Rebel Galaxy Outlaw is a fantastic open-world space game but Rebel Galaxy Outlaw has a terrible Steam reviews score. Are Steam reviews making us miss out on good games?
Linux gamers on Steam have a particularly close relationship with the Steam community. Before the days of ProtonDB it was Steam reviews and discussion pages where we would find out how well the game ran on Linux (excepting, of course, this publication). We also may be the most outspoken minority on Steam. Think of the obligatory "Will this come to linux?" Steam discussion post. We should be proud that our feedback can be especially helpful to developers.
There are tireless Linux gamers dedicated to producing Steam reviews with Linux in mind (check out cbones, Houtworm, and the GamingOnLinux Steam group). However, I have come to realize that my faith in Steam reviews may have come at a cost, and perhaps you will to. Think of a game that you love and believe most gamers should love, but which has an incomprehensibly poor rating on Steam. If you came up with one, we share something. If you can't think of one, sort your Steam library by Steam review and take a look near the bottom to see what you can find. This article is about Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, its 'Mixed' steam rating, and the system of Steam reviews upon which many of us rely.
Rebel Galaxy Outlaw (RGO) is the sequel to the indie hit Rebel Galaxy and a spiritual successor to the Privateer franchise. It's an open world space game with light simulation elements and an old-school Western feel that plays great on my aging Geforce 1070 via Proton at 4K with maxed settings. There are some reports on ProtonDB that you need to install mfc42 from Protontricks, with GE-Proton7-30 I did not need to.
We play as Juno, a cynical spacer down on her luck, on a meandering adventure through Dodge Sector: a collection of stellar systems replete with various unsavoury characters, most of whom speak in a distinctly Deep South accent. Firefly is clearly a source of inspiration. You can fly trade routes, mine asteroids, take mercenary contracts, bounty hunt, smuggle contraband, and rob traders blind at gunpoint. The visual aesthetic is a delightful oversaturated kaleidoscope. It's well optimized and runs buttery smooth. The combat is smooth and satisfying. The writing and voice acting bounces between well-done and superb. It has a simulated economy with random events and fluctuating prices. It has an embedded GIMP-like application for custom ship paintjobs. It has space station bars where you can play full-fledged minigames of dice-poker, 8-ball, slots, and Asteroids. You can flip twin birds to your enemies from inside your cockpit. It has the best licensed soundtrack of any game I have ever played, spread over seven different radio stations.
Content warning: Watch Juno rob innocent traders, destroy dastardly pirates, and sometimes both at once. Cringe as Juno fails at Asteroids on an arcade cabinet. One very mild story spoiler.
And yet despite all this, RGO has a resoundingly 'Mixed' rating from gamers on Steam. No review bombs, no political brigading, no glaring technical issues or mentions of Epic exclusivity, just gamers that don't recommend RGO to their peers. The complaints in negative reviews vary wildly; the game is too different from the original, the controls are poor, the game is repetitive, too difficult, or too simple. It's tough to pin down what gamers didn't like. The gaming press, on the other hand, liked RGO considerably more. On OpenCritic, 84% of critics recommend the game, with an average score of 77%.
There are plenty of criticisms in the Steam reviews that I agree with. The mouse and keyboard controls are not great (I play with a Steam Controller). There isn't the same amount of content as games like Elite; I'm 20 hour in to the game and I'm starting to upgrade to what I suspect is the highest equipment tier. The main story, while good, is spread a little thin. But given the positives, none of these complaints should be death-knells to a 30$ USD game that regularly goes on sale for 6$ USD. The mismatch between RGO's Steam rating and its positive qualities simply doesn't make sense. And what if RGO is not a one-off case, but one of countless games unjustly ignored because of poor Steam reviews?
The wisdom of crowds is the idea that the Law of Large Numbers from statistics can be applied to people's individual decisions. It roughly states that given a large number of independent assessments, the mean of those assessments will be correct. To the (albeit limited) extent that the quality of a game is objective, one is tempted to take Steam reviews very seriously indeed; after all, regular gamers are probably less likely than journalists to be influenced by each other (independence) and there are a lot of gamers writing steam reviews (large numbers).
For me, Steam reviews have been something close to gospel. An 'Overwhelmingly Positive' score is nearly an automatic wishlist. My brain translates a 'Mostly Positive' into 'Move Past', and a 'Mixed' into 'Melanoma'. There are benefits to this extreme faith in Steam reviews. If you play and browse through a lot of games it's difficult to investigate each game thoroughly, and a Steam review score offers a simple heuristic for whether to linger on a game's store page or move on. However, since discovering how fantastic RGO is, I'm haunted by the idea that I've been missing out.
Steam reviews are also a mixed bag for developers. For better or worse, Steam reviews make developers more responsive to the reviewer feedback. As the average gamer has more conservative taste than your average journalist, the Steam review system may makes developers more cautious when experimenting. The Steam review system likely favours lower-spec gamers and smaller gamer communities (like ours) compared with mainstream gaming journalism. A positive rating can be especially useful with smaller titles that don't have a lot of attention from gamer press or content creators. There are also unambiguous drawbacks to Steam reviews: buyers are more likely to complain than praise, trolling/brigading, out-of-date Early Access reviews, and the high playtime negative reviews (for bad reasons), to name a few.
Well, what's the solution? How do we as gamers balance the tempting simplicity of the Steam reviews system with its drawbacks, and the possibility of missing out on gems? Perhaps as you have guessed, there is no simple answer. All we can do is be aware of the limitations of the Steam review system and adjust our own mental processes accordingly. Personally, I will keep using Steam reviews as a useful tool in deciding how much time to spend looking into a game, but finding RGO has left me humbled. Now my brain reads 'Mixed' as 'Maybe another Rebel Galaxy Outlaw'. Which isn't all that bad; if the cost to finding another RGO is moving a little slower through my discovery queue, I think it's a fair trade.
Addendum: The only other game I own with a 'Mixed' rating that I loved is Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, but there I at least understand the Mixed rating: people wanted a horror game and got a walking simulator. I'm curious to hear what other people come up with.