• Value For Money? Feature

    Reading threads discussing EDGE review scores has been one of the most regular events in my life over the past six years. Seemingly, the most controversial score they've handed out in the past twelve months was the 5/10 awarded to Mirror's Edge. I have been working working as a sub-editor at NTSC-UK for the last year, and the writers here have become – in my mind – a major rival to EDGE's opinion on what constitutes a good game. On the site's recommendation, I decided to buy Mirror's Edge and judge its relative quality for myself. My opinion, unfortunately for my wallet, stands much closer to EDGE than NTSC-UK.

    Some weeks after returning my copy of Mirror's Edge to my shelf – never to be played again – I began discussing the game at some length on our forum. I found myself on one side of a cultural divide, with a number of people taking a completely opposite stand on its quality. The reason I am writing is that I think I have identified the reason for this 'Marmite game' syndrome. There are many divergent forms of game that people are after, and many different satisfactions that they hope to procure from them.

    In the case of Mirror's Edge, I found myself arguing from the point of view of someone who desires intellectual stimulation and relaxation or 'fun'. This game was so incredibly irritating that I found it very difficult to do anything other than shout and scream at the television. The majority of people on the other side were looking to hone skills by beating the time trials – a concept which is totally anathema to me. I spent the majority of my time with the game playing through the campaign, resplendent as it is with enjoyment-defying combat, whilst the skill-based segment, typically, failed to hold my attention.

    In other games, such as Half-Life 2, I hear people talk in extravagant terms about its literary influences and grand narrative. When I played the game I didn't have the blindest clue what was going on. One of the reasons that Halo: Combat Evolved remains the pinnacle of the series, for me, was that it had an interesting, yet simple story, which was well told and clearly explained. In the case of Halo 3, I had to read an encyclopaedia article in order to get the merest slither of understanding from its convoluted and badly delivered narrative. I get the impression that those gamers who take an interest in fiction in the broader sense (theatre, film or books) have a leg up in this respect. Having already channelled their understanding of culture, they are able to take away a greater meaning from the same games that simply baffle me.

    My point up to this point is simply this: you need to pick and choose your games in order to satisfy your particular desire of the moment.

    The problem for all of this lies with the complexity and sophistication of modern interactive software – games are increasingly becoming jacks of all trades. Instead of simply concentrating on doing one thing well, developers seem desperate to cover dozens of 'bases' to attract as many customers as possible. It is said that if two ice cream suppliers set up on opposite ends of a beach, the one that moves closer to the centre can successfully attract all the customers from its end of the beach as well as those that are on their opponent's side but closer to the centre. This seems to be the logic applied by developers as genres disappear and we find all our games converging on the centre ground. What may be good for business, however, is not really of benefit to the customers who are sat, belligerently, at the extreme ends of the shore.

    There are many superfluous elements finding their way into games of all genres, but for the purposes of this piece, let's look at the most obvious and divisive cleavage which has appeared on the current generation of consoles: online multiplayer. Often this element of the game is developed entirely separately from the main game, and even when it isn't, the experience of playing a competitive or co-operative multiplayer game is hardly even comparable to the single-player campaign. These qualitative differences are bound to leave gamers divided between those that enjoy network-play and those that prefer the isolation and narrative of single-player, with some lucky individuals sitting slap-bang in the middle of the metaphorical beach.

    It is my great misfortune that the majority of games now feature substantial, and usually dominant, online functionality. There are lots of pragmatic reasons for my preference. One major reason is that I like to have a sense of limitation. I don't like RPGs, because I don't want to spend more than fifteen hours on a single game. In online games this problem is even worse; much like Animal Crossing – where there is no end to be 'achieved' – you can play an online game indefinitely. Particularly in the competitive environment, where you could find yourself living through a perpetual 'arms race', because the only aim is domination and dominance only lasts until a bigger fish comes along. Quite apart from that fact I'm not a naturally gifted player, I simply don't wish to spend day after day 'grinding' my way to some ephemeral victory.

    There are many other examples of game-elements which sit uncomfortably with their stable-mates; chief among them, The Orange Box. Supposedly this is a case of great 'value for money'; “five great games for the price of one! Instant purchase! :-)”, yell the hordes of internet cretins. For me, this collection seemed like a reasonable purchase, Team Fortress aside. I had wanted to play Half-Life 2 since its original release – thanks largely to its widespread critical acclaim – and Portal sat in pretty much the centre of my gaming taste-spheres. As it turned out, though, I found Half-Life 2 to be an interesting game with sub-standard combat, leaving only Portal as the stand-out game in the bundle.

    And that is my point: games are becoming increasingly unfocused. My favourite three games last year were all download titles: World of Goo, Braid and Lost Winds. These were simple games with simple objectives, and all the more coherent as a result; in other words, I knew what I was getting for my money. As has been elaborated, most games tend to do many things, which, at best, will tick only a few of your boxes. What's more, most reviews still offer a unified opinion about products with increasingly disparate parts. A review text, in this light, is even more subjective than is usually the case, because the reviewer is either giving a favourable appraisal based on the elements she liked, or she is delivering a critique based on the elements which don't work.

    Mirror's Edge is actually a pretty good example, but the difference between it and something like Gears of War 2, is that Mirror's Edge has some good elements and some atrocious elements, where Gears of War 2 has many well-crafted elements. Frankly, though, it is completely irrelevant to me if the overall quality of the game is high, because I only care about the single-player campaign! What, I ask you, is the point in giving one overall score for a product as diverse as The Orange Box? More importantly, why do I have to pay for all parts of the product when I only want the parts I'm interested in?

    Currently, I'm being irked on a regular basis by a notice that appears on the top-left of my TV screen in Grand Theft Auto IV. “Just hit such-and-such a button and you can quickly start a game with your friends” it politely informs me; except when I actually follow its instructions, I'm told, rather insultingly, that I need to pay a subscription fee. Not only are our game-creators content to water down genres and attack the last vestiges of the single-player landmass, they're going to harass the misfits until they make way for their new sandbox, multi-player bypass.

    I have two problems, then. The first problem is that reviewers are giving an overall score based on a 'package' when, in reality, the various parts of this grouping fundamentally fail to cohere. The second problem I have is that developers and publishers are selling me more than I want for more money than I want to spend. I would therefore appreciate it greatly if A) developers would stop bundling games together or B) journalists would stop encouraging them by offering high praise for games that take this form. By trying to be all things to all men, modern games have ultimately become much less satisfying. Instead of receiving the desired "hit" from my preferred genres, I'm tasting a sort of bland, meandering, marketable toothpaste.
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