A User’s Guide to Media Reviews

Editor’s Note: This is a companion piece to my previous article, “An Objective Review of Dragon’s Crown”  Read it here.

Lately I’ve seen a lot of people who seem to be confused about the purpose of reviews. Specifically video game reviews, but you can apply them to movie reviews, book reviews, really anything involving art. Mostly this confusion stems from the perception that reviews must be “objective”.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Andrew, you sly, sexy thing, reviewers should be unbiased in their work!”

This is wrong. Reporters should be unbiased in their work. Reviewers entire job is bias. There are acceptable and unacceptable biases for reviewers, though. A good reviewer will not allow their review to be unduly affected by any previous perceptions they have about the work, positive or negative. That includes, for example, their personal opinion of the creator, or the system the game is released for. A good review is based entirely on the reviewer’s opinions and observations of the work that they accumulated during their experience with the finished art.

Reviews are objective by nature. This isn’t a problem, this is in fact why they are a useful tool. If you have determined whether or not you like something, or are going to buy something before reading any reviews of it, congratulations, you do not need to read the review. That’s not to say you shouldn’t, I read reviews of things I like, dislike, or have no intention of buying regardless of the quality all the time. It is a form of entertainment, and it can enrich your experience by providing a different perspective from which to appreciate art. A good review of good art will enhance your appreciation of that art.

What you shouldn’t do is use reviews to try and confirm your own biases. We’ve all done it and there’s nothing inherently wrong with this practice either. Who doesn’t love reading an awful movie being eviscerated or a horrible game being pilloried by such masters of the negative review as Jim Sterling and Yahtzee Croshaw? This isn’t what reviews are there for, though. Its a bonus, a treat, and can serve as a validation of your own good taste.

Where people get hung up though is that disagreeing with a reviewer doesn’t make either of you wrong. It just means you disagree. That’s why it is important not to just look at Metacritic aggregates, but to seek out individual reviewers, individual voices who you agree with. Not on score, mind you, but on observation. Different people appreciate different things for different reasons. One reviewer may appreciate a certain kind of game more or less, or a certain style greatly. Find reviewers who appreciate the same things that you do, and if you are unsure as to whether you should or shouldn’t check something out, seek out their opinions.

“But what if the reviewers I usually agree with disagree with me, MSK?”

Well Strawman, it still just means you disagree. Maybe you should think about what you disagree on. If someone who thinks a lot like you do dislikes something that you don’t, odds are you’ll be able to understand their point quite easily. This can improve your enjoyment! Understanding not only that you enjoy something but why you enjoy something is itself enjoyable. Being able to love art not just despite but because of its imperfections is great.

This is why the late lamented Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were so highly valued, not just for their own skills at reviewing movies, but for their wildly different preferences. “Two Thumbs Up” really meant something, because it meant that two colleagues who think differently enjoy the same thing. It was a double positive review, if two people who disagree vehemently on a regular basis like the same movie, odds are it is a really good movie.

All this is not to say there isn’t such a thing as a Bad Review, however. This comes down again to bias, in the case of video games it also involves skill. If someone has made up their mind about something before they have seen it or played it, they have no business reviewing it, and thankfully you can usually tell, because the people who do this are not professionals, but rabid lunatics zero-bombing things on websites that allow for user reviews pre-release. Likewise, if someone just plain isn’t good at a particular game genre, they never play them personally, what have you, they have no business reviewing those games.

Sports games are the most common example, here. For me, its certain 2D fighting games. I am BAD at them. All-Caps BAD. I can’t beat more than three or four levels in Street Fighter IV on the easiest difficulty. That bad. When I see dozens of positive reviews of Street Fighter IV, though, I don’t get upset at the reviewer, though, of course not. I know its not for me, and I can still appreciate their observations with no intent of acting on them.

Which brings me to the current debate going on in the commentariat over at Polygon over their Dragon’s Crown review. A lot of people are going to really enjoy this game and would likely give it a score above 6.5 themselves. That is fine, but it doesn’t mean the author is weighing down the score with her own personal baggage. Some people do not like hypersexualized women and male power fantasies in their games. That detracts from their enjoyment.

“But MSK, if they don’t like sexy babes in their games, they shouldn’t review games with sexy babes in them! That’s your logic!”

