Don’t let game reviews become like an episode of 24.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “A Games Journalist doesn’t like Bethesda only giving out review copies to the media a day before release? What a shocking twist!” Give me a minute though – just hear me out. Let’s assume that I’m not just a cynical clickbait merchant, cackling maniacally as I watch my Scrooge-McDuck-esque swimming pool of money fill to the brim from my many articles about how you’re all a bunch of racists. Let’s assume I’m an an older, more wrinkly version of a starry-eyed kid who used to reach up with wondrous awe to the colourful copies of GamesMaster and PC Gamer on supermarket shelves, tugging my Mum’s sleeve anxiously and urging her to buy them for me. I can still remember flicking through page after page of these now aged tomes, thinking how awesome all the people with weird nineties hair were. They made me laugh with goofy captions about a picture of a dead spider mastermind with its bulbous brain blasted in two: “Looks like he’s got a splitting headache!”.
They let me experience their excitement or disappointment with them as they regaled me with tales of games so amazing they’d even stay at the office and forego a nightly trip to the pub (a big freaking deal). And of course, they helped me decide whether to spend my precious pocket money on Goldeneye or Buck Bumble 3D (and thank God they did).
Always though, they had the time they needed to write up the reviews I enjoyed, and were able to collate the entire world of gaming into handy, bite-sized articles. They made me feel like an intimate part of the exciting era I was in, even if I only had the time and money to play a fraction of the games they talked about.
Bethesda seems to think this idea of hot-off-the-presses games journalism has become obsolete. I don’t.
I’ve got no beef with Bethesda. I love exploring the epic worlds they create (and giggling at how the same voice actors tend to voice a hundred different characters). However, the recent restrictions they’ve announced on giving out review codes to the media will leave consumers less informed. Reviewers either won’t have the time to make a full assessment of a game by the time it’s released, or their coverage will take longer, and consumers will be left waiting on comprehensive, well-informed reviews about new releases. This could also set a horrible precedent for the future of the industry.
Bethesda’s reasoning is that “we want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time”. This comes in the aftermath of DOOM’s release earlier this year where they declared the mutliplayer portion of the game – which wouldn’t be live till launch day – so integral to the experience that they decided not to give any pre-release copies for review. For the sake of argument, let’s put aside scepticism that they couldn’t have created a private pre-release server to test the multiplayer component. Why are they continuing to apply this “one day before launch” policy to review copies of upcoming single-player titles like Dishonoured 2?
When many publishers tie developer bonuses to metacritic scores, and bad press at launch can critically compromise a game’s sales, you can see why Bethesda might be guarded about sending review copy out until they’re absoloutely sure it’s ready. I understand the reasoning they’re giving for the decision, but it just doesn’t cut the mustard – and I know why from personal experience.
The very first game I ever got assigned to review was Payday 2. I was given five days to review it, since my editor was strict about getting the review out on release day. Bear in mind that this was a multiplayer-focused game, but the review version I had only had an average of 10 or so other people online – in the entire world. So I just made friends with every one of the motley collection of journalists, testers and that one bloke who got the game early because he “knew a guy” – arranging sessions to play with them so I could get the best possible measure of the online experience.
Likewise, my first review for Hey Poor Player was Shadowrun Chronicles: Boston Lockdown, and I had a similar five day deadline to review it. During my time playing it, my character – and all my progress in the campaign – was wiped twice on the closed beta server I was playing on. I just had to push on and play through the levels again. On more than a couple occasions, developers have even provided me with a list of pre-launch game-breaking bugs to watch out for while playing (they’d have fixed it on the day one patch though, no worries). I almost put the wrong key in the wrong lock once (whilst playing a game which will remain undisclosed). Upon consulting the notes, I realized this would’ve corrupted my save and wasted 5 hours of playtime.
None of this has ever bothered me. It’s just part of the job. Getting the opportunity to play games a week or two before they hit the shelves is an amazing privilege that I will never, ever feel entitled to.
So yeah, I totally get that review copies aren’t exactly how they’ll be on launch day. Sometimes reviewing pre-release copy can be a hassle. But I always do everything I can to burrow down through all that and relate the essence of the experience to people – without bias. Any serious reviewer does the same. Many sites adjust and change their scores after their initial launch review to account for bugs and niggles being fixed at a later date. The idea that the games media are an unforgivingly harsh lynch mob out to destroy promising games that are less than completely polished around launch just doesn’t hold water – not with me or anyone else I’ve ever met who does this.
Breaking news stories is a brutal, cut-throat business. I’ve heard stories of friendships between gaming websites destroyed over getting a breaking news story on N4G first. What if other publishers started taking their cue from Bethesda? If outlets only got a day to review that next big AAA release, the resulting scenario would be some serious End-of-Days type shit. The level of savage competition to get reviews out the door would make Fallout 4 look like a perfect pacifism run of Undertale. I can just picture countless reviewers with a six-pack of red bull, drumming their fingers anxiously while awaiting the arrival of their review code. Marathoning each review – anxiously trying to play as much of the game as possible with bloodshot eyes, while leaving a few hours to pound out their opinion in a sleep deprived haze – would become commonplace.
We at Hey Poor Player would never compromise the quality and thoroughness of a review in the name of beating another site to the punch – but I’d be lying if I said there wouldn’t be a pang of urgency in my mind about it.
I don’t want games journalism to devolve into outlets desperately racing to get out reviews – cutting corners and stretching the credibility of their time-limited evaluations to the absolute breaking point. I enjoy hearing the stories of a reviewer who has really immersed themselves in a game – like listening to the tales of a wild-eyed, dirty-faced explorer emerging from the jungle after being lost for weeks. I want to feel taken away to that world by those stories, and be able to decide whether I want to take that journey myself. That’s the magic of good criticism: the same type that those hard-working, poverty stricken, forcibly-pot-noodle-eating people with nineties mullets inspired me with as a boy.
Don’t start sending the industry down a dark road, Bethesda. You should be able take your time to fix bugs, add features, polish things up and craft something you can feel justifiably proud of. Let us do the same.