Full disclosure: if I have a bias in regards to Brink, it’s in favor of. We’re in the multiplayer FPS doldrums, and Brink was the only hope of giving us an antidote prior to Battlefield 3 this November. The prospect of Brink failing to attract the attention of my gaming buddies, who are the only people I like to game online with, displeases me mightily. If Brink isn’t good I’ll accept that…but I’m not sure whose review to trust because I know how and when these Brink reviews were written.
The game journalists reviewing Brink either played the game at a review event, or received their review copies last week in the mail. The multiplayer matches they played were against each other, or against developers from Splash Damage. In either case they were not playing Brink in the same conditions in which you, the intended audience for these reviews, will be playing the game, which is really the only accurate way to report on the performance of a multiplayer shooter title.
Joystiq’s Brink review is extremely well written. It speaks to recent conversations about whether game critics need to discuss rules and mechanics more often. Griffin McElroy’s criticism is all about mechanics: not enough ability unlocks, problematic choke points, lack of matchmaking, weak AI, etc..
Some of his criticism sounds unassailable. When I interviewed Richard Ham for my Brink feature that ran on Gamasutra, I thought it odd that the game wasn't going to have party-based matchmaking, that one had to form Fire Teams after joining a match. Multiplayer-friendly shooters certainly benefit from lobby systems. Uncooperative AI in a team-based shooter is problematic.
But I also don't really care about any of this. I want to play Brink online, not with the AI. I'm willing to deal with the lack of a lobby system or party-based matchmaking. Getting parties together in the Bad Company series has never been smooth, and the game's inability to support groups larger than 4 has been a consistent irritation. I work around it.
It's McElroy's gameplay concerns that worry me, but I'm not sure if I can trust them. Maybe there actually ARE enough ability unlocks. I certainly tend to favor one class over another in class-based shooters, and don't care if I level all the classes up. Perhaps the parkour movement allows for flanking approaches to those choke points which McElroy hadn’t discovered. Perhaps leveled-up, experienced teams, with access to all their stat boosts and equipment, can coordinate to take down entrenched enemies in ways that McElroy didn’t have time to discover in his review session.
I have no doubt whatsoever that McElroy has accurately represented his experience playing Brink in good faith and with professional decorum…but the conditions in which he had to write his review were horrible. Playing with strangers. With no experience with the maps. With no real time to practice. On both latter points, a "12-hour review session" (which is not a solid 12 hours of gamplay) is nothing for serious multiplayer shooter gaming.
These are not the conditions in which to judge a team-based FPS title…but they’re the conditions McElroy was handed.
We could also discuss the 1UP review, written by Taylor Cocke, which I thought was even better. It sounds as if the author had appreciable FPS experience. Again, we have the bottleneck complaints, and this time the S.M.A.R.T. movement is more adequately addressed, but it sounds like network issues played a huge part in the parkour movement not working. I'm therefore hesitant to accept the statements about it not providing tactical advantages to deal with bottleneck issues.
At the end of the 1UP review, the following statement is given:
Editor's Note: This review was conducted before a day-one patch which is said to address, "sporadic visual glitches at distance, texture pop-up and some minor networking issues." We will play a few rounds with the patch applied and update the review text accordingly.
I reached out to my web of video game journalists to ask why their outlets insist on publishing release-day reviews of titles, when the quality of those reviews might benefit greatly from just waiting a little while. William O'Neal, the Editor-in-Chief of Best Buy's @Gamer magazine (for whom I've written several times) gave me an answer:
Simply put, editorial outlets are businesses and readers can be impatient and not-terribly loyal. And well…they have every right to be impatient as well as not-terribly loyal. Furthermore, games sell the vast majority of their copies within the first few weeks of their release. Add to that, there's also a diminishing return when it comes to reading about a newly released game. Game A comes out Tuesday and you're thinking about buying it. You read everything you can on Monday and Tuesday and probably make your purchasing decision. The number of people who are gonna read about it the following Monday or Tuesday has dropped off precipitously. So if you're an online editorial outlet and you do the "right thing" and post your review of a so-called "broken game" a week later (after it's been "fixed"), relatively speaking, no one is gonna read it.
Russ Pitts, the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist, wrote this column on the state of the video game industry. And he basically echoes what the statement above suggests to me: this is the audience's fault.
I recently had a collection of game journos describe the mass market video game journalism audience as shallow, impatient, completely uninterested in critical inquiry, and almost illiterate, dangling on review scores to gleam meaning from our reviews. That is depressing as hell. I also can't refute it. These are experienced game journos telling me this, who understand their audience and their markets much better than I do at this point in my career.
A few editors I know lament all the talking that game journos engage in regarding how our work is done, versus just trying to do better work and addressing any shortcomings in our field thusly…but if this is the state of affairs, why bother? Why should we wait until Friday to get some Brink playing time in with veteran shooter gamers to see how the game play actually winds up? Or to discover how people take advantage of the parkour movement? Or to see if the network code gets patched such that the issue removes itself, and we can focus on other things?
In a world where pre-orders rule and the audience just wants to know whether they should pick up a game the day it comes out, would anyone have patience for that sort of thing?
The value of discussing how game journalists do their job, is to try and educate the audience. If the audience demands their reviews on day one, fine…but the audience has to understand the price to be paid accordingly. It may mean not getting accurate reviews because the audience forces game journos to operate in piss-poor review conditions in order to publish copy which is premature.
Game journos have to try and approximate how online play for shooters is going to work rather than actually knowing how it does work when all of you are playing the game. Game journos have to rush through titles, passing up on loads of tonal and textural content to get a baseline read of a game, and then issue an opinion that also has to sound experienced and authoritative.
I didn't get Brink today. I really wanted to, but $60 is a lot of money, and I'm plagued with doubt. I'll wait for a used copy instead, so that if the current reviews are accurate, I can return it to GameStop for a full refund, and no harm done. But I hate that my doubt has been seeded by reviews which had to be rushed in order to satisfy an audience which doesn't know any better than to give game journalists the time they need to produce the best, most accurate reviews they can. And I don't want to stop hoping that sometime soon, the audience will wise up.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA, who got his start writing about video games right here on Bitmob. He has recently contributed to Gamasutra, G4TV's The Feed, and Joystick Division, and has also contributed to GamePro, the Escapist, and @Gamer magazine. He blogs at punchingsnakes.com and randomly opines on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.