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Sunset Overdrive Xbox One Review: Party in the Apocalypse

Insomniac Games wants you to enjoy the end of Sunset City in its Xbox One exclusive.

Review by Mike Williams, .

Insomniac Games' Sunset Overdrive is one of those games that you can broadly explain to enthusiast gamers by citing other genres or titles. It's an open-world game with a bit of zombie action, some Jet Set Radio, and a helping of the developer's own Ratchet & Clank series. The studio has also thrown in a love of classic punk rock. The resulting concoction is an absolute blast.

Sunset Overdrive's setting and basic plot are just a backdrop for all the insanity. Sunset City is about to play host to the global launch party of Fizzco's new energy drink, Overdrive. Unfortunately, the soft drink company is more concerned with sales than safety, so they've inadvertently created a drink that turns people into mutated, zombie-like creatures. You were too busy working and cleaning up after everyone else to drink any Overdrive, so you've missed out on mutation. Now Sunset City is ground zero for an outbreak, most of the population isn't human anymore, Fizzco has the place on lethal quarantine, and it's up to you to find a way to freedom.

Pictured: Freedom, apparently.

To do so, you'll need hook up with the various groups of survivors in the city. These groups all have specific themes, from the samurai scouts of Troop Bushido to the LARP-heavy Fargaths. The story has you bouncing from group to group - they all hold different parts of the city - before wrapping it all up in a bow. All told, the critical path will take 10-15 hours. It felt satisfying, but a bit light, and the last group feels shortchanged compared to the earlier factions.

Bob just wrote an article about the lack of funny games, but Sunset Overdrive's writing is full of wit. It didn't have me hunched over in breathless guffaws, but the story did make me smile and chuckle. Most of the characters are rather endearing in their own ways and seeing them play off of you is fun.

It's Your Life, So Go Your Own Way

I say "you" because you're the hero or heroine of Sunset Overdrive. From the game's beginning, you're given the chance to customize your character as you see fit. That means four body types (two male, two female), a host of faces, and motherlovin' crap-ton of clothing and accessory options.

It's worth pausing on that last part: Insomniac has filled Sunset Overdrive with all the shirts, pants, jackets, underwear, glasses, gloves, and other items it could think of. These items range from t-shirts and jeans, to odd bits like the kangaroo codpiece or panda paws. The best part is Insomniac looked ahead and made everything gender-neutral; every piece of clothing, from sports bras or chest plates, can be worn on any of the models. That means you can look however you want to in Sunset Overdrive and it's one of the main strengths of the game. Some of the items are locked behind specific points in the campaign, but you'll begin the game with enough clothing choices to leave your fingerprint.

You do you, boo boo.

Insomniac was also nice enough to not lock players into any specific choices. If you visit the clothing vendor, you can change entire outfits and save your choices in specific sets. You're not even constrained by your original body type and facial choices. Want to play the next mission as a man or woman? Rock out. I personally had one outfit for the story's early beats, switching to a different outfit for the later game. You can change more often if you'd like.

Your character is never named and the only real break down in the personalization effect is that there are only two voices to work with. Both voices establish your character as a bit of a self-centered douche, but it works for the story campaign's eventual path and helps when your character breaks the fourth wall. It's best to imagine Marvel Comics' Deadpool with a bit more restraint. Just... grit your teeth on the early part; it all came together for me by the game's midpoint. Yes, I would've appreciated a few more vocal options, but the clothing choices more than make up for that particular problem.

I'm Bouncing Off the Walls Again

In play, Sunset Overdrive feels a whole lot like Sega's cult classic, Jet Set Radio. Traversal is everything in the game. The X button handles most of your moves, from grinding on rails to wall-running. That combined with jumping and air dashing serves to get you around Sunset City. It's not as technical as Jet Set's high-end play, but the system sings once you unlock all of the moves and you get used to the basic rhythm of play.

Never stop grinding.

The city is clearly designed to maximize your movement options: you can grind on rails, power lines, and the edges of rooftops, or get a huge vertical boost from bouncing on cars, bushes, and awnings. You can fight on the ground, but Sunset Overdrive wants you to be airborne and mobile most of the time. Expect a lot of bouncing or grinding back-and-forth while fighting groups of enemies and bosses. This could have made things uncontrollable in the heat of battle, but Insomniac added a soft lock-on to make things a bit easier. Combat works, but traversal is the game's second highlight; it got to the point that I'd rather grind my way across the city than fast travel from place to place.

Outside of its excellent design for traversal, Sunset City looks damn good. In fact, Sunset Overdrive looks grand. The game runs at 900p and 30 fps, running pretty smooth with a number of enemies and explosions on-screen. It's not Dead Rising 3 levels, but things get hectic. More importantly, Sunset Overdrive is bright and colorful with a host of blazing yellows, red, and greens on display. Combined with the game's original punk music and you have a title that feels like an irrevent celebration of life. (In the midst of cold, callous, and relentless death of course. Just not yours.)

We're All OD'd on the Olden West

Sunset Overdrive's focus on personal customization extends to the weapon and progression systems. The weapons trade on Insomniac's years of experience with Ratchet & Clank, providing a variety of different effects. You'll start with the basic Dirty Harry pistol and the phallic Flaming Compensator shotgun, but your arsenal will grow to include the explosive TnTeddy, the bowling ball-spewing the Dude, and the fireworks-laden One-Handed Dragon. You can unlock and purchase more than the eight weapons you can equip, so what you carry with you becomes a matter of what fits your playstyle and the situation. I was partial to the Acid Sprinkler for clearing bands of OD in a specific areas; I'm sure you'll find your favorites too.

Kill them with kindness. Death is a kindness.

Each weapon has different effectiveness ratings against the game's major enemy types - basic OD mutants, giant OD, Fizzco robots, and humans - and they all level up as you use them. You can further improve them with Amps, unlockable add-ons that provides additional effects like setting enemies on fire or making them fight for you for a limited time. There's weapon Amps and then there's Amps for your character.

