I recently got tapped to write a review for Halo: Reach, and once again I find myself wishing that I could eschew scores altogether. Without some sort of formal agreement as to what the numbers mean, scores become inconsequential.
The worst offender is the website Metacritic, notorious lord and master of the review score. It can't quite figure out how to translate non-score review systems into numerical expressions. A letter grade of “A” is equal to 95 points in the American grading system, but Metacritic doesn't care. It's translated numerous "A" scores for Halo: Reach to an inflated 100 points.
Other review sites, such The Escapist and GamePro, use a five-star system, ostensibly to escape numerical scores and focus more attention on the qualitative. Unfortunately, this just winds up feeding the Metacritic inflation beast. Generally, a rating of five stars means that you'll probably like the film, restaurant, book, or video game receiving it, but it doesn’t mean that the object being reviewed is “perfect.” A score of 100 implies perfection, and Reach is far from perfect. Yet reviews for The Escapist and GamePro come up as 100 on Metacritic.
Review scores are subjective, obviously. So while criticizing the way Metacritic translates them is easy, it becomes more problematic to criticize the actual scores originally given in the reviews themselves. But there’s something fair to be said about the psychology review writers employ when selecting their scores. In order for the scores to have even any subjective meaning, they do need to be compared to bars set by other games.
This got me thinking about the eventual release of BioShock Infinite. When I look at its world of Columbia, the themes being investigated, and design aspects like the Skyline transportation system and power combinations, I see the potential for a game which could once again, like the first BioShock, become a benchmark for first-person shooters. I have no reason to think that Irrational Games is going to drop the ball on this title, so I feel secure in making an educated guess that the game will hit all the right marks from a critical perspective.
If that happens, how will critics score it? If the flawed but very good Halo: Reach nets 100 on Metacritic, what would be an appropriate score for Infinite? 110? When we’re dealing with game score systems that deal in 100-point scales, there’s absolutely no excuse not to show some discernment. Otherwise the score is bereft of meaning, which is why most intelligent consumers of the video-game media ultimately seem to shuck off the scores if they bother continuing to read reviews at all. Hey, If I didn’t have to write reviews myself, I’d be standing in the same crowd.
Of all the necessary evils of being a video-game journalist, review scoring is the one which smells the heaviest of sulphur.
Dennis Scimeca is the Editor in Chief of the website Game Kudos and a staff writer at Gamer Limit.. If you tweet him @DennisScimeca he will get right back to you, because he's officially bored with Halo: Reach.