Aliens, Dead Space 3, and the review embargo conundrum

Aliens, Dead Space 3, and the review embargo conundrum

Aliens: Colonial Marines has been released days early, ahead of a storm of negative reviews. Is this happenstance, or clever planning?

 

Let’s just get this out of the way up front – though we’ll be saving our full review of Aliens: Colonial Marines for our print edition, the short story is that it’s a game you should probably avoid; in fact, definitely avoid. However, just saying that (which is, even at seven words long, still a review) is technically in breach of the game’s embargo date, which was set by SEGA for 8pm tonight.

More than a few other sites are flaunting that date because the game has been released early. EB Games in Australia had it on shelves over the weekend, and now Steam has followed suit and released it for sale, a day ahead of release.

Long before then, though, there have been rumours and intimations that the game was not all it was cracked up to be. In fact, a lot of folks were quietly admitting it’s pretty bad. But that’s what embargos are for – they exist, in part, to protect pre-orders and first-day sales. They allow a publisher to control the burst of media on release, maximising the positive spin for a good game – and, possibly, allowing them to control any negative press, or at least steal a march on it.

“The game’s street date was broken by a retailer over the weekend,” a local SEGA rep told us when we reached out on the issue. “Others reacted with releasing it earlier too. It was not intentional on our behalf.”

Others like Steam, apparently. I may be wrong, but I’m pretty sure the publisher – SEGA – would still have some control over the situation. SEGA's not gotten back to me on that one, though that's just as likely because there are no actual SEGA staff in Australia any more - just PR reps.

Despite SEGA’s protestations, it’s easy to look at this as the company trying to get around poor reviews, bygetting the game out ahead of the storm. Assuming, that is, if you’re of a paranoid character and possibly not willing to take SEGA at its word.

But all that’s by the by. Embargos are interesting things, especially when you’re sitting on a game you know is going to get panned by not only yourself, but every other press outlet you know. It is, after all, part of our job as reviewers to help inform the public of just such pitfalls. Normally, it’s not quite an issue – consumers are a canny bunch, and a lot of bad games look that way well before launch. Not Aliens, though; the combination of killer IP and some good marketing has hyped the game. I know a lot of my readers have been really looking forward to it, and that more than a few of them either have pre-orders, or are planning to buy it immediately on release.

Shouldn't my job be to tell them not to?

Well, that’s embargos for you. Break them, and you risk further access to not only review code, but preview events and assets for pretty much any other game that publisher might release. That access, you see, is pretty much our bread and butter as reporters. Imagine, for instance, earning the ire of a company like Electronic Arts, with its huge stable of AAA games on pretty much every platform under the gaming sun...

EA itself isn’t beyond using the power of the embargo to get good release buzz. It had a pretty solid date for Dead Space 3, for instance, and yet four outlets published reviews at least a day early, one of them right here in Australia. More than one of my fellow journalists thought this was an embargo break, but one that EA was happy for given the positive review scores – three out of four rated the game in the 90s. However, those early reviews were exclusives offered to those sites, and then referenced as evidence of the game’s quality in a press release sent out on the game’s release date.

Dead Space 3 is an International hit having received a 9.0 from Multiplayer.it in Italy, 9.0 from AusGamers in Australia, 8.8 from 3DJuegos.com in Spain and a 9.75 from Game Informer magazine in North America. As a result of these four, the game is launching with an average score of 91, and being raved by Game Informer magazine who said Dead Space 3, “[is] one of the best games of this generation.”

A Metacritic score of 91 is worth raving about. The only hitch is the game’s currently rating in the 70s – which pretty much any company would consider a fail – on Metacritic. Those limited, exclusive, pre-release reviews all bucked the scoring trend.

Exclusive reviews are a pretty heady enticement. We’ve aimed for, and published a few in our time, but they always come with their own built in Sword of Damocles. Say, for instance, you have a game like Skyrim, and you’ve managed to convince Bethesda to let you get code early enough so your print issue with the review can land on shelves a whole day before the game releases. No company will ever do this if they think they’ve got a real stinker on their hands, and similarly no one’s going to do this if they think the writer in question is going to pan the game. This is not to say there’s ever collusion going on (though, in one instance, I have been offered an early review, so long as that review was positive); rather, it’s a sensitive back and forth whereby you, as a writer and editor, want to scoop an exclusive, and the PR or publisher in question is going to weigh up the likelihood of that review being positive.

In other words, it’s almost always part of a game’s PR plan, and as journalists – even lowly games journalists! – we should always be leery of being a cog in someone else’s machine. And yet, that’s often what we have to be to stay in the business.

What I’m trying to get at here isn’t all doom and gloom, though. I’m not saying don’t trust writers or outlets – they’re all trying to make a buck too, just like me. But what I would like is for more of you, the people who read reviews and make purchasing decisions based off of them, to be aware of how the process often works.

Buyer beware, and all that jazz.

 
 

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