The trick with Amps is they're only active at certain Style levels. You gain Style by grinding, bouncing, wall-running, and even dispatching your foes. Everything you do adds to your Style combo, which pushes the meter higher. With high-level Amps and the higher levels on the Style Meter, things get really crazy. I had one Amp that caused random lightning strikes at high Style levels, which was pretty helpful in certain encounters.

There's also Overdrives, which end up being more important than the Amps, in my opinion. You purchase Overdrives with badges than you gain for doing things around Sunset City. If you grind everywhere, you'll have a surplus of Grind badges. If you're a wanton destroyer of Fizzco Robots, there's a badge for that. Do you favor certain weapon types, like single-shot guns? Badge for that, too.

Things can get pretty crazy.

Once you have these badges, you can use them to buy (and upgrade) related Overdrives. Use your Bounce badges to buy an Overdrive that increases your Style generation when you bounce around. Spend your OD badges on a passive boost to your damage when facing OD or to lower their incoming damage. Love Automatic weapons? Those badges can be used to increase the damage or ammo capacity of that weapon type. It's a solid system that rewards you for doing what you like to do with further improvements in those areas. It reinforces the idea of being able to play your way.

I'm on a Submarine Mission for You, Baby

Sunset Overdrive is an open-world game, so the city is littered with story missions, extra missions, challenges, and collectibles. While the game's story campaign hits some definite highs, most missions are largely the same: go here, kill things, find things. The challenges switch it up slightly by having you killing things with a specific weapon or go here within a specific time limit, but the overall mission structure lacks a bit of variety. That's a charge I can lob at many other open-world games, but overall Sunset Overdrive felt a bit slight at times. Collectibles include toilet paper, Fizzco balloons, and old sneakers; once you've collected enough of the various items, you can use the materials to craft more Amps in the Night Defense mode.

Night Defense might be your jam. It's definitely better with other players.

Night Defense is the other large part of Sunset Overdrive's gameplay. It's required to craft new Amps, it pops up in the story campaign a few times, and it's the capper to the game's multiplayer Chaos Squad mode. Night Defense has you holding off OD and protecting certain points within a fixed level. You can place traps - you'll unlock more during the story campaign and within extra missions - to slow down and kill the OD, but a large part of the work relies on you wading into combat. Night Defense is like a 3D Tower Defense where the lanes are less-defined and you're personally involved in the defense. This wasn't my favorite mode, because I'm not a big Tower Defense fan, but I eventually got a hang of it. (Read: I eventually purchased or unlocked a loadout that makes defending points easier.) Night Defense is signifcantly more fun with other players though.

Sunset Overdrive isn't perfect, but I enjoyed the hell out of it. It's review season, so I'm in the middle of a few games, but Sunset Overdrive is the one I keep wanting to jump back into for 15-20 minutes here and there. The story campaign could've been a bit longer, the missions could have more variety, and there's always going to be room for more clothing options, but I'm pleased with the first apocalypse in Sunset City. Getting around the city is an absolute treat, the weapons are a blast, the script was enjoyable, and customization is top-notch. Sunset Overdrive makes me glad that I own an Xbox One.

Welcome to Sunset City. It's the apocalypse. Let's have some fun.

The Nitty Gritty

  • Visuals: It's not top-of-the-line, but Sunset Overdrive's presentation is bright, colorful, and light on the stutter.
  • Sound: Insomniac Games has produced a ton of original punk rock songs that I just don't appreciate because I don't know punk.
  • Interface: Every light needs a shadow. Every game needs an interface that does it job. Sunset Overdrive has one.
  • Lasting appeal: The story campaign is rather short. Otherwise, there's extra missions, challenges, and Chaos Squad multiplayer. The developer is also adding weekly challenges to the game.

Sunset Overdrive is a welcome change of pace from the dour, serious AAA games we've been playing all year. Insomniac asks "who do you want to be?" with tons of customization options, some great weapons, and a very physical way to get around the city. The game feels a bit light in the content department, but it's undeniably fun.

4.5 /5

Sunset Overdrive Xbox One Review: Party in the Apocalypse Mike Williams Insomniac Games wants you to enjoy the end of Sunset City in its Xbox One exclusive. 2014-10-28T02:01:00-04:00 4.5 5

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Comments 47

  • Avatar for pashaveliki #1 pashaveliki 2 years ago
    Finally an xbone game I actually want...
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  • Avatar for Ralek #2 Ralek 2 years ago
    Pretty cool, I'm gonna go preorder/ preload right now! :-D Nice review Mike!
    Looks right up my alley, after playing through Bayonetta 1 + 2, with 2 being pretty colorful, too, and both having over-the-top action, characters and story, which I found to be very entertaining and endearing (On a side note, Bayonetta 2 made me very excited to see what Hideki Kamiya could do with the power of the X1 -> already hyped for Scalebound^^).
    @pashaveliki It's great to see the X1 finally coming into it's own. Despite all the hate, the X1 had more exclusives I enjoyed than the PS4, although those exclusives have mostly turned into "console exclusives" by now. Anyways, this sounds more like Infamous 2 than Infamous: 2nd Son, and as far as style, story and characters went, I enjoyed IF2 way more ... so I take that as a good sign.
    Now bring on Halo: MCE please! ^^
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #3 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    4.5 seems a bit high for a game that you described as having very repetitive missions, an unsatisfying campaign, and apparently no challenge. It sounds like the mechanics are fun and the visual style is good, but is that really all it takes to get a high score? This game seems like a practice run for a game that might be good next time.
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #4 SigurdVolsung 2 years ago
    If I ever get an X1, I will get this game. But this style of game is not a system seller to me, or even one that really moves the needle on it. I have plenty of really fun games on my PS4 and Wii-U, but something that is a real memorable experience that I keep coming back to, that is more of a system seller to me. For instance, I purchased my Wii-U last week finally and immediately had 3 games that I will be playing for years; Bayonetta 2, Zelda: Windwaker HD, and Mario 3D World.
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  • Avatar for pashaveliki #5 pashaveliki 2 years ago
    @Ralek yep. The best thing to happen to the Xbox was for it to belly flop in the beginning. Microsoft seemed complacent and needed some shaking up.
    That being said, in my opinion the Wii U has hands down the best library of exclusives.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #6 MHWilliams 2 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Actually, I said it was a satisfying campaign and challenge isn't a huge thing for me. I enjoyed my time with the game very much.

