I recently had a piece of disk-based interactive video game entertainment software appear in my letterbox. It’s red and white and clearly demarked “Promo Only”. If you’re not familiar with the game review process, PS4 review disks come in clear jewel cases with simple red and white branding on the disk, labelled “Promo Only”.
Long story short, it’s a game I’m in the process of reviewing.
It’s not a particularly long game – by all accounts it’s actually extremely short. Not to go into details since I don’t want to ruin the surprise of the full review (pending…).
I’ve been playing it for the better part of three days now, given my other review commitments (yes, I have two games I’m reviewing right now, both pending…) and general life stuff. So far, I’ve finished the main story and most of the side missions, and I’m just about ready to get stuck in to the actual process of writing words. It’s a hard game, and that makes it a slog sometimes, and generally sapped my enthusiasm for completing it – but I did finish much of it.
What I haven’t done, however, is complete the game on hard, or go after additional objectives, or compete against time trial modes, or searched for easter eggs, or replayed completed missions.
Since this particular game’s campaign is very short and relies a lot on its replayability and challenge content – only some of which I’ve touched, have I the right to pass judgement?
That’s an interesting question for reviewers, and one that has been around since the first video game reviews appeared – just how much of the game has to be played before it can be “fairly” judged?
Think about this realistically: a film takes about two hours on average to watch – some are shorter, some are longer, but most clock in around two hours. A book takes, what, six hours to read? An album maybe an hour to an hour and a half? These are all relatively short amounts of time, and the entirety of the content is delivered in that time wholly and linearly.
Now consider a video game. A “short” game like Gone Home might be two hours. A “short-medium” length game, say Dead Space, can run about fifteen hours at a stretch. A “medium” length game like Mass Effect or Dark Souls can run about thirty. And then you have your Skyrims that run closer to a hundred hours. And after that you have your “casual” games and MMOs, which can last indefinitely. This is from start to the credits scene, and all are guesstimates.
To top it all off, this is just the obvious content – the main story, or a core questline, maybe with a few side quests thrown in. It doesn’t take into the account all the extra content – the optional side quests, the hidden items, the collectables, the locked content, the easter eggs, even the mastery of game systems. Completing – 100% completing – a game can take a very long time. And then mastering the systemic intricacies – things like exploiting invincibility frames, or mastering every combo, or those incredibly complicated fighting game moves – takes even longer.
Basically, to experience every bit of content in every possible configuration within a game would take months, if not years.
So where do we, as reviewers, draw the line?
There are a few ways. Firstly, there’s the “average gamer” test. How much content would the hypothetical “average” gamer complete within said game? Would they finish the game and replay it, or search every corner, or just run through halfway and move on to the next thing? What is “average” anyway? This ties heavily into the publication’s target market – casual gamers, hardcore fans, middle-aged professionals with two kids and a mortgage? Once the reviewer decides how much of the game they think the average member of their particular demographic would generally complete, then a review based on that content may be appropriate.
Then there’s the “main story” idea. Basically, what is the main story of the game, how does it play out, and how long does it take? Play through the main campaign and the game is over, regardless of replayability or extras. It’s a time-efficient method of reviewing, one that treats the core experience of a game as the main event on offer, as presented by the developers. It works better for certain games, like Call of Duty, than others, like Dragon Age.
Some reviewers can be very hardline about games – there’s an old school of thought that says if a game doesn’t grab you in the first ten hours, it’s not worth continuing with, no matter how great the last ten hours may be. This takes the assumption that if a game is uninteresting for a long while, it’s not worth playing in the first place. After all, time is precious and filler is pointless. Again, this works for some game types, like platformers, but not others, like JRPGs.
And there’s always the old sticking-point of difficulty, too. Reviewers generally don’t have access to walkthroughs or YouTube videos to show us where the secrets are, or how to beat certain sections – mostly since the general public hasn’t mined this info before release. Sure, we sometimes get review guides to help out a little, and we can generally phone up or email our local PR rep or the devs themselves for a quick hint, but largely, if we get stuck on a part, we get STUCK. If we lose motivation or capability to complete a game, should we continue on? Or should we reasonably assume that an “average” player would also run into the same hurdle as we did and therefore give up? It depends on the nature of the problem, and the nature of the reviewer.
At OnlySP, we never demand our reviewers “complete” a game. We always heavily prefer a game’s campaign be played through once, but if that’s not possible under time constraints (it rarely isn’t) then we take that into account. We do, however, instruct our writers to complete as much of the game as possible, and to keep playing until they are comfortable with having an opinion on the game. If one of our writers doesn’t feel like they’ve played enough of a game to judge it fairly, then they hold off on writing the review until they do. This extends to bonus modes or extra material – if they don’t feel comfortable judging a game without playing it first, then they play it.
Each publication and each reviewer has different views on what level of “completion” is acceptable. Generally it’s a good balance between time invested playing and content amount experienced. We all play a lot of games, and every one of those games has a lot of hours sunk into it – our time is precious, but so is yours.
As always, though, find reviewers and sites you trust, and follow them based on your own personal taste and judgement. No approach is 100% right in this instance, and it’s up to you, the reader, to decide what you trust.