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.