Discourse: The Idealism of Game Reviews from the Outside

Over at Defector, Albert Burneko writes harshly against those reviewers who agreed to CD Projekt Red’s embargo in exchange for early access to Cyberpunk 2077, wondering how we might ever trust those “clown” critics who had “abandoned any claim to adversarial journalism, as well as any utility they may have had to their readers.”

This is nonsense, particularly when you consider his brilliant “solution,” which is that “any of them in possession of spines could have simply purchased the game on the day of its release . . . and published their review the following Monday without restrictions.” Cyberpunk 2077 came out on a Thursday, and it’s super generous to assume that this game, rumored to be over a hundred hours long (but in actuality only about thirty for the main quest alone) could’ve been completed by spine-y journalists in three days–to say nothing of actually writing and editing the piece. This is the reason why critics angle to get games early, especially those who are freelance and therefore juggling other assignments and full-time jobs: because it keeps them from having to rush through, a mindset that also doesn’t serve the public.

Buy a lengthy game on Thursday, have a polished review up by Monday? In what world is that possible, at least in a way that benefits the writer or the reader?

Bear in mind that this early access did not prohibit critics from bad-mouthing the game, which was only available on PC at the time, and provided some valuable feedback, particularly from the epileptic community, about literally glaring issues with the visuals. The only thing it restricted was what sort of screenshots and videos could be shared, and while I’ll admit that’s not great, it’s not entirely dishonest on its own given fact that journalists are going to be playing on all sorts of gaming rigs, and images taken from lower-end computers also wouldn’t be telling the full story about Cyberpunk 2077‘s performance. Gamers knew, especially with a game being released on both last-gen and next-gen systems, that their game wouldn’t necessarily look as pretty as the official videos being released by CD Projekt Red and which most journalists were crediting to the studio. What they didn’t know, and where the problem set in, was just how bad performance actually was on base consoles from the previous generation.

But consider: how in the seven hells would Burneko’s “brilliant” idea have helped? Think about how many gamers rushed to buy a PS4 version of the game, though not a single critic had reviewed that version at launch. These purchasers didn’t wait until the hypothetical “Monday” by which point a critic could have filed a review of that version (and that’s assuming an outlet even chose to look at every version; not all of them have the resources or time to fully vet that). The only thing complete silence from journalists would have done would’ve been to ensure that the only voice in the room was CD Projekt Red’s. The embargo, silly and compromised as it might seem to an outsider, did still achieve the effect of getting some critical thoughts out there.

Burneko’s “brilliant” idea doesn’t check out. Journalists refusing to sign the NDA would’ve resulted in no pre-release reviews, and that didn’t stop players from buying PS4 versions. In the absence of the critical reviews that did come out, CDPR would’ve had the room even more to itself.

The secondary issue with Burneko’s ill-advised op-ed, and it’s one that many gamers share, is the notion that there’s no way someone could’ve enjoyed a game that you personally didn’t care for. This, too, is nonsense. We all like different things, and by all accounts, Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t actually a bad game; if it ran properly on your computer, you likely enjoyed it, much like you might enjoy a movie a bit more on a wider screen than on a watermarked version playing on your computer with a tinny sound system. I believe there are certainly some clownish critics out there–more often outlets themselves, since this tends to be an editorial direction–that will only publish puff pieces, or which will give a 10/10 to a game for which the review itself acknowledges “has flaws” or refuse to score lower than a 7/10 for games that are functional (but not very good).

But to label any critic who plays a game early under embargo? You might as well pillory all journalists while we’re at it, since most agree not to publish off-the-record quotes in exchange for continued access or who hold coverage of breaking news in the tech industry in exchange for having had the opportunity to cover it at all in the first place. There are valid reasons for companies who spend years and millions of dollars to develop something to want to control its rollout; the potential fraud in the case of Cyberpunk 2077 is an exception, not a rule. And honestly, I don’t blame them; the last thing I’d want, as a developer, is to have a slew of angry trolls ripping my pre-alpha build apart. It’s one thing to leak news about horrible labor practices and crunch that do lasting harm to workers; it’s another to leak news about the current state of a game that is in active development. It doesn’t hurt gamers for a studio to roll out previews at their discretion, or to ask that those receiving early copies try to avoid certain non-fraudulent spoilers, so as to preserve the narrative experience for players.

So to Burneko, who thinks that we’re clowns, I can say only this:

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