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Video Game Reviews and the Much Maligned Dark Sector

by Jay Johnson on 10/01/09 11:13:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

In the spring of 2008 the highly anticipated game Dark Sector was released.  I say “highly anticipated” because, up until its launch, Dark Sector had been a delicacy long dangled in front of gamers by Digital Extremes.  It was originally announced way back in 2000 as a follow on for Epic Games/Digital Extremes’ well received Unreal Tournament series. It then went through some re-imagination and in 2004 a teaser trailer was unleashed upon the public. 

This trailer wowed the roiling masses as the developers claimed that the video was in-game footage and not pre-rendered computer graphics.  Information about the game remained fairly muted until it resurfaced in 2006, with a shift in design from a sci-fi setting to a modern world setting.  Finally in March 2008 the game completed its eight year journey to consumers, and it did not even crack the top 20 in sales (ref:  http://vgsales.wikia.com/wiki/NPD_March_2008).

I choose to discuss Dark Sector and its associated reviews, because it was a piece of software that I was interested in but decidedly on-the-fence about. As a result, I decided to wait for the professional criticism.  I read the reviews, weighed the proposed opinions, and decided against the purchase.  It was not until this past summer when I found myself, pleasantly, with free time on my hands and, unpleasantly, caught in the doldrums of the video game summer releases.  Well, during my survey of various video gaming websites I saw Dark Sector on a few “Most Underrated Games” lists. 

My interest was reinvigorated and I picked up a pre-owned copy of Dark Sector for $7.99 (the new copy was only 9.99).  I was very surprised at how inexpensive the game was, particularly when one considers its blue-chip status and the big names involved in the development. 

I recalled the reviews had been tepid, but that does not, in my experience, regularly lead to the price-point falling through the floor to PS2, bargain-bin, sports-game prices. The reason for the low price point, as I pointed out in a previous paragraph, was due to fairly dismal sales. The only reason I bring up the pricing is because I wanted to know why the price was so low. What factors had caused this hyped title to sell so poorly that its price dropped so drastically?

It can certainly be argued that the long and fluctuating development could have created a “Daikatana Syndrome” and the target audience became apathetic, and this led to the dreary entrance.  One could also point to the release of two highly anticipated shooters, Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 and Army of Two, in the same month creating an abundance of new shooters. 

Those factors certainly contributed and set the stage, but it is my opinion that the catalyst that truly ended Dark Sector was the reviews. It must be made clear: I am not criticizing the reviewers for their condemnation or praise of the game.  It is their job to produce an opinion and it is the responsibility of the consumer to decide whether or not we will take that information into our purchasing decision.  What I am proposing, as unintentionally corrupt, is a trend in reviewing that rings of laziness and a distinct lack of imagination (or perhaps inability) in the way the software was/is reviewed.  The sin of which I speak is “over-comparison”.

The concept and practice of comparing one thing to another is extremely common in every facet of life.  In the world of video games it is perhaps even more prevalent as skeptic gamers discuss products amongst each other in an attempt to determine what kind of experience a piece of software will provide and if that experience is something the aforementioned individual wishes to engage.  This notion carries itself over strongly to the business of reviews, but as with all things: everything in moderation.  

The problem that I am discussing is not simply the idea of comparing, but a marginalization through comparison, where one does not simply liken something to another, but instead assigns an implied negative value to the item under question because of its similarities.  The use of the word “just” (or even the implication of the word “just”) is often, in my mind, associated with marginalizing comparisons.  For example one could say, “X is like Y.” 

With that in mind, the biggest problem I ran into with Dark Sector reviews was the idea that Dark Sector is just Gears of War.  The implications within such a postulation are resounding for the game (or whatever is being compared).  Indeed, the idea of such a simple comparison to describe something rings of Structuralism. In the rest of this exposition I will seek to explain how detrimental the application of these ideas, whether intentional or not, can be; and furthermore, how Structuralist ways of thinking are not particularly conducive to the practice of video game reviewing.

To start off I am going to reference the review that I found to be the guiltiest of these charges of over comparison.  The review on the website Game Revolution is horrific beyond words.  It spends precious little time actually discussing the game and instead focuses on condemning the game for its influences.  In fact, it begins the review with this very thing, “But the rip-offs don’t stop there. You’ll see material lifted almost wholesale from other games, especially Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War.” (ref: http://www.gamerevolution.com/review/xbox360/dark-sector ).  I recommend reading the entire article. 

