THERE’S A RARE PHENOMENON happening this week in the gaming world: reviewers are almost unanimously slamming a big-name release. They’re not even waffling with “ifs” or “maybes,” but absolutely vilifying it.
Of course, I’m talking about Duke Nukem Forever, a game that languished in development hell for over a decade until 3D Realms threw in the towel and sold it off to Take-Two and Gearbox, who rapidly stitched up the existing work into something they could acceptably put in a box. The results, as you might suspect, are not good.
If you don’t follow videogame reviews that closely, you might wonder, why is this weird? Aren’t flops and scathing reviews common in every medium, from movies to music? Sure, but while bad games are nothing new, total AAA flops like Daikatana are uncommon, and it’s rare that you see reviewers declare war on a game in this manner.
Predictably, reviewers are already seeing some backlash from this, as coddled publishers aren’t used to being slapped around, nor are gamers enjoying DNF reviewers basically calling them stupid. But before talking about why this doesn’t happen more often, let’s take a sampling of what people are saying about DNF.
” It’s not fun at all. It’s depressing. Duke’s long-awaited comeback has turned him from genre innovator to wheezing has-been. In the time since his last outing, the likes of Halo, Battlefield, Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto have all gone from nothing to world-conquering, genre-defining juggernauts. Even within his own narrow niche, Bulletstorm and Gearbox’s own Borderlands have taken Duke’s irreverent shooter crown and made it their own, and it seems that after a decade and a half on the shelf, the self-proclaimed king no longer has the muscle to claim it back. ”
” While much of Duke Nukem Forever is embarrassingly bad–the kind of game you point and laugh at–its biggest problem is that it’s so tedious. Twisting valves, jumping on pipes and alien tentacles, driving through drab canyons, rolling alien spheres along the ground: this is what Duke Nukem Forever is about. It’s not about shooting aliens, and it certainly isn’t about fun. This game takes an icon and turns him into a laughingstock. Except, no one’s laughing. ”
” In most cases, the sections in Duke Nukem Forever that connect the shooting are dull, derivative experiences that feel like they exist for no other reason than to bloat the story mode, and it isn’t clear if they’re meant to parody video game filler content. It might be different if Duke approached a puzzle section, laughed, lobbed some curse words at it and moved on, but since we’re forced to solve the puzzles to continue it’s not tongue-in-cheek satire, unless the joke is on us. ”
” For a game that’s supposed to be so over-the-top and bombastic, Duke Nukem Forever sure is boring. Its longer-than-average campaign attempts to deliver on variety by mixing in a few vehicle sequences, an underwater section, and multiple levels where you’re shrunk down to tiny size and forced to carefully jump from one platform to another, but these only help make the game feel old. Most of this stuff–the platforming and awkward underwater controls, specifically–has been bred out of modern shooters for a reason. In the context of Duke Nukem Forever, a lot of these sequences feel like filler, meant to distract you from the game’s lackluster action. ”
This is really just the tip of the iceberg, as even lower-tier sites that typically fawn over everything have joined in the carnage, in their own I-can’t-write-a-coherent-sentence-but-I-think-this-game-sucks style. It really is open season on Duke Nukem Forever.
SO WHY IS THIS NEWS? Why aren’t these kinds of torchings more common with videogames?
It starts with the fact that reviewing videogames is more time-consuming than other mediums. You can watch a movie in two or three hours. You can listen to a new CD several times in an afternoon. But rarely do you see a big-ticket, $60 videogame that clocks in at under six hours — 10-20 hours is a pretty common amount of time for a reviewer to spend playtesting a game.
As a result, publications have to be selective. You don’t want your editors spending half their week working on a review no one will read, so when publishers release mediocre, unknown titles, they often don’t get bad reviews – they get no reviews at all.
The second factor is that building AAA games is a lengthy, iterative process, one that developers have refined to a great degree in recent years. It may have been common 15 years ago for PC games to ship broken out of the box, but that’s pretty rare these days with console titles. No one may have the magic formula for fun, and it’s not uncommon for games to get pushed out the door in need of some extra polish, but complete trainwrecks are few and far between.
