I have a confession to make: I love reading reviews. And not necessarily to better inform myself whether or not I should see/play/read a movie/game/book, but just to see different perspectives. Through reading hundreds, maybe even thousands, of reviews, I've come to a simple conclusion: professional game reviewers are in a poor position to offer advice on what people should play.
Your average professional game reviewer has a constant stream of games that they need to review. They don't purchase their games; they get them for free. Since they have so many games that they need to play, they tend to play games for the bare minimum necessary to write their review unless they really like the game in question.
Contrast that with your average gamer. When they start playing a game, they've already made an investment — anywhere from the $5 for a rental to $60 for a brand new Xbox 360 or PS3 game (and sometimes more with games that comes with accessories like Rock Band) and the time spent researching the game to see if they would like it. They want the game that they're playing to succeed, otherwise they've wasted their money and time, and so they're more likely to be sympathetic to minor flaws or a slow start. Once they've found a game that they really like, they'll spend hour after hour mastering it and learning all the little nuances to the gameplay.
However, the biggest and most unforgivable divide between the average gamer and professional reviewers is this: your average person only plays games that they think they'll like. When I was reviewing games regularly as a hobby, I noticed that I was giving just about everything I reviewed high scores. Why was this? It was because I was only reviewing games that I had purchased myself. By that stage in my life, I had a pretty good idea of what kind of game I would enjoy and only bought those.
On the other hand, game reviewers play everything, even games in genres that they don't particularly like. Case in point: Lost Odyssey, originally a Japanese RPG that comes out for the American Xbox 360 this month. Reviews of this game have generally been positive, with most scores being in the 80-90% range, reviews generally praising the game's gorgeous visuals and highly developed characters. These reviews acknowledge that the gameplay is well done but is highly traditional and rather difficult, likely to appeal only hardcore RPG fans. Fair enough.
But then there are reviews that open with phrases like "If the ESRB had any heart, it would put Japanese RPGs on the endangered species list," and I instantly know that the reviewer isn't a fan of the genre and doesn't know what he's talking about. Did he see the JRPG release list for last year? Not only were there a ton of fantastic JRPGs (Persona 3, Blue Dragon, Atelier Iris 3, Wild Arms 5, Etrian Odyssey, Odin Sphere, and Rogue Galaxy, to name just a few), but even the weaker JRPGs of 2007 were fairly fun.
Or there's the review that complains that the game's combat has little strategy to it and then a few paragraphs later complains that they got stuck on an early boss and had to spend three hours grinding to beat it. Contrast that with some random gamer's blog where they talked about that boss and how it was a well designed trial-by-fire tutorial of the game's intermediate gameplay mechanics.
There's also a the complaint that Lost Odyssey is similar to Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy is the most popular Japanese RPG series in the US; how is this a problem? Especially when you consider that the last traditional Final Fantasy game, FFX (FFXI is a MMORPG, and FFXII is essentially a single player MMORPG, if that makes any sense) came out at the beginning of the PS2's life, and the current generation of systems is lacking in the RPG department (Mass Effect and Blue Dragon notwithstanding). Besides, it can hardly be considered plagiarizing if you're steal from yourself. Though Lost Odyssey isn't made by Square-Enix, it was made by many of the same people who were responsible for the Final Fantasy series. The company behind Lost Odyssey is Mistwalker, a new RPG company composed primarily of former Squaresoft employees. Lost Odyssey's musical score was done by Nobuo Uematsu, who is best known for his work on the Final Fantasy games. If all that wasn't enough, Lost Odyssey was designed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, the same person who created Final Fantasy in the first place! Of course there will be similarities.
Or take Omega Five, an excellent shoot-em-up that was released for $10 on Xbox Live Arcade last month. Some of the reviews complained the game had no story — but who plays shmups for the story?! I found this criticism especially amusing since other reviews actually praised the game's absence of a story, allowing nothing to interrupt the well-designed and action-packed levels. Another common complaint about Omega Five was that it was difficult to dodge bullets due to the ship's unusually large size. This objection completely ignores the fact that the game provides the player with multiple ways to destroy or reflect bullets, requirng the player to rarely dodge bullets.
Or consider My Sims, the perfect game for young girls: it's essentially a virtual doll house where you design your own content and dress your character in different outfits. My 7-year old daughter absolutely adores this game — yet the game got mediocre reviews in the gaming press because it wasn't for them. Duh! It's a game aimed at pre-teen girls, not 20-something males.
My point with all this: game reviews can be a valuable tool in researching games, but you need to read between the lines. Pay attention to what the reviewer says, not just the score. If a reviewer says a game has a particular flaw, first consider whether it's an actual flaw with the game and not due to the reviewer failing to understand the game's target audience or how to play the game properly. If the concern is valid, then consider how much it's likely to bother you, if at all. Remember: one person's con (the game is too difficult or traditional) can be another person's pro (for someone who likes difficult and traditional games).