Solo vs Multiplayer – The trouble with reviews…

I am a critic as much as a fanatical analyst.

I’ve been playing videogames since I was about four years old, and now I’m in my thirties I’m painfully aware of how much things have changed over the years, and how much games have changed – including those I have a lot of love for, and more than that, I am aware that the public perception of games has changed a lot.

Back when I was playing games as a child, they were still seen as the reserve of the swot, the nerd, the geek. Despite games like Mortal Kombat, it was not until the mid-to-late 90’s when Sony began to target the more professional sort with money to spare and time on their hands that games even remotely hit the mainstream with any real force. Sega and Nintendo owe much of the current attitude towards them to this time – a time when games were reserved for children or just the boring, nerdy types.

But Nintendo did do one thing very well – multiplayer. And this made some of their games very hard to review, and still does to an extent. Mario Kart on the Super Nintendo had multiplayer, but it wasn’t the star of the show – it was an extra, and the tracks were built to be mastered over time. Mario Kart 64, on the completely opposite hand, was built on the foundation of multiplayer; the console itself could support four players simultaneously, and this coupled with the split-screen multiplayer modes meant that it became a party game; a game not designed particularly for solo play, although solo play wasn’t terrible.

It was this that caused the division in the traditionalists versus the modernists – the traditionalists argue that a game must, at all times, be able to be played on your own, solo, to kill time. The modernists argue that games are now social experiences – with the likes of Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and SoulCalibur demonstrating that some games have simply evolved away from solo play and are far better in that social surrounding.

This, equally, causes some headaches for the critics. Right now, Resident Evil Operation: Raccoon City is set to release on Friday, and the general feeling from most is that it’s a bit pants. The AI is wonky, the setpieces kind of forced – you can often catch glimpses of events waiting to happen, like they are paused in mid-riot, and the general feeling of multiplayer has rendered the Resident Evil series connection moot and pointless.

But there are others out there who have argued the exact opposite; and done so with some gusto. They argue that judging a game based on its single player AI – when it is so obviously designed to be played with and against human players – is kind of missing the point. Because whilst it is an option, it is hardly the star of the show, and not the option that most of the resources were dedicated to throughout development.

Now, without sitting down to play it I can’t yet really argue who is right and who is wrong, but I see the point in both camps; both are right, of course, in different ways. If you can’t play a game co-operatively over the internet because it hasn’t been properly released yet in your area, then of course the only means available when local co-op isn’t an option is to play it solo. This means that reviewers can only base their findings on the solo content, and not the multiplayer experience, which can of course lead to some pretty wonky scoring overall. After all, Call of Duty as a series doesn’t really instill the most exhilarating of single player experiences, despite the budget pumped into it – the existence of the Elite online service demonstrates that it is the multiplayer that has become the core focus of things.

But equally, online multiplayer can be a mixed bag – ask anyone who plays or has played an MMO in the past five years for evidence of this. It isn’t that multiplayer experiences are inherently bad, but inherently flawed because of the human condition involved. People are flawed. People are not perfect. This means that you can sometimes get fantastic groups and have fantastic matches with and against some stellar players, who make it fun and lively and interesting. Equally, you have the same chance of ending up in a group or match which simply is nothing more than people smacking their heads on their keyboards, the type that make a dead goldfish look like Carol Vorderman.

It’s because of this that I am not yet sure what to make of Operation: Raccoon City. On the one hand, I have Resident Evil: Revelations – which has a pretty decent online “Raid Mode”. But it isn’t the focus – the game was built and indeed, designed for the single-player experience. The hard modes are tough but fair, designed to test but not overly infuriate. That makes it rare – and puts it aside Bayonetta in terms of games with a focus on a reasonable challenge vs reward mechanic. But if you were to judge it based solely on the online co-op, you’d of course come away thinking it was a bit of a wet fish. It just isn’t the star of the show. It’s not what the game was designed for.

As much as I lament Resident Evil 5, and poked holes into it (ruthlessly so), looking back I must concede that the whole design ethos of the game was to play co-operatively. Sheva’s single-player AI was hopeless, dense and quite annoying. When you got to playing co-op, the game suddenly changed and felt a lot less like you were relying on a wing and a prayer. Two decent players who invested some time into upgrading a magnum could be unstoppable even on the very toughest of stages. Working together, communicating with each other, keeping each other informed and having a good time. When you got into one of these good co-op partnerships, Resident Evil 5 made perfect sense.

