There is an unwritten rule for many reviewers: never give a game a perfect score. If you follow reviewers on Twitter, you may have seen some who brag they never give out perfect review scores for games. Their argument tends to run something like this: There is no such thing as a perfect game, therefore I will not give any game a perfect score.
Then there are reviewers like me. If you look back over my past reviews, you will see I have given several games perfect scores, even though I have at some point in the review managed to point out problems with the game. I gave Borderlands 2 a 10 out of 10, despite the fact audio could be overridden, and if you skipped missions you had played in coop, you might miss story elements. Likewise, Mass Effect 3 garnered a perfect score despite the fact BioWare chose to map every action to a single button.
So the question remains: in light of the fact no game is perfect, why do I give perfect scores? The answer lies in how I treat game reviews.
The Scores are not the Important Part
I know many people who, when they see a review, skip immediately to the score. That tendency saddens me. A good review should be about so much more than just the score the game receives.
When I review a game, I try to do more than just follow a formula of “This is the story; this is the gameplay; this is the score.” I try to give the reader insight into what playing the game truly felt like. As an example, here is an excerpt from my review of Spec Ops: The Line:
And then it happens. A decision you make goes horribly wrong, and the story of the game takes a completely unexpected turn. I will not tell you what happens as I do not want to spoil anything, but I found myself having to stop playing for the night, allowing what I had just done to sink in.
I use descriptions like the above to try and relate to the reader what about this game, if anything, grabbed me. If the game was not one that did, I will make sure to point that out in the review as well. My goal as a reviewer is to leave the reader with a clear understanding of whether or not the game I am reviewing is one he or she would like to play.
Now I am not saying the score doesn’t matter at all. It should give a general idea of what I think about the game, and it should be reflective of the rest of the article. I have read reviews where the score and the review itself did not match up, almost as if the person choosing the score did not actually write the review. I do my best to make sure whatever score I give the game is backed up by the review.
With that in mind, how do I choose the scores for the games I review? While it is not an exact science, I do have a range of scores I tend to use to reflect just how much I enjoyed a game.
What My Review Scores Mean
I used to be a big fan of X-Play back when Adam Sessler was still there. They once did a segment on what their review scores mean, breaking down just what the difference between a 3 star game and a 4 star game is. To be honest, I have adopted something similar to this system for my own review scoring. Here is a generalized breakdown of what my review scores mean:
- 0-1: This game should be avoided at all costs. It is not that the game is bad; that alone would not be enough to for me to rate a game this low. A 0-1 star game would have to be fundamentally broken and/or completely unplayable. I have never rated a game this poorly, and I hope I never have to.
- 2-4: The game shows potential, but it just does not work for me. A good example of this would be Mirror’s Edge (rated a 2 out of 5 at the time I reviewed it, which would translate to a 4 on a 10 point scale). The game was not horrible by any means, but what in my opinion were clunky controls just ruined my experience with it. I could see why others might like it, but it was not for me.
- 5: This is an average game. One of my pet peeves is seeing a reviewer or game fans treat 7 as average. We are not in school where 70% is an average C grade. On a 10 point scale, 5 is in the middle, so a game with a 5 out of 10 rating should be a middle-of-the-road kind of game.
- 6-7: Games I rate in this range are ones that I enjoyed, but I either feel they are not for everyone or had enough frustrations built in that I could not call it a great experience. Shenmue II, a game that is only really going to be enjoyed by fans of the series, is a great example of a game in this score range.
- 8-9: Now we are getting into the great games category. A game I have rated an 8 or a 9 is one I can recommend to the overwhelming majority of gamers. It may have some issues, such as the bland shooter mechanics of Spec Ops or the glitches of Saints Row IV, but these do not detract enough from the game for the score to drop much.
Where does that leave the 10 rating? Any game I give a top score is one I believe every gamer should play, even if said gamer is not generally a fan of this type of game. Last year, I gave perfect scores to both Borderlands 2 and Mass Effect 3, and all you have to do is listen to the podcast or follow me on Twitter to see just how much I have recommended those games to anyone and everyone. They are examples of games that, while not perfect, more than make up for their minor imperfections with gameplay, story and fantastic experiences. Borderlands 2 managed to improve upon the already fantastic coop of the first, and the addition of multiplayer in Mass Effect 3 made it a game I have come back to time and time again. These games, in my opinion, more than deserve their perfect scores.
Score is Just a Guideline
Scoring a review is highly subjective. There have been many games I have rated much higher than other reviewers, and I have had to explain why on a few occasions. A great example is my review of Aliens: Colonial Marines; my 6.5 was much higher than most reviewers gave that game. In the review, I tried to explain that my score was based more on the fact that fans of the movies would find a lot to enjoy in the game, even if the overall experience would leave many wanting. Honestly, I fought with myself over the score I wanted to give this game, eventually settling for one that would show it was okay but not great.
Remember how I said the score was not the most important thing? Even though I rated Mass Effect 3 and Borderlands 2 10s, I gave my Game of the Year nod to Spec Ops. My reason was the game was the one that made me stand up and take notice last year, making the experience of playing it more important than the score it received.
Please understand I have no problem with a reviewer taking the stand that he or she will not give a game a perfect score. That is a personal decision, and as I have just mentioned, scoring reviews is subjective. I have chosen instead to only reward perfect scores to those games which transcend other games of their class or genre. If I think every gamer should at least give a particular game a try, I will give it a perfect score.