Last night, Bethesda laid clear its policy on media reviews from Dishonored 2 onwards. In a short statement on its official site from global content lead Gary Steinman - himself a former games journalist - Bethesda announced that you won't see any reviews before the launch of its games because it will continue to send out code to publications a day before release. It's not a particularly surprising statement, even if Bethesda deemed it shocking enough to put behind an age gate.
It is anti-consumer, though, and riddled with inconsistencies. "We want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time," reads the statement, knowing as well as we do that final code for Skyrim Remastered is currently in the hands of many 'influencers' and has been for some time. Bethesda claims it wants you to get the game the same time as everyone else, at the same time as announcing a pre-order bonus that lets people play a day early. Where to find the truth in that message?
It's not unknown for publishers to favour preferred publications when it comes to supplying review code - as recently as last week 2K elected to hand out Civilization 6 code to a handful of sites while the rest of us had to wait until a few short hours before its official release, which meant getting a review up of a game of Civilization's scope and size at launch was impossible for those outside the chosen few.
What publishers do with their code is their prerogative, of course, and the truth is we have no god-given right to early code. Why should a publisher hand over its most prized asset to us well ahead of the rest of the world and risk us kicking its face off? When it comes to the fate of a multi-million dollar project, there's not much to be gained from such a gamble.
Perhaps the best reason could be because they have faith in their product - enough that they're willing to put the final game out there for honest critical analysis so people can make an informed decision when buying the game at launch. It's something many are willing to do, and often with surprising generosity (Nintendo stands out as a shining example, sometimes providing review code months rather than weeks ahead of launch). It's something companies in other trades, whether it's consumer hardware or other forms of entertainment, are willing to do as well, so what makes Bethesda the exception?
At a time when pre-orders have become more loaded than ever, now offering not only exclusive items but early access (at a high price, in the shockingly cynical examples of Battlefield 1 and Gears of War 4 flicking a switch to let people play early in exchange for an eye-watering amount of money), there seems to be an increasing imbalance of power between publishers and players that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
One obvious answer is don't pre-order, advice that is well worth sticking to in this continuing age of precarious launches. Buying blind is a mug's game, which makes the machinations of publishers looking to pry money away from you with pre-order bonuses all the more distasteful. Being there on day one, when servers are being toppled as crowds rush in like Black Friday mobs, isn't all it's cracked up to be, and it's better to stroll in at a more civil hour once the dust has settled. If more people expressed some restraint, it might send the right message to publishers, too.
As for our coverage, Bethesda's move comes as part of an ever-shifting landscape we're endeavouring to adapt to, so it comes as no surprise and I feel we're well equipped to deal with it. Games are more complex, sprawling and temperamental than ever before (and, quite often, as brilliant and fascinating as ever before, too), and reviewing them can be a challenge. A handful of you asked us why reviews are often late on Eurogamer, and in part it's because of that challenge. Early last year we firmed up our review policy, ensuring we only ever review off of final retail code and, in the case of predominantly multiplayer games, live servers in an attempt to make sure we're reviewing the same game you'll be playing rather than one offered in controlled conditions.
We're sticking to that, and we're also working to get more critical pieces up around a game's launch to help support our coverage, whether it's examining the difference 200 turns make in a game of Civ 5 and Civ 6, a look at Gears of War 4's conservative single-player or an appraisal of Titanfall 2's multiplayer ahead of our full and final review. Reviews remain a cornerstone of what we do, and it's where we strive to offer comprehensive critiques provided in the right context, but we'd be kidding ourselves if we were to say they're the final word. Games are now too intricate for that, which is something to celebrate more often than it is to bemoan.
Bethesda's decision to hand out review code a day before release comes with a precedent. Earlier this year id's reboot of Doom was subject to similar treatment, which sent alarm bells ringing for many. The end result was, to my mind, one of the best games of the year, and - with apologies for blowing our own trumpet - I think it resulted in some great coverage on Eurogamer, from Edwin's excellent review through Christian's take on its death meta madness and on to a look at how id struggled with its multiplayer before taking back control. Somewhere amidst that lot, Oli also got to play film critic for a look back at the Doom movie, too.
I hope it was of use, and as we fine-tune the way we cover and review games I hope you let us know what works and what doesn't. And yes, we'll be looking to review more games in the future too - once Oli finds a way past the first level of Steven's Sausage Roll, that is.
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