No its not, Strawman. That’s a perversion of my logic. Dragon’s Crown is a beat-em-up, a brawler, with a heavy emphasis on its art style as a primary selling point. Naturally, critique of the art style is not only fair game in a review, but a necessity in a review. We’re not talking about someone who just hates brawlers, here, and besides, Strawman, and since I created you, we both know that isn’t your actual problem with the review.

This is the nature of criticism, people will always disagree. I have never had a problem with a little cheesecake here and there, but to me, Dragon’s Crown seems to be rather obnoxious with the way it presents its particular flavor. That’s my opinion. Is yours different? That’s fine with me.

And it should be fine with you, too.

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An Objective Review of Dragon’s Crown

I’ve been seeing a lot of controversy regarding the new Atlus/Vanillaware game, Dragon’s Crown.  Specifically, many people are unhappy with the review posted by notable gaming website Polygon which can be found here.  Personally, I found the review to be well-considered and fair, and it has not diminished my interest in the game.

However, we here at The Chaos Fold always seek to please you, dear reader.  So to make up for the perceived “bias” and lack of “objectivity” I have crafted the following, a completely objective review of Dragon’s Crown.

*ahem*

Dragon’s Crown is a piece of interactive software designed for the purposes of recreation and entertainment. It is available in two formats, one for the Sony PlayStation 3, and one for the Sony PlayStation Vita. It has been released in the Gregorian calendar year of 2013 AD/CE. Each version has slightly different controls, and while the PlayStation 3 version has higher resolution graphics and higher quality sound reproduction, the PlayStation Vita version can be played in a wide variety of locations and does not require the ownership of a “Television Set” peripheral.

Dragon’s Crown features combat between belligerents of varying shapes. These shapes are generally inspired by various western fantasy archetypes, and have a wide array of colors in them. Some of these archetypes are humanoid. Others are non-humanoid.

There are also animations, and visual effects generated by these characters. Sometimes this animation takes place during combat. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes this animation is triggered by player input, other times it is triggered by unseen scripting.

The game contains audio, some of which is represented in the form of sound effects, and some of which is musical in nature. There is also a good deal of text, which can be informative of gameplay systems or mechanics, or related to the game’s storyline.

The game has a storyline, with a beginning, middle, and end.

There is multiplayer, solo play, and solo play with AI-controlled allies. Allies, both AI-controlled and human-controlled attempt to be helpful. On occasion, they do not succeed.

The storyline is progressed by initiating combat with multiple enemies through a variety of environments, and succeeding in this task. There are various missions through which you can advance the primary storyline, and various other tangential missions that do not directly advance the primary storyline. Successfully completing missions will provide the player with rewards. Many missions culminate with combat against an enemy significantly larger and/or more powerful than previous enemies.

Players will use inputs on controllers to affect change within the game world.

Upon completion of the game, the game can be replayed.

Editorial note: The Chaos Fold’s review of Dragon’s Crown is based entirely on facts that literally anyone can acquire with or without playing the game.  No code was provided by Atlus or Vanillaware for this review and I am not being paid by anyone for this, or indeed for anything else.  If you require more detailed analyisis and critique of this game, we at The Chaos Fold urge you to seek out a professional video game reviewer whose opinions have historically aligned well with your own.  Note that any review obtained in this manner will not be objective, as media criticism is an inherently (and entirely) subjective.  Please see the companion piece, A User’s Guide to Media Reviews.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a Quasi-Review

Note: some spoilitos for all three Deus Ex games lie within.  You have been warned.

When Deus Ex was released I was thirteen years old.  Now, maybe that’s not an appropriate age to play Deus Ex, some may think.  I don’t know many early-teens who could appreciate the freedom and breadth of storytelling that game provided.  It was the first game to ever truly blow me away.  It was the game I couldn’t shut up about.  Long before the cake was ever a lie, I was spouting “I wanted orange!  It gave me Lemon-Lime!” at my console gamer friends, to their utter bewilderment.

Deus Ex hit with the force of a revelation, seemingly from nowhere.  It has parallels to System Shock and Thief, understandably, but the storyline, steeped in conspiratorial lore and existential questions about the true nature of humanity.  There’s an old internet saying that every time someone mentions Deus Ex in a forum thread, someone will reinstall it and play through again.  I’ve lost count of how many times I gazed through the nano-augmented eyes of J.C. Denton, cutting through the labyrinthine schemes of the Majestic 12, the Illuminati, FEMA, even sentient computers with their own conflicting goals.  I have never played the game the same way twice, and I doubt I ever could.

