Written in the stars
You all know the feeling - that unshakable sense of dread that pervades every single preview, every underwhelming gameplay vid - gnawing away at your lofty expectations, clouding your mind in doubt. Sometimes it can even seem as though we're a little bit clairvoyant, mentally tagging a game with a speculative scoreline, only to later discover that we were bang on the money. I mean really, who hasn't taken one look at an upcoming title and said, "That right there has 6/10 written all over it"?
These feelings may seem like simple paranoia, but I'm here to tell you that simply isn't so. unless of course it is, in which case those curtain rings are definitely not out to get you, Keith Smith of King's Road, Doncaster Through the time-honoured method of writing gibberish on the internet, I have been able to deduce eight simple signs that may well be influencing that acrid taste in your brain. What are they? Where do they come from, and how do they signal a shoddy hunk of software? Let the text blocks begin!
The ads hype graphics over gameplay
Let's face it, having a set of gorgeous graphics is great. Just ask any aesthetically challenged chap or chappette on the worldwide dating scene. Given the choice between pretty and plum ugly, any sane soul would clearly opt for the former. It's just how we are as a species/ Hard-wired to recognise beauty before other, rather more meaningful factors. The same thing goes for video games, whereby many folks will become incredibly excited for a title based upon its slick visuals. Of course, the one thing that makes video games video games is their interactivity. What separates a good title from a bad one is simply how effectively enjoyable that interactivity is. Games may be a visual medium, but graphical fidelity isnt its king.
Sadly it seems that some games forget all about this, opting instead to focus their efforts on producing ever more spectacular graphics. Critics can't help but mention these efforts, which in turn is how we end up with certain quote-heavy advertising campaigns predicated solely on visual. As with many entries on this list, the lesson here is simple. If the ads are heavily talking up one thing, why arent they addressing the rest? Hint: because they suck.
It's touted as a 'something-killer'
If anticipation is a double-edged sword, then the kind of hype that surrounds certain video game franchises is a six-sided, 18-bladed lightsaber. Indeed, nothing hurts a new game's chances quite like hopping aboard the ol' hype train. Even if all goes well, you haven't actually gained anything by waiting in such amplified torment. And if it should fail? Well then, I guess you'll just have to do without that big juicy payoff your brain had been promising... Of course, preventing oneself from becoming excited is never easy, particularly if the stimulant in question looks reaaaaally bloody good. But hopeful anticipation is a natural, healthy thing. Going full-on militant about it, that's another matter entirely.
Enter the mantle of the so-called 'something-killer', a type of hype that's usually targeted at insecure fanboys, hoping against hope that the horse they're backing will not only win the race but somehow kneecap the other mare in the process. Take Haze for example, a run-of-the-mill, PS3-exclusive FPS that somehow earned the toxic label of 'Halo-killer'. By failing to live up to that illustrious title, Haze effectively died two deaths, and it's not alone. While this tag doesnt always denote an awful game, it does usually herald major disappointment. Be warned.
Tabloid press given prominent spots in ad campaign
"Aha!", I hear you cry, "You fools are just jealous that the publisher didnt choose your quote. For shame! Sneering down from your ivory towers, daring to insult the good names of The Daily Mail, The Sun on Sunday and The North Haverbrook Gazette!". Yes well, that second Faberge egg collection isn't just going to start itself, now is it? Erm, noignore that. What I meant to say is that by choosing to ignore the specialist press entirely, a video game's PR company is usually trying to hide something. Something negative. Of course, the inclusion of one or two 'jack-of-all trade' papers does makes sense in terms of mainstream brand recognition, but to plaster an entire campaign with their commendations? Why, that's fishier than a month-old bucket of chum.
To be clear here, I'm not saying that these folks are in cahoots, merely that mainstream press tend to be much less discerning with their praise. So, if you're seeing their names being advertised over the more recognised specialist publications, its probably because those outlets didn't have a single nice thing to say.
Gameplay previews are heavily scripted
Live demos are all well and good, but what about when they fail? When a mean-spirited glitch shows up to spoil the fun, or an avatar convulses uncontrollably? What if the audience's suite of smartphones starts to interfere with the signal, or a narcotics-addled 'celebrity' finds their way on stage? You certainly can't blame developers for wanting to avoid all that, for sticking to a more linear presentation and perhaps forcing a demo down a pre-determined path. If the game's still early in development then that course of action is positively encouraged. After all, we'd rather get a glimpse of your exciting new game in stage-managed action than see absolutely nothing at all.
