One of the stranger side effects of the rise of user-generated content having the hold it does on our culture is review-bombing. If you don’t know what that means, it’s when a group of people launch a concerted effort, coordinated or otherwise, to give a product low review scores in order to, in their minds, make it seem less viable for consumers. This practice usually comes into play when the audience has seen a perceived sleight against themselves, be it a game released with glitches, excessive microtransactions, or some kind of social component that upsets them. Services like Steam, Amazon, Metacritic and more have been trying to find ways to combat this practice and are still shifting policies and developing methods as we speak. But it’s not always negative review-bombing that can happen. This week, Assassin’s Creed: Origins has been the recipient of a bizarre wave of positive user reviews in what seems like a coordinated attempt to boost its score.
This bizarre attempt at review boosting is happening on Metacritic, a review aggregate site that combines review scores from various sources and assigns averages to things like games and movies. Many publishers place a lot of importance on Metacritic, and there are tons of stories of company policy dictating things like employee bonuses based on overall Metacritic scores. Oftentimes, the pressure and power given to Metacritic manifests itself in ugly ways as review scores given by critics are often subject to all sorts of drama, from anger over low scores to accusations of payola aimed at high scores.
The user reviews are not only oddly high in number (and of course all tens), but also appear to be slight variations of the same body of text with slightly different wording and grammatical errors strewn throughout. They’re all from different users, each with just the one review in their history. This is clearly some kind of planned, concerted effort to boost Assassin’s Creed: Origins' user review score, although it isn’t clear why it’s happening. After all, boosting a user score doesn’t really accomplish anything, especially on aggregate sites.
Generally, the focus is on the critic score averages rather than the user scores. User reviews are intended as more of a participatory element, to maintain repeat visits to the site. People like to contribute their own voices, after all. That’s why you see user reviews on other, similar sites such as Rotten Tomatoes. Often, folks who are more untrusting of professional critics will turn to “normal” people for opinions, although this often takes them to places like Reddit for more thoughtful takes, rather than one or two-sentence user reviews that are hardly written in English.
It's also weird that Assassin’s Creed: Origins is the ostensible beneficiary of this activity. Usually, the average gamer taking up residence in Internet commentary spaces are more against the series doing well, as Assassin’s Creed often suffers from things like glitches, uneven game design, and various kinds of social tools and microtransactions. These are usually the fastest route to review bombs. This game isn’t even getting poor scores from critics for the most part, so it’s even odd to see outrage from fans.
It could just be someone trying to mess with the site for no reason, as Metacritic does have its, well critics. Although there is precedent for studio employees to post their own “fake” user reviews on game aggregates, it seems uncharacteristic for someone within Ubisoft to make an attempt, especially on the scale it’s happening. In a report from Kotaku, a representative of Metacritic did say that things like this will happen fairly often, at a rate around every two or three major releases. The company is working on making more efficient tools to get rid of them, but it’s a process. The slight text variations make automated flagging tech difficult to pull off.
At the end of the day, regardless of the reasons, this is a lesson in paying attention for anyone seeking out reviews for something they’re interested in. It’s important to do research before buying anything, even video games. It’s important to get a feel for how review spaces operate, and take everything you read with a grain of salt. It’s better to take things like reviews as supplemental information rather than gospel, as reviews are by nature subjective views of peoples’ opinions. Basing a purchasing decision on a quick glance at user reviews is not a smart practice for anyone trying to be conservative with their gaming budget.