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It's sad because, when it comes down to it, I think the industry is far less cloak-and-dagger than some members of the community public like to think it is. Truth is, most of us aren't being paid off by game publishers, and the vast majority of us are normal gamers, not sinister conspirators from Hell's obsidian lakes. The moneyhatting and the blood-inked contracts are very rare, but it's stuff like review exclusivity that keeps the myth alive. I'm willing to bet at least half of the exclusive reviews were agreed upon without the invocation of a Faustian pact. However, the impression they give is far more inauspicious than the reality most likely is. I've been offered exclusive and early reviews in the past. One PR representative for an unnamed game - one that might involve men in tight pants hitting each other - stated that if the review was above a 9.0, it could go up earlier.
To me, having a review that doesn't look bought is more important than having a review go up first. Being first means nothing. You might scrape a few extra views from fans of the game, but those fans are likely going to check out all the reviews anyway, so those hits would have come regardless. To me, it says that you agreed with a publisher to give a game a high score before you even got your copy, and in exchange for little more than the opportunity to wave your dick around for a day and feel like you're important over something that everybody will have been forgotten about in a month's time.
Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule. Game Informer's exclusive review of Aliens vs. Predator, for instance, awarded the game a rather dismal 5.75/10, and although I could question the absurdity of having a score that ends in ".75", it does show that exclusivity doesn't always guarantee a high score. But then when IGN busts out a 10/10 for Grand Theft Auto IV and says that its story deserves an Oscar nomination, that "world exclusive" tag looks just a little suspect. For an example of just how suspicious an exclusive review can get, one has to cast his or her mind back to the mid nineties. You may recall, if you can unlock the part of your brain that shields you from extreme mental trauma, a little fighting game called Rise of the Robots. The game is often held up as an example of one of the worst games of all time, and it certainly is the worst fighter that ever made it to store shelves.
It was critically panned ... except by those magazines that had been granted "exclusive" early reviews. Those select mags gave the game much higher scores, despite the fact that anybody who bought the game cried themselves to sleep for a week. One reviewer was even quoted on the back of the box as saying, "You'll wish all games were this good," with a rating of 93% slapped next to it. Looking back, it's pretty embarrassing for any reviewer to have his or her name associated with a positive Rise of the Robots review, and the fact that the positive buzz came from early write ups only damns them further.