Thursday, May 21, 2009

i’ve got a ticket to ride

to think, this guy went on to be the walrus. goo goo goo joob.

First, a preface, because that is where prefaces normally turn up: I bought Next Level Games’ and Playful Entertainment, Inc.’s Ticket to Ride with not one, but many misgivings. I had been recommended it by one of my friends whose opinions on games I did not trust, and had said No to him many times in the past. What was it, then, that made me break down and buy this silly digitized board game? Maybe it is the fact that I am easily pressured by my peers. Maybe it was the “if you buy this I will buy this” pact that I entered with Craig just moments before the deed was done. Look, it could have been anything, okay? The point is, I bought Ticket to Ride earlier this week, and much to my surprise I found myself getting sort of into it.

Anyone who buys it should be aware: Xbox Live Arcade’s Ticket to Ride is a pretty straightforward conversion of a German board game of the same name. I will explain: you are presented with a map of the United States (and the lowermost bits of Canada). At the beginning of the game, you draw some cards with cities on them – you must create a route, via train, from the one city to the other. Doing so will earn you precious Points, failing will penalize you. It is pretty simple and pretty game-like, as games go.

Give this one a minute to sink in, because its presentation does not sell you on the game. Silly music and boring graphics are all you'll see until you actually dig down into the gameplay, but once you're there you'll find where the game truly shines.

so many tickets... to ride!Woo woo!

I can understand how the single-player mode on a game like this one could be considered shallow. It’s like playing against AI in any board game game – it is occasionally challenging, but it can’t act like real people. Playing real people in a game like this is downright treacherous – not only will they try to connect their own cities with trains, but they’ll also actively block your own moves to further their own cause. Maybe AI can do this in its own, limited way, but defeat stings much more when delivered by a human opponent.

I, frankly, love Ticket to Ride. I’ve never played the board game upon which it is based, but I found it to be as deep and strategic and tense as many real-time strategy games I’ve played – it’s sort of a cross between Risk and Diplomacy and Monopoly – equal parts luck and skill, sometimes rewarding players for taking chances and sometimes punishing them severely. Choosing five different destinations could just as easily win the game for you as it could seal your ultimate demise, and you and your adversaries know this the entire time. It can be quite tense, and there were long stretches of radio silence as my friends and I planned our next moves across the map.

As I was thinking about this write-up, it struck me that Ticket to Ride perfectly demonstrates objectivity’s function in game reviews. Let’s take IGN’s review as a case in point. They gave the thing a 6.5 – allow me to break down what this means. Game reviews don’t work on a scale of one to ten, but more or less identically to grading in any given school, perhaps owing to the fact that many game journalists got to where they are today by starting a Legend of Zelda fansite when they were in the eighth grade. This means that a 5.9 is a failure and a disgrace, that a 6.5 is cause for grave concern, that an 8.0 is the minimum for a game that anyone should even consider buying, and that a 10.0 means that the game in question’s publisher was generous with their advertising money.

So, that scale in mind, IGN’s 6.5 means “there is no reason why you need to buy this game.” But maybe they’re missing the point? Maybe the person who played and reviewed the game saw it as an imperfect six-five, but maybe board game aficionados would rate it an eight-oh instead. Maybe someone who played it with a particularly conniving and competitive set of friends would have given it a different score. “Hardcore” gamers seem to set a lot by these often arbitrary review scores, and game publishers actually validate this useless metric by pressuring sites to withhold scores below a certain threshold.

I’m not saying we should use Ticket to Ride’s generally low-to-middling review scores as proof that game journalism needs a bottom-up restructuring, but I am saying that letting one person slap one arbitrary score on any given game (sometimes sealing its fate at retail) is disingenuous at best. Maybe the IGN reviewer in question would have liked Ticket to Ride more if he had played it with his old college friends, or if he had listened to some Daft Punk instead of the tunes that come with the game by default, or if he had gotten more sleep the night before. Really, if we decide to trust his review score, we should be taking all of these things into account.

I think it’s about finding a way to let the gamer make his or her own judgment, independent of the arbitrary review score and commercialism that are holding game journalism back. Maybe some underpaid reviewer at Gamestop would give an RPG a low score, but that doesn’t mean that RPG fans will dislike the game – all that score means is that the reviewer disliked the game. With demos and trials becoming freely downloadable for PCs and consoles alike, we’re ushering in an age in which it is easy to try before you buy, and I think reviews and reviewers need to start considering this before they rate the next entertaining game into an early grave.