Gamer Limit Banner

This is not a piece about Starcraft II reviews. I want to make that very clear; but I do take issue with calling the authors of these reviews “critics,” and Starcraft II is merely the latest title to bring this inappropriate verbiage to light.

To wit, the headline of the GameSpy article was “Critics Praise it, But a Number of Players Have Some Big Complaints About StarCraft II.” The video game media uses the words “critic” and “reviewer” interchangeably, as though they are synonymous. Most of the current reviews of Starcraft II have absolutely nothing to do with criticism.

Critics are concerned with evaluation based on a formal set of criteria, what we call “critical language.”  The best, formal criticism seeks to have some modicum of objectivity by basing its content in the acknowledged critical language of whatever art form or field of study that it’s talking about. When a film critic does their job, they will refer back to film theory and established technique and the body of critical language that’s been developed for decades.

This is not to say that critics are entirely unbiased. I had a professor in school who was the acknowledged expert on the film maker John Cassavetes, and said professor was as much a fanboy as any participant of console flame wars – but he was able to defend his fandom using legitimate film and cultural theory. In this, praising Starcraft II isn’t unreasonable from a critical perspective, as long as the critic maintains credibility by also seriously acknowledging where the game might have honest weaknesses from a critical perspective.

Reviewers, on the other hand, tell a story of how they felt when they experienced something. “I liked this movie because,” or “I hated this movie because.” As Jim Sterling recently opined, there’s no such thing as an objective review. It’s all based upon personal bias…and it’s ultimately what makes a review pretty worthless to anyone other than the reader who already agrees with the sensibilities of the reviewer.

Criticism of video games is tough because we have no formal, critical language to conduct that discourse with. If you ever wonder why so much of the writing about video games is of such poor quality, you can lay a lot of that on this doorstep. We can apply some concepts from film criticism now that story is taking such a huge role in video games. If Mass Effect 2 didn’t make us feel a sense of connection with our crew members, we as players wouldn’t give a damn whether any of those crew members died or not during the suicide mission, and all of those tense moments at the end of the game would have been lost. We can discuss, from a critical perspective, the narrative techniques Mass Effect 2 used to make us connect with those characters.

We could probably cobble together a critical language of video games if we needed to. I hold that said language already exists through the collective experience of the O.G.s (original gamers) who have been at this since the Golden Age of the Arcade, the Amiga and Commodore 64, and the Atari 2600. The elder members of the gaming culture have been playing video games long enough such that, if they sit down and think about it, they can figure out what makes a good game or not, and judge other games by that jury-rigged theory. When it comes to looking at video games within a specific genre, a critical analysis becomes even more tenable – and if we look at Starcraft II in a critical manner, it’s not going to present the same picture that a review would.

The Starcraft II single-player campaign is very interesting. The attention to detail and graphics are top-notch, and the storytelling and RPG elements are appreciated additions. I’m logging my time spent with the campaign to validate just how much gaming I wring out of the title, and I’m already secure in my feeling that I’m going to get as much or more from the single player game as I do from most campaigns for console releases. The $60 price tag no longer bothers me.

The multiplayer game, however, seems devoid of any innovation short of what a third expansion to the original Starcraft would have brought, i.e. new units. I don’t follow the competitive South Korean leagues, but I’ve watched short documentaries, and Starcraft seems made into a completely different animal by the Koreans. Perhaps they utilize some real tactical acumen when it comes to the actual use of their armies, but what I experienced of online Starcraft play was that micro-intensive gameplay and rushing won the day.

Real Time Strategy games have evolved greatly in the 12 years since Starcraft and Brood War. In Company of Heroes, control of territory determines the resources one has to build and improve troops. Cover and positioning are immensely important. The real work is in the movement of one’s forces and their tactical positioning. This is real time strategy that concerns itself with combat, not base management. Dawn of War II has done away with resource management almost entirely. Strategic points are needed to call down reinforcements, and to gain logistical advantages like turret deployments, but if the game has micromanagement it is tactical in nature. Use of cover and unit interdependency are the name of the game.

In both of these titles, we see an evolution towards a grand strategy that increasingly focuses upon the actual use of military forces. RTS gameplay has moved from logistics and resource production and morphed more into a true tactical exercise. The new RTS title R.U.S.E. seems to continue the movement in this direction, taking things a step further in adding new levels of strategic subtlety based on potential threat of force rather than actual confrontation.

