Ed Zitron Returns! Okay, Not Really.

There’s a flap over at Game by Night about two reviews of Final Fantasy XIV posted by GameSpot and GameTrailers. Both are negative. These days, whenever this comes up, comparisons to Ed Zitron get made. But this isn’t a comparable situation.

For the sake of transparency, I haven’t tried Final Fantasy XIV. I don’t need to; I know I won’t like it. It says it right there on the box, in big letters that spell out “Final Fantasy.” So I’m not at all qualified to comment on the actual game itself. But this post isn’t about Final Fantasy XIV, but about the expectations we have for critics and where the blame should go for bad reviews.

Everyone in our community (by which I mean the community of MMO bloggers, and not the MMO-playing population at large,) knows that you can’t evaluate an MMO like you would a more conventional game. A playthrough of GTA4 or Mass Effect 2 will give you a pretty good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of those games. But MMO’s aren’t designed to be played in a single stretch, instead relying on long-term progression and sustained player involvement. A game like Dragon Age, which allegedly takes 80 hours to play through (I personally haven’t finished it,) is an extreme example. But 80 hours is a drop in the bucket for an MMO.

Mass-Market video game sites tend not to put this much effort into a review. There are probably exceptions, but by and large, you want to go to dedicated MMO sites, or to MMO blogs, to get informed thoughts on our kind of games. An MMO gamer’s expectations for a thorough review of an MMO from this type of site should be virtually zero.

Then there’s Ed Zitron, now the albatross around the neck of anyone who dares have an opinion in this hobby. Zitron’s review was a rotten review, and not just because he only played Darkfall for 4 or 6 hours or whatever it was, even though that’s an unfair interval by which to judge an MMO. It was rotten because it was utterly one-sided, and even somebody who dislikes Darkfall is going to have a hard time credibly arguing that it has no merits whatsoever. Zitron resolutely either refused to see them or to note them in his review, which is the dictionary-grade definition of a lousy critic.

Neither cited review did this. I think the one from GameTrailers was a bit more balanced, but even the reviewer from notorious shill site GameSpot pointed out some things that he liked in FFXIV. In both cases, though, the overall review was pretty negative. Getting one’s self all worked up into a lather over that is a bit inappropriate, even if neither one gives the viewer a complete picture of the game. Nobody will have a complete evaluation of Final Fantasy XIV for at least a couple of months, and even that will eventually be invalidated by changes to the game.

What’s the solution? Don’t do reviews at all?

That might sound good to some people, but I think it’s impractical, unreasonable and even undesirable. Reviews, viewed in the proper context, are important tools for getting information about a new title. It’s the proper context that’s missing here, in that I have absolutely no right to expect a reviewer to agree with me. A review is something to use to evaluate the critic’s style and tastes; if you grasp those and understand your own, you can extract enough information from a pool of reviews to form your own opinion.

This is what a good critic does, and what good reviews do. Their function is not to provide you with the critic’s opinion, but to help you judge the reviewed product for yourself. A good review tell you about the product and its features; the critic’s opinions on those features and even on the product as a whole is secondary.

In other words, take any review with a grain of salt, whether you agree or disagree with its conclusions. How those conclusions reflect on your own tastes is the whole point.

In the final analysis, FFXIV will no doubt be bulletproof against bad reviews anyway; by and large, even those North American players defending it now will end up drifting away sooner rather than later, but it’s in line with Asian players’ expectations. So I suspect that whatever interest there is in the English-speaking market right now will dwindle very swiftly, while the game will go on to a long and happy life in the Asian market.

4 responses to “Ed Zitron Returns! Okay, Not Really.

  1. If a game isn’t fun in the first ten hours I put into it, I’m not making it to 80+ in the hopes that “it might get good.” At the very least, I need to see some potential in my first afternoon. I look at MMO reviews as a review of that first ten hours.

  2. I feel obligated to make my traditional objection to the premise that “A good review tell you about the product and its features; the critic’s opinions on those features and even on the product as a whole is secondary.”

