If you’ve ever read a weekly box office report, chances are you’ve scratched your head in wonderment at moviegoers’ more than occasional tendencies to forego Oscar nominees and well-written, thought-provoking flicks in favor of universally panned dreck like “Norbit.”
The video game industry, however, has the opposite problem. It’s suffering from what I like to call “the tyranny of Metacritic,” in which the best-reviewed games drastically outsell second- and third-tier games.
Like Rotten Tomatoes for movies, CBS-owned Metacritic aggregates dozens of reviews and assigns each title an average score. Metacritic lists movies, music, TV and DVDs as well as video games, but its video game review scores, in particular, have the potential to make or break a game. With millions of dollars potentially at stake, it comes as little surprise that video game publishers are tying developers’ performance bonuses to Metacritic scores, or hiring top game journalists to serve as consultants on how to goose the final review scores of in-development games.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with publishers’ wanting to produce titles packed with features that their customers want. And there’s considerable evidence that gamers want quality. After all, a game with a Metacritic score of 90 or above usually outsells a game with a score of, say, 83.
The problem, though, is that there are plenty of great, innovative games with scores in the upper 70s and 80s that simply fly under the radar because so many gamers use the aggregated scores to inform their purchasing decisions. And it’s hard not to envision a future in which game publishers feel they’ve nailed a hit-game formula, and innovation dries up in favor of making sure every new title hits the same dozen predetermined bullet points.
I arrived at this column after seeing “Brütal Legend,” a game I’m digging because of its one-of-a-kind setting, elaborate mythology and first-rate voice acting, get beaten up by commenters in video game forums because it only has a Metacritic score in the mid-80s, which in some people’s minds constitutes a “bad review.” Reading the reviews connected to the metascore, a lot of critics sound the same note, that “Brütal Legend’s” gameplay doesn’t live up to the standard set by the excellent writing and that some of the side missions feel repetitive.
It’s a fair criticism, but these same complaints could be leveled at some of Metacritic’s highest scoring games. For example, the “Grand Theft Auto” series traditionally garners excellent reviews for its biting satire and elaborate open world. Yet the series’ vehicle controls have always felt dodgy, and “GTA IV’s” mediocre shooting mechanic made some of its missions an exercise in tedium. “Mass Effect,” meanwhile, had gamers endlessly driving their moon buggy over virtually indistinguishable barren worlds in search of crashed satellites and mineral deposits. Yet these faults didn’t prevent either game from landing in Metacritic’s top 20.
With video games costing between $40 and $60, and taking dozens of hours to complete, it’s hard to fault gamers with busy lives who only want to play the highest-rated titles. But in doing so, they’re missing out on some of the most innovative, interesting games.
Here are a few suggestions for getting the most of Metacritic:
Consider lowering your cutoff: Metacritic gives gold stars to any game with an aggregate score of 90 or higher, but most games with an average of 75 or higher are still considered good by the site’s metrics. Consider buying anything rated green, or even games at the upper range of yellow if they’re in a genre that appeals to you.
Go beyond the mean: Because Metacritic uses average scores, rather than a median, it only takes one bad review to drag a game’s average down three or four points. If there’s a game you might be interested in, scroll down to see who the game’s harshest critic was, then read that review. Oftentimes, negative reviews will be written by obscure sites and critics with peculiar axes to grind, such as taking points off a single-player game’s score because it didn’t include online multiplayer.
Buy older games: Now that we’re three or four years into this console generation, there are dozens if not hundreds of overlooked games with metascores in the 80s. Because many of them didn’t sell well at their original price point, their prices often drop more quickly than those of the highest-rated titles. These second bananas can often be had for as little as $15 or $20 new.