A Review Deconstruction: Avoiding Common Pitfalls

When reviewing a game, there are a lot of factors to consider:

  • Your personal tastes
  • The game's mechanical complexity
  • The visual and auditory style
  • The community surrounding the game
  • Themes and allegories
  • The holistic experience

Alternatively, you can use the Milo Yiannopoulos method, which is to write a hit piece in the guise of a review.

I've not played Dragon Age: Inquisition. I don't have any particular interest in it; the Dragon Age series always felt like a cheap knock-off of Bioware's seminal Baldur's Gate series. This deconstruction is not based on the quality of Inquisition - of which I have no frame of reference - but rather the quality of Milo's review.

This article is a point-by-point deconstruction and commentary of Milo's review as of December 20th, 2014. Let's walk through and see how to improve your own writing by avoiding the pitfalls Milo falls into.

Dozens of readers have been in touch to ask what I think of perhaps the most controversial triple-A (that’s gamer for “top tier,” or blockbuster) release of the year. For a while, I resisted their entreaties. But ultimately I exist to serve you, dear reader. So here it is: the Breitbart review of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Inserting yourself into the review - not as a personal experience, such as in anecdotes or greater personal context, but rather as an ego, as "the reviewer" whose presence should be lauded or observed - is one of the most insidious pitfalls of the amateur game reviewer. Naturally, Milo makes this mistake within the first sentence.

Notice that it's not so much a review as Milo beging "begged by the masses" to cover this game. It's a psychological manipulation; a way to put himself on a pedestal by which he can hand down judgement. A good critic exists on no such pedestal. It's a difficult juggling act between personal and critical - a balance everybody disagrees on - but this is universally not the way to go.

First off, it’s worth explaining some historical context. Most of the worst things in the world come from Canada. Consider Shania Twain. Justin Bieber. Bryan Adams. Rufus Wainwright. Tom Green. Avril Lavigne. Michael Cera. Céline Dion. Nickelback. BioWare, developers of Dragon Age, are also Canadian.

Racism and/or nationalism has no place in a game review, and the cheap dig at Canada is the first sign that this review is on a bad path.

Also note that Milo lists off things typically hated by gamers as a form of pandering. You do not pander as a reviewer; you approach a piece of media through your particular lens, examine it, and share your thoughts. You are not an extension of the audience's will.

I shouldn't have to defend Canada, but I will point out that for every "thing-that-gamers-dislike" that comes from Canada, there's something they do like. For example, William Shatner, beloved science-fiction actor, is Canadian.

With BioWare’s reputation established in the early 2000s by middling but commercially popular, if somewhat buggy, releases such as Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare was, at least a decade ago, strongly positioned to achieve sustained success at the “average games that perform well with customers” end of the market. (To be fair to both of those titles, they have very enthusiastic fan bases.)

Not a good start to the actual review.

Baldur's Gate was not a particularly buggy game. Neither was Knights of the Old Republic. Milo is mixing up Bioware with Black Isle, their "partners in crime' in making RPGs at Interplay. Black Isle made many seminal, if buggy, RPGs, such as Icewind Dale and the still-incredible Fallout.

Both of the games listed also rank very highly among both critics and consumers. Baldur's Gate 2 ranks at a solid 95 on Metacritic, and is often considered one of the best RPGs ever made.

Milo is engaging in some old-fashioned historical revisionism here. He's trying to paint BioWare as an incompetent crowd-pleaser, a company whose legacy is defined by popularity in the face of mediocrity. The fact is that BioWare was and is a critical and commercial darling, despite critical issues with games such as Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age 2.

But the company in recent years has become… well, a bit of a running joke. Most gamers say the rot set in around 2009 or 2010, when BioWare was acquired by Electronic Arts. Perhaps it was a talent exodus, too much managerial interference or a failure to keep the creative teams fresh. Either way, BioWare’s ability to release artistically accomplished–and even, some reviewers say, technologically competent–games began to evaporate.

