Opinion: Four Hated Game Reviews That Were Actually Completely Fair

With the controversy surrounding certain Halo 4 reviews continuing to attract attention, Mark Butler looks at four infamous instances where video game critics came under fire for their opinions – and explains why the vitriol was unwarranted in every case.

Well, it’s been another fine week for video game reviews, hasn’t it? We’ve had a developer calling a critic a ‘retard’ for handing Halo 4 a score of 7 out of 10, while more negative verdicts on the much-hyped FPS from both Game Arena and the ever-controversial Tom Chick have resulted in outpourings of rage and hostility so venomous that you’d have been forgiven for thinking that these write-ups amounted to nothing less than crimes against humanity.

In recent years there have been many cases where gaming websites and their writers have come under fire for posting a verdict that was unpopular. But in almost all of these instances – especially when the controversy arose from the final score alone – the outcry was directed at a review that actually made for very fair and balanced reading.

Reviews like…


Eurogamer on Dead Space

After concluding that Isaac Clarke’s first outing “fails to turn its polished production values into something truly memorable over the long haul”, awarding the much-loved sci-fi horror a thoroughly respectable 7 out of 10 in the process, Eurogamer scribe Dan Whitehead found himself inundated with complaints about the “mediocre” score, with some branding both him and the site “elitist” and “out of touch”. Indeed, in order to defend his work, Whitehead felt it necessary to take to the comments section to explain that Eurogamer was the first gaming site he’d ever worked for where he had never been put under pressure to alter a review or score. Which kind of speaks volumes really, doesn’t it?

Of course, when you actually take the time to read the review, you rapidly find that Whitehead has plenty of praise for the game’s graphics (“visually stunning”) and combat (“immensely satisfying”), while his criticisms – focusing on Isaac’s lack of personality and the unimaginative ‘errand-boy’ nature of the title’s missions – are difficult to dispute. When all’s said and done, he even makes it clear that none of these flaws “will detract from your enjoyment”.

In other words, he reckons it’s good, but not great. And I’m hard-pressed to understand how anyone could possibly take offense at that.


Giant Bomb on Catherine

On the face of it, Jeff Gerstmann’s summary of Catherine would appear to be quite harsh.

After all, he criticizes the acclaimed avant-garde experience for having “limited character interaction, shallow characters, and monotonous puzzles”. Given how well-received the game was by almost every other major site, it’s no wonder that the review is now seen by many as Giant Bomb’s most controversial verdict.

But the simple fact is that Catherine isn’t without its flaws, and it really is a game that’s quite divisive. If anything, it’s surprising that more critics didn’t give it a slight kicking over the repetitive puzzles and occasionally-ropey writing.

Whether or not Catherine makes a more positive or negative impression tends to depend on how much stock a player places in its obvious originality. And it’s not as if Gerstmann chose to dismiss this altogether.

In summary, he writes: “The coolest thing about Catherine is that there really isn’t anything else out there like it. If that’s enough for you, you’ll probably have a better time with the game than I did.”

That’s about as honest and sensible a closing assessment as you’re ever likely to read.


Video Games Daily on God of War 3

When Edwin Evans-Thirwell dared to award the third God of War a score of (gasp!) 8 out of 10 a couple of years ago, he could little have imagined the storm of outrage this would provoke.

The comments section became a disgruntled whine-athon of furious accusations, insults and temper tantrums, with countless individuals queuing up to voice their condemnation of Evans-Thirwell’s review, question his suitability to a career in games writing, and threaten to stir up a full-scale boycott of the site itself.

Yes, it was a dark day for gaming indeed when this one reviewer made the cardinal sin of bestowing a less than perfect rating on the third installment in everybody’s favourite testosterone-pumping, beefcake-mashing action trilogy. Did he not get the memo that some games are simply beyond criticism?

Apparently not. Evans-Thirwell spoke of the game’s lack of innovation compared to its predecessors, the slightly disappointing plot and mis-handling of the increasingly unsympathetic protagonist, and also noted that its superficial, epic trappings were “getting old”.

