Game reviews more or less range the full spectrum, from the helpful through the highly questionable to the utterly useless. The majority of game reviews aren’t actually useful as-is. But even some of the worst reviews can work for you if you know how to get the most out of them.
Ignore the score
The numerical scores, the number of puppies, stars, wrenches, whatever? Ignore them. At best, they’re going to be misleading. Everyone’s got a different bell-curve going on, and rating on different criteria. In aggregate, they might be useful, but honestly, there are games that you’ll enjoy that might get half the score of other games that you enjoy equally well.
For me, there are as many games that I’ve played and enjoyed in the 50-60 range at metacritic as there are in the 90-100 range. The numerical score obviously have little bearing on my enjoyment — and enjoyment is why I’m playing the darn game, right?
Use the reviewer’s bias
Every reviewer is biased. A game review is, at best, a set of subjective impressions based on a part of the game, covering what the reviewer thinks works, what doesn’t work, what they liked, and what they didn’t like. Except for the most simplistic games on the market, they’re never going to cover the full spread of the game, either.
Reviews are necessarily subjective. They have to be, actually, to be useful (otherwise it comes across like a review of a car that the reviewer hasn’t sat in).
Reviewers have their own preferences. They may like or dislike things differently to you. That’s to your advantage.
Me, there are definite turn-offs. Games that are described as “white-knuckle action”, “extreme”, “adrenaline-pumping” all turn me off.
So if I were to give you my impressions of a game and tell you that I didn’t like those elements, then if you have similar preferences to me, you probably won’t like them either. If you do like that sort of thing, then when I complain about those things, you can take it as an endorsement. Either way, you’re getting value from my impressions.
Most reviews are useful if you know what to look for
I keep an eye on reviewers whom I’ve learned over time absolutely hate the things I like in a game, and love the things that turn me off. I know a scathing review from one of these fine people means I should run, not walk, and pick the game up right away, and that I’ll probably love it.
So, when a reviewer says she hates RPGs, or micro-management, or fantasy settings, or puzzle mechanics or whatever, listen up! She’s giving you the glossary by which you should be interpreting and weighting her statements and impressions.
A reviewer can give a game a poor review because they dislike all the things you love in a game.
Phrases like “a repetitious game terribly bogged down by having to micro-manage lots of minutia” might just make your heart sing!
Balance your own likes and dislikes
Terrible voice-acting? Terrible writing? Miserable story? Poor graphics? Confusing camera controls? Figure out how much its going to hurt you. Game reviewers rarely provide much in the way of useful gradations about these items. They love it or they loathe it, with very little in the way of middle ground. Figure out how much each of these is going to hurt you. For some of you, you might not even care about the story. Low quality graphics might mean a smoother gaming experience, but you also have to look at it the whole way through.
Figure out how much each of those really matters to you. Maybe you can just disable voice-overs and go with the subtitles. Maybe one of these is a deal-breaker. This is about your gaming enjoyment.
Look for impressions
If you’re lucky, the reviewer has added some play-time impressions from the game. A short description of what they did, and how it worked out and what they were feeling. These might seem a little fan-ficcy, or tangential, but they’re probably a better guide to actual gameplay (and to the reviewer) than many reviews ever approach. They give you a look at the reviewer, and his or her interaction with the game, what choices and preferences they were expressing, and whether they were having fun with those choices. And that alone can tell you more than the whole rest of the review.
In short, game reviews — even though they are necessarily incomplete impressions — can be to your advantage, if only you take the time to interpret both the review and the reviewer, and measure them against your own preferences.
You don’t have to do any of this, but hey — it’s your gaming dollar we’re talking about.