"Most gamers" is what we in the business refer to as "weaseling." It's a claim of majority without a link to back it up. This in particular is not even that hard, as you can find threads about BioWare's decline in quality on virtually any forum. While that does not denote any sort of real majority, it does offer at least anecdotal evidence, which is usually good enough for a review assertion.

There is also a suggestion that BioWare’s games became unduly politicised at around the same time, pandering to what some call the “social justice” narrative, awkwardly shoehorning minority characters and progressive messaging into its plots and meddling with storylines to push political agendas that have never resonated with ordinary gamers. Practically every release from BioWare now contains dozens of gay and lesbian romance storylines or sex scenes, which many young gamers find baffling.

"A suggestion," "what some call," and "many young gamers" are even worse, as they are ways for Milo to avoid responsibility for his intensely homophobic and regressive viewpoints. While attacks on homosexuality should come as no surprise if you read Breitbart, it's the way Milo does it - saying gross things without taking responsibility for it - that is the problem.

This is an especially common tactic among gossips, which Milo definitely is. Keep an eye on the rest of the review, as there's a lot of gossip language.

2011’s Dragon Age II unexpectedly bombed with consumers, despite, of course, the rave reviews from mainstream game news sites, who need only get a whiff of a paraplegic lesbian in an ill-fated love affair with a black transsexual to award a game full marks.

There is nowhere in Dragon Age 2, as far as I am aware, where a disabled lesbian has a love affair with a black transgender person. Of course, Milo doesn't bother to back it up with a link to a video or article.

(Note: I haven't played Dragon Age 2, but a cursory search of media shows this claim to be false. I welcome anyone reading this article to link me to proof of this claim, as it's one I couldn't find on my own. If so, I will amend the article.)

This is simply more homophobic bigotry masked under the guise of speaking for the "common man."

Mass Effect 2 wasn’t a critical success with ordinary gamers either; they called it “filler” and said it was “uninspiring.” It, too, bored players with politics.

Actually, Mass Effect 2 was quite well-received, both by press and players. No links, of course, to the quotations of "filler" and "uninspiring" or even the assertion of "boring players with politics." Mass Effect 2 does very little in the way of pushing sexual politics; not that Milo would know, as he's never played it.

And then of course there was the extraordinary failure of imagination in Mass Effect 3, the ending of which has gone down in gamer history as one of the most needless creative failures in the history of the industry. The games press, needless to say, denied there was anything wrong with Mass Effect 3, scolding gamers for being “entitled.”

Actually, there's quite a lot of writing from the mainstream press talking about how Mass Effect 3 is a narrative failure.

The "entitlement" phrase comes from the press deriding gamers for demanding the ending be changed after the game was already developed and released. In other words, creatives buckling to pressure to change their creative vision. This is, of course, something Milo derides in this very review, but don't expect consistency.

As a personal note, I detested the whole of Mass Effect 3, not just the ending; the narrative arcs built up over the past two games are distilled down to simplistic black-and-white decisions. It was incredibly insulting.

But if entitlement means expecting a sensible and narratively satisfying resolution to an expensive, immersive video game, most consumers will be happy to admit that they are guilty. Many of BioWare’s customers wondered whether more time could have been spent on a satisfactory ending and less on irrelevant lesbian sex themes.

More "many gamers" gossip. I can't say I heard of anybody claiming that they should've spent less time on lesbian sex to make the ending better. That's a uniquely Milo sort of pandering to the homophobic conservative masses he is courting.

Interestingly enough, whenever Milo is disparaging same-sex relationships, it's almost always lesbians. Milo is gay, but rarely speaks ill of same-sex relationships concerning men. Lesbian-hating gays are not especially rare in the LGBT community, unfortunately.

That reviews of triple-A games by professional journalists are likely to bear no relation to their reception by fans has become a truism of video game journalism. In fact, the gulf between professional games writers and the rest of the universe, especially in the case of games like the older Dragon Age II, was one of the simmering concerns that led to the consumer revolt now known as GamerGate.

