all - any quibbles with it afterwards are user error, plain and simple.

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