When I first heard that a newly-formed studio, Eidos Montreal was to take the reins and make a sequel to a game that borders on the sacrosanct in the pantheon of development, I scoffed.  We all remember what happened when Warren Spector left the team and Invisible War was rushed out the door, the first installment in a hallowed PC franchise to truly, with no disrespect to my console-playing brethren, be “dumbed down for the console ‘tards”.  I knew they’d fuck it up, it would be akin to the Jonas Brothers trying to write a literal sequel to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Invisible War’s endings were all so dystopian and bleak that you not only wondered why the hell you played this mediocre sequel but why you didn’t take your character and go dancing in a minefield, instead of screwing the world up.

Against all odds, however, Deus Ex: Human Revolution manages to not only prove worthy of the name, but even takes steps toward redeeming Invisible War’s many faults.

For those who don’t know, DX:HR places you in the surprisingly stylish floral-print trenchcoat of Adam Jensen, a gravelly-voiced ex-SWAT leader now working corporate security for Sarif Industries, a leader in the science of biomechanical human augmentation.  In the years leading up to the game’s events in 2027 the world has seen some changes, perhaps none more significant than the semi-renaissance brought about by the radical advancement in prosthetic design, for the first time allowing people to replace their natural body parts with improved biomechanical versions.  The transhuman has arrived, and not everyone is thrilled at this.

The fundamental moral question that Human Revolution asks of Jensen, and of the player, is “What defines human to you?”  After nearly being killed at the hands of radically-augmented supersoldiers, Jensen himself is brought back from the brink of death with all the hardware that the bleeding edge of technology at Sarif Industries can muster.  Like previous Deus Ex protagonists J.C. Denton and Alex Denton, you didn’t have a choice in becoming more than human.  Unlike them, Adam was born a regular man.

The gameplay has been criticized by some for lacking the total immersion of the original, though realistically, the alterations to the formula that people complain most often about are simply the result of progress in the art of design.  A third-person cover system allows the stealthy player to remain more aware of their surroundings.  Takedown animations are just bloody cool, as are the deployments of the Typhoon and the Icarus Landing System.  The visual style of the latter two jaunts into the third person are especially evocative of The Matrix, slowing to bullet-time so you can see the augments fire in all their splendor, and who can blame them?  I defy you to drop from a ledge into a pack of enemies, your Icarus suite slowing your descent and violently throwing your enemies backward, seeing them stumble to their feet just in time for Jensen to drop down and fire an explosive hellstorm from his back, only for the camera to pull back in so you can view the results of your devastating assault and not feel like a transhuman badass that would shame the trenchcoatiest of the other trenchcoated cyberpunk badasses in the world.

My criticism goes straight to where all the true criticism goes.  The boss fights.  I don’t mind having to kill, even in a game where you could potentially play without killing a single person other than a boss.  I know that sometimes a situation arises in which it truly is kill or be killed.  The problem arises in how these fights are executed.  Every single boss fight takes place in, and stop me if this sounds at all familiar, a square or circular arena with various pickups strewn around for your convenience, some  chest-high walls and other sporadic cover elements, against an antagonist you know next to nothing about.

It is the last part of this that really gets to me, because Deus Ex had boss fights of its own, as did Invisible War.  Sure, in Deus Ex you could run away, or win without firing a shot, simply by uttering the phrase “Laputan Machine”.  Those are things I miss and I’ll get to the technical faults with the boss fights next, but the biggest problem is that you are not fighting characters.  Gunther Hermann was a character, over-augmented and spiteful over the obsolescence that the nano-augments like Denton promise to bring.  He’s human.  He likes orange soda and thinks the maintenance guy has it in for him because he keeps getting lemon lime.  If you dig around enough you even find out that he’s right.  He genuinely cares for his partner, Anna Navarre, and he doesn’t attack you for betraying his organization, he attacks you for killing his partner.  He’s enraged, he’s tired, he’s a bad speller and goddamnit he wants a skull gun!