Along comes Starcraft II…and the gameplay hasn’t changed one meaningful whit from its predecessor. It is still micro-intensive gameplay where rushing wins the day. It no longer quite fits in with the other titles we dub “Real Time Strategy games.”  If we were talking about first person shooter titles, Company of Heroes and Dawn of War II would be normal, and Starcraft II would be “on rails.” From the videogamer.com review: “Multiplayer is a fast affair, epitomising the virtues of the rush and solid micromanagement.” A critical analysis of Starcraft II would not gloss over this. It would not call the game “thoroughly modern.”

To a point, Blizzard has dug themselves into the same hole that the Halo franchise has dug itself into. Halo represents a distinctly old style of first person shooter gameplay. It has fallen behind the times, and if the Beta is any indication, Halo:Reach is only making grudging steps forward into the modern FPS world. Halo is too popular a franchise to change, and so all the Halo titles blend together in terms of their gameplay. Starcraft is also too popular to change, and while the sequel may sell 10 million copies, it’s still a dinosaur, and any critical analysis must acknowledge this.

To be fair, Blizzard was in a lose/lose proposition. If they had taken some risks and shown some innovation which carried over into the multiplayer, the game would no longer have been Starcraft II in the eyes of devotees, but some other game entirely. Because they did not take any risks the game is effectively Starcraft 1.5 as soon as the campaign is over.

I have no problem with the reviews of Starcraft II other than those which are awarding perfect scores. Even if a review and a critical analysis are separate entities, I feel a reviewer should exercise some modicum of perspective and historical foresight in declaring what constitutes a “perfect” score. In some ways, this just shows the weakness of a 5-point scale, in that it’s much easier to hand out a 5/5 rather than a 10 or a 100. My problem is when we call these reviews “criticism” by labeling the authors “critics.”

The ultimate purpose of a review is not to make us think about game design, but rather to inspire or dissuade our purchase of the product being reviewed. That’s the reality of mainstream video game writing, and I call no foul on account of economic necessity…but I long for the day when video games have grown up enough where we DO have proper critics who can start calling spades, spades. Then I can read the reviews to decide whether I want to look into buying the game or not, and then slide over to the criticism to read the interesting stuff. :)

  1. Great read Dennis, very well said.

  2. I have no problem with people giving Starcraft 2 a 5/5. As you stated earlier, a review is pretty much an opinion piece, so if all someone wanted was an upgrade to competitive Starcraft and a new campaign, then there it is.

    The problem is that everyone shares this opinion. Any sort of criticism is honest, yet biased. This is especially true when talking about things like game, films, or literature, where the primary goal isn’t to serve a practical function, but to deliver an emotional response (even if the response is just ‘fun’). The critics of today obviously have a bias (good), yet review games as if they have no bias (BAD), which leads to a lot of reviews looking like they were written by some sort of hive mind collective.

    That, basically, is what needs to stop. For all the hate that sensational critics like Jim Sterling or Yahtzee can garner, I respect that they at least say how they feel. That’s all you can really hope to do in a review, imo. Not every game review can be done this way, but damn near all of them can.

  3. Critical theory tries to correct for bias most of the time. It’s a soft science. I want to make sure we’re not confusing the criticism this piece is about with the “criticism” that anyone can throw at something. Real critique requires knowledge of the critical theory.

    The other point of my piece is that we don’t really -have- any “critics of today.” We have reviewers. The closest people we have to video game critics are probably N’Gai Croal and Yahtzee. I wouldn’t call Jim Sterling a critic, I’d call him an entertainer…but I think Yahtzee has some critical chops on him, probably because he covets a position as a game designer and so is thinking about games from technical and design perspectives all the time. Yahtzee actually self-identifies as a critic, and doesn’t want to be called a reviewer. I respect him for that. :) Croal is just a veteran of writing about and looking at games – he’s a great example of someone who holds the critical language in his head, but just hasn’t set it forth in some kind of magnum opus. Perhaps if we ask him nicely…

