Last week, Gearbox’s highly anticipated and heavily delayed Aliens: Colonial Marines was released to widespread critical disgust, which was a surprise to many because the game had previewed so favourably. It turned out that the demo shown in advance of the game’s release wasn’t actually a part of the game itself; it had been created as a standalone showcase of the game’s best features. Many games journalists found this dishonest and hammered Gearbox for it, and then the community lashed out against these same reviewers for supposedly not calling out preview builds of the game for looking awful (the truth is, they were specifically engineered to not look awful). Then some journalists began turning on each other, claiming they’re everything that’s wrong with honesty in the game industry because previews are inherently dishonest. Then Jim Sterling performed his usual dramatic white-knight Internet King gesture and claimed that Destructoid would no longer write previews of games, and many writers agreed with his stance.
In light of this, I’ve had to ask myself whether game previews truly serve a purpose. Do I actually appreciate a sneak peek at upcoming titles, or do I feel like I’m just being sold something? As someone who was raised on Nintendo Power propaganda, I think my answer is yes to both, and I’m okay with it. The main point of a game preview is unquestionably to drive up hype for the game in question, thereby increasing sales upon release, but buried underneath all that evil corporate darkness is the fact that we still get an impression of what the game is like without having to wait long months until the release date. Hopefully it’s not an exclusive preview so several writers will weigh in on the same demo, and by comparing notes between their write-ups, one can piece together a pretty accurate picture of how the game is coming along. As someone unconnected to the games industry, I appreciate getting that sneak peek, however secondhand it may be.
When a game is coming out that I’m eagerly anticipating, I absorb as much prerelease information as I can. This includes demo previews, since they generally give the best idea of how the overall gameplay is looking (isolated media like screenshots, feature lists, and soundtrack snippets can only do so much). More often than not, it’s not whether the game looks glitchy and rough that prevents me from putting it on my to-buy list; it’s simply whether the style of gameplay is compatible with my own interests and gaming prejudices. Nine times out of ten, the bugs will be hammered out of a preview build before release, but even if a game looks great in a preview, I can still decide against I watched the Sony PlayStation 4 reveal tonight (more on that in a few days, once I’ve had time to collect my thoughts), and even though Watch Dogs looks fantastic, I’m still not sure it’s a game I want to play (still haven’t gotten on the sandbox bandwagon quite yet).
I try not to get carried away, though. There was a time when I would unquestioningly buy any new game on Day One if it was in a favourite series (Zelda, Fire Emblem) or developed by a favourite company (Kojima Productions, Bioware). I’ve become more wary in my advanced age, and if there’s a game that I’m harbouring even the remotest of doubts about, I’ll wait for the reviews before pulling the trigger. Reviews, like previews, are flawed and dubious pieces of criticism, but get enough of them together and you form a pretty accurate picture of what the retail build is like; this is why Aliens got crucified last week. I was on the fence about Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, but was relieved to see that it got good reviews, and I imagine I’ll pick it up at some point this year; conversely, I was skeptical of the Wii U as its November launch rolled around, and once reviewers ran afoul of its firmware issues, I decided to wait until the launch bugs had been ironed out (this turned out to be a prudent decision anyway, since, you know, it seems like we won’t get a killer app until 2014).
In the case of Aliens, it’s been said that the Gearbox was dishonest for providing an unrepresentative demo, and the media was lazy for not doing their homework.