Are Sports Video Games Worth Reviewing Any More?

Illustration for article titled Are Sports Video Games Worth Reviewing Any More?

Earlier this week I got several versions of a small talk question I always field this time of year: "I haven't played Madden in X years. Should I buy it this year?"

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To me, that's no longer even a relevant question for this or for any sports video game. The real question, and its answer, make me wonder if they are worth reviewing any more.

The way I see it, the real question now is simply "Do you want to play NFL football this year?" Or "Do you want to play NBA basketball?" "Do you want to play the NHL, or the NCAA?" Or do you want to box, swing a folding chair in the WWE or swing a golf club on the PGA Tour? Because in all of those cases, on consoles—by far the dominant sports gaming platform—you have only one option today.

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If that's the case, I have to ask what the bother is with appraising these games, because there's nothing to compare them against, except previous versions of themselves. These are by definition iterative products. Provided the game's makers have not completely screwed up and made the gameplay worse, then the game is on a fundamental level better and worth buying over any predecessor, because it carries accurate rosters, the latest uniform changes, and other details delivering the authenticity a sports gamer prizes.

Problem is, that's not a feature, it's an expectation. That's the "roster update" slur, hurled predominantly by people who have no intention of buying or even playing sports video games. We'll see it in about a dozen comments below from those who also had no intention of even reading this far before mouthing off. (Right after the dozen or so about NFL 2K5). Even so, I'm certainly not going to stake a positive review to the presence of such a baseline expectation.

For Madden no one else did, either.

It wasn't a stellar week for the game. It is isn't cherry-picking to cite Madden NFL 12's 80 Metacritic average when such a source is constantly mentioned by Electronic Arts executives as a measure of their games' quality. After 22 reviews—and we don't score ours, so what I have to say Tuesday will not move the pile—the grade is in. This is the lowest-rated edition on this console generation since Madden NFL 07 five years ago.

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Facing a league lockout that would chill casual fans' enthusiasm, Madden 12 sought to consolidate its position with diehards who wanted any NFL they could get. They were rewarded with long-requested features, from esoteric mechanisms like an accurate injured reserve list to the means to police cheating and bad behavior online, through the new Online Communities.

Still, in what Madden NFL 12 does well, it is largely a refinement of a past version. You can do that when you're refining an already highly regarded product. FIFA 11, MLB 11: The Show and NHL 11 demonstrate this. Madden 12 attempted to do so against much more critical skepticism, thanks largely to its exclusive license from the NFL, and it did not go well.

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Despite the lower score, nothing in the reviews I have read, and certainly nothing in the game I have played for nearly two weeks, and wrote over 9,000 words about this week, suggests that Madden NFL 12 in any way plays worse than Madden 11. It is, visually, still a beautiful game. It may still do infuriating things with its linebackers and still make some boneheaded run-blocking decisions, but the running game is an improvement, after two years that also saw improvements. I still can't return a punt more than 10 yards, but I've dealt with these things for years. With the exception of the commentary, which took a completely mystifying step back from last year's game, the lower scores mostly reflect a disappointment in something the game didn't do, not something it did wrong.

I've written before that Madden probably suffers in these subjective appraisals more because there's nothing to compare it against. A lack of a better competitor may mean it gets an 80 instead of a 75. It also means the game really has no shot at a 90 unless it reinvents itself. And after what happened with NBA Elite I doubt anyone at EA Sports has much stomach for trying to reinvent another title, much less one of Madden's importance.

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But the issue isn't really peculiar to Madden either. As I said above, NHL, MLB: The Show and FIFA's most recent editions were all very well regarded. NHL is also the only licensed simulation in its sport. MLB: The Show, is a de facto exclusive product on the PS3 thanks to MLB 2K's repeated disappointments. FIFA likewise towers over Pro Evolution Soccer. In the few instances where there are direct competitors, the gulf is so wide that the reviews of the dominant product make no comparisons to the runner-up.

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So what's the point? Increasingly, the criticism of these games comes down to comparing it to the previous year's edition, and increasingly that means trying to justify a great or even good game by evaluating subtle changes, like the end of "suction blocking," for whether they're landmark achievements.

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Reviewers have to justify the two weeks they spent playing the game. Developers have to justify the year they spent building it. Marketers have to justify the millions spent flogging it, and lifers have to justify the $60 they just plunked down, knowing they had just as many options if it was a crummy game as they did with a good game.

I think that all gets in the way of a question the consumer can answer without all of that noise: Are you ready for some football?