Given the large scale of both press coverage and purchasing, of AAA games, it's not surprising that you may have a difference of opinion regarding a particular game when compared to a mainstream reviewer. Even mainstream reviewers disagree often; one of my colleagues once wrote a glowing review of Rise of the Triad, a game which I detest.

There is no gulf between professional reviewers and everybody else; there is merely a difference of opinion between one person and another. Whether it's because they rated a game too high too low is pretty much a crapshoot.

Finally, a little GamerGate throw-in there at the end. Milo sure is committed to his new audience.

Side note: Most game reviewers tend towards a broader, more commercially acceptable angle when doing reviews. This is because, much like Milo here (although not as obvious or annoying), they are pandering to the gamer audience.

The unhappy disjuncture between readers and reviewers finds its highest expression in BioWare reviews, and most certainly its monstrous apotheosis in the reviews for Dragon Age: Inquisition, which, despite its numerous and serious flaws, garnered some of the highest scores and most effusive reviews of the year.

First, don't say "numerous and serious flaws"; simply state the basic gist of what's wrong with the game. Of course, then you'd have to back up your statements with examples, which Milo can't do.

Second, more GamerGate talking points. Color me surprised.

Polygon, Vox Media’s bolt-hole for disenfranchised social justice bloggers with a penchant for Xbox masochism, rated the game 9.5, despite admitting that the Playstation version of the game had serious technical problems that required multiple reboots. And despite, of course, the reviewer admitting he had not even completed this game of “extraordinarily rare scope.”

More gossip, specifically on Polygon. Of course, Milo doesn't have to behave professionally, as he would never get a job as an actual game critic even if he wanted to be one. Gossip journalism at its finest.

The Polygon review is also deeply misrepresented. While the reviewer does point out the technical issues with the PS4 copy of the game, he also points out that "According to representatives from EA, this issue is related to Sony's PS4 2.0 firmware, which has caused problems for other games on the console as well" and "Sony sent Polygon a PS4 that had an upcoming patch pre-installed, ostensibly fixing the 2.0 problems. We played approximately 15 hours on this patched PS4 and did not experience any crashes." The patch, it should be noted, was a day one patch intended to fix the issues encountered by the new firmware, and so would thus not affect consumers.

The reviewer also directly mentions that he completed the main story of the game, as well as many of the side activities. Milo actively lies about this.

Kotaku, perhaps the most openly hated video game website on the internet and a fellow traveller on the social justice path, published a cloying, gushing, interminable love letter to the game. The author of this War and Peace-length paean to the higher spiritual virtues of DA:I, Kirk Hamilton, is a man of singular literary talents. Consider the following, published with an apparently straight face.

"Most openly hated video game website on the internet" is not only unfounded conjecture, it's also not appropriate for a review. More unnecessary gossip, especially considering that this is supposed to be a review of Dragon Age: Inquisition, not a review of other reviews. If I were his editor, my comment would be "Stop wasting the audience's time."

“For all its mythical trappings, at its heart, Dragon Age: Inquisition presents us with the most intoxicating fantasy of all: That we will be loved, respected, and followed to the ends of the earth. That we will be able to make time and space for everything and everyone that matters to us. That even a world as vast as our own can be saved, if we only work together.”

Sounds pretty standard, honestly. An interesting point on how Inquisition combines both "magical" fantasy and "fantasy of self" (being loved, being successful, etc).

Once you’ve finished picking the sick out of your keyboard (the writing is that bad throughout; I’ve read it so you don’t have to) let us turn to the game itself, and see if we can work out why these reviewers might have thought so highly of the new Dragon Age–BioWare’s marketing budget aside, for who knows what coke-and-hookers arrangements such enormous amounts of money can buy.

Still not a "review of reviews." Milo has taken an awfully long time to actually talk about Dragon Age: Inquisition. If this were a real review, I would've stopped reading a long time ago.

