What ‘The Last of Us Part II’ tells us about Metacritic

“My disappointment is immeasurable, and my day is ruined. I waited 5 years to play this and they gave me a horrible intro and s*** ending. I just want to forget about this game,” writes one Metacritic user. 

“Worst story ever. Naughty Dog should be ashamed of themselves. The Last of Us 1 was a Masterpiece…..Part 2 is pure trash” writes another.

The Last of Us Part II has seen near-universal acclaim by professional reviewers, yet has a user score of 5.5. Why is there such a disparity? Are professional reviewers out of touch with the average gamer as some accuse them of being, or are they industry shills paid off by Sony? Of course, both statements aren’t true, but looking at Metacritic, I would find it hard to blame you for coming to that conclusion. 

The Last of Us Part II (TLOU2) was always going to be a controversial game, as reflected on by other writers at The Boar. The sheer anticipation of its release after months of delays and various leaks of the storyline has probably made it the most talked-about game of the year. 

With so much chatter, it is sites like Metacritic that are supposed to help us make sense of it all: by aggregating all the reviews and calculating an average score for a piece of media – at least, in theory. In reality, Metacritic exacerbates a long-running problem in the gaming community of toxic infighting and an overreliance on review scores as a metric of success.

I can be an Xbox One user who is upset that TLOU2 is a PlayStation exclusive and vent my anger by giving the game a zero

Let’s start with the scoring system for ‘Critic Reviews’, which is a complete mess. While there is a wide breadth of reviews listed from professional publications, there are allegations that Metacritic’s algorithm weighs reviews from large brands like IGN higher than others.

Other publications including Kotaku, Polygon, and Eurogamer, do not give review scores and are instead placed in the ‘Unscored’ category. These are reviews from very influential outlets that are ignored in the scoring system, which is even more significant, given that many of these reviews for TLOU2 are what Metacritic would consider as ‘Mixed’ or ‘Negative’. For example, Kotaku had a particularly negative review, while Polygon’s was mixed. There is also speculation that Metacritic still attempts to score such reviews in the aggregation process, which only adds doubt to the reputability of the overall score, as this goes against what these sites stand for in regards to reviews. 

Now if critic scores are bad, user scores are a hundred times worse. Review bombing and trolls are rife, owing to a lack of any moderation of reviews. I can be an Xbox One user who is upset that TLOU2 is a PlayStation exclusive and vent my anger by giving the game a zero. All I need is to create an account, something Metacritic is very happy for me to do to sweep up that sweet, sweet data.

It also wouldn’t be the gaming community we all love and hate without racist, homophobic, and transphobic criticisms of the depictions of some of the characters in the game. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of these reviews come from coordinated attacks from forums like 4chan.

Now to their credit, the staff at Metacritic do actively remove troll and hateful reviews during the first few weeks of a game’s release (when activity is at its highest), but this can only go so far. The user score for TLOU2 has steadily risen since release as more genuine reviews are added, but this hardly solves the fundamental problem with the scoring system.

One of the worst tragedies of Metacritic was that of indie development studio Obsidian

 I have devised two potential solutions to the problem of irrelevant user reviews.

The first solution would be to develop a system to check that users have purchased the game. All the large gaming platforms have single sign-on (SSO) services that allow you to connect your profile to other services. I don’t think it would be too difficult for the development team at Metacritic to build a verification service that checks whether users actually own the games they review by checking their PlayStation Network/Xbox Live/ Steam account.

I believe that would eliminate some 90% of fake reviews from those who just want to troll or bring a game’s rankings down. This would still leave 10% of poor-quality reviews from people with an axe to grind (my personal gripe is with people who refuse to finish the game after a particular plot point).

 This leads to my second solution. Why not outright abolish user scores? Since they are so hard to moderate, and as the gaming community has shown that they can add nothing of value when given the opportunity to provide their own input, it seems to me to be the obvious solution. The primary purpose of Metacritic was to be a one-stop-shop of all the reviews on the Internet and that’s fine: I don’t see how user reviews add anything of use to that, especially when they abuse such a platform.

Why not outright abolish user scores?

Finally, I think an important discussion is needed about the industry’s overreliance on review scores and the unchecked influence Metacritic has on the success of a game. One of the worst tragedies of Metacritic was that of indie development studio Obsidian. As part of its contract with Bethesda to develop Fallout New Vegas, Obsidian was to receive a bonus based on royalties, on the condition that the game gained a Metascore of 85 or above. Unfortunately, the game just missed the mark, gaining a score of 84. Obsidian didn’t get the bonus and had to lay off staff. Legally, Bethesda did nothing wrong, but they were heavily criticised for refusing to pay out to Obsidian developers, especially given how close they were to meeting the targeting and the fact the game was a commercial success for Bethesda. 

The Obsidian story does open up a larger question as to whether a game’s success should be measured in terms of review scores. After all, video games are a piece of art, and art is a subjective matter, with no definitive answer as to whether it is good. I think the industry would do well to follow outlets like Kotaku by ditching review scores and thereby ending Metacritic’s reign of terror.

UPDATE: Since this article was written, Metacritic has changed its review policy to prevent users from uploading reviews in the first 36 hours of a game’s release, encouraging them to take the time to play the game instead.

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