The Review System is Broken

There is something wrong with the traditional video game review. The key word here being “traditional.” I’m talking about the media outlet or content creator getting a game early from a publisher then reviewing said game under a set of guidelines, all with the goal of publishing said review when the embargo lifts.

An embargo, in this context, is a ban on talking about a product before a time specified by the publisher. For agreeing to these sets of rules, they will grant you access to the product early so you can produce your own content surrounding the game, movie, tech, etc. It’s a scratch my back, I scratch yours sort of relationship…on paper.

In games, it has become quite common to get games, not so early. Maybe a week before launch, two if you are lucky. With big budget AAA games swelling in scope, these games can take 40 hours to complete. That’s a work week. On top of your work week.

Of course, media plays the SEO game and it is believed to be vital to have your coverage up right at embargo. So bum rushing through the game is therefore vital to have coverage at launch. Consumers don’t play games that way though. It warps your perspective on the product. You are playing a vacuum.

Throw in the fact that more and more games are straight up arriving broken and you have yourself a catch-22. No review exemplified this issue more than Patrick Klepek’s “review” of Star Wars Jedi: Survivor this week.

It’s been fun. I’ve had a good time. It’s also been a time marred by gnarly performances issues on my PlayStation 5 copy of the game, resulting in…well, that’s where this whole review conceit falls apart. See, I could give you two paragraphs of the frame rate issues that partially defined my 10 hours, but those issues seem to have largely disappeared when a last-minute patch for the game dropped. Frame rate hiccups bother me less than other people I know, but still, they did notably impact my ability to play the game, and those experiences affected my impressions of Jedi Survivor. But it all happened in a version you’ll never play?

Part of the reason I capped myself at 10 hours was because I was told the patch might break my save. That’s admittedly unusual for the review process—usually patches during the review period don’t post any danger to your progress. But I was faced with the choice between sprinting through the whole game before the patch came out, or possibly replaying a ton of the game after losing my saves, or I could just wait and see what this patched version was going to be like. I tried to split the difference, and I’m not sure who it helped.

Patrick’s piece is swell. It reminded me of the golden age of Kotaku. Mainstream press doesn’t write like this. I guess that could be part of why Vice shutdown Waypoint the following day.1

This scenario of games releasing undercooked to press and consumers is unfair to devs and players. The system has been manipulated into a marketing tool and everyone seems to have just gone along with it.

This extends into all facets of the review from the structure to the score. Metacritic scores smash the accelerator in the race to the bottom. Reviews are distilled into bullet point snapshots blasted out in a ephemeral story post.

Reviews should be the voice of the critic. The audience is there for that person’s take. I get excited when John Linneman is behind a Digital Foundry video. Kirk Hamilton wrote one of my favorite reviews ever. I implicitly trust Greg Miller and Colin Moriarty’s takes on Naughty Dog. Why?

Because I have come to know these folks, their tastes, and how they align (or don’t) with my own. That’s where the real power in thoughtful criticism lies.

That’s why, since I left mainstream press, I stopped giving out scores. I never liked attaching an arbitrary number to my reviews. If you read my reviews (or as I call them—to SEO’s detriment—“Thoughts & Impressions”), you’ll know how I feel about the game.

Scores, early access, bending a knee to SEO, it’s a game I am so tired of watching. My feelings have bubbled over with Jedi: Survivor. The system is broken. And I’m glad that I have a place and platform to be the change I want to see.

1. Or it could be that Vice may be filing for bankruptcy.