Latest in Gaming

Image credit:

Breaking Down a Broken Game


You're reading Reaction Time, a weekly column that claims to examine recent events, games and trends in the industry, but is really just looking for an excuse to use the word "zeitgeist." It debuts on Fridays in Engadget's digital magazine, Distro.

"Why don't you just do your job and review the game? Stop shoving your opinion down our throats!"

That's one bit of criticism, nested between comments both cordial and caustic, that I sometimes see at the bottom of Joystiq's thoughtful, pretentious, accurate and downright incorrect reviews (depending on whom you ask). For some, a bit of punditry only pollutes the product evaluation they signed up for. Less thought and more report, please.

That's not how game reviews work at all – not unless it's their goal to confirm factual observations about the video game, which is indeed functional and playable from the first-person perspective, and features a sequence of steadily increasing challenges that must be overcome with considered manipulation of the controller's buttons. And there are graphics!

But the ease at which the mythical "objective review" is dismissed nearly obscures an unusual facet of writing about games. When critics played Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor this week, they encountered a game that had clear, unavoidable faults beyond the usual suspects in level design, storytelling, play mechanisms, and emotions evoked by the premise. What happens when the game just fails to function properly?

A lot of low scores, for one thing. Steel Battalion, which combines Kinect's motion-sensitive observation with regular controller input, was thoroughly castigated for turning tank commanders into fumbling buffoons, flailing in a claustrophobic cockpit. While players got torn to shreds by enemy bombardment, the game made a mess of their body language – a swipe here and a dual-hand thrust there were misread, and instead of returning fire the pilot rocked back and forth in his chair, opening and closing the front shutter. Just imagine being the wide-eyed co-pilot serving alongside that malfunctioning nutcase.

Making a fool out of the player is always unwise, and Steel Battalion paid the price in full when it came time to assign a score at the end. If you bothered to read the text, however, you'd have seen many writers stopping short of simply dismissing Capcom's effort with a carefree wave – either in pursuit of a holistic approach to criticism, or because a wave would just be interpreted as a self-destruct signal. Let's just go with the first one for now.

As much as we'd like to distance ourselves from hard, objective statements about a game, especially when the review attempts to inform and entertain in equal measure, there are some elements in this peculiar medium that warrant less personal commentary. There are some things enmeshed with a game's lowest-level construction – like control responsiveness and engine performance – that aren't judged according to taste, preference or experience. It might not seem like critique so much as ticking boxes on a report card.

Now, that doesn't mean there's no room for a personal context. If you see some diversity in Steel Battalion scores, it's because some writers are more forgiving than others. The mechanical issues are stated, but then the author draws from his or her own personality and tolerance to decide how much those impact the game, and whether it's worth your time, despite whatever inarguable faults have been outlined. And that's really the trick for any game critic: to know and describe what you like, what you don't like, and how big the resulting ripples are.

I've always attempted to extract lessons from the writings of Roger Ebert, a film critic and author with enough clout to bludgeon even the biggest films into a fine mush. His opinions bubble to the top in uncluttered sentences, and he usually describes just the right bits of a film to let you know exactly what you're in for. I'm not sure he's ever had to account with how a movie responded to him, however, or whether it displayed at a proper framerate. (Aside: Good luck to Peter Jackson, who's attempting to push a version of The Hobbit filmed at 48 frames per second, twice that of normal films.)

I, unlike Ebert, am more invested in what makes the medium of games unique. A failed venture like Steel Battalion forces critics to evaluate their opinions in light of how games function, and where failure sits between art and commercial product. It's certainly easier to discuss the quality of a plot, or graphics, or dialogue, but it's an ever-present challenge to find a place for those opinions when you have to push buttons – and the subject of your scrutiny has to push back.

Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr