Games journalism, back when we were all young bucks with spotty faces and an infinite capacity for fizzy lager drinks, used to work like this: you’d be sent game review code far in advance of its release, and you’d be able to publish your review days or even weeks before street-date. This system was expected and indeed necessary for magazines, with their weeks-long production cycle and de facto chokehold on gaming criticism. When gamers went to game shops, they'd thus have at least a working sense of what might or might not be worth their hard-earned.
Today, especially but not solely for websites, it’s become pretty much standard to be embargoed from publishing a game review until the day the game goes on sale - so not until the opportunity to buy the game has already come about.
Often, someone will have secured some manner of exclusive coverage agreement to get their review out early, but for most of us, most of the time we have to wait along with the gamers. (The great exception is most indie games, which rightly reckon that all coverage is good coverage in the case of something that can't also muscle its way into public awareness from brute advertising force). In many cases, we don't even get code until mere days before or even the day itself of release, so we have to burn various forms of midnight oil to get a review up as soon as possible after that - by which point a load of readers have likely just gone ahead and bought the thing anyway.
So why are we made to wear these release-day handcuffs? Well, primarily it's about control of information. A negative review before a game’s out can result in consumers deciding in advance they’re not going to buy it, while a cacophony of positive scores hitting the web at the same time can conversely make consumers convinced they absolutely must buy it right away this minute. Marketing budgets and efforts are huge, so reviews potentially undermining their psychological effects (i.e. The Hunger) upon likely purchasers is a greatly feared prospect. The rise and rise of Metacritic as a business and consumer benchmark is an additional factor - the more that can be done to shape and manage averaged game scores there the better, as far as a games publisher is concerned.
Games magazines and sites can’t do a lot about this for the time being if they want to be guaranteed an ongoing supply of code, although one of the interesting undertones of the Kotaku/Modern Warfare 3 leak controversy is that as well as quite obviously generating mega-hits for that site, it perhaps also demonstrates just how hard the doggy can bite once it decides its PR master isn’t feeding it properly. I don't actually suspect it was any kind of intentional protest against Activision arguably courting the media rather less than it once did, but do wonder if it could perhaps result in a rethought PR approach from that firm.
The net result, though, is that it’s probably tougher than it once was to get a good sense of whether a game’s for you in advance of it being released, unless you’re happy to put all your eggs in the basket of a magazine that’s noisily dedicated its cover to an early review of the game in question. We weren’t, you’ll have noticed, able to get hold of the Witcher 2 prior to its public availability, apparently because the devs wanted sites to play a patched build. A fair few magazines were allowed to sidestep this requirement due to their long lead-times (otherwise their reviews couldn’t be out until up to a month after release), but for the most part potential Witcher 2 purchasers would have been unable to read a verdict from whatever their preferred critical outlet was until a few days later. Not ideal, but I can entirely appreciate that the devs wanted what they deemed the released version of their game to be reviewed rather than an earlier one.
I could just have a big moan about the wider practice of withholding games until the last minute, and how it’s all terribly unfair, and how online journos should be trusted with earlier code as much as print journos are, that we’re not going to break embargoes or upload code to the Pirate Bay and that we’ll politely enquire about issues we hit and do the best we can to be fair to both dev and gamer, but that’s another argument and this is probably the wrong forum for it. My question, instead, is for you - how much does a day-one review actually, honestly matter to you?
We've begun to wonder whether in the internet age these early reviews are actually less important, and less interesting, than the discussions both writers and readers can have when a game is available for everyone to play. A few days after release, plenty of you lot will be playing or have even finished the game yourselves. You’ve doubtless got stuff to say about it, rather than just about whether our piece of writing was any good or not, how many typos there were or whether there’s further information you yet desire. You can engage in the dialogue, and offer far more commentary and insight because you’ve got the same source material as us. It’s more fun that way for us hacks, too - a chat with folk who've run their hands and brains all over the same game can be much more rewarding than just a lecture.
So: is this post-release discussion more valuable to you than getting to read our/whoever’s opinion before purchase, or is having, essentially, a buyer’s guide to a product you’re interested in far more important to you? Let's hear it, love.