So, right off the bat the reader is already thinking that this game is JUST a clone, and as a result not a good property in its own right.  The animosity towards the game is based on its similarities to others.  The review seems to use that concept as a jumping off point into condemning the remaining aspects of the game. As if to imply that because the developers could not be bothered to create something completely different from other properties that they [must have] skimped in all other parts of the production.  The use of implication and the power that implications can have is one of the reasons that I submit over-comparison as being a poor tool for anyone charged with generating a review.

Another problem that I have with over comparison is that it is logically fallible.  If one was to simply follow a logic tree with the idea of the statement I introduced earlier, “X is like Y”, a person could compare anything all the way down to its most fundamental factors.  So, because we have determined (per the reviewers statements) that “X is like Y” one can now pose, “What is ‘Y’ like?”  Well, “Y” has been influenced by “Z.”  Well, then “X is also like Z.” One can even find this exact phenomenon in video games almost verbatim. 

At GDC 07 Cliff Bleszinkski flat out says that the games that influenced him the most in his creation of Gears of War were RE4 and Kill Switch (ref:  http://www.gamespot.com/news/6167213.html?action=convert&om_clk=latestnews&tag=latestnews;title;0).  So, Game Revolution claims that “Dark Sector is like Gears of War” and taking Cliff’s own words, one can say that “Dark Sector is like Kill Switch.” If one was to continue this logic then one could break just about anything down until the comparisons are almost indiscernible, while all the time arguing that the things are, in fact, the same. This logical fallacy is where I condemn the use of Structuralism in the arena of video game reviewing.  In fact, the very model I have just illustrated to you is one of the biggest criticisms of the Structuralism movement.  Professor Catherine Belsey said it best, “…the structuralist danger of collapsing all difference”.

Over-comparison is also guilty of being astoundingly lazy.  It is much easier to simply write something off with a comparison as the primary means of description vice actually taking the time to look at that very thing and discuss the factors that make it up. But that takes a lot more time and effort and dare I say, capability.  Using a little bit of Structuralist thought myself, I am going to list some of the glaring factors that are so dissimilar between Gears of War and Dark Sector, but remained predominately unexplored by the reviewers. 

Gears of War is a squad based game set on a fictional planet where the protagonists battle a subterranean reptilian species also living on the planet.  Dark Sector is a single player based game set during modern times in a Soviet-bloc country battling anonymous enemy soldiers and mutated inhabitants.  Gears of War uses fire-arms as the primary weapon while Dark Sector uses a boomerang like weapon called the Glaive as the primary means of dismantling enemies. 

My point with drawing out these differences is to point out how lazy it is to use comparison as a means of description.  The guiltiest of the reviews for laziness was Gamernode who said, “If Dark Sector were a student, he'd be expelled for plagiarism.  Thankfully, the Glaive more than makes up for the rampant copying of mechanics and ideas.” (ref: http://gamernode.com/reviews/6517-dark-sector/index.html).  Inexplicably, after making that claim, in the very next sentence they say the Glaive does make up for the “plagiarism”.   

Oh really?  It does not get much lazier than accusing something of being a criminal copy and then immediately citing how a critical game-play mechanic does actually change the game.  Not to mention, I am pretty sure that the last sentence in the Gamernode quote is a fragment.  Dear readers, that is sluggish execution on multiple levels, and completely inexcusable.

Comparison is inescapable and it does have a place in reviewing, particularly when one discusses sequels.  Also a noting of similarities is not a sin.  Indeed Dark Sector does share similarities to Gears of War, Kill Switch, RE4, and a plethora of other shooters, but to use those similarities as the primary means of describing the game is lazy, unfair and corrupt.  Not to mention, I do not totally grasp the stipulations for comparisons.  There is rarely a mention of Resident Evil 4 and no mention of Kill Switch (that I am aware of) in the majority of Gears of War reviews despite the fact that Mister Bleszinkski cites them himself.  Regardless there were no claims of plagiarism or mimicry in discussion of Gears. 

In closing, I submit that these practices were a major contributing factor to Dark Sectors commercial marginalization.  Not because the reviewing scores were pedestrian, but because the over-comparisons implied that the player would attain no new and worthy experience from the property and as a result, the titles it was compared to would provide a better experience. This is a practice that is not isolated to just to Dark Sector.  In fact, it is a disturbing trend that I am seeing in more and more reviews. 

Another game that suffered from the treatment of over-comparison is Dead Space. We as consumers must be careful of any lazy reviews and I caution you to question the validity and integrity of any review that utilizes comparison as its primary means of describing or reviewing anything, not just a video game.


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