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Nathan Drake and the Secret of Metascores

If Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was merely the sum of its parts its story would be Tomb Raider meets Indiana Jones, its gameplay the bastard child of Metal Gear Solid 4 and Infamous, and its graphics a cross between a comic book and a creepily suggestive puppet show. But Uncharted 2 is more than the sum of its parts; it’s one of those special games.

It’s a world-class platformer/adventure game, possibly the finest “interactive movie” experience the industry has ever produced, and features online play good enough to make it a serious gamer’s go-to shooter. Yes, this one is a must-play, and if you don’t have a PS3, it’s worth buying one for. Even with a lot of good product already out there, it’s my feeling that anyone who loves games but hasn’t played Uncharted 2 is missing out.

But its leap into the review score stratosphere (Metascore: 97) since its release last week inspires questions about the pseudo-science of Metacritic rankings.

Scott Jones wrote a piece for Crispy Gamer last month which looked at Metascritic’s impact on game criticism and the PR/Marketing forces whose job it is to leverage good Metascores (conflict of interest much?)

A Metascore of 90 has become somewhat of a holy grail in game marketing (and man, we sure are seeing a lot of 9s these days) and Jones laments how work for games journalists is unstable, often not well-paid, and just how easily writers might be leveraged by ruthless marketing types, who are increasingly obsessed with Metascore. He writes:

The darkest thought of all? What happens when you’re new to this business, and you get a call from [a PR rep], who complains about your score? If the word “blacklist” gets tossed your way, wouldn’t it be more than a little tempting to placate him? What then?

–  Scott Jones

True that. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last line of questioning about the integrity of review score data, or the practice of influencing Metascores as a means of ensuring a game’s success.

But what of the significance of Metacritic at the consumer end?

I perked up when I first heard that Gamespot’s early review gave Uncharted 2 a 9.5; only a handful of games get a 9.5. The world’s biggest gaming site undoubtedly holds sway in Metacritic’s weighted averages and sure enough, ‘universal acclaim’ and a terrific Metascore followed.

But I’ve been thinking lately that too many games get 90s, undermining the impact of Metascores. The number usually doesn’t mean much to gamers, except to tell them whether a game lands in an acceptable range. Exclusive company is all that makes a game’s review score meaningful, and 80s and even 90s aren’t all that exclusive anymore; could this mean that PR folks are succeeding in turning 88s (and maybe even 82s) into 90s?

Nonetheless, anything within a certain range (say, 75-100) is in the same ballpark, and thus ‘worth playing’ BUT unless they’re at the upper end of that range, the number actually means very little. At the upper end of the range, it means a lot.

Here are the current-gen titles to earn a Metascore of ninty-FIVE or better (yes, this is all of them):

    • Xbox 360/Playstation 3: Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar Games (2008) 98
    • Wii: Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo (2007) 97
    • Playstation 3: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Sony Computer Entertainment (2009) 97
    • Xbox 360: BioShock, 962K Games (2007) 96
    • Wii: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Nintendo (2006) 95
    • Playstation 3: LittleBigPlanet, Sony Computer Entertainment (2008) 95

And you see that 95 still means something – each of these games is more than good. They’re outstanding “it factor” games. They’re special.

And at the other end of the scale we have:

    • Xbox 360: Hannah Montana: The Movie, Disney Interactive Studios (2009) 25
    • Wii: Ninjabread Man, Conspiracy Entertainment (2007) 20
    • Playstation 3: Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust, Codemasters (2009) 17

A metascore of 20 tells you something; it tells you that a game is a broken mess. And (for the moment, anyway) games 95 and up are special. So what does Metascore mean to the consumer? Usually not much… but at the upper and lower ends of the spectrum, quite a bit.

14 comments
Dougie
Dougie

Oh man am I glad this game is getting the respect deserved.

SideMission
SideMission

Presumably developers and producers get Metacritic target incentives too.. they're the ones who directly influence the product. PR people can affect hype, sales, etc. but if part of their job is to pressure writers into giving a game good scores, alarm bells go off a bit for me. I hope in the long run PR people focus on -communities- which are, with online modes, etc. increasingly becoming part of the product.

deftangel
deftangel

The biggest problem with Metacritic as far as the industry is concerned is that some publishers treat it as the only barometer of quality that matters. Peter Moore has been quick to point out that the FIFA franchise getting over a 90 on Metacritic means they've made a great game. He's right. EA would be pretty wrong to not pay royalties / bonuses etc. if they got a bit unlucky and "only" got 89 though. Sadly, that happens some of the time. PR departments get Metacritic "targets" (what are they supposed to do if the game sucks?). Metacritic should be taken for what it is, a useful snippet of information about any given game in terms of "what have the reviews been like". No more, no less.

lemon
lemon

The metacritic average or even the # of perfect scores mean less to me than the fact that no review from over 80 reviews scored the game less than a 9/10....when i read reviews, i normally read 2 from the top, 2 from the other end of the scale and 2 from in between... There's normally someone that doesn't like the game, but in this instance, with only scores over 90...it really speaks volumes about the quality of this title... And to be fair, i believe most of the games that scored over 90% in teh last 18 months actually deserved it....