    • avatar Rob

      I remember gnviig up role playing games for writing. I realized that if I wanted to be a writer, the time I was spending role playing had to go. RPG’s and the like were good, at first, because it helped me see that I like the world and character creation, but after a time I felt it couldn’t fill a special hunger inside that I had for writing. I could create character after character yet it just wouldn’t satisfy.I took my role playing books and sold or gave them all away. I still remember how reluctant I was to do it and yet how much I felt I needed to. Some of my friends asked why I did it. I don’t remember what I told them. It was the right choice I think.I’ve avoided many a video games I’ve been very very interested in through the years for that very reason. Every time I walk down a video, game, or hobby aisle in a store the question always goes through my mind will this take away from writing? Often the answer is yes.I remember finding time to write during lunch breaks at work for 30 minutes every day when I worked at Kneaders. I finished writing my first novel in a few months that way and I think I started one or two others.When I worked in a call center I had a piece of paper on my desk and I would jot down ideas or even write stories in-between lags in calls. I did a couple short stories that way.For the first sixth months of my marriage my wife and I worked temp jobs. We made enough to make it by, but it gave me a lot of time to write, sometimes two or three days. It was great. Not great on the budget, but eh . . . we were younger then and our needs were less.When i lived in Florida, I would take my video camera, put it on the dashboard and narrate stories just to write something as my 2 hr commute every day would leave me too drained to write by the end of the day. I think I wrote two novels with a smattering of 6 or so short stories–I still have yet to transcribe some of them though Sacrifice, there’s no substitute for it. Go figure.

    • avatar Kaylie

      What a joy to find such clear thingink. Thanks for posting!

  4. avatar Jaap

    Hey Dennis, good article.

  5. This is one of the few gaming articles I was able to discuss with my 50-year-old-mother and not fight about it. We actually pulled out a dictionary (a paper version, for the record) and compared the definitions of “critique” and “review” as stated. Unfortunately, they turned out to be synonyms.

    I’m more or less in agreement that when dealing with any medium that isn’t completely technical, there’s going to be some bias one way or another. I suppose you could call a critique more technical than a review, though that’s coming from an engineer and should probably be discounted.

    The important thing in my minor opinion is that even if someone goes the opposite route and decides to review games rather than critique them, he or she still has to do so against a background. As you said, a review is effectively a purchasing suggestion, and there’s responsibility that comes with that. It’s why, despite all the crap I’m going to be giving Shawn for the indeterminate future, I’m respecting him for giving a reasonable opinion and not simply gushing over his new favorite game.

    Honestly, though, I don’t think I’m helping much here. After months of fighting over one particular games writer’s work (you all know who I’m referring to) I barely know what to think. Maybe we should just assume they’re synonyms, for all the good it’s doing us.

  6. If you remove the words from context, perhaps they are synonyms…but in this, specific context, they are not. Reviewing a film isn’t the same as conducting a critical analysis of a film, and the same applied to video games. Well, it could, if we had more critics…

    I’m only familiar with the concepts of critique and critical theory from having a film degree, and being married to a cultural studies theorist/feminist author and activist who lives and breathes critical theory. ;)

  7. avatar Jim Bean

    “Criticism of video games is tough because we have no formal, critical language to conduct that discourse with.”

    I’m having trouble with this statement. I understand that you are trying to give more meaning to the word “critic,” but someone can be a critic without having technical knowledge. I think a better term would be analyst. I feels like you are arguing more about the semantics than anything else.

    “Then I can read the reviews to decide whether I want to look into buying the game or not, and then slide over to the criticism to read the interesting stuff.”

    You can already do this! Read the reviews at Gamer Limit, and then head over to http://www.gamasutra.com to read about theories and concepts that go into the creation of games.

    The crux of my argument is that I will turn to reviewers and critics to determine if a game is worth buying, and analysts when I want to learn about what exactly makes a specific part bad or good.

  8. avatar Sandy

    What exactly do you mean, there’s no objectively critical language and all reviews are opinion? While it’s true that many reviews seem more to be the opinion of the writer, there are plenty of outlets that at least try (whether or not they succeed is a hazardous argument to make with fans) to weigh all games on an objective scale, such as 100 out of 100 or 5/5 or whatever.

    Plenty of review sites are eschewing a relatively arbitrary score, though, and going towards a more technical breakdown – such as IGN awarding subscores to things like sound design, innovation, gameplay, graphics etc. and then presenting you with an average score. Thus a game can have excellent, say, graphics and a great story, but be pulled down by dated gameplay mechanics and low replay value.

    I think it’s a little extreme to say that NO technical criticisms exist. Besides, have you taken a look at movie reviews lately? While there may be a more older and more “respectable” study in film critique, most movie reviews are just as opinionated and break down the actual components of a film just as little. There are very few movie critic outlets that actually discuss movies in terms of film theory, and those that do tend to only review oscar-bait anyway.

  9. avatar John

    I bought APB after seieng the customization videos on youtube, and after playing a good 10 minutes i realized it was definitely NOT worth my 50$! Everything in the entire game is locked, you can’t even chose your players wardrobe, unless you spend your RTW points to buy them stuff. It has so much potential, it’s just a shame you can’t do anything.

Leave a Reply