Talking Point: Review Scores and Unwinnable Arguments

Just how important are review scores?

Last week we published our Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate review; we liked it, despite some flaws that we outlined, and gave it a strong recommendation with a score of 8/10, which counts as "very good" in our review scoring policy. Such was the reaction to the review here, elsewhere and to the game in general, we wrote an article looking at series reboots (of various types) that have divided gamers, while including the range of metacritic review scores for each title. In terms of those score ranges — with no exceptions in the examples cited — there was a minimum swing of 40% between the lowest and highest review scores, while in the case of the latest Castlevania title that swing was 67%. When it comes down to it, a lot of these high profile games are rated as indispensible must-haves in some quarters, and disappointments to be avoided in others. All summed up in one little number.

Unfortunately, or so it seems to us, the focus on that number — which we've just perpetuated, admittedly — can sometimes over-ride the content of the actual review itself. In the case of Castlevania's 3DS entry, a lot of chatter around a high-profile low review was along the lines of "X only gave this score", with the conversation often instinctively saying little about what the review actually said. It's something that happens on all websites, including this one, that we may write a 1000 word review on a big release and an early reaction may be "oh, it got an 8, thought it would be a 9".

In itself, that's not a problem, far from it, and we doubt there's a member of the Nintendo Life staff that hasn't at some point viewed a review and simply skipped to see the score first — it's in the DNA of gamers, it seems, even from the earliest days when magazines would print the score in a prominent, eye-catching graphic. This focus on scores only becomes a problem when it's all that's considered, making the words of a review almost an unwelcome gatecrasher. If a review gives a hotly anticipated game 5/10 while other sites are awarding nines and tens, there's a temptation to accuse the site in question of seeking hits through controversy, and simply stirring the pot.

What should happen, and does in the majority of cases, is that we all consider the text of a review and then the score. If a reviewer dislikes a title but gives reasoned, fair opinions on why that's the case, then that should be fair enough; if not, if the review seems intrinsically biased or unreasonable, then the score can perhaps be called to account. We can't escape the fact that reviews reflect opinions of individuals, after all. Reviewers do have to at least form that opinion based on the game's qualities and as little personal prejudice as possible; for example a writer may not be a big fan of driving games, but a fantastic racing title should still be acknowledged as such and given its fair dues.

These details of the writer's approach should matter in a review, and none of them can be picked up from a simple number at the end. Rather than being the definitive judgement on a game, the number is an additional piece of the puzzle, while more — and ultimately the quality of the review — is learned from the text above it.

In any case, there's been a fair amount of debate in the past week; our sister-site Push Square has recently looked at the issue in relation to reactions to God of War: Ascension's review scores, while it's been a hot topic on our forums. It's also been prompted by the launch shambles of SimCity on PC — reviewers may have loved the experience and praised it, only for consumers to encounter significant issues with online servers; as it's an always-online game, that's a big problem. The more drastic arguments have suggested that review scores be dropped, some are experimenting with flexible scoring that changes to match circumstances like those with SimCity, and other are keeping fixed scores but seek to give full coverage of issues for people to see.

And yet review scores, while not the be-all and end-all, are still relevant as a part of the whole process of assessing a game. Dropping them entirely takes away convenience, as plenty of people no doubt like to browse varied scores and then read the reviews behind them — they're a valuable indicator. The arguments between flexible and traditional fixed score have pros and cons — fixed scores can be caught out by uncommon circumstances like those with SimCity, but flexible scores can confuse the matter and be prey to whims and over-reactions to issues.

From our perspective, it's interesting that writing the text of a review can sometimes — though not always — be a relatively easy process, but deciding a score can be trickier. We know that some place great value in scores, so it feels important that it's a true reflection of our overall opinion of a game; in that respect they're important, as they force us to take everything in one picture and say, with confidence, "with everything weighed up, our opinion is that this is worthy of X/10".

But we're curious on a number of things about how you, the Nintendo Life community, read and digest reviews. We've included some polls below to learn better how you read our reviews — and others — and whether they ultimately have any impact on purchasing decisions. Let us know with some votes and comments, below; as we always want to know what you think.

How do you read reviews on Nintendo Life? (521 votes)

I read the text and then the score

37%

I check the score first and then read the text

53%

I only bother looking at the score

5%

I read the text and ignore the score

3%

I don't bother with reviews at all

2%

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How many reviews do you read for a game you're interested in? (504 votes)

I only read one or two from trusted sites

59%

I read up to half a dozen from various sites

33%

I find even more reviews and check them all

5%

I avoid reviews entirely

3%

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How do reviews influence your purchasing decisions, if at all? (508 votes)

A single review and good score from a trusted source is enough for me

18%

Multiple reviews can influence my decision either way

43%

A game's average score on Metacritic is the most important thing

2%

A combination of the above factors influence my decisions

24%

Reviews have no impact on my decision to buy a game

14%

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