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Illustration for article titled Are Sports Video Games Worth Reviewing Any More?

STICK JOCKEY

Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Saturdays.

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DISCUSSION

freeasabird
FreeAsABird

Yes. There are small variations and they are still "separate games".

I'd much rather have 1 madden game and buy new dlc every year...

But you know, business and making money and the fact big companies like EA and Activision milk the shit out of everything for no good reason! like guitar hero! I mean why the fuck did you assholes need to ruin the original American rhythm music game? I thought I could trust Neversoft a.k.a. the developers who made the tony hawk games that defined my childhood! but no! you had to fuck tony hawk up too didn't you? with those shitty ass motion controllers nobody asked for! "tony hawk's proving ground didn't sell too well. should we go back to our roots as an arcade style game with insane moves, no attempt at realism, and no shitty generic story that gets in the way, and multiple diverse levels with load times and not a repetitive open world? NO! Let's drag tony hawk through the mud like guitar hero and add an unresponsive board controller on top of a broken and shallow game! We'll charge $100 for it and everyone of our retarded fans will buy it, not knowing how little effort we put into it! Fuck our loyal fans!" What the fuck was that? you guys have billions of dollars why couldn't that go towards making 1 good video game instead of 500 shitty ones? I mean look at valve! they haven't released any game with 3 in the title yet and they are one of they best and most popular developers these days, and when i see an activision or EA game i think "look, another one? that's like the 50th recently released title with them as the publisher in the store." but when i see Valve I say "holy shit! i can't wait to buy this! I've been waiting for this day! i can't believe they have copies left! I've been saving my cash just for today!" because they make a great core game every few years and not a main title for every platform and cell phone and calculator every year plus 50 spin offs! This shit all started with the next gen of consoles. If you put your hand in the bargain bin at the local game store 7 to 6 years ago you wouldn't pull out a first person modern military shooter! There WEREN'T that many major modern fps military shooters then. But now? You can't look ANYWHERE in a game store without finding a game where you aim down your sights too shoot Middle Easterners in the face! God! You assholes are making ME hate gaming! If you guys don't slow down there WON'T be a gaming market, as all the games will either be the same music/rhythm game with different songs, like 2 more features, and nothing else (who the fuck has 4 guitars or 4 drums for guitar hero 5 and on anyways), that same military first person shooter which admittedly isn't so bad, if it wasn't the same one from last year set in a different time with a different "impossible to follow without the help of wikipedia" story line and some minor multiplayer changes (yet no attempt to stop all the winy 12 year olds who always camp and kill each other for xp/killstreaks and call you a fag when you shoot them legitimately and all those fucking commentary videos) and the EXACT same sports game that was better last year (or was it? I forget because THEY ARE ALL THE FUCKING SAME THING!) You assholes make me ashamed to be a gamer, because what that means now is you're a middleschool/early highschool white ghetto poser who wears his pants low, his hat sideways, and wears his $200 dr. dre headphones that you use to listen to shit like Little Wayne and Kanye West and The Black Eyed Peas who just remix other people's music slightly and get a billion dollars they spend on drugs and hookers, then call people on xbox live fags and retards and calls "Call of Duty" "Cod" (like the fish, and if you call it that, you are one, no exceptions). What ever happened to making GOOD games EA and Activision? It was ok when there was no DLC in the 90s to early 2000s and it wasn't the exact same game with different players but COME ON? Do you really need a new game to change the kicking meter? I mean I don't even BUY sports games anymore because in 12 months it will be obsolete, and 12 months from THEN it will be obsolete, which could be solved with PATCHES and DLC. I admit, Call of Duty's been getting a lot of shit for their DLC, but they don't release a new game every time they make a new map pack which is pretty much what madden does! Also: what the fuck is up with pre order bonuses? I saw a Gamestop ad for Madden 12 and you have to PRE ORDER TO GET THE FUCKING AFC AND NFC TEAMS? ARE YOU SHITTING ME? NFC AND AFC TEAMS SHOULD BE UNLOCKED FROM THE START! ALL REAL TEAMS SHOULD BE! I WOULDN'T MIND IF IT WAS LIKE A THROWBACK OR MASCOTS TEAM, BUT YOU ARE REALLY SAYING YOU COULDN'T COME UP WITH A BETTER BONUS THAN INCLUDING 2 TEAMS THAT HAVE BEEN CONSISTENTLY UNLOCKED FROM THE BEGINNING IN EVERY MADDEN GAME PRIOR?

and such...

(this started out as like 5 lines, it's like 30 now.)