Likewise, Anna Navarre is a ruthless agent who genuinely believes that the ends justify the means, and that what she is doing is right, despite being horrifying.  She’ll applaud you for efficiency and lethality in the field, and lament your incompetence if you take your time and resort to non-lethal tactics.  She’s in your face and when the time comes to fight her or not to fight her, you have to make some pretty tough choices.  Walton Simons is a snake-like manipulating bastard from the very opening cutscene, as the game progresses you hate the guy more and more.  Bob Page is most complex of all, the prodigal mastermind whose humanity has all but entirely slipped away.  These are people, people who you feel something for.  Lets take a look at the bosses of Human Revolution.

First comes Final Fantasy VII reference, I mean Barrett.  Guess what his main weapon is.  This gun-armed good ol’ boy waits for you to walk into the Arena and have a good old fashioned fight to the death, with guns and grenades aplenty.  He is also the only boss in the game it is possible to beat without attacking directly, as you can, with patience, circle-strafe around his constant grenade throwing and let him kill himself with the splash damage.  We know nothing about him as a person, we have no reason to care who he is or what he knows other than the fact that he was part of the attack on Sarif HQ.

Yelena Federova, or as I should say, Mohawk Girl because the only reason I know the character’s name is I looked it up on the damn Deus Ex Wiki, is the second boss.  This is a woman you’ve seen kill innocents, and yeah, she probably has this coming.  Does she get any dialogue?  None that I can remember.  Her death is like the turning of a key that allows an altogether different character to provide you with assistance.  This is the only reason you fight her.

Namir, Creepy Muscle Guy, is the third and penultimate boss fight.  His character design may as well have been taken from BODIES – The Exhibition, which I have no doubt is the one and only place where his designers looked for inspiration.  I can at least give a minimal amount of praise to the atmosphere of the arena in which you fight Namir, as it does mimic his art design and aesthetics, even if Adam does come off a bit thick for not noticing the one muscle-sculpture with Murder-Augs all over him is posing directly over his right shoulder while he has a nice chat with Token Evil Bitch.  Namir has some interesting dialogue that could potentially humanize him, and create more conflict in Adam’s life, but all of this is immediately forgotten as soon as you loot any gear you want and leave the room.

The final boss is the only one with whom we have had any genuine interaction with over the course of the game.  Sadly, however, it is a bit of a rehash of the ultimate showdown in Deus Ex 1.  There isn’t any particular reason for it to be and there are some more missed narrative opportunities with the (insert sinister machine project name here).

I’m only giving them so much shit because they were outsourced from the main developer and there game is built entirely around systems that would allow you to potentially avoid Always Fighting On Their Terms.  Jensen never once has the tactical advantage or fights in a place of his choosing.  The first boss in particular is said to be moving around the entire level while you are progressing.  A stealthy player might be able to find a hidden perch from which to snipe his escorts, and even him, from a distance.  A hacker could lock down doors to direct him to a different confrontation room, one where that same hacker might be able to turn some sentry turrets against the boss and win the fight while hiding behind a desk.  All the bosses in the game have similarly simple ways that they could be outwitted.

Thankfully the rest of the game is a spectacular showcase of art design, characterization, tension, and concludes in an ending that is more brilliant than most will ever give it credit for.  Deus Ex is one of the first games to really embrace the “Multiple Ending” design.  the first game had three, Invisible War and Human Revolution both have four.  They all have one thing in common, you, the protagonist have sole power over what the entire outcome of the scenario that has just unfolded will be.  And this is the brilliance, its been here since Deus Ex 1 but it took Human Revolution’s gorgeously simple method of choosing the outcome to truly make me see it.

Heavier spoilers after the jump.

Continue reading

REVIEW: Assassin’s Creed (Or how I learned what not to do when designing a game)

My thoughts on Assassin’s Creed are rather bleak. The whole affair, from the insultingly cynical marketing, to the hype campaign, to the shoddy execution is just depressing.

The game’s a Molyneux, to coin a term. Simply put, it so desperately tries to innovate that it forgets all those things that make games worthwhile, like writing, fighting, and fun. Sure, Molyneux is the alpha-pimp of gaming hype, and Assassin’s Creed was largely presented without hype from the developer, the frothing praise heaped upon it came instead from that vanguard of journalistic integrity the gaming enthusiast press.

