Wednesday, May 06, 2009


I've mentioned on many occasions that I trust Eurogamer's reviews more than any other site I read.

In part, that's because of certain individuals (Kieron Gillen and Kristan Reed) who write for the site. Even if I don't recognize the reviewer, though, I feel like Eurogamer has a higher standard when it comes to reviews.

In the last day, though, Eurogamer has become caught up in a stink, and it's a stink over a review.

Yesterday, a review of Darkfall Online was published. Darkfall is an MMORPG that (according to Wikipedia) "combines real-time action and strategy in a fantasy setting. The game features unrestricted PvP, full looting, a huge, dynamic game world, and a player skill dependent combat system free of the class and level systems that typify most MMORPGs."

The reviewer, Ed Zitron, gave the game a 2 out of 10.

"Savaged" is a fair description of the text of the review. A few excerpts:
--Sadly, every little thing Darkfall does is tragic, but without a personality that might make you feel sorry for its developers, Aventurine.
--From the grubby textures and grammatically incorrect quest text to the anarchic control system, any attempt to glean joy from this torrid husk of an entertainment product is met with disdain.
--Underneath the lack of originality, there's a hole where the game should be: a loose, incongruous mess of bad controls, horrible user interface, and broken combat system.
--It's the emperor's new clothes of 2009: such a marvellous game that only an idiot wouldn't realise the beauty of the gaping holes in its content, its wonky control system, and its seemingly decade-old engine.

Yes, that first comment seems strangely personal. Zitron does have many, many specific complaints in the review, though (review is here), and the level of detail seems competent.

Then the controversy began.

One of the game's developers posted in the game forums with this blast:
We checked the logs for the 2 accounts we gave Eurogamer and we found that one of them had around 3 minutes playtime, and the other had less than 2 hours spread out in 13 sessions. Most of these 2 hours were spent in the character creator since during almost every one of the logins the reviewer spent the time creating a new character. The rest of the time was apparently spent taking the low-res screenshots that accompanied the article. At no point did this reviewer spend more than a few minutes online at a time.

That's a career death sentence, if true, but as it turns it, it's quite hard to establish what's true and what's not. Here's an excerpt from Eurogamer's response:
The reviewer in question, Ed Zitron, disputes the server logs that Aventurine presents as fact. According to the logs they supplied, Ed played the game for just over three hours. Ed says the logs miss out two crucial days and understate others, which suggests they are incomplete, and he insists he played the game for at least nine hours.

Eurogamer, to their credit did very two smart things. Number one:
I've already contacted another one of our PC writers, Kieron Gillen, who has agreed to review Darkfall.

Smart thing number two:
It's safe to say that we've learned some lessons from this episode, and they will be beneficial when it comes to future reviews. In the meantime, any and all discussion of the subject on the forums and comments threads is fine. Just as game developers have to deal with the response to their work, so too do we, and you've every right to criticise and debate it.

Assign your most highly-respected reviewer to re-review the game, and don't stifle debate on your own forums. Win and win. If it had been me, I think I would have added an editor's note to the front of the review which mentions the server log controversy, but in spite of that, they have moved quickly to address this situation.

However, this does bring up an issue that I've written about on multiple occasions: why don't reviews always include the length of time the reviewer spent with the game? Why don't reviewers always tell us if they finished the game, and if they didn't, how far they got?

Would a reviewer review a book without finishing it, or an album without listening to all the songs, or a film without seeing it all?

Now if you're thinking "well, games are different," I totally agre. They're open-ended and often unfinishable in any conventional sense. That's why it's even more important that we're told how much time the reviewer spent with the game and how far they advanced.

It's true that if Zitron had mentioned his alleged playtime--9+ hours--it still would have been disputed by the developers, based on their server logs. But Eurogamer would have looked better if that number had been stated at the outset, instead of in response to what the developers claim are their server logs.

When I write up impressions for you guys, I tell you how long I've spent with a game, and there are plenty of times when it's only two hours. There have been many games where I've seen all I wanted to see in that length of time, and unlike a reviewer, I don't have to continue. But you may value my opinion far differently if I play for two hours instead of five, or ten. That's why you need to know, and that's why I tell you.

Site Meter