It used to be easy to review a videogame. The game would come out, a review would be released, and that was that. Games usually didn’t change much; at most, the cartridge or disk would have minor bug fixes or other changes patched in and released into circulation. All players essentially got the same game experience.
With the availability of digital distribution and greater internet access and speeds, videogames today are not limited to the original release code. Many games are often patched many times throughout their lifespans. Some games live as a “service,” to the point where a game may look very different a year from when it was first released.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to multiplayer games or Games as a Service (GaaS). Single-player games can change radically between updates as well. Games like Final Fantasy XV had major portions of the story patched (and even the ending!). Kingdom Hearts III received a similar patch. Furthermore, games like Cyberpunk 2077 and essentially all of Bethesda’s major releases on PlayStation 3 (Fallout 3, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim) infamously released in terrible technical condition, only to (somewhat) have those issues resolved by patches.1
So that begs the question: how does one review a videogame in an era of constant updates?
Some publications such as PC Gamer include awards for Best Ongoing Game of a particular year. For games that receive expansions such as The Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy XIV and Destiny 2, the individual expansions are reviewed and given their own score.2 But there is no simple way to solve this issue – it takes too much time away from other projects to have reviewers re-review games, so many reviewers do not do this.3 Retrospectives help to give clarity, but usually are not as comprehensive and in depth as a review.
There is also a powerful psychological association with a game to a number or rating. A 10/10 usually signifies a masterpiece; a 4 or 5 tells the reader to avoid it. But those numbers reflect a game at a specific point in time, and not necessarily how it exists today.
This can be a disservice to certain games. Sea of Thieves launched to very mixed reviews, highlighting its lack of content and empty world. The game today features much more content and has been praised in subsequent analysis. Ditto for Rainbow Six Siege.
Perhaps this signifies that reviews are no longer as relevant or important as they once were. In the age of YouTube and social media influencers, word of mouth means a lot more to a game than review scores. Maybe a game is more than its score.
Or maybe the traditional methods of reviewing games no longer apply to the modern videogame landscape that is ever-changing, ever-shifting.
Header Image courtesy of freelancewriting.com
The opposite can also be true. Videogames like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind are infamous on console for degradation of performance and playability that only occur hundreds of hours into the game. Most reviewers don’t play long enough into a game to experience these issues, and most won’t retroactively change the review score or contents of the review itself. ↩︎
Final Fantasy XIV is an interesting case where the game was so bad that developer Square Enix essentially rebooted and re-released the game. The modern game A Realm Reborn is a essentially a different game from the original release. ↩︎
Sometimes publications do revisit games, such as when IGN and GameSpot re-scored Rainbow Six Siege. This is more of an exception than the norm, however. ↩︎