Of course, all of those attacking the review completely overlooked the fact that he still called it “potent, polished and excellent” – because he had the temerity to point out that the series had failed to evolve, or offer up a more engaging saga than before.

The article in question was completely reasonable and considered. The backlash against it, by contrast, was simply embarrassing.


Destructoid on Heavy Rain

Ah, Jim Sterling. Over the past few years the no-nonsense rant merchant has established himself as one of gaming’s most outspoken and uncompromising commentators, whether maintaining his active dislike for the sacred cow that is Mass Effect, castigating major publishers for their perceived idiocy, or – in a moment mightily relevant to this very article – wonderfully lampooning those who argue that a review should not contain any personal opinion, but should instead be 100% objective.

On that note, there’s no doubt that Sterling gets a lot of people’s backs up when it comes to his verdicts on certain high-profile games. Final Fantasy XIII and Assassin’s Creed II are both examples of big releases that got the fiery, aggressive Sterling treatment – but the review that I’m most interested in is his widely unpopular write-up on Heavy Rain.

At the same time as critics from pretty much every other site were falling over themselves to hurl superlatives at Quantic Dreams’ QTE-led mystery thriller, Destructoid’s reviews editor was one of the few people willing to cut through the bullshit and point out a number of very significant flaws.

Sterling suggests that – for all their intended immersive and empathetic quality – many of the everyday tasks the games faces you with are actually quite boring. He’s also one of only a handful of critics rightly noting that the plot is sometimes ridiculous, often cliched and occasionally nonsensical, while the supposedly highbrow writing and voice-acting also leave a lot to be desired. This is perhaps the only review you’ll read that nails the fact that if this ‘interactive movie’ were actually a film, it would probably be a trashy made-for-TV affair rather than a critically-acclaimed classic.

But still, Sterling praises Heavy Rain for its ambition, its attempts to make a novel kind of narrative-led game, and also salutes the title for its “intense and terrifying” action sequences which he claims “provided me with some of the most nail-biting moments I’ve ever experienced”.

When all is said and done, the clincher is that he even claims Heavy Rain “deserves to be played” despite its apparent drawbacks. Haters of this particular Sterling review – as with most write-ups considered to be ‘too harsh’ – would have you believe that he gave a great game a real kicking just to attract attention. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.


3 Responses to “Opinion: Four Hated Game Reviews That Were Actually Completely Fair”
  1. MartinB105 says:

    I agree with most of this article, but criticising Dead Space for Isaac’s lack of personality is like criticising Super Mario because it not realistic enough.

    Isaac lacks personality BY DESIGN. The developers deliberately chose to omit his voice and face in order to allow the player to better project himself and his own personality into the character of the game, instead of being forced to control someone else. Some people find the notion of being “in” the game much more appealing than controlling someone else; Doom owes much of its success to this idea, given that it was built on the idealism of the 90’s first-person virtual reality experience which emphasised YOU as the hero and the person undergoing the experience.

    Lots of games still do this to various extents. The Zelda series is one that immediately comes to mind. Although we know what he looks like, you can still give the protagonist your own name, and he has no dialogue throughout, which allows players to fill in his role with their imagination. Some people still complain about it, but it’s like that deliberately and for a good reason.

    A reviewer who doesn’t understand this design decision should leave such games to be reviewed by someone who does.

    • Mark Butler says:

      I completely hear what you’re saying – but I just don’t think that the design decision actually worked. In fact, that’s almost certainly why Visceral decided to give Isaac a voice and personality in the sequel, and the general consensus is that this worked a lot better.

      With a first-person experience that has a ‘mute’ protagonist (classic examples being Half-Life and BioShock), it can actually aid with immersion and make you feel more personally involved in the experience. However, the trouble with the first Dead Space is that it’s presented in the third-person. Isaac is a constant, onscreen presence in both cut-scenes and the in-game action, yet says absolutely nothing the whole time, which actually just feels plain weird. It also kind of reinforces the idea that he’s just a characterless ‘sheep’ being ordered around by others.

      I think this is what Dan Whitehead was getting at, and I’m inclined to agree.

  2. John says:

    I completely agree with this. If anything, those reviews hit the nail on the head that the fanboys fail to see.

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