It all happened so quickly. A week ago, rumors began to circulate that IGN reviewer Filip Miucin had plagiarized his review of Dead Cells from an obscure Youtube Channel called Boomstick Gaming. Not long after, Miucin was fired. IGN was lauded for its firm and decisive handling of the incident, but it nevertheless struck at a raw nerve for the games press. For some, it conjured the ghosts of review scandals in the past. For others, it was an opportunity to pick away at the cliches that so often find their way into reviews writing.
It was a reminder of the often strange place that reviews occupy in the collective gaming consciousness. Now, as ever, they are seen as a kind of litmus test for a publication's legitimacy. When readers complain about Polygon or IGN, it's usually because they are in violent disagreement with how one review or another is handled, which they read as corruption. Readers love to obsess over Metacritic scores when a major prestige game like Zelda or (cough) Horizon Zero Dawn drops, and get testy when a game receives a score they perceive to be too high or too low.
They are necessarily a large part of our coverage here at USgamer, and yet also less meaningful than ever. Most editors will tell you that reviews provide very little return on the massive investment that they demand. News, reviews, and features tend to be a much more important part of the day-to-day of covering a game, with even the largest reviews providing only a short-lived spike in traffic.
With massive traditional releases like God of War becoming less common, reviews have seen a corresponding decrease in utility. The PS4 Metacritic score for No Man's Sky—a game that recently received a solid burst of positive coverage—is currently stuck at 71 because there's no real way to reflect the steady stream of high-quality free content that it's received. The fluid nature of game updates has taken the emphasis away from one-off reviews and put it on continuous coverage. Writers now cover communities and development on a daily basis, with the largest games demanding their own dedicated beat reporters.
So why all the fuss about traditional reviews? Why is a major scandal surrounding a review felt more acutely than elsewhere?
Some of it is a function of the games media's often checkered history with reviews. When detractors say that a reviewer is bought and paid for, it's partly because one of the industry's foundational publications—Nintendo Power—was effectively one big advertisement for the games Nintendo chose to promote. CGW, 1UP, and Eurogamer have all fought to raise the standards of game reviews over the years, but progress has been slow.
And yet, game reviews also have a romantic quality to them. Every gamer dreams of being able to have access to the biggest games days or months before they come out. A lot of writers enter the press aspiring to be gaming's Roger Ebert or Wesley Morris . They think to themselves, "I will fix game reviews. I will elevate games criticism into an art form."
A few games writers have indeed been able to step out of that box and turn reviewers into something truly worth reading. Simon Parkin made a name for himself with his outstanding prose and willingness to go against the grain, eventually earning him a prestigious spot at the New Yorker. Waypoint's Austin Walker and USG alum Jeremy Parish have written similarly outstanding reviews over the years.
More often, though, reviews end up being a drab exercise in consumer reports-style tech writing (this goes for videos as well). Games are treated less as works of art worth considering and more as something akin to the latest iPhone. There's an expected template for reviews, and when a reviewer tries to break out of it, as Chris Plante did with his Shadow of the Colossus review, and Kirk Hamilton did with his Destiny 2 review, the response is often, "Yeah, but is it worth buying?"
As games have grown, it's become somewhat easier to break out of that template. God of War attracted quite a few emotional thinkpieces from fathers in the games press. But for every Banner Saga 3, there's a Madden or Call of Duty that demands a totally different type of analysis. And even reviews of non-traditional art games tend to get bogged down in discussing whether or not they're fun to play. These conflicting expectations have confounded reviewers for years now, and are a large part of the answer to the question of why game reviews aren't better.
But more than the problematic history of the games press, more than the variable quality of the writing itself, is the tendency to treat game reviews as sports events. When a major review drops, social media, ResetEra, and Reddit immediately begin to obsess over the rise and fall of the Metacritic tally. When a publication receives backlash, it's because it ruined the Metacritic score.
The result is that game reviews are a kind of performative obligation these days. It's exciting to be part of the zeitgeist, but the reality is that reviews are only a tiny part of a game's coverage. When Red Dead Redemption 2 arrives in October, the race will be on to find interesting stories in the community, cover any interesting bugs or general drama, and to develop unique features and op-eds. Articles like these are where the really meaningful discussion is to be found. I often wonder how many publications would even bother with reviews anymore if they weren't expected to do so.
And yet reviews remain controversial within the industry and without. In plagiarizing his review, Filip Miucin got people talking once again about the role of reviews in the industry; the disportionate deadline pressures faced by reviewers, and what makes a good review in the first place. It's a conversation that serves to highlight the very strange place that reviews occupy in our industry these days. And it's a conversation I don't see ending anytime soon.
Looking Ahead to the Rest of the Week
- Cosmic Star Heroine (Switch) [August 14]: Zeboyd's cult favorite RPG finally makes its way to Nintendo Switch, where it has its best chance yet to make a real impression with gamers. Its outstanding pixel art ought to look really nice on the Switch's expanded screen. We talked at length about it on Axe of the Blood God, so you should check it out.
- Death's Gambit (PC) [August 14]: Another Soulsborne game, but this one with a permadeath mechanic. It sports gorgeous visuals on par with those of Dead Cells and other 2D favorites. One to watch when it lands on PS4 and PC this week.
- Walking Dead: The Final Season - Episode 1 (PC, Xbox One, PS4) [August 14]: This is out tomorrow, but our review is already live. According to Hirun is "neatly gives our characters hope, motivations, and some true friends, all in merely a few hours." A fitting end to the series, perhaps.
- World of WarCraft: Battle for Azeroth (PC) [August 14]: World of WarCraft's latest expansion promises to be a return to the days of Orcs and Humans battling it out over Azeroth. It looks like a fun return to form, but the lore updates have lately caused a great a deal of controversy among fans.
This Week's News and Notes
- Both Nadia and Caty are out of the office this week, so that's why there are capsules are absent from this entry of Starting Screen. They'll be back next week.
- In case you missed it, we're hosting two panels during PAX Prime! Go here for all the details. I will also be on Kinda Funny's Superman panel with Greg Miller, God of War director Cory Barlog, and all the rest.
- Gris was announced today, and it's yet another incredibly gorgeous looking platformer for PC and Switch. Look at those graphics! So pretty.
- I recently started playing Fire Emblem Heroes again, which honestly was a terrible idea. It has some interesting ideas, but it's driven entirely by its tiresome gashapon mechanics. Still, it sometimes results in moments like this (it's how they get you).
- As long as I'm bragging, I had a very successful Pokemon Go Community Day on Saturday. The above is the latest addition to my collection.
- I don't even know what to make of this. That Sonic movie is going to be a glorious dumpster fire.
- This person has been tweeting their progress through Final Fantasy VI over the past month. It really warms my heart.
- Axe of the Blood God: Jeremy Parish joins me to talk about Bard's Tale and the "second wave" of RPGs, and David Craddock returns to talk about number 18 on our Top 25 RPG countdown: Diablo 2! Subscription info here!