    You're very much about the score aren't you?
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  • Avatar for Ralek #7 Ralek 2 years ago
    @pashaveliki In regards to M$, I couldn't agree more. I also think it's a good thing, that they brought in Phil Spencer to head up Xbox. I expect good things out of the X1 eventually. We shouldn'T forget that the X1 sold pretty good, just not as amazing as the PS4. Same holds true for the WiiU. I'm not sure the WiiU can be turned around economically speaking, but I think Nintendo can soften the blow and re-establih themselves as a serious contender, beyond their (NOW) typical Wii market, for their next project. It's also a chance to re-establish old franchise for a new generation, like Star Fox e.g., and create new ones, like Splatoon or Bayonetta.
    I think Sony distinguished itself by not doing much wrong so far, a powerful and affordable system, no major barriers, and clear game-focused PR, as well as reaching out to small devs. M$ and Nintendo are bound to follow suit, and are already making strides in that direction. I enjoyed Infamous, but really, beyond that there wasn't much going on ... well Resogun was also good - they need to do more in 2015 though.
    I think 2015 will be really interesting and kinda set the tone for the next couple of years.
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  • Avatar for Ralek #8 Ralek 2 years ago
    @MHWilliams I was always wondering, why scores? I mean the question sounds innocent enough, but really, what's the point? Is it just to reach a broader audience, including people to lazy to read? Sounds silly, I know, but I really don't get it.

    The problem with scores is two-fold in my opinion.
    First, they make a complex issue look simple: How good is this game? Well, it's XX% awesome, that'S how good it is. Of course, it is never that simple ...
    Secondly, they imply a methodology that simply isn't there. In statistics there are pretty clear rules on the so-called "levels of measurement". Those levels dictate what you can do with those measurements, which mathematical operations you are allowed to use on them and so on. For example you are not allowed to calculate the arithmetical average for all levels, you are not even allowed to create hierarchy for the items of the lowest level.
    Yet, once the score ends up on sites like Metacritic, that is exactly what happens to every single score. It is treated as a metrical variable, allowing for evaluation, calculation of averages and hierarchies.
    Frankly there is a lot of hypocrisy in the industry on this topic. Head over to Destructoid and they will tell you, that there scores are not to be used for comparative purposes, yet one cannot create rankings without comparisons, and of course they do know that their scores are used to that end by Metacritic, even more so, their own site allows for reviews to be viewed ranked according to score.

    TL;DR:
    I guess what I'm saying is this: Why all that hypocrisy and feigned ignorance? Will you loose that many vistors on the page without giving out scores? Will you be cut off by publishers for events and review copies? I mean there are sites, that get by without it - just check Rock Paper Shotgun. Unfortunately they don't cover consoles though. I'd really love to get the inside scope on that. Maybe we could get a little editorial written up on the matter someday? Any insight would be greatly appreciated!
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #9 MHWilliams 2 years ago
    @ralek Why on the site? You'd have to ask Jeremy or Jaz. Why me personally? Because I like review scores. Here I wrote something about it before ():

    While I've had issues related to review scores in my short time as a reviewer, as a consumer I still find scores and review aggregators to be a useful tool. The farther away you are from the enthusiast position in a specific market, the more likely you are to rely on scores for making your purchasing decisions.

    My smartphone is beginning to act up and I'm available for an upgrade, so I've been doing research. I've been going to various review sites, but part of that research has sprung from the electronics review aggregator TestFreaks. When I'm on the fence about seeing a film, I'll head to Rotten Tomatoes to take a look at reviewer and user consensus. I know people who use Trip Advisor on a regular basis. At the absolute lowest point in my efforts, outside of just buying what's in front of me in the store, I head to The Wirecutter or The Sweet Home and let them tell me what the best _____ is.

    Are these aggregators perfect? Of course not. I believe no review aggregation service will ever be, but time is finite resource. If doing extensive research on a certain product is not high on your list of priorities, sites like Metacritic are useful. Instead of going from site-to-site, reading their reviews, and more importantly understanding how they review products, sometimes you just want to streamline your purchase. I'd rather you read all of my review before buying a game, but I understand if you don't, because I'm guilty of the same sin in a different area.

    I do hope Metacritic improves. And I do wish that companies would move away from using Metacritic for compensation purposes, but I think that's a problem with the business, not the tool itself. Until then, I can see Metacritic for what it is: a tool that allows consumers to make quick purchasing decisions. And that's not a bad thing.


    So, no "hypocrisy and feigned ignorance" here. I enjoy scores and find them to be a useful tool. My comment towards Brian as related to the idea that he less has a problem with scores and more that he seems to have a problem with scores that don't align with his own personal metric. Which is fine, but you need to realize that's going to happen frequently.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #10 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @Ralek I'd be perfectly happy without review scores, but the reality is, more readers want scores than don't.

    And as much as scores can muddy the conversation about a game (especially when people try and convert a system like ours to a 100-point scale equivalent), they actually are useful as a reference tool.

