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The art of reviewing: The graphics
Posted on Sunday, December 2 2007 @ 14:57:52 PST

Damn, I'm really in a writing mood today, am I not?

Yeah, graphics. For better or worse, a game does need them, and your enjoyment of the game will be affected by it. But in order to make a good review of the graphics, I think it's important to first have a good grasp of what standards you should crave. Or to put it another way: how should a game approach the graphics? I'll tell you how right away:

The graphics should be of such standards that you pay more attention to the artistic designs than to the technical levels.

The best ways to achieve this is to ensure that animations are smooth and fluid, that the framerate stays up, that collision detection works properly and people seem to actually touch properly in cut-scenes, and that nothing ever pops in and out of sight for no good reason. Drawing distance is still a fair reason in some type of games, though it is going to be less so in the years to come.

As years go by, it's also a good idea to make things less blocky, at least from a certain distance. But if you're not expected to look at something from 15 cm (6 inches) away from the camera, there's no need to make it look good at that level, as long as it looks good from a couple of meters (or more) away. Final Fantasy XII certainly understood that last little detail. Their areas look much better than what a detailed look at each single detail (like a plant) would suggest.

Nintendo are almost always the masters of making you look at the game design rather than the technical levels of graphics. Their games are never making for the most impressive screenshots award, but tell me, did anyone who actually played "Zelda: Wind Waker" care about that? Or were they all simply "Hey, that looks awesome" because Nintendo made it so that they would all pay attention to the marvellous designs and animations of Link and the monsters? The way they made it so that Link's eyes -only- would move around if you touched ever so slightly on the analog stick! Who cares if they don't have a realistic tree with all the thousands of leaves if they can make cel-shaded Link move around in that way, the way they could see his face expressing his feelings so well? Other games Nintendo's succeeded here with would Metroid Prime 3:Corruption, Super Paper Mario and not the least Super Mario Galaxy. The latter especially will at times you positively stunned from the level design that works smooth as melted butter in a teflon pan. Who needs 1080p or whatever when anyone can have that on their perfectly ordinary TV?

Twilight Princess, on the other hand, was not always good enough to make me focus on how f.ex. Princess Zelda suited that hooded cape so well. The designs were as always impeccable, but with this game, I just couldn't completely lose myself to those designs. It's still a damn good game, of course. But there's a reason I said "almost always" and not just "always" in my last paragraph.

And then there's Suikoden V, who looked blocky in both technical -and- artistical levels. I can imagine a hypothetical situation amongst the developers: Someone decided that the capital  city in the entire gameworld should be white stone houses and white stone pavement and white stone walls and white stone bridges. The rest of the graphics team asked themselves "is there any reason to make all those white stones the most realistically and/or beautifully looking white stones ever made?" And if you ask yourself that kind of question, it's likely that you'll end up saying "No, there isn't." Thus, we ended up with a game that looked like it was the first PS2 game released, with most designs not worth a damn. And thanks to the useless camera, those designs that were worth a damn - such as quite a few of the many playable characters - would hardly ever come in focus like they should have, seeing as you were too far away to spot a tenth of the details. As for people touching in the cut-scenes... Well, I'd rather just not talk about that.

Of course, it's easier to focus on getting to the point where everyone will focus on the design when you're going for an unrealistic or cartoonish looks. Going for realistic humans in particular has some serious drawback to it, thanks to the uncanny valley. (  Which is why the realistic approach will mostly be applied to mechanical stuff, like cars. And cool all-body suits that covers the face, like in Halo.

So, now that you know what exactly I look for when I talk about a game's graphics. BUT, the main question - the question I bet you all expected at the beginning of this blog - still remains: How much do I put in stock over the graphics for the overall enjoyment? Well, frankly, it depends. That's the most honest answer I can give. Some genres are more dependent on technically good graphics, and in any case, the game shouldn't be insulting to my eyes.

But I don't need state-of-the-art technical levels most of the time. If I did, I'd never have bought a Wii, that's for sure. And Super Paper Mario would have reached the trashcan before even opening the disc box. No, I simply want to keep my focus on the visual designs, and they should more or less feel like they fit the overall game. I think most gamers want that much. And even then, it's still going to take a backseat to what the  actual gameplay gives me. But as a gamer, I will pay attention to the graphics of a game I just shelled out a substantial amount of money for, and if the game can't even meet that criteria I put up on the top, I will tell about it. Doing anything else would be dishonest of me. That is how much importance I put in graphics.

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