The only game reviews worth reading

(Except for mine, of course.)

So there’s a new reviews site out there, Action Button, that’s pretty sweet. (Hat tip: Kotaku.) Actually, it’s completely fantastic. Unlike most others, Action Button actually points out obviously inane and ridiculous and repetitive and derivative things about games!!! It’s not just a glorified fanzine that soft-pedals its criticism and couches every slightly negative comment in “that’s not to say that this game isn’t fun” or some similarly mealy-mouthed qualifier (I’ll have to do an official count, but the new PSM issue uses “that’s not to say…” in at least 3 different reviews). It recognizes that these things cost $50 and up, and so readers deserve a forthright assessment of whether they should be forking over that much money. And it dares to actually take blockbuster games at face value, rather than treating them as something reverent that’s automatically awesome and can’t be criticized even if they’re exactly the same as the previous games in the series.

(Not that other game reviews burn me up, or anything. I’ve hesitated in writing a full game-review manifesto and smackdown, but Action Button is encouraging me to finally do it.)

Action Button isn’t all great stuff. But that’s okay. What’s important is the writers seem to start from the view that the vast majority of games are incredibly derivative or misguided or boring and not worth the price. Rather than we must defend games as much as possible and only grudgingly accept the negatives.

For instance, Tim Rogers’ review of Elder Scrolls: Oblivion:

Friends of mine, mostly people on Xbox Live, got all guidance counselor-y and tried to tell me that the story is the last thing you want to appreciate about Oblivion. Said one guy, “Like, I played for like sixty hours before going into my first Oblivion gate, dude.” What do you do for sixty hours, apparently? You harvest berries, or mushrooms, grind elements with your Novice Mortar and Pestle so that they show up as fatigue-curing items in the tools tab of your inventory, or take side-quests, or join the Shadow Guild and make your pretend self become a pretend pretend assassin. This would be great, except: I don’t like playing Oblivion. It’s not fun. The collision and physics are sketchy as s—. You get on your horse and ride, and it just feels like it’s hovering above the world. …

Add to this a combat engine that is not Halo, and you make me frown. Why should the combat engine be Halo, you ask? Well, because it’s a first-person game. … Here in Oblivion, when there’s a weird little delay between your pressing of a button and your character’s swinging his sword, where in the end, you’re just bashing buttons and slamming your numbers against your opponent’s numbers, expecting ultimate victory, it just doesn’t feel fun. It doesn’t feel entertaining. I’m sure if you spend all of your time plotting which orcs to kill next in World of Warcraft with guild-mates as excited as you are about clicking that mouse, if the most exciting part of your evening tends to be when you ask this Night Elf who is actually a girl in New Hampshire who’s probably hot what she’s drinking tonight and she says “Peach Schnapps” and you feel a stir in your boxers like Hell yeah, she might be drunk soon, then maybe Oblivion seems like “Ben-Hur” must have seemed to the moviegoing kids of 1959 who’d spent their fall semesters reading books.

Right on. Or take  Heather Campbell’s review of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I wrote a column last year about how I’m done with Madden games until they stop charging $50 for a roster update; I’m planning to rerun that column every year until it changes. Similarly, these lines from Campbell’s review should be the epigraph to 9 out of 10 video game reviews:

There is no reason to find a twig somewhere to light a candle to open a door to get a bigger stick. There’s no bliss in shifting blocks around till they line up. And there’s no fun in bringing a barrel of water across an ugly field.

I made many of the same points in an earlier post about Twilight Princess: “If these … tasks aren’t building a larger narrative and are frustrating or seem like unnecessary barriers to moving on, then they become make-work. Worse, they’re make-work that’s been done dozens of times in previous games and that doesn’t even follow the logic of puzzles.” (Campbell calls the game “video-game busywork.”) I also noted that

the torch puzzle makes no sense at all. Imagine it as a word game: “You’re in a room with two unlit torches and a door on a raised platform that’s out of your reach. How do you proceed?” There’s no logical answer to that. In the real world, lighting torches doesn’t make stairs appear. You would only know to think of that solution if you’ve played video games and know the convention.

Or, as Campbell puts it: “What’s worse, this is a game that speaks a vocabulary only known to gamers. Show it to a friend who doesn’t game, and they’ll disarm you with the simplest question: Why?”

Anyways, if it seems like I’m excited about Action Button, I am. It’s depressing how few sites and reviews there are like this. Which makes it that much greater to find one.

— April 9, 2007

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