    Personally, I hate 100-point systems, but I'm OK with a more limited and abstract system like letter grades or stars, such as we use here. Movie and music critics have used the same system for decades, so it's not like some horrible invention we created to punish video games or something.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #11 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    My problem with review scores is just that they tend to be biased towards certain kinds of games: easy, flashy, cinematic games that don't take many risks. (Which is exactly what Susnet Overdrive seems like, nice artstyle aside.) If the reviewer can get through a game easily and painfully, he'll be more likely to give a high score, but if a game requires a different mindset and some learning, and the reviewer has a bit more trouble getting through it, the game tends to be punished. After all, the reviewer has a job to do, he has to review games as quickly as possible, so a game that lets him play through quickly and easily is more likely to get on his good side.

    It wouldn't be a problem, but many readers are going to dismiss the game purely based on that number. We live in the age of Metacritic and the number means everything. That makes it a huge deal. It's not just an afterthought. And because games that take risks tend to be punished in the review score, it's no wonder that there's less innovation and more homogenization in the games industry.

    To be fair, Sunset Overdrive does look like it's bringing a little bit fresh to the table, and that's great. But some things like the mission structure seem pretty stale.Edited October 2014 by brionfoulke91
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  • Avatar for PSegAgesPete #12 PSegAgesPete 2 years ago
    good stuff, can't wait for the pc version! ;)
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #13 MHWilliams 2 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 The problem is that doesn't completely track (at least not with me). Bayonetta 2 received a similar score and that wasn't a walk in the park, but it was an enjoyable challenge. Wildstar raiding is an absolute goddamn nightmare of difficulty, but again I enjoyed it. Luftrausers was hard and completely uncinematic. That's not say there are some games on the hard side I don't enjoy - hey, Dark Souls! - but none of the games I've reviewed have been anywhere near that punishingly difficult. Even then, I can acknowledge what Dark

    The Evil Within had a lot going for it, but difficulty wasn't the main issue. I felt it was uneven (something user reviews on Metacritic, Amazon, and other sites have seemingly agreed with) and honestly, Dead Space did the same genre better. It wasn't even particularly a risky title, as it was something Mikami was well-versed in. I'm mostly looking forward to seeing where RE: Revelations 2 (or a future Evil Within sequel) takes survival horror.

    On the Metacritic thing, here's the problem: we can't worry about that. A review is my honest take on a game, and I can't let that take be swayed by the idea that sales or bonuses may be tied to that review. Or even multiple reviews in concert.

    And as a side question to you: what do you consider innovative? (To be clear, Sunset is not it for me, outside of the gender-neutral clothing customization)
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  • Avatar for docexe #14 docexe 2 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 I understand where you are coming from. In other fields of media you can see similar trends with some specific types of works scoring better with critics and reviewers for whatever reason, and companies cynically exploiting that fact by producing things that fit into that criteria in order to get more revenue from the average non-discerning customer (see as well, the “Oscar Bait” phenomenon in cinema).

    But honestly, I don’t think the root of the problem lies with the reviewers or even with the scores themselves: It lies with the corporations, in the case of games, the publishers who have been using (and sometimes abusing) scores and aggregator sites in that way.

    @jeremy.parish Personally, I think “5 stars” scales and similar are better for reviews as well. Mostly because I think they convey better the “subjectivity” factor that’s always present in a review. With 10 point scales or 100 point scales you end with the problem that@Ralek mentions: Trying to give an impression of objective accuracy, if not scientific precision, to something that by definition can’t have it.
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  • Avatar for docexe #15 docexe 2 years ago
    As to the game itself, it certainly looks fun, I like its irreverent tone and emphasis on style and fast paced action. Now, it’s not particularly innovative or revolutionary, even when compared to previous games from Insomniac, but different enough from what tends to glut the market during this season to serve as a breath of fresh air.

    That being said, given that I don’t have plans to ever buy an XBOne, unless one of my acquaintances or relatives decides to buy one, I will probably never play it. The same with Scalebound ;_;
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  • Avatar for Ralek #16 Ralek 2 years ago
    @jeremy.parish How do you know more readers want them, you guys did a poll on this or something like that? Really just curious, although I assume you are probably right, people like convenience after all :-P
    I'm aware, of course, that scores have been around for quite some time, and that they are not exclusive to the videogame industry. But I think there is a difference here.

    Personally, I don't think I know anyone, who ever consulted a score in terms of a music purchase. Maybe that's just me, but since music is all over the place, radio, advertisment, tv-shows, movies and so on, I normally just pick up on things I like or I sample specific songs on youtube or someplace. I think scores carry not that much weight with the music industry, though I have to admit that is just an educated guess on my part.

    I think movies on the other hand are more impacted by scores than music for sure, though probably not quite as much as games. Plenty of "pop corn" movies are loathed by critics but do really well at the box office. I guess since they are less of an investment than games, just as music, and are still more spontaneous than games, the impact should be limited. I mean if you want to take your gf to the movies, you don't necessarily do a lot of research or take your pick according to RT, MC or IMDB scores - plenty of other factors come into play.

    Generally speaking though, I think scores for movies have been around much longer than aggregation sites like MC. In terms of videogames, a rather young medium, there is probably a pretty huge consumer base which can barely remember a pre-MetaCritic time ^^ From personal experience, as limited as that is as a foundation for any argument of course, I'd say games "suffer" way more impact on their commercial success, when their scores su** than movies or music, thus extra care and consideration should go into the process.
    @MHWilliams Sorry, it was meant as a broader kind of appeal to you guys' general reasoning on the subject, it just came up under a review you posted ... ^^

    That is an interesting take you offered and I certainly see the merit for the consumer in certain areas. I think though that hardware is a mostly different matter. There is plenty of objective scoring to be done on a smartphone for example, important stuff like charge time, battery life, weight, speed, durability, accessoirs, wireless-standarts, and so on, also in terms of software, what kind of features are supported, open/closed system, etc., I think you catch my drift. Certainly subjective factors like interface, ease-of-use and others factor in, but to a smaller degree. And despite everything that'S going on, smartphones are still tools for a more or less clearly defined purpose - either the device get's it done, or it struggles with the task at hand.

