A modest little indie game called Mass Effect 2 appears tomorrow. You may have heard about it. It's made by an upstart Canadian studio called Bioware, best known for its previous sci-fi opus, Shattered Steel. If Bioware can manage to get the word out about this new game, I have a feeling it may do alright sales-wise. Thousands of copies sold is not outside the realm of possibility.
But they'll need help to move that many copies, and I'm pleased to report that several outlets are jumping on board with effusive praise and hyperbole. Consensus seems to be forming around two main points: 1) The game is a vast improvement on the the original; 2) It elevates the RPG genre to as-yet-unseen heights.
- Pretty much everything that anybody took even the slightest issue with in Mass Effect 1 has been axed or rebuilt entirely. -IGN
- An astonishing RPG...daring, shocking and often awe-inspiring in its use of choice. This is the future of storytelling in videogames. -X360 Magazine
- A gorgeous experience and a staggering achievement. ... [Characters] are unique. They are individual. They are a pleasure to interact with on every conceivable level. [One of the] top five games of all time. BioWare, we love you. -NowGamer
- When you've finally completed every last side quest...sadness sets in - until you remember there's at least one more Mass Effect coming. -Official Xbox Magazine
Maybe Mass Effect 2 is exactly the outstanding game these sources claim it to be. I hope so. I'm excited to play it.
But there's a problem here, and it has to do with print and online outlets granted 'exclusive' rights to publish their reviews before anyone else. Should we be troubled by the fact that these handful of privileged sources have assigned the game a collective average of 97? Does it matter that early exclusive reviews nearly always skew higher than those appearing later?
When media outlets make deals with publishers to be first out of the shoot, their credibility is instantly compromised. And, oddly, they appear to acknowledge this reality even as they ignore it:
And as if our own misgivings over the revelation of plot points were not enough to throttle the very existence out of this very review, EA has also included a handy list of specifics we’re not even allowed to mention, let alone put into any kind of narrative context. Major characters, enemies, squad members, the list goes on. Instead then, we’ll tell you what we can, and perhaps when you witness for yourself the limits of our remit, you will forgive us this somewhat lethargic preamble. (from NowGamer's review of Mass Effect 2)
I don't mean to pick on NowGamer. I've read and enjoyed their stuff since they set up shop. But when you lead your review with "NowGamer is proud to present the UK's first review of BioWare's epic sci-fi RPG," I can't help questioning why a review outlet claiming to be 'reliable and impartial' should express pride at being first? Are we to assume striking a deal with a publisher - compromised by restrictions imposed by that publisher - is a praiseworthy act?
I'm not operating under any illusions here. I'm aware that game devs and publishers need to generate awareness and excitement for their products, and media outlets were making deals for exclusive coverage long before video games existed. But it seems to me there's a significant difference between an exclusive interview or preview and a final review. Magazine and online editors should refuse them as a matter of principle.