The problem comes when these sorts of tightly controlled displays start showing up mere months from the game's final release. Common sense would suggest that if you aren't happy to unleash the beast at this point, then you probably never will be. That means that there's something about your wider title that's got you worried. Perhaps there's terrible pop-in, a sketchy frame rate, or maybe the NPCs all look like melted sticks of butter. Whatever the case, if you're worried, then the audience should be too.
If it sounds too good to be true it probably is
Also known as 'Molyneux's disease', this horrifying affliction sends patients into a self-defeating hype-spiral from which few ever emerge. You'd think that after seeing the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Sarah Palin failing to achieve global domination that developers would be just a little less likely to promise us the world. You can't have it. It's too big. a wee bit like your aspirations. "Oh but yes you can plant a seed and watch it grow into a idyllic and bustling metropolis. But wait! That metropolis is actually a living, thinking robot bloke, one of thousands, actually, battling it a out cross the cosmos, and that's just level 1"
There's no harm in being excited, developers, but by going too far you really are setting yourselves up for a fall. As a gamer, its important to keep the above maxim in mind whenever encountering a seriously ambitious title. If it sounds too good to be true it probably is. Said game may not end up being totally rubbish, but your opinion of it will always be coloured by that horribly pervasive feeling of 'What if'.
Review code isn't released to critics
For all the talk of backroom deals, shady pay-offs, and assorted other scandalous actions it's important to remember that the core concept behind the PR guy/critic relationship is a sound one, and not just in gaming either. One side wants greater press attention - in the hopes of selling more units - while the other is trying hard to appeal to a readership that's uncertain about which games to buy. In short, critics need advance copies in order to have reviews penned in timely fashion, while PR peeps need ever more eyes on product. It's a veritable win-win.
With so much lovely winning to be done, it's a wonder why any publisher would choose to renege on this simple status quo. Oftentimes however, the answer is simple. Poor critical reviews - yes even those tagged with a launch date embargo - can massively hurt a bad title's profitability. So, if you still aren't seeing a flurry of reviews by release day, there's a fair bet that the people in charge of bigging up that particular title don't have a great deal of confidence in it
Repeat delays/Dramatic last-minute developer change
Of all the entries on this list, this two-for-one warning is perhaps the most problematic. I say problematic because some great titles have actually escaped from development hell over the years. Look at Resident Evil 4, StarCraft II, and the original Shenmue, each of which took more than 6 years to make release. Generally however, these successes are the exception. A game that experiences repeat delays and/or a last-minute change in developer is likely to end up a whole lot shoddier for the experience. Consider Daikatana, Too Human and the inimitable Duke Nukem Forever. Each of these woeful titles was entirely scrapped and remade at various points in its production.
All three lacked a clear vision, continually adding and subtracting elements to cater to new trends and more powerful consoles. Doing so once would be a gamble, doing so twice - or more - a mistake. Any artist will tell you that a piece of work is never truly finished, that here's always more that can be done. The trick though, is in learning what's good enough, and just stopping. So if you spot an enticing game undergoing a similarly tumultuous dev cycle, best reset those expectations. There's a fairly good chance that that sinking ship is being steered by a crazed perfectionist.
Game case is full of quotes without scores
Pulling quotes must be an awfully tricky business. After all, what you're looking for - i.e. snappy, upbeat appraisals - isn't always what you get. Sometimes there simply arent any nice things being said about your product. Of course, you can always try to be sly about it, adapting the form, if not the spirit of said assessment. 'Agonising from start to finish' might not fly with an FPS, but if it's written about a crappy new horror game, well then, thank heavens for interpretation One of the easiest ways around this issue is to simply ignore reviews entirely, and instead draw your quotes from the much more speculative field of preview coverage.
Early-door assessments i.e. 'promises big things' or 'could be the best game of 2015' certainly sound as though they might've appeared in a review. Except of course that they didn't. The peeps in PR just want the public to think that they did. And really, if they're going to those sorts of lengths in order to fool you, you'd better believe that the game in question is complete and utter tripe.
Signed, sealed, delivered, and shite
And so, like a moron playing Scrabble, I'm all out of words. If you have any suggestions for further portents of doom, let me know in the comments section below. Until next time, remember the class motto. 'Scrutinize absolutely bloody everything to an almost insufferable degree'. Huzzah!
Looking for more bad game content (content about bad games, not bad content abou... Oh you get the idea)? Then check out The 100 worst games of all time (opens in new tab) and The Top 7... Most ambitious flops in gaming (opens in new tab)