Reviewing the reviewers

Halo 3 Screenshot 

When Bioshock was released to universal acclaim from the popular gaming press, I fully expected to be amazed by the game. My reaction to it was less enthusiastic than what I expected, and reading around the 'Net as well as the responses to my own review, there seemed to be a similar reaction among many others. I found it possibly more than coincidental that sites like IGN were loaded with hands-on previews and detailed articles about the game, then it was released to an exceptionally praise-filled review. Now the long-awaited Halo 3 reviews are in, and—just like Bioshock—there were tons of hands-on impressions, detailed previews, and fever-pitch hype. So it didn't surprise me that it received ubiquitously raving reviews, with 9s and 10s littering the field.

I haven't played Halo 3, and I probably won't play it until it comes out on the PC three years from now. But I read the reviews and I have yet to read one that I thought really justified the high (often perfect) scores the game is receiving. A 10/10 is, to me, a game that is truly a landmark in game design. It breaks boundaries, drives the medium forward, and executes brilliantly across the board. A few years back I gave The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay a 10. It was a beautiful and brilliant game that melded numerous genres into a fluid, exciting, and wholly unique experience. From what I can see, no one is claiming that Halo 3 does anything like that. The consensus seems to be that the gameplay is mainly just a minor refinement of Halo 2; that there are some level design issues later in the game; and that the experience lacks the "newness" of Halo. 1UP.com even went so far as to say, "...in Halo 3, the big 'oh wow!' gameplay moments just aren't there"—but they gave the game a 10/10 anyway. Now, having not played Halo 3, I can't say personally whether it's as great as it's being made out to be—I'm only saying that the press has, in my view, done a poor job of substantiating their ratings.

All this leads me to wonder some things about the gaming press. Most commercial sites are hands-on participants in the pre-release hype. Developers give them exclusive stories; they write detailed, often spoiler-filled previews that draw lots of readers and fuels the hype; developers often invite them in-house for multiple demonstrations and hands-on sessions with early builds of the game. I find it hard to believe that these kinds of sneak-peeks do not entice and excite the people in the gaming press and cause them to fuel the hype among eager gamers. And I find it even more difficult to believe that these kinds of teasers, along with the self-perpetuating hype, do not eventually sway the biases of the writers when the game hits.

Well, I did not get hands-on time with Bioshock at E3, or visit Bungie's studios to get a sneak peek at an early build of Halo 3. The gamers' reaction to the former was most telling—while most seemed to enjoy it, it seemed that few viewed it as the masterstroke of game design that the press portrayed it to be. I suspect that the reaction to Halo 3 will be similar; I somehow doubt that gamers—at least experienced ones—will be quite as awed as the press.

What concerns me most about the hype slant, though, is that better, more creative games are often overlooked. My favorite game this year has been S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. While certainly not a "perfect" game, it was a brilliant and gripping game that broke new ground in a number of important ways (I'm very much looking forward to the upcoming prequel, which looks to expand on some of the key innovations in the game). I remember Riddick, which was released with little pre-release hype, being largely underrated by the press but being highly praised by gamers everywhere.  I'm also looking forward to Crysis, which I'm sure will get terrific reviews and be subject to a hype slant itself. But it's clear to me from the previews that the developers are really pushing technology and interactivity in some really groundbreaking ways, so when a game is released that is "merely" a refinement of well-played ideas, it seems to be a bit of a disservice to developers who are really pushing boundaries.