The A.V. Club review: Why the crazy people are accidentally right

I should probably state before I get too deep into this that I really don't care about the score Scott Jones gave in his review of Uncharted 3for A.V. Club - for those who can't be bothered to click through a link, they gave it a C grade, which Metacritic translates to a 50/100. I don't own a PS3, and I will probably never play the game. In fact, I think the other controversial reviewis fantastic for many reasons, chief amongst which is that it is very clear about why the game is deserving of it's less-than-perfect-score.
 
Yet I take major issue with Jones's review, not for the score, but because the text of the review is, frankly, quite badly written. For one, it's incredibly short; I can't see how anyone can pass judgement on a game when their entire analysis fits entirely in my browser window (or even half of it if you consider the width of the column). I would say that a review of this length is barely enough for an album, let alone a video game which is considerably longer. Perhaps if it were short, but well-written and straight-to-the-point, I may well feel like the limited opinion presented is enough to summarise the game as a whole, but here this is hardly the case. Let's break it down, play-by-play.

Gamers are a story-starved lot. Case in point: the success of 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Its zippy storyline and witty, conflicted characters proved potent enough to make gamers forgive what were, even then, outdated gameplay mechanics.
 
In Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, the story still zips and characters are still conflicted, but targeting is as twitchy as ever, bad guys still require three or four shotgun blasts to the head before they’re deterred, and the game’s star, Nathan Drake, still has no clue whatsoever about how to crouch. Two years after Thieves, Uncharted’s gameplay mechanics and conventions are no longer dated; they’re borderline archaic.

It would be unfair to criticise the opening paragraphs for being too non-specific; after all, they're intended to be a summary of the rest of the review which, one would assume, would contain the evidence from which the general opinion came. In this light, the brief comments about the targeting and enemy health seem perfectly acceptable, though I am perhaps a little confused by the crouching comment. Is this a criticism of the cover system? If so, what exactly is wrong with it? This pattern, where probably valid criticism being watered down with rhetoric until the language reads nicely but ends up saying very little about the game itself, is rife within the review. Seeing as it is so short, this unfortunately leaves little room for any of the criticism to be decent.

Drake and sidekick Victor Sullivan cross deserts, seas, and continents in search of “the Atlantis of the desert.” The game’s dialogue, written by series writer Amy Hennig, is often funny and poignant. In one cutscene, Drake and an ex discuss their failed marriage; a running joke involves Sullivan saying things which sound dirty out of context. Yet the narrative beats are more familiar this time. Tombs are plundered, treasures are discovered, and moments later, villains arrive as usual to claim said treasures. Impressive setpieces punctuate the game—most memorably, Drake must escape from a sinking ocean liner. Yet these moments somehow always feel shoehorned into the experience, as if developer Naughty Dog concocted them in advance, then built the rest of the game around them. 

The next paragraph deals itself with the story. Yet, even though the tone is mostly positive here, once more we are left with an overall impression of the opinion without it ever being clear how exactly Jones came about it. The comments on the dialogue are fine, with his specific examples of the character's interaction easily justifying the 'funny and poignant' label, though considering that . However, exactly why the set pieces are simultaneously 'impressive' yet 'shoehorned' in is unexplained, and this brevity leaves me with an impression that the criticism comes from the fact that the set pieces are too good compared to the game around it, rather than the gameplay directly being poor. It's criticism, but it's explained backwards, and that isn't helpful; if there are significant parts which don't live up to the expectations of the set pieces, then I would want to know exactly what is lacking in those scenes.
 
Indeed, the review quickly does move on to discussing what is lacking in the gameplay, but in doing so produces an absolute mess of a paragraph. Let's break it up:

Much would be forgiven if the gameplay weren’t so woefully faulty.

Ignoring the opening sentence, which is there simply to segue into gameplay discussion, we come this, the worst sentence in the review:

Creeping up on a goon for a stealth kill can result in Drake inadvertently performing a somersault—ta-dah!—into the goon’s backside.

It took me several reads to work out what it was going on about. In fact, I'm still not sure even now, and I doubt I'd have ever worked it out if I hadn't watched the Quick Look and spotted one tiny, insignificant detail. I assume that the button for a stealth kill and the button to roll being the same, and pressing it when intending to do a stealth kill might lead to you rolling instead. I only worked this out after noticing in the Quick Look a moment where the animation priority for the roll lead to Nathan Drake rolling on the spot into a wall beneath a window, and realising that the same thing might be happening here.
 