    What I meant by "hypocrisy and feigned ignorance" is just that many reviewers still insist, that their score is not supposed to be used as a variable for statistic consumption, which is exactly what's happening though, but as a personal subjective opinion backed-up by an entire "discourse" ^^ on how it came to be. It's easy to give a game a certain score, and then go on to put qualifications on that score in your written review, thus creating context and a certain "range" for the score. Unfortunately this never shows up on any aggregated score, even worse this might have a very real impact on the game's CHANCE to succeed. That just irks me I guess ... but as you say it is not a perfect system, not without merit either, and it's still one we have to live with (although I could do without!) ^^

    One reason I like your reviews, and really the reviews on the site in general, is that you do bother to put in such qualifications at times, and that you guys provide a modicum in terms of transparency, by providing conclusions for four categories, in conjunction with the final score and conclusion. Many reviewers don't bother with categories and some don't even bother with a proper conclusion at all (although any proper body of text meant for publication should have that at the very least no matter what).

    Final question, any thoughts then why there are no category scores? If one accepts scores in general, I think it would makes sense to strive for a maximum of transparency and a wholesome approach as far as possible. Seems only pragmatic I'd say.
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  • Avatar for Pacario #17 Pacario 2 years ago
    Objectivity should be the aim of every reviewer, and that's why broad scoring systems, such as the five-star scale already mentioned in other comments, are more manageable than, say, 100-point systems (which suggest very absurdly that a game's quality really can be narrowed down to a tenth of a point).

    But with a broader five or ten point scale, a game can be given an accurate score while still providing that inevitable wiggle room for disagreement. In Bioshock Infinite's case, for instance, some liked its combat, others preferred its narrative. Either way, most agreed is was a 4/4.5 when using simpler scales. It was only on the more specific 20 or 100 unit systems that the game's scores diverged significantly.
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  • Avatar for hal9k #18 hal9k 2 years ago
    @docexe Well said, and your last sentence summed up my own feelings better than I could have. Personally, I like review scores, but I read them as a qualitative statement of how a particular reviewer (with tastes sure to be at least a little different from mine) feels about a game relative to other, similar games on the market at a particular time (if I'm understanding that last part wrong, I hope someone will let me know!).

    As you said, the problem for me comes when someone tries to take that qualitative statement and turn it into a quantitative metric that can be averaged or otherwise analyzed statistically. To say that a 4/5 game is exactly twice as good as a 2/5 game is not only ridiculous, but it also ignores the entire rest of the review (the part that I assume the reviewer spent by far the most amount of time crafting, which contains the most useful information).

    Unfortunately, I think the perception of a review score as concrete quantitative data leads to people overemphasizing that number, which in turn leads to most of the arguments and complaints I've seen online about scores. I've seen the same arguments on sites that give letter grades for other media, and again, I just think it's putting way too much importance on the score.

    Again, I think scores or grades are a nice qualitative statement - but not as useful as the rest of that summary box at the end of the reviews here. I also really like when this site has a 2nd opinion reviewer on a game, but I understand you guys are probably swamped right now so that won't always be possible.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #19 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 "My problem with review scores is just that they tend to be biased towards certain kinds of games"

    I don't think this is true at all. Look at the way scores have trended over the past five years. Annualized, conservative, franchise-focused games have earned lower scores each season.

    Jumping tracks: The idea of "objective" reviews is possibly the goofiest non-starter of a concept in the entire conversation around the gaming press in recent years. It demonstrates a fundamental failure to understand the very nature of reviews. The entire concept of a qualitative evaluation demands subjectivity. Fairness is one thing, and it's an important element of a good review, but actual objectivity is for technical writing. Which isn't reviews.

    The problem with ANY of these conversations that involve proclamations about "THIS is the way X element of the press should work" is that there are a lot of different publications, a lot of different people within those entities, and hundreds of thousands of times as many different readers. All have their own different expectations and approaches. There is no single "right" approach, and there doesn't have to be. None of us assume USgamer's approach is right for everyone or that everyone will agree with it — but it's the one that feels right to us, and we appreciate everyone who shares that sentiment.

    Enjoy the diversity of voices that exist out there. Better yet, demand greater diversity.
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  • Avatar for pashaveliki #20 pashaveliki 2 years ago
    @jeremy.parish your last review on 1up for Luigi's Mansion was a thing of beauty, particularly because it was scoreless.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #21 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    @MHWilliams Not completely, no. But you do see that it somewhat tracks, right? Not just in terms of difficulty, but also games that just try different things and play differently than other games, they tend to get the short shrift. Not just your reviews, or reviews on this site, but reviews in general.

    To answer your question, "innovation" is too much to expect. I don't demand that, all I care about is freshness: if a game is doing something different from what is currently available. That's all I ask for from games.
    @jeremy.parish I totally agree that there isn't an "objectively" right way to review games. But I still believe there's a negative trend in reviewing games where certain kinds of games tend to get favored over others, and personally I just feel like that's important to point out.

    More diversity in review scores would be great.Edited October 2014 by brionfoulke91
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #22 jeremy.parish 2 years ago
    @pashaveliki Yeah, but it was also an "Oh, well, the site's dead, so who cares anyway?" thing. Cutting scores has always been a kiss of death (Kotaku got away with it because people go there for news, not reviews).

    Anyway, I write my reviews with the same mindset regardless of whether or not there's a score attached.
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  • Avatar for docexe #23 docexe 2 years ago
    @hal9k Yeah, I think some people put too much emphasis on scores, and in recent years it is starting to bother me a lot.

    While I agree with comments above that reviewers should be as fair and impartial as possible, and should strive to keep their biases in check as much as possible, the fact of the matter is that games and other forms of entertainment can’t be quantified in an absolute scale, there is always going to be a level of subjectivity involved. So scores, as you said, should be taken as a qualitative statement, not as an absolute metric of the value of a game.