    My introduction to the fine art of “the review” came from British rock press of the 1970s. As a music-obsessed adolescent, the two most important days of my week were the Top 30 chart announced on the Radio 1 Breakfast Show on Tuesdays and the arrival of the New Musical Express in the newsagents on Thursday.

    The former was a straightforward, factual list that told me what had succeeded or failed that week. The latter was a scabrous, scintillating, bewildering smorgasbord of opinion, imagination, preening and rants. The N.M.E. and, to a lesser degree, “Sounds”, drew their writers, reviewers and even editors from the underground press of the ’60s and later from the teenage and twentysomething uberkinds of the punk movement.

    These were writers. Real writers. I didn’t buy the N.M.E. for product information; I bought it to read exciting, thrilling writing. I work in a bookshop now and we currently have displays in our music section of collected journalism from or extended reviews from some of those writers. They sell not just to nostalgic oldsters like myself, but to people who weren’t even born when the original pieces were pulished, just like I once bought and revered the collected works of 1960s journalistic icons like Lester bangs and Toby Thompson.

    Of the writers and reviewers and editors whose names formed my personal hagiography of the 1970s and 1980s, Mick Farren, Charles Shaar Murray, Nick Kent, Paul Morley, Jane Suck, Neil Tennant, David Quantick and many more, most have gone on to long and successful careers as novelists, screenwriters, songwriters, scriptwriters and so on. A few, like the unfortunate and wonderful Jane Suck, burned out in the flame of their own passions, but mostly they went on to demonstrate that they, not the artists they were set to review, were the real show.

    As a compulsive reader of reviews, for me the Review itself is the “product”. The hallmark of a good review is that I read it with the same pleasure that iwould read a short story or listen to a song. It should be entertaining, amusing, thrilling, provocative, satisfying in and of itself, unrelated to the quality or interest of the peg it hangs on.

    I see very little of this quality of writing in online games journalism. It has existed in games print journalism: the marvelous “Crash!” magazine of the 1980s, which modelled it’s house style on the seminal post-Neal Tennant era “Smash Hits”, was a monthly box of firecrackers and there were good writers in many other newsstand gaming magazines of the time, too.

    I find it disheartening to hear, repeatedly, that all gamers want now is “the facts” so that they can make informed purchasing decisions. It’s as if the reviewer has been relegated to the role of financial advisor, simply there to stop us wasting money.

    I find it hard to imagine that in twenty years time anyone will be buying collections of the best online gaming reviews of Ed Zitron et al.

    • @Bhagpuss: That’s not what I’m saying at all. A review should have a point of view; it’s not just a feature list. The key to actually using the review is in the perception of the reader, though, and that’s dependent of the reviewer conveying to the reader where he or she is coming from – the why of the opinion and not just a list of the negative points. This is the difference between a good review and a bad review. Being a good critic isn’t as easy as some folks think it is. But that’s tangential to my point, which is that many of us gamers don’t seem to know how to take a review.

      I’m not holding up these two particular reviews as pinnacles of that art, by the way – they’re pretty good by current standards (in video games,) but current standards are deplorable, as I think we all know. Gaming journalism desperately needs a Roger Ebert.

  3. What we need to take into account is also that Square Enix asked reviewers to wait 3 weeks to do their reviews.
    I applaud both Gamespot AND Gametrailers for at least giving everyone the heads up on this fiasco of an MMO before their time limit.

    The most important aspect we must state here is that the reviews must note the MMO’s playability out of the gate…even if they cannot review the “whole” game. Most sites have been doing “follow ups” for MMO’s anyways.
    The fact these two reviewers were willing to tell everyone what to expect when you buy the game is the right move…no matter how “qualitative” it is. FFXIV truly abolishes all hope of ye who enter.

    I wish the “fans” would just accept that the game is going to review pretty harshly, and move on and live in their slow moving, menu based, forced quest system lives of FFXIV.