Hype And Critical Acclaim–Why It Sucks

Hype and critical acclaim is a sure fire way to kill a game’s reputation. With the recent media and consumer backlash surrounding The Last of Us Remastered, conversations have shifted focus from whether or not a PS4 translation was necessary and have instead migrated on to the real meat and bones; is The Last of Us good? Certainly, the original release on the Playstation 3 has received hundreds of awards and became one of the most notable releases of the past generation and will probably be remembered for years to come. Do I personally like The Last of Us? Yes, I do. I think it’s one of the high water marks of the gaming industry thus far, though that doesn’t mean all the acclaim it has received is warranted or even fair to Naughty Dog.

I feel both critics and consumers are equally to blame for such bloated expectations. When The Last of Us was revealed at the 2011 VGA’s, hopes rose high. It looked completely different from anything Naughty Dog had done in the past. Ever since becoming a Sony first party developer, all their experiences shared one common element. Sure, Crash Bandicoot was a linear platformer whereas Jak and Daxter became open world and later introduced weaponry. More recently, even, Uncharted was molded as a third person cover based shooter with on rails platforming. Every Naughty Dog IP delved into different gameplay experiences, but thematically speaking, all of them were lighthearted and funny adventures.

Seeing that initial reveal trailer at the end of 2011 painted a new picture for Naughty Dog. How could they go from a game as harmful as Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception with its summer action blockbuster feel to a decidedly serious game more grounded in human elements?

As its release drew nearer, it became more evident how drastic a departure this game would be for Naughty Dog. Uncharted 3 had a huge flooding ship and death defying leaps from horse to convoy truck. The Last of Us had an encounter with a bloater and a tense survival horror-esque sequence in a basement. Uncharted 3 had a campy vibe. The Last of Us runs the gamut of human emotion, portraying characters and dialogue using minimalism to great effect. No doubt much of the hype stemmed from the prospect of a skilled developer stepping so far outside its comfort zone.

Fast forward to June 14th, 2013 and The Last of Us officially came to store shelves. It quickly garnered an impressive Metacritic rating of 95/100 with ninety seven positive reviews and only one mixed review. It won over 200 game of the year awards by the end of 2013 and now, with the release of The Last of Us Remastered, debate has begun all over again. Setting aside the controversy it received for being an unnecessary remaster according to some and a buggier product than its last generation counterpart, The Last of Us has come under fire from many people for being overrated.

After all, with such high critical and consumer acclaim, expectations would be astronomically high for newcomers to the experience. They expect the greatest game of the generation and if a single element falls short of that expectation, then all the minutiae become grand-scale problems. Critic reviews portrayed The Last of Us as a seemingly more complex and revolutionary game than it actually was. People tend to get carried away when talking about a game they love. As a result, reviews tend to gloss over potential issues or not even mention them at all and focus only on the good. One potential issue that I can see many people taking issue with in the game is the puzzles. They are tedious and basic. Bring a ladder here. Move a pallet across water. Rinse. Repeat.

Some reviews mentioned the puzzles, but few outlets took note of it being a major issue. I personally did not have a problem with it, but perhaps instead of saying “The puzzles are nothing special, but take away nothing from the experience. To take issue with these minor stumbles would be to miss the brilliance of the rest of the game”, I’d probably say “The puzzles are tedious and a sore to get through each and every time. When you’re not sneaking past enemies or engaging in tense combat, you’ll be disappointed to come across another ladder or wooden pallet that needs moving. Or at least that’s how I felt for the first few hours until I realized how mechanically sound it all was. This isn’t Uncharted, therefore the ‘puzzles’ here can’t be quite that elaborate or fun in the traditional sense. Instead, in being grounded in reality, they help keep the immersion the game struggles so hard to keep from being broken and that is an excellent achievement in game design despite how dull it is on the surface. There is even a moment late in the game in which Ellie will mutter something about the game’s dull mechanics and it left a huge smile on my face”.