The game’s #1 selling point, the free-running control scheme tries to do too many new things. Instead of focusing on improvement in one area, the team at Ubisoft Montreal has attempted a massive paradigm shift normally associated with waggle. The free-running is functional, but too passive for my tastes. Instead of coordinated button pressing, Altair does all the work for you. The effect is impressive, but I found myself experiencing an odd disconnect between my languid button holding and Altair’s acrobatics.

Likewise, the combat leaves me with a similar ill-feeling. The only way to be even marginally effective is to tap the counter button as soon as an enemy twitches in your general direction. Usually this results in an extravagant display of violence that would not be out of place in slasher films, or perhaps 300. Should you try to attack in any other way, the hordes of identical enemies will surely tear you to ribbons. The system gets more irritating when facing particularly large numbers of enemies, as then your blood-letting tends to degenerate into a disappointing punch, that does absolutely no damage, and tosses the enemy too far to be immediately finished by lesser methods. Then the aforementioned player-death begins as you feebly try to mop up.

The game’s mysterious story ends up as much ado about nothing. The premise, while intriguing, is terribly executed. The storyline ends up getting in the way of the game, especially towards the end, with the writers throwing the game out of its comfort zone (stealth, guile, and trickery) and into man-against-the-world combat, casting the martial shortcomings in even greater relief. The voice acting is stiff, and the dialog itself is weighted down by feeble attempts at philosophical metaphor and political intrigue.

The overall effect is an unholy mash up of the latter Matrix films’ philosophical pandering and the Star Wars’ prequels political didactics.

For all its flaws, and it is a game of flaws, make no mistake, Assassin’s Creed has some positive aspects and does show promise enough to warrant a look at the sequel. The graphics are beautiful, the expansive cities are a wonder to explore, and the concept shows promise enough that it can still be redeemed. As a slight aside, I also find the inclusion of a Muslim protagonist inherently refreshing in this current political climate. The press rightly should share the blame for its failure, as it had long been made out to be the savior of gaming, before the disappointing (read: realistic) showings at press events in the past year. Ultimately the game tries to do too much with too little, its failing not one of talent or judgment but of ambition.

For the sequel, Ubisoft, spare us the revolution. Prince of Persia was fine without one.

So Close to Classic

I picked up an album on recommendation from a good friend today, Cassadega by Bright Eyes. This album is phenomenal.

I don’t think before now I’ve heard an album emerge from my generation that comes so close to being a defining classic, a Blood on the Tracks or a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Connor Oberst dances from Dylan to Springsteen and on to a unique brilliance. There are misses, though.

The apocalyptic “Four Winds” sets the bar high, only to be demolished by the greatest song I’ve heard this year, “If The Brakeman Turns My Way”. Oberst’s voice sounds like that of Bob Dylan’s long lost son, with a piano line worthy of Billy Joel’s finest. The album stumbles, finds its way, and redeems itself many times over through the course of the next eleven tracks, just barely failing an ascension to the loftiest peaks of singer-songwriters past.

When the final song fades, I’m left with an indescribable tinge of sadness, that this album comes so close to that life-altering brilliance that one can taste it on the final notes.

Damn.

REVIEW: Folklore

The Playstation 3 hasn’t exactly enjoyed the world’s greatest library since its launch. A number of titles that fans were counting on to give them some much-needed value faltered, seemingly because of motion controls, time pressure, or both. Lair and Heavenly Sword arrived to much fanfare but little welcome, as they both were found to be overhyped and deeply-flawed games, moreso in the former than the latter.

In recent weeks, however, things seem to be picking up for the beleaguered Playstation stalwart. Folklore, Ratchet & Clank Future, and The Eye of Judgement have all landed on store shelves. Today, I take a look at Folklore, the fantasy action-RPG from Game Republic. Continue reading

REVIEW: Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction

As this is the first full review on The Chaos Fold, I’m going to take the time to explain my methodology.

I review games based on their play value. If I buy a game that is graphically amazing, but with lackluster controls, a piss-weak storyline, or flawed design principles, I’ll say “Skip it” or something along those lines. If I play a game and enjoy it thoroughly, and believe it is worth the price of admission, I’ll say to buy it or possibly rent it. No arbitrary numbers or star ratings.

And now, without further ado, on with the show. Continue reading