    And well, I think gamer culture in general is too obsessed with scores. It’s certainly not an issue exclusive to games, but somehow it seems more predominant in this space than in other forms of entertainment. I really wonder why.
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  • Avatar for Pacario #24 Pacario 2 years ago
    @jeremy.parish Reviewing a game, or any form of art, is all about striving for objectivity. Truly, as a journalist--a profession which follows a certain set of standards already--you should know the importance of objectivity, whether it's discussing the industry or, yes, evaluating a game.

    But can true, 1:1 objectivity ever be achieved? Of course not. Even the most seasoned, experienced critics will find points of contention. But there's a reason why Activision pays bonuses for high Metacritic scores--the company knows that there are certain criteria, factors, and elements that, if achieved or satisfied, can lead to general agreement regarding a game's quality. Same with game design courses in college--students are taught the objective ways of designing a quality game. If they falter on those steps, chances are the game won't be as good as it could be.

    Subjectivity rears its head mostly in the more experimental titles we sometimes see. Back on 1UP, I discussed The Unfinished Swan in a blog, stating how a game like that essentially undermines any attempt of purer objective analysis, as it circumvents so many standard conventions, for better or for worse.

    And yes, I find the game overrated. Is that a subjective of objective statement? Some games exist just to blur those distinctions.Edited October 2014 by Pacario
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #25 MHWilliams 2 years ago
    @Pacario I disagree completely. There's objective measures - resolution, frame rate, amount of content - but the success of that content depends completely on the viewpoint of the viewer (or in this case, reviewer).

    Roger Ebert on the idea, in relation to his review of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11:

    "I agree with Moore that the presidency of George W. Bush has been a disaster for America. In writing that, I expect to get the usual complaints that movie critics should keep their political opinions to themselves. But opinions are my stock in trade, and is it not more honest to declare my politics than to conceal them? I agree with Moore, and because I do, I hope "Fahrenheit 9/11" proves to be as accurate as it seems."

    A review is us telling you about our experience with a title. Nothing more, nothing less. An objective review is less than useless, as shown by a site with truly objective reviews. That's why you can hand any game to 10 people and get 10 different reviews. How do you reach an objective viewpoint of a work of art when we all have subjective views of that art?

    Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips:

    "Criticism is not about objectivity. It is about informed, vividly argued subjectivity.

    "You completely discredit a well-crafted movie," wrote Jan Young, "allowing your political bias to influence your work, tainting your credibility as an objective critic, which you are obviously not!"

    Jan is correct, at least in this: I am not an objective critic. There is no such thing. We all spend far too much of our moviegoing time struggling to engage with work made by timid directors whose misguided objectivity toward their source material leads to impersonal results."


    Movie critic Pauline Kael:

    "When Pauline Kael began writing about the movies in the 1950s, she was trying, she says, "to be true to the spirit of what I loved about movies, trying to develop a voice that would avoid saphead objectivity and let the reader in on what sort of person was responding to the world in this particular way."

    "When Kael wrote about the movies, she wanted to describe what was happening inside "you" (meaning her) as you watched and reacted to the images on the screen, and she strove to picture those images in terms that were sharp, accessible and swept clean of academic dust."


    Ebert on Kael:

    "In an obituary, I wrote, "Pauline Kael had a more positive influence on the climate for film in America than any other single person over the last three decades." What did I mean by that? Pauline had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn't apply her "approach" to a film. With her it was all personal. Faithful readers will know I am tiresome in how often I quote Robert Warshow, who in his book The Immediate Experience wrote: "A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man." Pauline Kael was that honest. She wrote about her immediate experience, about what she felt.

    She's accused of being inconsistent and contradicting herself. Directors would fall in and out of favor. With her there was no possibility of inconsistency, because she always wrote about what she felt right now. What was the purpose tilting that emotion to reflect something she wrote earlier? "

    "In my reviews and those of a great many others you are going to find, for better or worse, my feelings. I feel a responsibility to provide some notion of what you're getting yourself in for, but after that it's all subjective."


    Does that mean we reviewers should step away from facts? Hell no, but "Mario Kart 8 is a fun game" isn't an objective fact. It's true for me and may not be true to you. "A game/film feels too long." Subjective. "X mechanic is well-tuned." Subjective. Reviews of games and other products have objective measures, but ultimately they're subjective. Even something as simple as an iPhone 6 review is full of subjective thoughts and feelings. Why should games be any different?
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  • Avatar for Pacario #26 Pacario 2 years ago
    @MHWilliams The argument is whether one should strive for objectivity, not that pure objectivity is possible. We all have our personal frames of reference for measuring aspects of design, craftsmanship, originality, and so forth. But there are frameworks of thought that we can and should utilize for evaluating different subject matter. That's why schools teach art criticism and game design. That's why we (supposedly) have educated, experienced game and film journalists who can logically analyze and dissect art and derive important conclusions. Moreover, objective criticism doesn't mean writing the banal material your linked example was supposed to demonstrate--indeed, a reviewer can provide impartial analysis while still providing his own thoughts and ruminations, and he can certainly express excitement over aspects that are indeed well done, and scorn for those elements that aren't.

    Remember, as a journalist, your primary job is to seek Truth in whatever you experience and then write about. And when it comes to games, that Truth equates to the quality of the product, and whatever meaning it holds. When you dismiss objectivity as not only impossible, but not even worth pursuing, you not only diminish your own profession, you elevate all the forum posters, trolls, and rabble out there who also have "opinions." Indeed, if rational judgement and objective reasoning do not even exist, what makes your words any more valid than the fanboy blogger's?