Phaethon
Phaethon

I'm not a huge proponent of the metascore, I prefer to read a solid review instead of checking them. Although I do glance at them to get an idea of a game's reception. If I'm still not sure about it I'll look for reviews on smaller sites. Typically if you have any lingering suspicions the author will still be around to answer a follow-up question and not bouncing off to their next paid review. I don't think they teach developer's lessons. A lot of times the failures of great games aren't highlighted. At the same time a bad game could have been made great by a simple change, but a publisher is most likely going to look at the scores and the sales and toss it in the bin. It's a horrible situation the industry is in only looking to these scores when games need a more important basis for criteria than music and movies. A lot more has to go on in your brain when you play a game, so that should be the case when you judge one as well. I don't think reading is out of the question when you're really unsure of something, but scores alone aren't helping anyone in this industry.

SideMission
SideMission

I like to think that games are getting better :) And I think Uncharted 2 deserves a great score. I just find that the difference between say, an 80 and 94 is usually pretty subjective. And there are ever-increasing numbers of games cracking 90. I did some digging (woohoo, statistics): Games to score 90 or better in 2008: 17 In 2007: 14 In 2006: 8, if you expand the results to include Xbox 1 and PS2 (and only 4 if you don't). So I stand by my suggestion that scores are on the rise. There are many reasons they could be on the rise, I've attempted to touch upon some of them. There are 12 90+ games thus far in 2009 and critical acclaim season is upon us... we'll see how it goes. btw I'm personally not cursing any this, I'm stoked... there is a lot of great product out there... and I love great games.

stupidBlogs
stupidBlogs

Metascores should have been questioned a long time ago, but not with Uncharted 2. This is the greatest game ever created, and it should have been at the top of the list. Critics are becoming more strict as the technology improves, don't kid yourself, these new games are many times better than the older ones. I don't know why you centered this blog around Uncharted 2, since it is the single game on your list that actually deserves it's score or a higher one.

hector
hector

Chris, Which is more useless, the article or the jackass posting a three page response to the article? All I heard was "blah, blah, blah, blah, blah"

tarbis
tarbis

Well, ratings is always one way to tell gamers if the game is worth buying at all, saving consumers their money and to be spent on really good games. This also tells the devs who made the game if their game sucked or if needed just improvements and revisions. They're not just numbers, it's to let the devs know how they've done well. Much like how we got scores on test papers. To many regular joes, these scores mean nothing. But means a lot to devs.

chris
chris

nice catchphrase for a more or less useless article, but thats the internet. first of all, the metacritics-site and its connections to the vg-industry: pretty sure there are interests in both ways, but thats business, isn't it? the amount of dealing with those interests in directions of some kind is hidden to public eyes and - what i think personally - will not matter to the average gamer out there. second - ratings are needed in the media business to keep track of customer interests. the fact that new AAA-games seems to be automatically getting rates over 90% is a good thing - because with high production values and giving customers what they demand everyone wins, don't they? sites like metacritics collect ratings and give a overview about those, so i don't understand how there can be any concern. third and most important is - again, my personal thoughts - HOW scores are determined when there is clearly no indication of a percentage-score-system. example: i just read a review of Lars von Triers controversial "Antichrist" at variety online and due to getting some more reading into it i looked at metacritics - where the movie got 30 percent. av-club gave it a "b+", which equals 83 at metacritics. think about it. coming back to uncharted: reviews all over the world state that its above average, among the best games ever created. so why is it some kind of secret that all scores combined are equally high? the only interesting thing would be WHICH scores were taken and what those sites did to get a listing at metacritics. ps.: gamepro isn't the biggest gaming site, i'm pretty sure it's ign (the company behind it was so big that is was at some point at the us stock exchange listed) pps.: more journalism, less useless, mindless bla-bla on the net.

deftangel
deftangel

It's interesting to see the list of current-gen (thank god we've finally ditched "next") over 95 as quite a few of those games have had substantial criticism laid against them;- GTA:IV - there was quite a backlash after the initial hype. Bioshock - After "would you kindly" the quality isn't sustained and the ending is markedly less good than the first 2 hours LittleBigPlanet - Lots of people really didn't like the "floaty" controls & platforming. Personally, I enjoyed all three and they are certainly in the mixer for great games I've played this gen. I'd recommend them to anyone but there are probably games under that threshold I'd recommend more.

Pete
Pete

Surely MGS4 would have been 95 or over considering IGN gave it a 10/10. I know that's not the only review taken into account but they must have been close to it. Or is it just one game from each system.

GriftGFX
GriftGFX

Interesting read. I would like to see how much larger the scope of games is in the 90-94% range. That's probably even more telling.