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Red Alert 3 Smackdown

November 2nd, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Media, RTS

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has linked to a debate between a hardcore RTS player and PCGamer/Gamesradar RTS reviewer Dan Stapleton. The short version is that Stapleton gave Red Alert 3 a very positive review but AGMLauncher at Game Replays finds the review too short and uninformative. From what is written, AGMLauncher judges that Stapleton is unqualified to assess RA3 or any other RTS. Stapleton, naturally, takes offense and says that AGMLauncher is missing the point of a review written for a general audience.

The whole thing is a variant on the usual audience versus critic divide, where a particular subset of a writer’s audience is convinced that the the critic doesn’t “get it”. You see this a lot in attitudes towards reviews of comic book movies, for example. There is a generational and parochial divide here, too, where an audience that has grown up playing RTS multiplayer skirmishing online wonders why critics don’t do more due diligence in the MP aspect of a game.

For AGMLauncher, the review (in fact, any review in a major outlet) comes up short because it doesn’t deal with the things that he wants to know. (He has 14 questions he wants answered.) And about half of these questions are good ones: What is the ratio of building to fighting? (If the fact it’s a C&C game wasn’t a big enough hint.) Are the factional differences substantial? How is the map variety? Does naval combat – a big thing this time around – work? How do counters fit in the game design? These things are central to understanding if/when/how RA3 works as a real time strategy game in all three modes – campaign, skirmish and online.

A lot of the other questions aren’t so significant since they are things that are only worth spending word count on if they are a problem or outstanding. There is no reason to mention pathfinding unless it doesn’t work; if it does then it’s not interesting – it’s supposed to work. Same with lobby management or user interface. Average army size and game length in MP is highly dependent on a number of variables; critics should never mention how long it takes to play a game for the same reason. Other questions are the sorts of things that are more appropriate for bullet points in a preview, like how campaigns or the tech tree are structured.

Stapleton concedes that the review could have been longer, if only by a few hundred words. For a good writer, a few hundred words is a huge increase, by the way. And he also admits that the choice of cheesecake screenshots was not necessarily a good one, editorially speaking. But his basic argument is that the review does its job by addressing the masses of gamers who read Gamesradar and PCGamer. Competitive RTS gamers are not his audience, and besides, what can he tell them that they don’t already know? Previews, beta tests, interviews, other C&C games…Red Alert 3 is not an unknown commodity.

Then the writer starts going on about “dumbing down” of both reviews and RTS games, neither of which I’ve seen any evidence of. There are certainly bad reviews (and reviewers) out there. But a lot of good ones, too. The RTS genre is still very strong, but it is clearly dividing itself into a number of subtypes. I think that’s healthy; others don’t. AGMLauncher concludes with a list of review tips that Gillen at RPS terms “fascist” but I think are mostly too general to be useful. Point 1 makes a big assumption about readers and reviewers, 2 and 3 assume a single purpose and error free reviewing, 4, 6 and 7 are obvious, and 5 never defines “gameplay” (it’s not always obvious what is and what isn’t)

From where I sit, the debate boils down to a few very basic questions:

1) What is the purpose of a game review?
2) What range of experience or knowledge does a reviewer need to adequately assess a game?
3) In those inevitable circumstances where a reviewer cannot say everything, what is most important to convey?
4) If a game targets multiple audiences, how can a reviewer do justice to all of them?
5) What is the place of the hardcore audience in reviewing any media form? Where do you draw the lines between fan, fanatic and fanboy?


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Adam

    I think the problem is that we have plenty of sources dedicated to generalist reviews, but there are basically no sources for “competitive” reviews (i.e. reviews that address the game as a competitive form).

    RTS games have it pretty bad, but it’s particularly noticeable in reviews of fighting games, which generally boil down to laundry lists of the games features (most of the SCIV reviews spent more words on the character design system than on the rest of the review) . Which is fine for Joe the Plumber, but it’s useless as a critique of the game’s competitive value.

  • Chris Nahr

    While I would generally agree that I’d love to see more detailed discussion of gameplay mechanics in reviews, RA3 seems like the worst possible example to pin this argument on. I haven’t played it myself but from what I can tell RA3 is aimed at non-competitive gamers who just want to play through the campaign and laugh at the hilarious movies. These gamers might be into previous entries of the series but not into Serious Cat RTS such as Total Commander. So Dan Stapleton’s relatively superficial review seems quite appropriate here.

  • Troy

    “Serious Cat RTS”

    I like that.

  • James Allen

    I have also weighed this myself, as to who is going to read the review, and I think it depends on the game. Reviews for super hardcore wargames should be written from a super hardcore wargame perspective because that’s who is most likely going to be playing them. On the other hand, I suspect most reviews of RA3 will be written for a more general audience in mind because that’s who the game is geared at (you won’t see a review from me for the game since EA hates me and won’t send me free games). Plus, people have to understand that the review is ultimately written from the reviewers perspective. Is everyone going to like Europa Universalis III? No, but I do and I gave it a high score. This is also why I tend to not review RPGs…I don’t like them so I’m not in a real position to compare and contrast them against other entries in the genre (I actually turned down a review of a hack-n-slash today, so you should go to Soldak’s website and buy it anyway to make up for my shortcomings because Depths of Peril was good stuff).

    By the way, I am surprised that the “there are certainly bad reviewers out there” comment doesn’t link directly to my site :)

  • The Preacher

    Tom Chick’s review on Crispy Gamer has also drawn ire, but he also wrote it for the more general populace. One of his points (in responding to a gamer’s email) was that EA markets it to the masses. Hardcore fans are going to buy the game anyway, but the appearance of Jenny McCarthy, J.K. Simmons et al, shows that EA wants to bring in different people. This game is really not for them, despite the marketing.

  • Troy

    I haven’t read Tom’s review so as not to have my own too heavily influenced, but I know that he didn’t like it.

    His point about the marketing is a good one. EA, for the most part, isn’t making games for the hardcore RTS player, at least not intentionally. And they have had some very good RTSes recently.

    RA3 is not a very good RTS.

  • Kieron Gillen

    Just in passing, I didn’t say the list was fascist – I said it was the product of a genre fascist. In other words, the product of a particularly closed mind with strict ideas of what RTS should or could be.


  • Krupo

    You’re welcome to call him a fascist, though. It bemuses the online masses. ;)