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.