    Look at it this way: Why is the Mona Lisa considered one of art's greatest treasures? Why is The Grapes of Wrath praised as a work of fine Literature? Why is Citizen Kane on almost every critic's top 100 list? It's because that, over many years, through countless debates and discussions and analyses, a consensus was reached regarding the exceptional quality of these works. Sure, someone out there today might still deem any of these items unremarkable or even poor, but that individual would be wrong. Objectively speaking, Citizen Kane is an excellent film. Not every work is so clear-cut, of course, but again, that's why we (intelligently) review and evaluate and share our thoughts with others--to eventually uncover the ultimate quality, or truth, of a given creation.

    Not everything is opinion. Indeed, opinion bolstered by fact and acute analysis can eventually become established truth if recognized and confirmed by enough others. But by throwing out objectivity, you not only achieve nothing, but also sadly remove that sense of responsibility any good reviewer needs to restrain his darker impulses and biases. Without striving for that higher Truth, you're basically giving the entire profession a free pass to write anything--that tempering sense of culpability and honor needed to make a journalist's words truly meaningful is simply no longer there.

    And that is why "journalism" today is in such dire straits, barely holding its own against the bloggers and the posters and the tweets.
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  • Avatar for pashaveliki #27 pashaveliki 2 years ago
    @jeremy.parish it did seem a fitting way to send off 1up.
    As for scores or no scores, do what you have to so USGamer stays healthy. A small price to pay to keep the inheritor of 1up's legacy from following in the footsteps of the real 1up.
    Speaking of 1up, USGamer podcasts? I know you hate the editting/cat herding that is involved in hosting podcasts, Parish, but even at your most sardonic you put out a mean podcast.
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  • Avatar for docexe #28 docexe 2 years ago
    @Pacario Ok, someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t objectivity in the context of journalism specifically referred to a) being as factual as possible (i.e. not report false information) and b) being as impartial as possible (i.e. not being swayed by external interests from any third party)?

    I certainly think that journalists and critics should apply those principles in everything they write, I also agree that reviews have to be better informed, more detailed and analytical and less biased than the opinion from your average forum poster or blogger. But the thing is that when it comes to reviews of games as well as other forms of art and entertainment, ultimately the personal qualitative judgment of the reviewer will always have some weight, hence why there is always a subjective component in reviews. How much that personal judgment matters when applying a grade is a matter of contention even in professional circles of critics, but is always there and can’t be dismissed either.

    As to academic circles and their guidelines for evaluating pieces of art, as far as I understand it, while there are some criteria that tend to be agreed upon in consensus at different points of time for what constitutes “great art”, those standards are not absolute neither set in stone and tend to evolve over time. Otherwise, if there was an “absolute truth” followed as dogma, it would mean the death of creative innovation in the artistic fields.

    Note indeed that many different movements and periods that marked a revolution in a particular field of art tend to be defined by a conscious rejection or rebellion on part of the artists against the standards set by their predecessors and/or enforced by the academic critics. It’s also the reason why many pieces of art (including those that are considered all time classics) are sometimes reevaluated by subsequent generations of critics, and why some works are judged based primarily on the specific context (historical, cultural, etc.) on which they were created.

    And well, I think the issue that Jeremy has when you refer to objectivity is that too many times, when gamers talk about “objectivity” what they are actually talking about is “I want a scientifically accurate measurement that proves that my personal opinion about a game is right, so I can accuse you of being biased if your review or opinion differs from mine”.Edited October 2014 by docexe
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  • Avatar for hal9k #29 hal9k 2 years ago
    @MHWilliams Ha, I was thinking Ebert would've had something interesting to say about this issue, but I was too lazy to look it up. I liked the Phillips line about "informed, vividly argued subjectivity" more, though. Interestingly, did Kael do review scores? My only exposure to her work was through a CD-ROM compilation (MS Cinemania - anyone remember that, back before imdb?), and she was the only reviewer on there without scores. I didn't like that at the time, but I think I'd be more openminded now.

    I think there's some argument over semantics here. Journalism isn't my area of expertise - I know nothing about it other than being a consumer, I'm not familiar with the theory, so these are just my opinions. But I think of "journalism" and "criticism" as different categories of writing with different standards of "objectivity." I'd call something like Kat's piece on Raven Soft "journalism" and hold it to a higher standard of objectivity, meaning I'd expect it to be more factual and reasonably free of opinions (Kat being a pro, of course it met those expectations).

    "Criticism" is different - I expect to see some opinions in a review (or editorial), and I expect them to be well-argued. I read (and try to contribute to, in some small way) this site because I respect the writers' opinions. More importantly, I respect their ability to defend those opinions and express the reasoning behind them through writing - in this case, Mike did that perfectly well in the text of the review.

    Everyone's tastes are unique - there's no such thing as an objective 4/5 rating because, barring pure coincidence, Mike's 4/5 game won't exactly be my 4/5 game. I still like having the score there as a convenient shorthand, but that's all the importance it deserves. It's the text of the review, where the reviewer justifies his or her opinions, that indicates to me whether or not I might be interested in the product. The overemphasis on review scores bothers me because it deemphasizes those justifications in the review text. Again, it's the "informed, vividly argued subjectivity" that makes the review.
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  • Avatar for Pacario #30 Pacario 2 years ago
    @docexe In a nutshell, criticism is the thoughtful evaluation of a given creation through a well-informed, objective framework. It's true that any critique of a given piece of art presupposes some subjectivity--that's unavoidable and even desirable--but by using the principles of rational thought, the ideal is to ultimately arrive at a meaningful conclusion. Otherwise, it's true, any review seen here or across the Internet is just mere opinion, with no distinction to be made between the fanboy or intellectual, troll or seeker of truth.

    "Opinion" is a dangerous word, as it quickly devalues writing into being just the tastes and ramblings of people who like to express themselves. And that's the mistake Mr. Williams makes here--by throwing out objectivity completely, he's also throwing out the baby. For without logic, there is nothing left but trivial opinion. Indeed, he might as well include a disclaimer before all his reviews and commentaries that read: Warning, this review is strictly the opinion of a guy who likes video games. Please don't take it too seriously. I'm sure there are other reviews out there that will cater to your tastes more effectively.