Oh, and the gossipy assertion of "money for review scores." A nice little continuation of that all-too-common lie.

In DA:I, you play the a hero who can save the world by mending tears between reality and the dream world. It’s a familiar premise, redolent of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. But the protagonist in DA:I has no palpable motivations. And decisions made in Dragon Age: Origins, a precursor to DA:I, have been disregarded or retconned, to the frustration of franchise fans.

Describing the Fade as "the dream world" is misleading. It's the afterlife. In essence, you are fighting demons from hell. Thus, the Sandman comparison is hackneyed, especially considering that The Sandman is not about "mending tears between reality and the dream world."

"No palpable motivations" is also incredibly misleading, as the intro cinematic establishes your motivations almost immediately. I've never played the game and I know that.

The retconning bit is possibly valid. I haven't played it, and BioWare has an annoying habit of ignoring player choices in subsequent games.

The sloppiness of the writing extends to most of the characters in DA:I, which never quite make the player really care about anything that’s happening on screen. Some of them, such as the “British elf ogre thing” (I quote from a fan forum), Sera, are outright awful–we’re in Jar Jar Binks territory here–and should never have been signed off.

There are no direct comparisons here. Sera comes close, but there's no mention of what she does that's particularly bad; just that she is "Jar Jar Binks-esque." Gotta be more specific than that. What is something she did that was particularly annoying? Is her voice that bad? Why are you quoting from a forum?

Also, Milo once again picks out a woman for scorn, in much the same way that he picked out all the lesbian commentary earlier in the review. It's a theme.

“It’s as if fanfiction.net and Tumblr had a grotesque love child,” reads one particularly waspish comment in my inbox, from a German fan. Followed by: “Who let Zooey Deschanel into the Middle Ages?” (If you think Mumsnet can be bitchy, you should check out the video game forums after a BioWare release.)

Quite possibly the most gossipy paragraph in this entire review. Completely unnecessary.

Then there’s the gameplay. It’s third person, after a fashion, and similar to Dragon Age II, but, and this is a regular source of frustration to fans, with such dumbed-down, moronic mechanics as to be not even irritating, but, worse, actively tedious. The scope of player action has been reduced significantly; healing magic, for example, has been entirely removed from the game.

"After a fashion" means nothing. It's a third-person game; you play it from a third-person perspective. So why include that?

"Moronic" and "dumbed-down" would be good if validated through some sort of examples or reasoning. Unfortunately, the "no healing" example is actually a way the game might be less dumbed-down; it forces players to make less mistakes and be more aware of their "resource" of health. It actually makes the game harder and more reliant on player skill to complete, in much the same way that the limited healing stock of the Estus Flask in Dark Souls forces players to become more versed in the mechanics.

The offence of this new simplicity is compounded with meaningless, repetitive micromanagement tasks that lack wider significance–come on, guys, we don’t all have the intellectual capacity of a Polygon editor–and a strange padding effect that seems to be present merely to waste time in a sort of death by a thousand cuts. Every action seems to take three seconds–two seconds too long–to execute.

Another needless dig at Polygon, because Milo can't avoid gossiping.

The last part of this paragraph is the only decent criticism I've seen this entire review. Unfortunately, it's saddled to a paragraph replete with meaningless phrases and a hamfisted dig at Polygon.

Please tell me more about why the animations being long is frustrating and less about GamerGate-approved targets. Did you feel like your control was taken away? Was the animation too long with little impact to the game? These are important questions to ask, and are unanswered by Milo in favor of more gossip.

Why has BioWare done this? Simply to rack up time on the clock? Because if it was merely to justify the big price tag on this game, they really need not have bothered: they could have spent more time on the graphics instead. Animations in DA:I are outright risible. Says one of my trusted reviewers: “The elven characters would barely pass muster in a free Asian MMO.” Top kek, as they say.

What's bad about the animations? Why not tell me, instead of just pasting some opinion from your inbox of angry gamers? Would that require work?

