It’s getting really hard to find an honest review of AAA titles. Take Dragon Age II for example: at Metacritic, all three versions made it onto a list of titles with much lower user reviews than critic reviews. While user reviews are far from a scientific measurement, the experiences of metacritic users certainly seem more in line with my experience with DAII than the professional critics who awarded the highest rating. I also find it a bit suspicious that the critics from high traffic sites I’ve heard of tend to rate these AAA games higher than the critics I’m unfamiliar with.
I’m not accusing gaming journalists of taking bribes. I don’t like conspiracy theories and don’t think anything that blatant is necessary to create this effect. What I do think is happening is one of the same things that seems to be affecting mainstream media in relation to such topics as politics. Journalists, or more likely their employers, seem loathe to openly criticize groups which they need access to in order to report the news their competitors are reporting which their viewers want. In mainstream media, this concern plays out by limiting criticism of politicians or entire parties in order to get that front row press conference seat.
I’m sure it plays out a little differently in gaming journalism. I’m not willing to say that positive reviews of Dragon Age II that completely ignore its faults are all results of reviewers that were afraid to lose access to free review copies, beta tests, and tours of developers’ studios. However, I have to wonder if those perks create an unconscious positive bias toward a product, an unconscious tendency to give their friends a little bit more of a break. They seem to save the more objective or more honest reviews for the indie products.
Gaming Journalism appears to struggle between maintaining accessibility to the content providers, the game developers and publishers, versus maintaining accountability to consumers, the intended audience of the reviews.
Unfortunately, it makes so many of these news sites only useful for hype — sure, they toured X studio and can talk about future products X,Y, and Z, but once those products are actually released, I feel the need to dig quite a bit deeper to find objectivity.