The second statement more aptly describes the negative side of the puzzles and while its overall tone may have been positive, its following explanation helps the reader get a more realistic grasp of how they themselves would feel about that particular aspect. The first quote doesn’t leave any room for interpretation whereas the second allows more room for the reader to decide on his/her own whether it would be a big problem for that particular individual. At one point in time, video game reviews usually ended with statements such as “if you like….” or “your enjoyment will depend on….”, but there’s been a shift since then. Inherently speaking, that isn’t bad as the problem resides more with the average reader’s ability to interpret reviews on his/her own.

They are easily influenced and don’t exactly have the best reading comprehension. They misunderstand the role of the video game reviewer and in turn insult any reviewer that has ever had a different opinion than him/her on a video game. A lot of consumers believe the role of the critic is to tell other people what to think which couldn’t be further from the truth. A reviewer serves many purposes and telling others how they should think or feel about a game is not one of them. The most important role any review should fulfill is to inform. Reviews are meant to give a brief synopsis of the story and basic game mechanics for people completely unfamiliar with it. A review should also be reflective of the experience of the reviewer while remaining as objective as possible. Subjectivity will inevitably creep into any review. It is impossible to give a critique of any product without being subjective, but try to leave out personal bias where possible. Is the game fun? That may subjective. Is the game well designed? That’s objective. Unfortunately, tons of readers everywhere misunderstand this. As a person myself that reviews video games and wants to do this for a living, I do not expect my reviews to be taken as the end-all-be-all. I understand many will disagree with me on many occasions. I simply expect my review to give any potential buyer insight into the game in addition to other people’s reviews before he/she decides on whether or not to purchase it. Video game journalists and consumers need to come to a more common understanding with each other to avoid unreasonable expectations.

Unfortunately, reviews and previews aren’t the only contributing factors to the hype train as all hype starts at the heart of the beast; the gameplay footage and PR speak. Take a look at the walking travesty known as Aliens: Colonial Marines. Why did it become such a unanimous failure? It wasn’t because it was such a broken and poorly designed game(though it wasn’t remarkable either). It was because of the false hype. Early footage of the game shown at E3 and to journalists did not reflect the final product in any way. The developers over at Gearbox Software used fake footage when showing off Aliens: Colonial Marines and spoke of features that didn’t exist. Here is some of that footage accompanied by Randy Pitchford’s lying voice.

What did Aliens: Colonial Marines lie about?

  • The visuals were severely downgraded
  • Certain elements in the environments were changed to be less interesting
  • The friendly AI took a massive nose dive
  • Animation became more stiff
  • AI patterns of the xenomorphs were reduced from being able to crawl on the ceiling and in vents, acting as real predators down to running straight at you with no rhyme or reason
  • On top of that, the game at launch was riddled with technical issues here and there
  • Even after the game launched, the publisher was still making use of unrepresentative footage and screenshots

As one of the most critically panned games in recent memory, it would be unfair to single out only Aliens: Colonial Marines for engaging in such a practice. Remember Killzone 2 and Bioshock Infinite? I will admit I was one of those few sorely disappointed in Bioshock Infinite because of how much better the original footage looked. Elizabeth was smarter and did more in combat, the environments were much less linear, etc… Looking back it, Infinite left a sour taste in my mouth because I expected what I saw from initial footage. However, after replaying it more recently and detaching myself from any preconceptions, I had a better time from beginning to end.

Hype is not always bad. A certain degree of hype is needed in order to generate interest and drive sales, but too much hype will lead to lofty expectations and unfair criticism. It will lead to a bandwagon of hate from people that probably didn’t even play the game or understand what it was trying to accomplish. I don’t expect this problem to be rectified any time soon or ever, actually. Consumers will continue unfairly criticizing games they expected more from and developers/publishers will continue embellishing the truth for sales. It’s a sad fact we all have to deal with, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable.