Don't get me wrong -- I am looking forward to playing GTAIV. But there is something strange about the culture of hype that is so much a part of the gaming community. No matter how many times we get burned, we're still willing and eager to bestow "game of the year" status upon something we haven't played. We pass along screenshots, trailers, and preview pieces from the enthusiast press as though we had no idea they might be cooked. We don't consider the possibility that all these press materials are made available for the publisher's benefit, not the consumer's. It's a lesson we never learn!
Variety's video-game blog, "The Cut Scene," has a post about the troubling implications of the exclusive review, which is as pernicious a part of this process as any. The first American outlet to post a GTAIV review was IGN, which awarded it a rare 10/10. I am not surprised that the only people to have posted reviews of GTAIV prior to this weekend gave it perfect scores (besides IGN, a few European outlets gave it a go). The same thing happened last year just before Assassin's Creed was released. The Metacritic score was in the 90s until the embargo lifted, and then it dropped over ten points.
An even better example (cited in the Cut Scene post) is that of Game Informer's world-exclusive Mass Effect review. The magazine gave the game a 9.75/10, while still noting its myriad flaws. As I wondered at the time:
...what was Game Informer reviewing? The Mass Effect in front of them, or the Mass Effect they expected to arrive in stores months later? Were they willing to overlook certain problems to secure the exclusive? Were they willing to furnish a certain minimum score?
After scans of the Game Informer review popped up online, they were breathlessly reposted in a (non-game-specific) message board I frequent. I pointed out the offending paragraphs about poor AI, play control, and so on, and was told, essentially, to STFU. I felt no joy when the game turned out to be terrible, for all the reasons that Game Informer danced around.
Now, here we are again, doing the same dance with Grand Theft Auto IV. Posting screenshots. Relaying each new review as it's posted. Strenuously arguing the merits of one console version or the other. Strategizing to acquire the game at a midnight launch, as though it will rot like an avocado if not consumed immediately. Maybe it will deliver on the hype, but that would make it one of the only games ever to do so.
I'm not saying anything that people don't already know. What's strangest about a game with this level of hype is that everybody knows what's happening, and they don't care. They enjoy it. There may even be something genuinely helpful and positive about games that act as a communal touchstone, particularly when they grab the attention of casual gamers or non-gamers. But a mob mentality is always troubling, no matter what the context. There's little harm in forum wars, really, but the mindset is one that any individual should strive to avoid.
Look at it pragmatically. If you convince yourself that something is going to the greatest game ever, then the best-case scenario is that it meets your expectations. More likely, the game will fall short in some way. That's no way to live. To me, nothing is better than being gobsmacked by some under-the-radar title that I had no expectations for, positive or negative.
Of course, that's not so easy with games as it is with other media. At $60 a pop, blockbuster games have an almost prohibitive barrier to entry. Imagine if the cost of a movie ticket were proportional to the budget of the film. It would cost ten times as much to see Iron Man as it would to see Son of Rambow. But that's not the case. As a result, people can afford to take a chance on something unknown, without any marketing muscle behind it. With games, though, the cost of development is passed on to the consumer. Despite a burgeoning indie scene on Xbox Live Arcade, and a vibrant one on the PC, in the world of consoles people are going to save their money for the sure thing.
It's a shame, really, and it's one of the areas in which games still can't measure up to other popular media. Despite the massive revenues the video game industry pulls in, much of that is still due to the price of software and not its ubiquity. It's much more expensive to blindly buy an Xbox 360 game than to pick up a book with an interesting cover, or download an MP3 by a band with a funny name ("Echo and the Bunnymen? I've gotta hear this!"). If buying a new game potentially means throwing away sixty dollars, then you can't blame people for not wanting to take chances. And you can't blame publishers for focusing their efforts on hype instead of gameplay.