But its reliance on it, without really insisting on the co-op, made the game seem disjointed and unfair at times. It was only in a good co-op grind that Resident Evil 5 became good. But because it wasn’t easy to find good co-op – if at all, as most still steadfastly played it solo for the most part – it was easier to spot the flaws, rather than enjoy the experience.

Capcom are perhaps one of the few still experimenting with multiplayer in some of their games. They don’t always get it right, of course, but that they try is to be somewhat admired. And when they do – you have to look at what the studio is trying to do. Dead Rising 2 had co-op, and felt at times built for it too. Dead Rising (the first one) was all about the fun, the crazy, setting up zombies for filthy and questionable photo opportunities. Dead Rising 2 – the base game – was not much of a step up from the traditional hack and slash action game. When you got into co-op, things became more tolerable, less of a chore, less of a grind. This is in stark contrast to the first game, which whilst tough never really felt like you had no chance in hell of a perfect completion. Moreover, it was designed that even if you didn’t, you simply didn’t give a toss – just keep doing crazy stuff and reap the benefits for another playthrough!

It is when you take a small step back and try to look at the bigger picture that perhaps you start to see the problems that reviewers face. They often don’t get to play the full picture – or the final product. And even if they do, and don’t like it, that doesn’t necessarily mean the game is bad itself – Dead Island springs immediately to mind here, critics and reviewers savaged the game relentlessly, but it became one of the biggest commercial success stories of 2011 and is much loved by a very large portion of gamers – me included. Again, it was the co-op. Solo, it was competent. Nice, but bland – by numbers, not much more than that. As soon as I had my Steam buddies join in, and the zombie count ramped up and we were trading with each other and making each other weapons and making sure to survive the next big wave that we were all more or less complimenting each other in terms of our builds, the game just burst into song and became far, far more than what it perhaps even should have been.

Reviewers don’t get very long to formulate an opinion. We, on the other hand, do. And it is this area where Star Wars: The Old Republic fell down – critics praised the single player experience, and rightly so – it’s a good solid (albeit at times dodgy and camp) experience. But it isn’t a single player game – it’s an MMORPG, with a monthly subscription fee, and the moment players got into the multiplayer and realised it wasn’t up to scratch, the proverbial brown and smelly hit the spinny windy thing. We got to see the rest of the game, spend time with it and group with each other to see it – and it simply didn’t add up.

Being a reviewer is a tough gig – I know, I’ve tried it. You have to be fair, open minded and impartial – and yet, to keep peoples attention, you have to be witty and insightful, a bit mean and a bit wicked, sharp-tongued and dryly sarcastic. They don’t really want to read a ton of text (so why are you reading this? Hahahaha, oh the irony of me writing this crap eh?) – they want to get to the bullet points and, notably, the score. They just want to know this; is the game worth buying or not?

The problem is, scores and bullet points don’t always represent the overall finished product, or the experience as a whole. It doesn’t mean reviewers are wrong – just that they are human, and can only judge based on the limited amount of time and content they are provided. They give a professional opinion – and it is an opinion, so even when we disagree, we should be respectful of that. It can be very hard to gauge public opinion at the best of times when only a small proportion of reasonably vocal critics take hold of the soapbox. After all, if we listen to the critics, World of Warcraft is a dead game. So why do 10.3 million people still subscribe and play it? Is it perhaps a case of the vocal soapbox minority being heard over and above what is otherwise a fairly quiet majority of individuals who quite enjoy the game?

When we get to buying a game, more often than not it’s a very different kettle of fish, and we have a lot more time to work through and appreciate its nuances. Games get patched, fixed, improved upon over time. Games can age gracefully and/or age badly. What was great last year may not be so great now. The market changes, moods change, the industry changes. Nothing stays still – except, it seems, for review scores; forever frozen in time, judgement passed before the life of a game even gets started. Review scores don’t change – and with Metacritic existing, even if they do, the original score is locked into a static state of being.

And that’s sometimes something we need to keep in mind. Most reviewers do a stand-up job in sometimes pretty tough circumstances – playing three or four games every day for most of your working week can be tiring. Sometimes things can be lost, forgotten or just plain missed in this hazy cloud of exhaustion. For many, video games are there for the free time between work and sleep – for others like me and the critics, those boundaries have become blurred and unidentifiable.

My point is this; when it comes down to it, sometimes judging a game ‘perfectly’ is near-impossible. We’re all armchair critics, but in those circumstances that professional game reviewers and critics have to compete in, even the most obvious of points can seem so far away.

So cut them some slack. And stop taking scores so damn literally.

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