Also, "Top kek, as they say." Good lord, Milo. You're really trying.

And all that’s before we get to the stuttering, glitches and bugs that make this game even more visually unattractive to sit through. (The console versions don’t fare much better, apparently. Not being what they call a console peasant, I’m not equipped, nor prepared, to judge, but feel free to report back in the comment section.)

More GamerGate pandering. This is just boring, Milo. At least when gossiping I can actually talk about it. This paragraph has zero purpose and zero value.

It’s possible that some of the errors in DA:I are caused by the horrific DRM that BioWare has slapped on, which is called Denuvo and is loathed by gamers because it works hard drives constantly, shortening the life of both SSDs and conventional disks, while also affecting the performance of disk- and processor-intensive games.

Specific performance hits from Denuvo include reduced frame rates, which is the number one technical complaint with DA:I. Fortunately for BioWare’s customers, although the DRM on the game was said to be “uncrackable,” it was busted open within a month, allowing dedicated gamers to remove this troublesome feature. The legality of cracking a game you’ve purchased is murky, so don’t take that as an endorsement, please.

A bit of a weird segue into complaints about DRM - again, a topic which Milo has little experience in. Despite the needless pandering to a GamerGate crowd, this is quite possibly the only part of the review worth reading. Decent information, even if it's not backed up with links. The mention of cracking is a bit much, though.

It’s a mystery how, when the gameplay is shallow and dull, the interface and UI is clearly designed for consoles (despite a higher price tag for the PC version), given obvious, heavy borrowings from Skyrim, and the mediocre to outright poor general presentation, not to mention some deeply bizarre eyebrows and facial hair (sorry, but it’s really distracting), that every professional game reviewer in the land has seen fit to shower this hopeless sequel in such unmitigated praise.

"Gameplay" means nothing. It's a filler word. Considering all the filler words in this piece already, it certainly doesn't need another.

To compound this, the only bit mentioned about the mechanics is that there are no more healing spells. Milo told us absolutely nothing about the game proper; the encounters, the out-of-battle systems, the flow of combat.

I have zero idea of what Dragon Age is like, other than the gossip surrounding it. No screenshots, no specifics (except for a rare few that are mentioned briefly in passing), and no real sense of what it is supposed to be. A terrible review by somebody more interested in gossiping about game critics than actually reviewing. No surprise, really.

Oh, and the outright lie that the PC version costs more. It doesn't.

Unless… well, unless it’s the lesbians, by which I mean the “alternative lifestyles” BioWare insists on thumping us around the head with. Ah, those hot, hot lesbians. They would be even hotter if BioWare’s artwork wasn’t so appallingly inconsistent throughout Dragon Age: Inquisition, of course, which is of course the only reason I raise the subject.

Nobody cares about why you raise the subject, Milo. You've raised it several times already. We get it. You hate lesbians, and possibly even women.

Except to say that, evidently, Bioware has failed to do even cursory research into lesbian relationships. For a start, both partners are cute. And they actually have sex! You know, instead of sitting opposite one another, separated by an abandoned Scrabble board and the remains of yesterday’s Saga knitting challenge, surrounded by rescue cats. In any case, with lesbian sex scenes as ugly and forced as this, the only scissoring you’ll want to do afterwards is to the game DVD.

There are no words for how grossly bigoted this paragraph is. This would get you fired from any organization with the slightest amount of professionalism. Thank goodness Milo works for Breitbart.

But I digress. (After all, it’s a fantasy game with dragons, so why can’t they have lesbians who aren’t bitter, boring or resentful?) It’s the painful, cringe-worthily poor dialogue and lacklustre artwork that makes these scenes truly unbearable to sit through, even more so than the awkwardly jammed-in social justice posturing. There is grating, gratuitous homosexuality throughout DA:I–and, of course, the obligatory transsexual–but by far the most irksome material is Sapphic.

More bigotry. It's just tiring at this point. No specifics on the claims of poor dialogue and bad artwork, just assertions and homophobia (and a little transphobia too).

