Reviews in progress are becoming more of a regular occurrence. On the surface, it makes a lot of sense. The reviewer or publication wants to inform their audience in the best possible way about their full experience of a game. Sometimes, a ‘review in progress’ is slapped on a game to wait for a patch. Or because it’s an online game.
At other times, it’s because review code has been supplied too close to launch date (or after) and it’s not possible to meet a signed review embargo before the game goes on sale. Regardless of whether you personally look to reviews to guide your purchasing decisions is secondary to the reality that reviews can help inform players of red flags they would have otherwise not known about prior to a game going on sale.
This is useful when an embargo lifts ahead of a game’s on-sale date, but that doesn’t always happen. For instance, Call of Duty games tend to have review events ahead of launch, except with embargoes that lift in line with the US launch of a game. This means the game has already been on sale in territories like Australia for close to a full day before embargo lifts. Similarly, Bethesda only sends out review codes a day before a game hits stores, which I suspect has backfired with games like Prey, which take a long time to finish, let alone write up (and was positively received).
Love ’em or hate ’em, reviews create a conversation on an official forum. For better or for worse, word of mouth can help sell or sink a game, and I think that reviews are an important part of that discussion, whether they’re reviews from traditional outlets or Steam reviews. But we’re not here to talk about that. What I want to discuss is the idea that reviews in progress are actually counter-intuitive to their original intention, and what I believe to be the ultimate responsibility of publications: to inform the readership.
This was highlighted most recently with Star Wars Battlefront II. I was actually at the review event in San Francisco, where we played about 16 hours across two days on PlayStation 4. When I got home, I played another dozen or so on Xbox One during the pre-release period (with EA Access members and pre-purchasing players). Then I sunk more hours into the PC version for my PC PowerPlay review, which you can check out in the current issue of the mag.
I ended up writing a 4,500-word review for another publication on the console versions of the game and asked whether my editor wanted to mark it as ‘review in progress’ because other sites were doing it, and because the game was changing prior to launch. EA was making promises in blog posts and Reddit threads, the cost of unlocking in-game heroes and villains had changed, and microtransactions were disabled.
Upon reflection, I shouldn’t have asked that. I think it’s better to update a score, positively or negatively, or write a follow-up feature, or update the text in the review, rather than sit on it because you’re ultimately not helping guide the impatient player’s purchasing decision. Pre-ordering players are a lost cause and, honestly, part of the problem of why publishers are increasingly cheekier with pre-order incentives. This is also the reason why embargoes lift close to or just after release date: because publishers are trying to preserve pre-orders.
But here’s the thing. Rainbow Six Siege was a mess at launch. It was buggy, the netcode was questionable at best, and the hit registration was downright broken. But the potential was there. Siege absolutely deserved the middling reception it received at launch, and it absolutely deserves the praise (and player base) it’s had heaped upon it since then. It shows that a game with clear potential can reach its potential if developers are transparent with their audience.
This transparency breeds trust, patience and, more importantly, loyalty. I’ve stepped away from Siege for lengthy periods of time—when cheating was rampant, or when a patch broke something—but it’s a game I feel I’ll always have installed and will sporadically return to because, on the longer timeline, it gets better with updates. Still, publications wouldn’t be doing their readers any favours if they chose to treat Siege as its potential and not the form it launched in. Potential can be flagged in the text of a review, but it doesn’t mean the score needs to skew higher to take it into account.
The same is true of Battlefront II, and if reviewers only problem with Star Wars Battlefront II was that it had microtransactions tied to loot crates, then I worry that those reviewers are out of touch. As much as I think that scoring games isn’t ideal, it’s also another easy way to get the discussion started. Metacritic-listed websites also have the power to get the attention of developers and publishers by letting them know, via aggregated score, whether a game got things right or it got things wrong. The same is true of the User Reviews, albeit to a lesser extent, because they’re a lot more binary: pick any popular game and you’ll see a lot of user scores are either 0s or 10s.
While that’s not ultimately helpful, what is helpful is when a feature or change proves so divisive that people signal loud and clear that they’re not happy. As the gaming world evolves in terms of where people turn to for their critiques, either traditional press, streamer personalities, or user reviews, the ‘review in progress’ is one thing that should be left by the wayside.
In the past, I’ve heard of reviewers who refuse to download day-one (or day-zero) patches before reviewing a game, because you can’t assume—especially in Australia with our terrible internet—that people will be able to download a patch before they play a game. While extreme, this logic puts the pressure back on developers to ship games that are ready to play out of the box. And while it’s not something I’d do, I’m okay with that approach.
Here’s the bottom line. The review in progress lets developers and publishers know they have breathing space after release to influence the scores of the at-launch version of a game, and that’s a slippery slope. Consider this comparison. I’m also a film critic, and I read a lot of movie news about movies I’m interested in prior to release (just as I do with games. But if I know a movie had issues behind the scenes before its release, I don’t withhold a score and hope for a director’s cut to hit home release before reviewing the theatrical movie. I review the theatrical version in its current form, because that’s what people are paying for when the movie hits cinemas.
Even though patches can iron out kinks, or even greatly change a game, the same logic needs to apply to games at launch.
Developers and publishers can have bad launches, they can make mistakes, and they should be held accountable for it. In the same breath, if they change the game after launch to show they’ve learnt from their mistakes, they deserve to be praised for it. But slapping ‘review in progress’ on a game just because you want more time to properly experience the game means they have chances to release patches and statements that may nullify your points, which wouldn’t have been the case if a reviewer had bit the bullet and run it with a score.
At the end of the day, people jump to the scores on reviews before determining whether they should read them, which is why it’s so important to have them attached to reviews, even if reviewers update the text or write complementary features later on. That’s my take from this side of the fence, and I'm really more interested in getting a conversation started. Let me know how you feel about ‘reviews in progress’ in the comments section.