Let’s talk some shop. Video game journalism's juicy details, the drama, the beef – you won’t find much of that here. But it is time to talk about reviews. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier brought some attention back to Bethesda’s review policy recently with Prey. What’s the situation? Schreier is suggesting that Bethesda’s policy removes the common ground of early review copies and is causing a bunch of rushed out, low-scoring reviews that wouldn’t have happened if everyone had been able to take more time with the game. This is, in turn, messing up the game’s Metacritic score, effectively coming back to hit the publisher and its employees right in the wallet. I have mixed feelings about Bethesda’s policy, but I do have a bit of a bone to pick with Schreier’s assessment.
There are, without a doubt, some rushed out, possibly poorly-written reviews for Prey. I’m not going to name any, nor am I going to seek any out. That’s not my business. There are likely a whole bunch of folks who rushed through the critical path to get to the end credits and get something smashed out in less than 24 hours. After all, some reviews hit the day it launched, and as far as any of us know, review copies didn’t go out until the afternoon the day before. Prey is a 14-40 hour game, so assuming those reviews were based on full runs of the game, there probably wasn’t much room for exploration.
Prey is a very measured and slow-paced game. This is my last word on the qualities of Prey here, as I’ve already droned on about it and reviewed it for the site. Schreier and many others loved it and probably have a hard time seeing how anyone who rushed through it couldn’t. As far as my review goes, I didn’t love it. In fact, I kind of really disliked a lot of it! And if I took my time more (despite playing it almost the entire weekend it was out), and forced myself to explore more side missions, nooks, crannies and spooky alien powers, I doubt my feelings would change much! Here’s the thing, there is a lot of mass consensus in game reviews, and that’s a big problem.
It’s such a big problem that a wider range of scores from a AAA game is causing little moments like this. Bethesda’s review policy, right or wrong, is the perfect scapegoat. Nevermind one of the lower scores came from a reputable outet like The Guardian. Nevermind many of the Prey reviews, including the earlier ones, are mostly positive. (It’s almost like games can be praised without nuance as much as they can be panned.) Nevermind one of the later reviews, a rather glowing review from Polygon’s Arthur Gies, is still an 8.5. (Less for the console versions, because of some really goofy technical issues!) Nevermind DOOM, the first victim of the dreaded Bethesda policy, was a thoroughly dope game that received almost universal praise and won an ass-ton of awards! Clearly, the problem is the reviews, not the game.
I get the idea. Writers, already stressed out in general, have days instead of weeks to play a long, complicated game as fast as possible. There’s dwindling value in reviews the longer a game is out, so without the early access and embargo to keep everyone on an even playing field, things kind of go a little Wild West. It’s frustrating, and you see some places make questionable editorial decisions. But I guaran-dang-tee that Prey, or any other game that comes out without early reviews, gets just as much empty-headed praise as the other extreme (if not more).
Look, the games industry has a stubborn, wrongheaded problem with secrecy. I wrote about that here too! It’s the information age, and people want to know what’s going on. The marketing and PR branches want as much control as possible to generate the most artificial hype (Watch_Dogs) as possible, so even if it turns out to be poop, thereare still record-breaking sales and pre-orders. But the cracks are starting to form, there’s an early leak of some AAA game every week regardless, and all it does is frustrate people.
Bethesda’s policy is what it is – another branch of this wrinkled, old tree. But it’s not causing the review scores. Prey is causing the review scores, and they aren’t even that bad honestly. Dissent and nuance are fine. Just because a hyped-up game gets a wide range of review scores doesn’t mean something is amiss. It’s a good thing – the more different kinds of voices in criticism the better. Especially mine, natch.