Over the years – at least while I was writing for CGW – readers would occasionally say they wished they had my job. My usual response to that was, “Oh no you don’t”. To those on the other side of the fence, it naturally seemed like the perfect situation. But reviewing games is no easy matter.

The typical gamer can stop at any time. If the game isn’t fun, if it’s dull, or silly, or frustrating, the player just deletes it and looks for something else. Preferably via trade, so as not to have wasted too much money.

You don’t have that luxury when reviewing the game. On a few very rare occasions, I was able to slough off a real turkey on some other poor soul. Mostly, though, I was stuck with whatever was scheduled, be it good, bad, or indifferent. There is no choice; you have to wade through the thing.

Just think about some game you really didn’t like. One that you finally gave up on and dumped. Now imagine playing through to the end, regardless. Imagine doing that a lot. Or at least a fair amount of the time. Still want the job?

Okay, now play that same game in no more than two, or maybe three, weeks. Product releases are no respecters of magazine deadlines. The game has to be done and written up in time for the next issue. Editors aren’t too thrilled with writers who can’t send in the material promptly. Of course, a game might be released too late, and there’s nothing to be done about that, except slate it for issue after next. Mostly, however, one whips through as fast as possible and does the article.

When I started reviewing, there were a couple of things I took for granted; no one ever mentioned them to me. One was playing a game to completion. That was perfectly logical to me then, and still is now. Imagine a reviewer writing up a movie based on the first ten minutes, or a book’s couple of chapters. This is hardly fair to either side, regardless of whether the review is positive or negative.

A game could start off poorly, then get better, or vice versa. How could a potential buyer make the right decison without knowing all the details? Especially in the days before the Internet became big, magazine reviews were usually the only way gamers could pick up information about a product. So it was important to me to finish a game, in order to give a clear picture of it.

Even so, once in a great while, that wasn’t possible. I recall – with no great joy – Elvira II: The Jaws Of Cerberus. At the end, you had to summon a demon so you could destroy it. This involved a ritual begun by lighting candles, and I had no matches. They’d been used up much earlier as a spell component, and those were the only matches in the entire game. Of course, by the time I found that out, it was a little too late. And given the tedium of this game, there was no way I’d play through again, even if I’d had the time to do so.

Fortunately, such instances were rare, but it brings us to the other item I always made sure to mention: the bad stuff. There is nothing worse than buying a game based on a glowing review, only to discover the interface is terrible, the gameplay awful, the design poor, the product full of bugs, or any combination of the foregoing.

So it was equally important to mention the problems and difficulties I encountered, since naturally everyone else would run up against them, too. However, that didn’t necessarily mean the game was a dog. Even the best, such as Ultima IV, have their bad points. What matters is whether the product overall can rise above them to provide a fun playing experience, despite the drawbacks.

Also, I didn’t review from beta. I’d had a couple of bad experiences with that early on, and decided it would be final code or nothing. A gold master, yes, because that was final (or final until the first patch ;); anything less was unacceptable.

Using beta puts one in an uncomfortable position. Naturally, there are bugs. How many, and which ones will be fixed on release, who knows? Plus new ones may crop up later on. What do you say? “Well, the beta was really buggy, but don’t worry, it’ll be cleaned up by the time you read this”? I don’t think so. Some features may change, too. There is no way to give a fair picture of what to expect from beta.

One time, I received an advance copy of a game from a company that shall remain nameless. The accompanying letter said, in part: “Don’t worry if you find any bugs, they’ll be fixed before the product ships.” Obviously, this person didn’t understand what is meant by “final code”. Ahem.

I’ve never cared if people didn’t agree with my opinion of a product. Look, for any game, however bad, there are some who will love it, and for any game, however good, there are those who will hate it, with the rest falling somewhere in between. “How could you say that about Game X? It was great!”, “Your review of Game X was right on the mark…”, and of course, “I think you were too easy on Game X, it’s total trash”. Heh.

My opinon is just that, opinion, based on my own viewpoints and experience. Your mileage may vary. What matters is that you know what you’re getting before you put your money down. That is the critical factor. And that is true whether I liked a game or not.

One example that comes to mind is Alternate Reality. On the Apple (yes, that one goes way back), all you did was explore/map a city and fight hostiles. There were many interesting places you came across, with which you could do nothing. The game, as such, was a bore. Yet, someone wrote to me that he had bought the game after reading the review, and was enjoying it – and that review was less than kind.

Which brings us to something I pondered about many times over the years while writing for the mag. It doesn’t matter so much today, with the immediacy of the ‘net, but back then, I wondered how truly useful the reviews were.

Look again at those remarks a few paragraphs above. They obviously came from people who had played the game. Did they buy the game as soon as it came out, then waited to see what the review said about it? Did they read the review first, then buy the thing anyway, maybe to see if it were really that bad?

Lag time was the problem. A game review written in January wouldn’t be on the stands until March. That means the product is almost three months old by the time the mag gets into readers’ hands. How many gamers – particularly ardent ones – will wait that long? Especially for a series they like, or a game for which there has been a great deal of hype and build-up?

Certainly, there are those savvy enough to wait for, so to speak, the first returns before making a decision to buy or not. Yet it seemed to me back then that reviews – any reviews, not just mine – in a magazine were often after-the-fact things, and not as useful as they could be, simply because of the time span between release and article.

That’s a moot point now, what with news groups and any number of game sites with reviews that show up far sooner than any print publication could manage. In some ways, these are a great service to gamers, who can pick up information, not to mention contrasting opinions, about new product soon after release. Of course, some discrimination is necessary, since not everything out there is of high quality.

As to actually writing a review, that’s the tough part. I think about the game for awhile, and see what comes to mind first: the good parts or the bad parts. How bad were the bad parts? Were they just annoyances, or did they overshadow everything else? What was wrong here? What was right here? Did I have a good time? Am I looking forward to playing this again?

Then I usually try to let a couple of days go by before writing it up, though I’m composing rough drafts in my head during that time. This is most important with a game I didn’t like, as otherwise I’d be completely merciless, which would not be a good thing. Of course, some games are such losers that even this “cool-off” period doesn’t help much.

And yet the games that make me angriest aren’t the outright turkeys so much as the “coulda beens” and the “almost weres”. Nothing blows my fuse faster than a game for which I had high, or at least good, expectations, and been disappointed. Reviews of such products are always the most difficult to write, because there’s that “if only” in the back of my mind. “If only they had (or hadn’t) done thus and so”, I could be writing a rave instead of a rant.

I’d much rather do a positive article, because I derive great pleasure in sharing the good news, and none whatsoever in sharing the bad news. But when a game doesn’t measure up, one has to be honest about it. Because people are going to make a decision based on that article, and I don’t want them throwing money away on something they won’t like.

So, reviewing isn’t all that easy a task. It’s real work, just like anything else, and has more than its share of drawbacks. You sure you want that job…?miniscorp