And publishers aren’t idiots. They conduct focus groups. They run playtests. They bring in consultants and community folks to tell them what they’re missing or doing wrong. They usually know pretty early if a game is headed in the right direction or not, so when it comes time to figure out which games they should spend the most marketing dollars on and put in front of the media, it’s not going to be the game that’s a year behind schedule and looking like a disaster.
So by the time a game gets on to a publication’s radar for review, it’s usually gotten a healthy amount of attention from the publisher, and is probably of at least average quality. For a game to make it through years of development and be deemed worthy of a big marketing blitz, it’s probably not a total dud.
WHICH BRINGS US BACK TO Duke Nukem Forever. Of course reviewers are interested: it was once a beloved franchise, its development history is the stuff of legend, and now it’s being pushed out as a full-price $60 title with a decent marketing push. And somehow, the game that spent so long in development has so little going for it, from poor graphics and sloppy gameplay to stumbling attempts at humor.
Which presents the extremely rare case where videogame reviewers can mercilessly rip into a big-name game that’s as unimpressive as any major FPS in the last decade. The question is, are they up to the task and the fallout that goes along with it?
Even before the reviews started coming out, Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford went on the offensive. Perhaps trying to pull a Jedi mind trick and make reviewers doubt their judgment before blasting the game, he talked about the “tough job” reviewers faced:
” We also know that it’s a very difficult problem for journalists, so there’s going to be very few of them that decide to go perfect. ”
” It leaves it in this band there where you’re going to see a lot of 8s and 9s, and the number in that range doesn’t matter. Even if some people start to skew in some 7s in there, it’s not going to matter to the actual results in that band of outcomes. ”
“We know the game’s great. Any journalist that decides to try to go… to lowball it is gonna be held accountable by the readers.”
Of course, that didn’t stop reviewers from giving the game low scores. But then Tuesday, a rep rom PR firm Redner Group, who worked with Take Two on the game, sent out a few tweets on the reviews:
” too many went too far with their reviews…we r reviewing who gets games next time and who doesn’t based on today’s venom ”
What’s so depressing and disturbing about that tweet (other than a grown professional using “r” instead of “are,” of course) is how accurately it reflects the real relationship between game publishers and review publications. In the case above, the tweet above was eventually pulled down and an apology was issued, and in fact 2K even fired the agency today, because a publisher could never publicly support or admit to using those kinds of tactics. But of course they do, all the time.
In my years at GameSpy, I lost track of how many times publishers threatened to pull ads over perfectly justifiable 3- or 3.5-star reviews, There was the time I got a furious voice mail from a game’s producer threatening to pull GameSpy tech out of his game for having the nerve to give his buggy game a 65. And of course, there was the GameSpot fiasco a few years back where half the editorial staff ended up leaving over a pulled Kane & Lynch review. Even if there isn’t an admitted retaliation, there’s no question that publishers will often play favorites with exclusives and find subtle ways to penalize publications that give them negative coverage. It’s a legitimate concern.
Which leads to the last reason you rarely see reviewers tee off on a game, even when it’s an easy target: it’s rarely worth it. Game reviewers know that when they dare to go lower than everyone else, that review better be pitch-perfect and beyond reproach, because it’ll usually be followed by hordes of internet readers nitpicking every word you’ve ever written, not to mention publishers screaming bloody murder over lowering their precious Metacritic scores. Which isn’t to say that reviewers are afraid to give bad reviews, but when they do, they try to keep it professional instead of going for cheap shots that will inevitably send people looking for blood.
SO HERE WE ARE with Duke Nukem Forever, a game lousy enough that reviewers feel comfortable ripping it to shreds, perhaps emboldened by the belief that they won’t be alone in doing so. Some reviewers will inevitably handle it worse than others, unaccustomed to getting the green light to swing for the fences. But I find myself surprisingly pleased with many of the reviews so far, which I don’t think have been filled with vitriol, but with appropriate criticism for a game that probably shouldn’t have been released at full price.