    But Mr. Williams is a talented, thoughtful writer. He deserves better than that, wouldn't you agree?
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  • Avatar for docexe #31 docexe 2 years ago
    @Pacario Oh! Those are very good points and I agree with you on those.

    My point is not exactly that objectivity should be dismissed completely when writing a review, more that people (gamers especially) should not fret so much if a review isn’t 100% objective, because when analyzing arts and entertainment there is always a certain level of personal subjective judgment involved, and because evaluating art is not an accurate science with absolute standards.Edited October 2014 by docexe
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  • Avatar for hal9k #32 hal9k 2 years ago
    @Pacario Great post, I think I understand a bit more of where you're coming from now. One of the points I was trying to make above (that I don't think I expressed well) is that I think we might just be disagreeing over the meanings of specific words, primarily "objectivity."

    Personally, I don't think that acknowledging the role of "opinion" is necessarily dangerous, particularly confined to a framework where I would expect to see some subjectivity (namely, reviews or clearly-labeled editorials and opinion pieces). Those opinions need to be supported by evidence and specific examples, which I think separates a good review from a fanboy screeching "I like/hate this" without being able to articulate the reason.

    However, I understand your perspective, and realize that it's just as valid as mine. As I said, I think this is just a disagreement over definitions, and we all really want the same sort of quality reviews. I do think that if reviews are going to have scores, there should be a rubric in place to make sure they're at least consistent across the site. I don't need to see it, but I assume something like that exists.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #33 MHWilliams 2 years ago
    @Pacario And as I pointed out, with those same amazing, trained film journalists, objectivity as a full aim is a myth. That's in their own words.

    That's not to say there aren't objective measures - formal composition and complexity for example - I stated them in my first post, but most of the time when someone is saying something is "objectively good", they're talking about adhering to current cultural standards. It's an appeal to authority.

    Again, in Ebert's own words:

    The film critic, first of all, should give you some idea of what the movie is about, not just in terms of its subject but it terms of its style and how it might hope to make you feel, and the critic should give you this idea usefully enough that you can decide whether you might want to see the movie or not regardless of whether the critic likes it or not. I might pan a movie, but if I’ve described it accurately, you might decide that you’d like to go see it, and that would be perfectly valid. Apart from that, the critic must also maybe be a teacher, in the sense that he tells you something about film in general, the purpose of film, the methods of film, the techniques of film, the weaknesses and strengths of film, and the critic should also be an entertainer in that the review should be not necessarily fun to read, but interesting to read, well-written. It’s a personal essay. The critic’s job is to be subjective, not to be objective, because it’s an opinion, and the critic should give that opinion in such a way that you want to read it, you enjoy reading it.

    From "Art and Objecthood," by art critic and art historian Michael Fried:

    "It is worth adding that there there is nothing binding in the value judgments of formal criticism. All judgments of value begin and end in experience, or ought to, and if someone does not feel that Manet's Dejeuner sur l'herbe, Matisse's Piano Lesson, or Pollock's Autumn Rhythm are superb paintings, no critical arguments can take the place of feeling it. On the other hand, one's experiences of works of art are always informed by what one has come to understand about them, and it is the job of the formal critic both to objectify his intuitions with all the intellectual rigor at his command and to be on his guard against enlisting a formalist rhetoric in defense of merely private enthusiasms.

    It is also imperative that the formal critic bear in mind at all times that the objectivity he aspires towards can be no more than relative."


    We entertain. We illuminate. But in the end, our reviews are absolutely just opinion. Educated, exhaustive, accurate opinion.

    You can disagree, like art critic Clement Greenberg does when he talks about the objectivity of taste and the idea of a historical consensus defining that "objectivity". You and Greenberg fall on the Kant side of things, but even Kant acknowledged that taste was largely subjective when he talked about his idea of Beauty.

    Essentially, there's criteria by which different mediums judge their greatness, but that criteria is unspoken and based on the subjective tastes of the current authorities.

    "The idea of some kind of objectively constant, universal literary value is seductive. It feels real. It feels like a stone cold fact that In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust, is better than A Shore Thing, by Snooki. And it may be; Snooki definitely has more one-star reviews on Amazon. But if literary value is real, no one seems to be able to locate it or define it very well. We’re increasingly adrift in a grey void of aesthetic relativism," writes author Lev Grossman.

    Author Anne Trubek.
    "I received a PhD in English in 1998; given the zeigeist of English departments then (as well as my own interests), much of my graduate training revolved around the question of canonicity: what makes a masterpiece? Are there objective grounds or is it relative? What role do race, gender, etc. etc. play in which literary works are elevated to the ranks of the great? Who gets to make those decisions? Which formal attributes are lionized over others? (difficulty=good; sentimentality=bad).

    So what is it that makes a book great (for critics, judges, readers, academics)? Formal experimentation (and of what sort)? Political acumen? Historical resonance? Suspense? Ratio of dialogue to description?"


    If you want objective reviews, here's critic Matthew Dessem, who's made a name for himself attempting to critique every film in the Criterion Collection. Here's his objective review of Citizen Kane (made recently!).
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  • Avatar for Pacario #34 Pacario 2 years ago
    @docexe@MHWilliams@hal9k

    Everyone has made some good points here, and perhaps it's best we leave the discussion at that.

    I will only close by saying that the ultimate point of criticism is to reveal the meaning, or truth, embedded in a work of art. And using some measure of rational thought, perceptive analysis, and yes, fair-minded objectivity, can go a long way in helping to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    But I like to believe that, whether they realize it or not, the critics and writers here at USgamer already do this very thing.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #35 MHWilliams 2 years ago
    @Pacario@docexe@hal9k At the very least, I'm glad that this has been a completely civil conversation. You folks make up a great community; civil discussion and potentially civil disagreement are the way we work out ideas.

    So thanks.
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