Thursday, November 14, 2013

Who the HELL is the audience for a console review?

at 8:18 PM

First let me clarify that I have no intention to shit on people who're excited for the PS4, who've been hyping it for weeks and are maybe even lining up for a midnight launch. I get that. People get pumped for the technology, but more importantly, for being on the forefront of the new wave. Getting a console at launch is like seeing a band live or catching a movie in the theater - it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a chance to be part of history. You get to say "I was the first" and "I was there". That's certainly been overdone in recent years (what doesn't have a midnight launch these days - it's pretty embarrassing that people are lining up for phones that they replace after just a few months), but console launches are still a deservedly big deal. Whether or not there's reason to be excited for this generation, it's still the first new dedicated home gaming hardware to arrive in seven years (sorry Wii U, but... well, Wii U is the one that should be apologizing to me). It's like, even if the movie is A Good Day to Die Hard, there's still an experience to be had going to see Die Hard in the theater. So the community buzz over PS4 (and to a much lesser extent, Xbox One) doesn't bug me one bit. In fact, it somewhat hearkens back to the days when I was actually excited for Gamecube and Wii.

But is it really necessary for the mainstream gaming media to rape that excitement by "reviewing" the PS4 and every last console, device, operating system, interface update, and portable on the market? Does the word "platform" mean anything to anyone anymore? I understand the point of reviewing something like an iPad SG-1, as the core functionality of the device is going to be essentially identical to every other tablet, as every tablet is essentially identical, as tablets are essentially pointless. For electronic devices like phones, tablets, phonelets (hey, I learned recently that's a real thing and totally not a joke word), MP3 players, USB sticks, watches, and coffee cups that come with a defined, boxed functionality, the devil is in the details. Reviews make sense. They are based around the fact that all of those devices support the same software and functionality, differing only in form factor, performance, and interfaces. Want to use Facebook and play MP3s? Any smartphone can, but a review can tell you which can do so best.

A console is a platform for video game software. It plays only video games specific to it. Therefore, its entire worth is derived by what video games are available for it - none of the details are comparable to the details of other consoles, because - unless you're totally game-agnostic - the platforms support different core functionality. SNES and PS4 do not play the same games, so alllllllllllllllll of the other elements of the two systems are incomparable. PS4 has better online? Sweet, doesn't mean I can buy a PS4 and play Super Mario Kart on PSN. SNES has better load times? Awesome! I still can't pop Assassin's Creed 4 into my SNES to take advantage of those lightning-fast cartridge loads.

When an electronic device is reviewed, it's generally done so that the reviewer can provide a purchasing recommendation. "You need this type of device because you don't have anything else that does what it does", or, more often, "buy this particular device over this other similar one". The former really only appears in rare circumstances like the dire tablet outbreak of 2010, when the iPad arrived and performed a role that many felt personal computers had simply been doing too well. So one would expect the same from a console review. It's just that both of these types of evaluations are absurd to perform on day one of a platform's release. The people that want to be on board with the next generation, who are willing to believe this video game console is new and original and more necessary than the last, are the ones I described in my first paragraph - they're in line already. Those waiting to see if the hardware is truly a full generational leap are going to have to wait for software that fully utilizes it. The type that are trying to make a smart PS4 vs. One decision don't even have One reviews for comparison yet, not to mention won't be able to make an informed decision for, oh, say another two or three years, when these platforms actually have any semblance of software libraries. Anyone remember back to 2004 when PSP was declared to be the indisputable champion of the new handheld war? Yeah. Think about how worthwhile console reviews are after that one.

I'm just trying to wrap my head around what kind of person is SO on the fence about getting a new console that they need someone to tell them "go buy it today". If you're that unsure, sounds like you aren't that desperately in need of new games to play. And in that case, why not wait for the inevitable hardware revision and a more expansive software selection? Being unsure about a platform has to be a definitive "no", right? If there's no game you want to play on it, what about the hardware could possibly change your mind? But here comes the gaming media with a product to sell and a paradigm to perpetuate.

Here's a delightful little snippet of sales propaganda that epitomizes everything I detest about the consumerist mentality of the modern gaming medium. GamesRadar, at the end of their review, surmise that despite the lack of recommendable software, Yes, you should go out and buy a PS4, concluding that: "Even if you don't plan on picking up many PS4 games at launch, the system feels like an affordable and worthwhile investment that will do right by early adopters." Let me translate that: "even if there are no games to play on your PS4 and thus it will simply be an expensive paperweight, you should go buy it because you have money, money which would be better off in Sony's wallet than in yours". I mean, seriously - "investment"? Could they have picked a word more diametric to the reality of a video game console? There is NO REASON to buy a console before it has games worth playing - it doesn't accumulate value, it precipitously degrades. This is a marketplace where yearly redesigns are an absolute expectation, price-cuts are bi- or at worst tri-annual, and resale value is virtually null. Recommending consumers buy a console because it'll probably turn out for the best is like telling them to grab the latest iPhone because you're sure Apple's got some great features rolling out in 2016. Like being an "early adopter" possibly could confer any advantage to a console owner. 

What a shining example of the ongoing obsession with boiling everything down to a score or a yes-or-no answer. I understand that we trust journalists to inform us about subjects that we ourselves have not yet touched or cannot reasonably afford to try. But don't we need to draw a line at some point? Aren't we willing to take some risk, have some faith? Trust our own experience a little bit? Have patience, let things pan out? We've been through a lot of rounds of consoles, and there are really only two choices here. If you reach deep down, all the way into your heart's brain's deepest desires, I think you'll find that you're either ready to make the jump or you're not, and that not only will no reviewer change that readiness, but no reviewer is ready to decide for you between PS4 and Xbox One. 

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