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Stop believing what you read in game reviews.

I realize that I may be stepping on some toes here, considering that from time to time my peers here at the Escapist are wont to put finger to keyboard to opine over the latest game. I understand there’s even some sort of video aspect to this site featuring someone named something like Boggle or Parcheesi. I’m told his reviews are excellent, and, if you’re reading/watching for entertainment value, then by all means, carry on. However, if you are reading most modern reviews to inform your buying decisions, I sincerely encourage you to stop.

It was revealed this week that Atari strongly objected to the negative opinions coming from some European reviewers over Alone in the Dark (pictured), which launched across the pond last Friday. The news that a publisher was getting pushy with independent reviewers who displayed the audacity to release their opinions on their own terms was largely met with a predictably cynical lack of surprise.

Like every other problem in the video game industry, Atari defaulted to the position that these opinions were somehow a direct result of piracy. In this case, piracy on the part of people telling you the game would have been overpriced on Wendy’s $.99 value menu, much less at sixty times that price and without the convenience of drive-up. I believe some publishers are only a few tenuous logical steps away from blaming piracy for cancer, global warming and the success of Celine Dion, but that’s another matter.

Lawsuits most frivolous ensued, and absolutely no one was surprised when the only people on Atari’s litigious radar screen were ones who had panned the game, though this may partly be a result of no one really giving the game any good reviews.

The fiasco, which would be a PR disaster if there were any deeper for Atari to dig in the bottom of its barrel, led to revelations from Gamer.nl, which claims to have received a legitimate review copy from Atari themselves, that it was also asked to pull its 5/10 rating. According to Shacknews, this time the problem was not piracy – the site was told only high review scores would be allowed to break Atari’s embargo on reviews being posted before launch; a shocking revelation that again failed utterly to shock anyone.

It may occur to you at this point, to think that things are actually working out pretty well for people looking for an informed opinion. After all, Atari wouldn’t be firing off lawsuits as casually as beads tossed from a Mardi Gras float if the reviewers hadn’t been doing their jobs. But, of course, the reviewers we are talking about in this case are not exactly the big guns. As the Dutch and other European independent sites, those accused of piracy and those like Gamer.nl accused of just not playing nice, slogged it out against Atari, the larger review sites of the New World were notably silent.

Maybe they weren’t sent review copies at the same time as the crucial Dutch market.

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While the news from Europe at least gave license to North American reviewers to be brutal to the point that even IGN issued forth a 3.5/10, what was of note is that reviews only started trickling in after the game’s release on Tuesday. Though it’s purely circumstantial evidence that suggests that these sites sat on their reviews until Atari said they were allowed to have an opinion, I would be somewhat shocked to discover otherwise. It begs the question, one to which I suspect I already know the answer, do high profile review sites only run exclusive early reviews that are positive?

Think about it for a moment. Have you ever read a review of a game before its launch that wasn’t glowing?

That publishers of reviews develop symbiotic relationships with publishers of games isn’t anything new. We’ve all lived through Gamespot’s embarrassing antics, so lovingly referred to as Gerstmanngate. I think the cat is out of the bag on the fact that game companies exert certain influences. And frankly, I’m not even really that worked up about it, as long as we can all be honest about what reviews really are.

They are entertainment. As an aggregate they are a finger stuck in the wind, a decent way to know when a game is really terrible, or at least when the publisher wasn’t willing to pressure the scores, but almost never a good way of being certain that a game will be great. Reviews make for great gaming cheerleading, and when they are cheering for my side, I’m both entertained and satisfied, though I submit a formal request that reviewers not start wearing actual cheerleader outfits. But no one looks to the cheerleading squad for an accurate portrayal of real world events. Like reviews, when the cheerleaders all sit down we know things are in the toilet, but conversely the fact that they’ve just done the pyramid doesn’t necessarily mean all is well in Mudville.

We all need to stop being surprised that reviews themselves have become products. They are negotiable in many different ways by many different parties, and while the best publications make some effort to preserve the editorial process, where and when those editorially sound reviews appear may be up for vigorous debate. Occasionally, you may find a certain reviewer who matches your feelings on games over time. These people are treasures to which you should hold dear, but in the end, only one person’s opinion should really matter to you: your own.

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