For a worrying amount of time, I was in fact convinced that the criticism came from the stealth kill animation simply clipping through the enemy. The fact that I was very wrong then, and the fact that I'm still not convinced I'm right, should hopefully say just how badly explained this point is. I really don't understand how something like this ends up in a review; as purchasing advice it doesn't tell me anything useful. It only seems to be a good excuse to vary the language a little by having a nice little change of tone within the dashes—rhetoric at it's finest—which simply makes the review sound a little less dry.

Drake moves like a staggering stew-bum, and as a result, cheap, undeserved deaths abound.

The next sentence doesn't do much to improve things. For starters, the choice of 'stew-bum' had me reaching for a dictionary (it means, very literally, a drunken bum) but I can't see why you'd ever want to choose it over something like 'drunkard.' Perhaps I'm making some assumptions about the vocabulary of the review's intended audience, but surely words like stew-bum only serve to obscure the point you're making, leaving behind a sentence that may well look colourful and make you feel intelligent, but does little to communicate exactly how Drake's drunken movement leads to cheap deaths. Sure, it's possible to read between the lines and get some understanding of how bad movement controls might lead to you dying in a situation where you feel it wasn't your fault, but compare that sentence to a point in Simon Parkin's Eurogamer review on a similar topic:

Stealth is positively encouraged, but as soon as an AI soldier spots you so too does every enemy in the area, who instantly line up their sights on your position (even if you retreat to cover) with irritating telepathic prescience.

It's both clearly explained why exactly the deaths are cheap, with a specific piece of gameplay concisely referenced such that I can instantly relate to why Parkin would want to point this out as a pitfall that the game falls into. It's leaps and bounds ahead of Jones's throwaway comment.

The fuzzy mechanics also hamper the game’s superfluous multiplayer, which gamers will likely flock to for a few nights before returning to the more reliable confines of Black Ops and Halo.

Jones follows with an oddly broad generalisation. I mean, sure, he may well not like the multiplayer, but he can hardly speak to how everyone else my find it. Considering that this review came well after the initial batch of reviews, Jones must have known that the general opinion of the game was that it's pretty damn good, so who is he to say that gamers will actually disagree with all those other critics that gave high praise for the multiplayer and quickly lose interest? It's wrapped up in opinion, but it's bordering on a factually inaccurate statement. 

Uncharted 3 shows more people and more places, but tells players less. Gamers felt like they knew Nathan Drake at the end of Uncharted 2, at least a little. But by the closing moments of Uncharted 3, after spending 12 or so hours in his shoes, players somehow wind up knowing even less about him than they did at the game’s beginning.

And then the review just ends, with what is almost a non-sequitur. What does Jones mean when he says that players 'wind up knowing even less about him than they did at the game’s beginning,' and that the game 'tells players less?' Is he criticising the game's plot and character development? Both of those seemed to garner praise before. It's as if Jones just gave up writing a review at this point, just resorting to pure, nonsensical, rhetoric with a single nugget of useful information buried within (the game's about 12 hours long, apparently).
 
In all, very little negative criticism is given for the game that isn't either incomprehensible or a general statement about broad portions of gameplay that would be more suited to a section heading than the bulk of the review. Even the occasional positive comments aren't exactly well-developed.
 
It's thus perhaps slightly understandable why the crazy people on the internet might react as they did. While I have no doubt that Jones has a clear understanding of why he thinks the game isn't as good as everyone else does, he hasn't given any indication of that in the text. I don't think many of the crazy complaining internet people did much more than skim-read the review text (at best) but, if they did, unlike the Eurogamer review, they wouldn't find anything to change their minds.
 
So, while Jones is perfectly entitled to not like the game as much as other people do, if he's going to put his opinion out there, he needs to do so in a far better way, because, in trying to explain why you don't like the shooting controls, you have do to a lot more than just say that the aiming is 'twitchy.' This goes double when your review is so controversial and against-the-grain, as, without properly explained criticisms, it's difficult to take an opinion as being in any way valid when there are so many others disagreeing.
 
So I arrive at the odd conclusion that the crazy internet people might just accidentally be right. While I can't and won't say that Jones doesn't have any idea what he's talking about, with the evidence I'm presented, I can't exactly say otherwise. So if people were to say that Jones hates good games, or is acting out on some sort of vendetta, or is only writing a negative review to get attention, then, as much as I hate to say it, I can't prove these ridiculous accusations wrong. My normal ammunition would be the specific criticisms and examples within the review that are just straight-up lacking here.
 
At the end of the say, a review is, by and large, meant to be purchasing advice. In reading the review, I really can't say I feel all that better advised on whether I might want to buy Uncharted 3, and thus the review has failed to do its job. While the backlash against the review has been for all the wrong reasons, and that Scott Jones is perfectly entitled to give a more negative review for a very well-received game, I feel it odd that people are so quick on the defence; almost as if they read just as little of the review as those they are criticising.
14 Comments