Monday, November 21, 2016

Op Ed: The Truth About Reviewing Online Multiplayer Games (It Sucks)

Earlier this year I revealed the dark truth about reviewing sports games (it sucks) and now I’m back to drop truth bombs about another aspect of game reviews – reviewing online multiplayer games also totally sucks.  It sucks so much I don’t even bother reviewing the multiplayer aspect of most games anymore.  It is impossible to play enough to get it right, and even if you do put a lot of effort in the online community will inevitably come to the opposite conclusion anyway.  This might just sound like a rant, but I have 15+ years of experience on the subject, so pull up a chair and learn why reviewing online multiplayer games is the goddamn worst.

Why does reviewing online multiplayer games suck so much?  Well, mostly it has to do with the fact that the reviews themselves are fairly pointless because they are immediately out of date and wrong the minute real gamers get their hands on a title.  Similar to sports games, the experiences of dedicated players can be wildly different from the experiences of game reviewers in online multiplayer games.  Dedicated players will find exploits and balance problems and glitches and issues and all sorts of stuff game reviewers won’t even be aware of / won’t find / or they won’t crop up until weeks after launch, long after the reviewer has moved on to covering something else.  This makes the review text written at launch pretty much worthless and most sites don’t bother to update it. 

It certainly doesn’t help that many sites review online multiplayer pre-release purely in an effort to be one of the first to get a review out.  They play with other media or against PR people / developers on servers with no load, which absolutely is not the way most gamers will experience the game come launch day.  Any glowing praise of network stability or balance or any of that stuff in day 1 reviews is complete hogwash.  Some sites do update the online multiplayer section of their reviews over the week or so after launch, but as I mentioned above, dedicated players are going to play exponentially more hours and dig far deeper than any member of the media will bother and find problems weeks and months after launch that the media won’t notice / won’t report on / won’t care about.  Thus, online multiplayer reviews are pretty much pointless.

Allow me to speak from experience on exactly how this can all go horribly wrong.  When the Halo Master Chief Collection came out in 2014 the multiplayer matchmaking was not turned on prior to release.  We in the media instead tested out the game by playing private matches with PR / developers in order to test out the multiplayer.  Our experience in these tests was fine but, obviously, when the matchmaking was turned on at launch for the public the whole online component of the game fell apart at the seams and was a total shitshow.  All of the glowing reviews written before release had to be hastily edited and everyone in the media looked like freaking idiots for praising a title that launched as a broken mess and hasn’t really been fully fixed even two years later.

Halo MCC is an extreme example but this sort of thing happens constantly with online multiplayer games.  Game reviewers simply can’t spend enough time to play them properly to thoroughly review them and the result are reviews that are pretty much worthless within a few weeks after launch.     

I have to admit that I honestly don’t play most online multiplayer games very much, but I’ll give another example of games I actually really love and have spent tons of time with – Plants vs. Zombies Garden Warfare 1 and 2.  When PVZGW2 first launched one of the plant classes, Rose, was totally unbalanced and overpowered.  You’d face plant teams made up exclusively of Roses and the zombies literally could not win.  Rose was drastically nerfed a week or so after launch, but gamers just found a new exploit to take advantage of.  Every time something gets fixed a new cheap tactic or exploit will pop up so the balance of the game constantly swings back and forth and the experience wildly changes with every new patch and update.  It is impossible to review the actual quality of matches and experience you’ll have in PVZGW2, and pretty much every other online game, because it constantly changes.

Because of these and other experiences over the last 15-years I have significantly decreased the time and effort I put into reviewing the online multiplayer aspect of most games.  I’ll talk about what features and modes are available and explain any new innovations or ideas are introduced, but I’m staying as far away from covering the meat and potatoes actual gameplay of online multiplayer as I can.  Anyone that knows me knows that I hate being wrong and the amount of frustration online multiplayer reviews have caused when I think something is fine and then everyone hates it two weeks after launch really, really grinds my gears.   It just isn’t worth it. 

One more brief story.  When Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare came out in 2007 I (and a fair few other reviewers) thought the multiplayer wasn’t going to be anything special.  Call of Duty multiplayer was sort of an “OK” throwaway mode up to that point and no one really thought Modern Warfare was a drastic improvement.  Well, we were all wrong and players latched onto Modern Warfare and Call of Duty became the biggest multiplayer franchise in the industry.  Of course, the pendulum has swung back the other way and now everyone bitches about everything in Call of Duty multiplayer and no one is ever satisfied.  See what I mean?  Reviewers just can’t ever get it right.

A final point I want to make is that, despite the vocal dudebros on forums and social media that only play multiplayer and never touch the campaigns (or so they claim) there are tons and tons of people out there that do play Halo and Call of Duty and Gears of War and Battlefield just for the campaigns and other offline content they offer.  These players deserve representation and coverage just as much as the multiplayer fans and I’m more than happy to provide it.  And not just provide it, but give genuine high quality coverage that you can count on not just at launch but years from now because the campaign isn’t going to drastically change in a week.

So, to sum up, reviewing online multiplayer games sucks because it is impossible to actually be accurate without turning coverage of each game into a full time job.  Other sites out there that are dedicated and want to give them good coverage, I totally respect you and wish you luck, but I’m really thankful I don’t have to do it anymore.