Flight sims have a rough time when it comes to critics. In this post I want to unpack why and talk a little about the issue of ‘fake reviews’ and the issues that they cause for this community in particular. It’s been a while since I editorialized so… let’s get into it!
The video game industry is a multi-billion dollar entertainment powerhouse with many games selling many millions of copies each year and publishers blowing massive amount of money on advertising and marketing campaigns. Some of that money gets directed to making sure that reviewers get early access, inside information scoops, and the like to build ‘hype’ days or weeks before a release.
Professional reviewers are people who write reviews for gaming magazines and big name websites. These include sites and magazines like PC Gamer, Kotaku, IGN, and Polygon. The names of these magazines and companies have sometimes changed over the years but generally speaking the format has stayed the same.
Though these reviewers work hard at their jobs, they tend to do less well when it comes to flight sims. It is rare to find a professional reviewer that has the interest and historical knowledge of the flight sim genre to be able to fully evaluate a product to its full potential. Good or bad, to really rate a flight sim versus another and give a review it requires a kind of background knowledge that these reviewers typically don’t have.
Many of them don’t even try these days anyways. It is rare for a mainstream gaming magazine or website to even mention IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad or the latest module release for DCS. These are niche market games and they don’t illicit the kind of interest from the wider community. The reviews that do trickle out are sometimes not the deepest examinations of the title that you as a potential buyer need to know.
These are not fake reviews mind you. I’m working my way up to that.
Positive and negative reviews do matter for any game… or simulation.
Many people read reviews from professional reviewers and will go on their word if a game is worth looking into or not. Doubly so when the investment is higher as with a flight sim (you probably need a joystick, you definitely need a good PC, you may want a TrackIR or VR or other augmenting tech).
Many other people read the scores from the Steam Store and Metacritic to help determine their purchase. These can be, like other systems, useful ways to find out if gamers really like a product. It can also help avoid the issues that sometimes plague a flight sim when reviewers just don’t have the background – fans of flight sims are more likely to have experience with prior products.
Flight sims in their modern iterations are also a little more difficult to figure out given their more modular design and constantly updating features. The IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad you buy today is a totally different and much more evolved product than the one from its first release. The same goes for DCS, Rise of Flight, Cliffs of Dover and others.
I’m still not talking about fake reviews just yet.
Reviewers with an axe to grind
All flight sims suffer from reviewers with an axe to grind. Maybe more than in many games.
Metacritic and Steam Store reviews can be very useful but they also have people writing reviews with an axe to grind. They didn’t like what the flight model of the P-40 in IL-2: Battle of Moscow is like so this is a bad game worth a 0 out of 10 with no redeeming features at all. There are more than ten buttons so DCS: A-10C is a bad game worth a 0 out of 10. The R-27 missile is under-performing… 0-10.
Though I may be exaggerating a bit, it is not by a lot. I think some of these reviews are unfair and they often give a poor image of what the given simulator is like. However, there is an alternate perspective here too. I also see the other side of the coin.
These are people giving their unfiltered opinions and the honest truth (in their mind). Not everyone is going to be happy with how things are and not all gamers are going to enjoy flight sims and only a very select few would want to dig up heaps of historical documents and have a flight model debate in a forum. Not all people want to spend time learning aircraft systems or practicing the finer nuances of flight.
These reviewers with an axe to grind may buy or try something out and really not like it for any number of reasons. War Thunder may be as complex as many want to take their flight sim gaming experience and there is nothing wrong with that.
These reviews may give an unfair image to some sims over others but I also think they can help others avoid frustrating and disappointment buying something they just will not enjoy – whatever the reason.
These are still legitimate thoughts and feelings even if I don’t always agree with them. They played the game, they didn’t like something, and then they voiced their opinion with specifics. We can argue those specifics and we can probably argue with the way they rated the product but there is still, at the very least, a shred of validity.
So… fake reviews? Are we there yet? Nope. These are not a fake reviews either.
Fake reviews are bad for the industry, worse for flight sims
Throughout this editorial I’ve talked about flight sims as games, as being part of the game industry, and as being a niche market within that industry. Flight sims are sold as “games” but they tend to be much more serious than your average game requiring a greater level of commitment to learn and get into them nevermind the hardware and extra costs there.
Being in a niche market means that the number of people interested number in the thousands rather than millions and so individual reviews and overall scores sometimes matter even more.
A badly reviewed Call of Duty title generating a lot of negative press still sells millions of games and the next three follow up titles are going to come next year almost guaranteed. On the other hand, a badly reviewed flight sim may not sell (even if its good) and if it doesn’t sell enough to convince the publisher to continue, then the studio behind it may not exist next year to make an update or another title.
It is fair if a legitimately bad title gets bad reviews from legitimate players. It’s even fair for a legitimately good title to get bad reviews from legitimate players. Its something else when a product gets bad reviews from people with an agenda that has nothing to do with their gameplay experience or the product itself.
These are fake reviews that dismiss or discredit a product in a negative ad campaign. I think they are wrong. They do the flight sim community even more of a disservice than other game industries because these acts can scare away people who may otherwise be interested.
The reasons why are even more baffling. Is it “fanboyism” where your side is the best and the other side can’t possibly be good? We’ve seen that between IL-2, Rise of Flight, and DCS before as we’ve seen it between Call of Duty and Battlefield or War Craft versus Command & Conquer. The gaming industry is littered with these examples.
Maybe they are being paid by a surreptitious party to spread bad buzz about one product and good buzz about another? I have trouble believing this would happen in this community or that there would be enough money involved to make it worthwhile.\
Perhaps the motivations are something I haven’t considered either.
My TL;DR on this is comes down to a simple thing. If you want to decide on buying a flight sim let me make a suggestion: Do the research, get into the community forums and see what people think of the product in practice.
Look out for reviews that slander one product, tell everyone that another product is the best, and offer no reason why. Make an informed purchase of a flight sim product that appeals to you and try and ignore the fake reviews.
For the record, this community is spoiled with some seriously great products to my mind. DCS, Rise of Flight, and IL-2 all have flaws and quirks but when it comes to getting into the virtual cockpit and getting into some simulated air combat, we have some real greats here.
Addendum: Metacritic and Steam Store scores
As of the date of this article, IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad has a Metacritic score of 74/100 from professional reviewers and an average of 5.9/10 from users. IL-2 is “mostly positive” on the Steam Store.
DCS: A-10C Warthog (because DCS itself isn’t on the review board) has a Metacritic score of 87/100 from professional reviewers and 8.8/10 from users. DCS World has a “mostly positive” score on the Steam Store.
Rise of Flight earned a 77/100 from Metacritic and a 7.6 from its users. It has a “mixed” rating on the Steam Store.