Particularly galling for older video game enthusiasts, many of whom are fans of BioWare’s older games, is how far the developer has fallen in its treatment of adult themes: compare the giggly adolescence of the scene above with how well BioWare used to deal with sex, they say. It’s Girls versus Nymphomaniac.

BioWare didn't deal with sex before. It's barely touched upon in their previous games. They are finally including and expanding their options to cater to adults, which their games have always been marketed toward.

It can’t be repeated often enough how jarring and uneven the writing is throughout this game. The original Dragon Age, which I also played in preparation for writing this review, was no literary masterpiece but was at least, for the few hours I played it, consistently average. DA:I veers from the unremarkable to the downright unbearable.

How? Explain yourself? Or would asking for the slightest bit of reasoning be too much to ask from something tentatively called a review?

Dragon Age: Inquisition is what gamers mean when they say they’re worried about intellectually dishonest critics like Anita Sarkeesian muscling in on the games industry and encouraging developers to slap a few dykes or a woman in a wheelchair into games to suck up to left-wing bloggers and keep their Metacritic scores up. (Breitbart News looks forward to its scores being included in official rankings.)

This is so patently false I don't even know how to approach it. That isn't how Metacritic works. That isn't even how media criticism works. Also, note that Milo is again disparaging women.

If BioWare applied themselves as much to ensuring a consistently high-quality visual experience and more sophisticated game mechanics as they do to crowbarring social justice memes like hot lesbian action and smouldering man-on-man bonkfests into their storylines, perhaps the overall effect of their games would be stronger–and hardcore gamers wouldn’t hold them in quite as much contempt. But that’s Canada for you.

From everything I've seen and read of Inquisition, it seems like a visually stunning, mechanically interesting game. Of course, that's from the hour or two I spent researching other reviews and Let's Play footage for this piece.

More hamfisted bigotry, this time with a lone anti-gay phrase. All that anti-lesbianism had to be balanced out.

Another dig at Canada to bring the review full circle. I'll admit, I do love a good loop, although this one is pretty bad.

In the wake of GamerGate, Dragon Age: Inquisition truly is the game of the year, not because it is the best game to be released, but because it represents everything that went wrong in video games in 2014. It’s uncharitable, particularly this close to Christmas, to wish failure on others, but you do have to wonder: for how much longer can BioWare keep churning out this crap before consumers start abandoning them en masse?

GamerGate is, actually, what went wrong with games this year. Of course, given Milo's opportunistic devotion to The Cause, it's unsurprising that he picked out a relatively uncontroversial release to pick on.

Dragon Age: Inquisition, at a casual glance through Metacritic and various game forums, was well-received by both press and public, both of which were relieved to see that the missteps of Dragon Age 2 weren't repeated. Whether this is reflective of the game is immaterial; Milo made an assertion about the game being reviled, and he's factually wrong.

Money is flowing through BioWare, for now, which is why marketing budgets exist to effectively purchase fantasy-land review scores from disreputable websites owned by Vox and Gawker Media. But the centre has not held: BioWare produces soulless, miserable, agenda-driven husks of video games. And nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the disastrously dull Dragon Age: Inquisition.

More of the dumb lies about moeny for review scores. Nothing like hearing that classic without any sort of evidence.

More unprofessionalism in insulting Polygon and Kotaku, two sites that put far more work and research into their reviews than Milo did in this one. Gossip abounds.

In a nutshell: Saturated with bien-pensant political posturing to satisfy media toadies, Dragon Age: Inquisition has little to recommend it to the serious gamer.

In a nutshell: Replete with opportunistic and false gossip about the game industry, as well as multiple factual and historic inaccuracies, this review is not so much a review as the sort of thing one might read in a tabloid magazine.

Of course, this could all be an elaborate, ironic pisstake at reviews. If so, though, it fails consistently at having any sort of humor or wit, and comes across as insulting, boorish, and egomaniacal.

In any case, it's bad.

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