There’s an anecdote I want to share, which happened years ago at an event I won’t specify, involving people I can’t identify, relayed to me by a third party who overheard it happening.
It was at a gaming event for a big upcoming release, and several critics were stood around a table, discussing reviews they were writing of a certain game. This in and of itself isn’t so unusual, but one of them stated plainly their motivation for the discussion – before deciding on a score, they wanted to get a sense of what the Metacritic average would be, so that they didn’t stray too far from it.
I would have been fascinated to hear the conversations at this year’s Call of Duty: Ghosts review event. Last year, at the Black Ops II event, I found myself pulling people aside and asking ‘so hey, this campaign is absurdly bad, right? I can’t be the only one who feels this way?’
The much lower review scores [for Call of Duty: Ghosts] can be seen, I think, as a potential indicator that game critics are more inclined to actually engage in critical thought that ever before.
I encountered some hemming and hawing over this, but also saw relief in other’s eyes. Black Ops II’s campaign eventually progresses beyond its early awfulness – it went from being sub-Homefront to being about on par with a Modern Warfare game on autopilot by the end, and it made some lovely attempts to mix things up. Strikeforce was a good idea implemented terribly, and the branching narrative actually worked, even if the story itself was ludicrously awful.
I had a moment on that trip that has shaped my approach to reviewing. I was two days into playing the game, and had been enjoying the multiplayer a great deal. A small part of me knew that this had something to do with the fact that I was playing with other journalists and friends, and that I was having a really wonderful week, but I told myself repeatedly ‘the great treatment you’re receiving isn’t influencing you. Don’t worry’.
On the third morning, I woke up at 4am, panicking. ‘Of course you’re damn well being influenced’, my brain screamed at me. ‘These are not normal play conditions! Nobody else will get to play this game in such utter luxury!’
I sat up then, and I closed my eyes, and I transposed everything I had experienced into a different environment. In my head, I did everything I could to divorce my play experience from my review trip experience. I’m proud of the review I produced from that trip – it was a strong 7/10, because I really think the multiplayer design had a whole lot going for it – but it was the same 7/10 review I would have written if I had played the game at home, I’m sure.
Let me say – media trips are a great idea. From a freelancer’s perspective, there is no greater honour than being invited on one, they allow for earlier coverage (which benefits everyone), and while the perks may seem ludicrous, hey, it happens in every damn industry you could name. There are perks to every job, and an occasional nice trip fits that bill nicely (not that every trip is quite so luxurious).
But for a long time readers have been sceptical about reviews, previews and features written on the backs of these trips, and I think that’s fair enough. No publisher is ever going to offer a bribe, but they do take care of the press, and it’s not unreasonable to think that maybe, just maybe, critics aren’t doing enough to divorce themselves from their surroundings on these trips.
The reviews on Call of Duty: Ghosts are a relief, not just because critics are starting to recognise more of the complaints the community has had for such a long time, but because they are proof of a turning tide, a suggestion that critics are increasingly aware of the need to divorce their privilege from their judgement of these games.
This has been happening for a while now – hands-on previews have definitely grown increasingly nuanced, and interviews have started to shift towards harder questions – but the Call of Duty review event has historically been so gloriously excessive that the much lower review scores can be seen, I think, as a potential indicator that game critics are more inclined to actually engage in critical thought that ever before.