Thursday, March 06, 2008

Sins of a solo game reviewer

I need some advice. I'm reviewing Sins of a Solar Empire for the Phoenix. You may have heard of this game -- it combines elements of real-time strategy and turn-based strategy in an intergalactic setting, on what the box promises is an "unrivaled scale." It's been reviewed well elsewhere, with a Metacritic score of 89.

And I don't have the slightest idea how to review it.

I've argued before that an encylopedic knowledge of games is only part of the equation for good games criticism. But obviously a writer needs to have a solid foundation in the genre he's playing if it's to be an informed and balanced review. When I play an action-adventure game, I'm drawing on decades of experience with that style of play. I can zoom right up the learning curve, without getting hung up on the basics.

That's not the case with strategy games like Sins of a Solar Empire, whether we're talking about real-time or turn-based. I've never played a Civilization game or a Command and Conquer game. I've spent about five minutes each with Warcraft and Starcraft. I know so little about strategy games that I can't even think of any other ones off the top of my head. And I'm spending my time not on comparing Sins of a Solar Empire to other strategy games, but on learning how to play it.

I see from the Metacritic page that Sins was streamlined compared to its brethren, but you could have fooled me. The instruction manual is novella-length. For people steeped in the genre, it might feel like the most user-friendly interface ever designed. For me, it's like learning a foreign language. My biggest fear is writing a review that comes off as dumb and uninformed -- to write the RTS equivalent of a review of an action-adventure game that sounds baffled that you press the A button to make your character jump. And yet... I am uninformed.

So what do I do? It would be unfair to the game to review the genre by proxy in place of a detailed discussion of its unique characteristics. But it would also be unfair to the readers to pretend I'm an authority on strategy games, or even that I would have paid any attention to this game if I weren't getting paid to do so. I'm thinking it'll take some combination of a forthright admission that I'm not an expert with a focus on those things that I really do like about it, even if they may not be intrinsic to what most strategy fans are looking for.

But I'm not sure. How would you approach it?


Mike said...

First off, I think you've hit the nail on the head with being upfront and honest with readers. You would know it, and be annoyed by it, if a reviewer wasn't familiar with, say, rhythm or platformer games, right? I'd even go as far as to assume you've seen it done before.

Beyond that, though, I'd agree that once that's out of the way discussing what you do and don't like about it, perhaps drawing parallels to other games/types can be helpful. Fans of the type will know how many grains of salt to take with your various praises and gripes.

It also can't hurt to absorb other, more expert, reviews, and perhaps even run your column past the eyes of some strategy players you know. Tyler and I, for instance, have both logged hundreds of hours on Warcraft and Starcraft. While I haven't played Sins, I can probably tell you if a point you're making is rote or needless.

Mike said...

Oh -- for instance, I'd expect a novella-length manual for a strategy game in addition to a detailed wall chart of unit build dependencies and that kind of thing. Because it's such a structured gameplay style, there's only so much story they can give you with cutscenes.

Thus the book in the manual to explain the world, what's happened since the last game, etc, in addition to the vast number of options and choices you have to consider while playing.

Mitch Krpata said...

My concern with looking to other reviews for guidance is just that I'd be parroting what other people are saying, in which case why even review it at all.

You also make a good point that I should be consulting some more of the documentation that came with the game. I believe there's a huge chart with all the ships on it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting problem. I like what johnson said about being honest with your readers. I see no problem in reviewing the game from a non-strategy gamer's point of view. Indicate you are not a strategy gamer, and describe how accessible this game is to a non-strategy gamer. It should be no problem to point out that this game has been well received by other critics, but you can offer a different take on things by writing a review from your unique perspective. Your assessment can be based on how approchable this game is from your point of view, while still acknowledging that hard-core strategy gamers should rely on other reviews for more in-depth analysis.

Unknown said...

Why not use the review as way to pick apart things that are wrong with turn-based strategy games? If the game isn't fun, then it isn't fun. Doesn't matter if you've played a million RTS games or not. If they're not bothering to reach out to new players or integrate more interesting ways of learning the game, then the critiques are fair game. Do you think Ebert goes out and brushes up on urban dancing before he reviews Step 2 The Streets? Probably not. But what he does do is hold the movie up against all the other films he's seen, obviously taking the musical sub-genre of dancing pictures into consideration. Difference is you don't have to be an expert in dancing to enjoy a dancing picture, seems like you have to be pretty steeped in RTS conventions to enjoy Sins.

Mitch Krpata said...

Todd, that sounds like the way to go. It may be that the way to maintain my credibility is simply to admit that, on this matter, I don't pretend to have any.

Gus, I agree with you to an extent, but picking on this game for belonging to a particular genre seems like harshing on a rock band for having guitars and drums. There's nothing inherently bankrupt about strategy games; they're just not my cup of tea. But in the sense that this is allegedly a simplified RTS, and it's still crazy hard to learn, you have a good point.

Ed Borden said...

This is tough. I know right now I'm reviewing Frontlines : Fuel of War, which is an multiplayer online FPS, a genre that I am very familiar with. It's a good game, but not when held up to everything else I've played in the past. Someone new to the genre might like it, but that's just because they don't know any better.

I'd say just go for it. Now that everyone knows your pain, I'm sure no one will hold it against you, and it might just have some entertainment value if everyone knows you're an RTS noob :)

I'm curious to hear what you think of it even though I now know you don't what you're talking about !

Mitch Krpata said...

Ed, yeah, maybe throwing myself on the mercy of the readers is another way to go. Start with a little preemptive begging for forgiveness.

There's also another option, which I seem to be taking advantage of: spending a whole paragraph talking about how a great a name this game has.

Korey said...

Very interesting post. I've been thinking about this topic recently. I think you can take the concept even beyond reviewing games to just talking about games. I just started a blog recently and have realized that my perspective is quite limited. I don't have the time to play every game I want to, nor do I have every game system. Plus there are certain genres of games I like more than others, and some that I avoid almost entirely. So how can we talk about games that we have little experience with, don't like that genre, or want to play but are unable to? It seems like the best thing for me is likewise to just acknowledge my limitations and write what I can within a certain context.

SVGL said...

Yeah, I had to review an SRPG game and I haaaate that noise. But I ended up deciding that at the end of the day, I am only what I am, so I set out to write a review that might be useful to people who WEREN'T genre fans.

I did tell the readers I didn't enjoy that gameplay style, and did pretty much what Gus said -- went, "this isn't my area, but I'm giving it my best shot."

Conclusion was something along the lines of, "OK, if you like this genre, you might like this game, but if you don't, this game won't convert you." Let's be real -- strategy nerds can just go read another review, but I was more interested in being useful to the rest of the audience.

-- They fucking crucified me in the comments, BTW.

Mitch Krpata said...

Heh. Well, that's just what comments sections are for, right?