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Editor’s Corner: I Hate You, Review Embargoes

Posted on Tuesday, May 20 @ 19:37:47 Eastern by

Copies of video games for review often come with guidelines which publishers ask critics to follow so specific elements of a game aren't talked about, so that we don't spoil a plot point or a particularly cool gameplay sequence and Ubisoft’s latest open-world action game, Watch Dogs, is no different. I spent about 8 hours playing the game at the publisher’s office today, driving around Chicago, getting into high-speed chases, hacking all manner of city infrastructure, and delving deeper into the game’s story.

For more details on Watch Dogs, check out our preview from last month. A few weeks ago I got to write about a four chunk of the game and now I’m playing through a complete build for review, but I can’t talk about a specific element that really impressed me right as I left Ubisoft for the day. In fact, I can’t even mention what type of a gameplay element I’m referring to, what role it has in the game, why I think it’s a particularly strong element… basically I can’t say shit about this really great thing because the embargo says that even when we post a review (at midnight on the day of launch) I’m not supposed to mention anything beyond the first hour of this particular element and…

Holy crap, this makes no sense. Games are hard enough to talk about in depth without these odd restrictions, aren’t they? Have you tried explaining a game even as widely recognized as Call of Duty to someone outside of gaming lately? In fact, let’s use Call of Duty as an example. As much as I’d like to talk about this specific… character (I’ll just say it’s a Watch Dogs character that impressed me), I can’t so let’s try to talk around this element as much as possible.

In Call of Duty, you spend 95% of your time shooting at things, but to someone outside of gaming it might seem like you spend 95% of your time getting shot at or dying in online multiplayer. “Those are real people?” Yeah, like there’s a single player game and you can play through the story but most people just play online. “Who are you playing against?” I don’t know, random people. The system sets it up so you play against another team. “You’re on a team?”

See what I mean? Even without an embargo or certain elements that publishers request critics not speak about, talking about video games to people who don’t know some of the ground work can become quickly infuriating. This character in Watch Dogs is a fellow hacker and has a code name. I’m not allowed to talk about this character beyond a very early point in the game and unfortunately for Ubisoft that means that a hugely positive experience will go without detail in my review.

Why do they do this? Why do publishers want game critics to remain so cold on certain elements of their games? Obviously, it’s about controlling information which proves a theme within Watch Dogs all its own, but it feels like much more than that when you’ve luckily managed early hands-on with a game millions of consumers want to buy and take home and experience for themselves. I want to tell all those people to get even more excited about this, but don’t get yourself hyped up for that, but do look out for this

And I can’t say any of that.

Imagine if a movie reviewer couldn’t talk about a critical character in a film. They could use vagueries. I could too, but it makes the job of the reviewer that much harder and it makes it that much harder to convince consumers who might be on the fence about Watch Dogs to head out to the store and get the disc for their new PlayStation 4 (all Watch Dogs reviews are conducted on PS4) or Xbox One or PC or whatever. My job is to criticize that which Ubisoft developers have worked on for five years, but I can’t even praise an element that dozens of people have probably exhausted themselves over, tweaking and iterating to make sure it’s done right.

That seems backwards to me. Let’s try to review a famous painting under embargo. Take Georges Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” one of the frenchest mother fuckin’ paintings I could think of, in honor of Ubisoft. This is one of the most famous pointillist paintings ever so there’s a ton of detail, lots of different elements, figures, and a huge dichotomy between the foreground in shade and the background in full sunlight. I love this painting because of how much there is to look at. Take it all in. Now, let’s try to review it under a ridiculous art world embargo.

You can talk about everything else in this painting, but you can’t talk about the woman in the foreground. How does that change your impression of the painting? We’ll even put an ugly black bar over the woman in the foreground so the point is driven home even further.

I call this "A Sunday Embargoed." Obviously, the fact that I can’t talk about this one character in a massive open-world game with dozens of hours of content is nothing like talking about a painting where you can’t talk about the entire right third of the image, but this is a totally hypothetical and admittedly childish attempt at undoing the embargo madness I’ve been dealing with lately. It’d be like reviewing Mario Kart 8 without talking about an entire series of race tracks or a new item. It’d be like eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and telling the audience that there’s a crazy twist once you get the wrapper off and bite into the damn thing (there's peanut butter inside).

With “Sunday Afternoon”, removing the female figure in the foreground kind of takes away a lot of the cooler foreground and therefore totally focuses the observer on the much warmer background. It changes a lot of the mood and scenery, right? Now, someone in the art world might accuse me of being facetious, but that person might also say that games aren’t art so fuck that person. What do you think? Could you review “Sunday Afternoon” under embargo?

We can’t even publish our review until the midnight launch of Watch Dogs, so why should I even care about Ubisoft’s requests or what they want me to talk about and what they don’t want me to talk about? I could just crumple up that particular piece of paper and toss it over my shoulder and ignore it and say whatever I want because the game will be out by that time. Some overzealous GameStop manager may have even taken Watch Dogs home over the weekend to enjoy the game, share details on message boards, and get the Metacritic user score off to a good start, but game journalists do have some sense of propriety in dealing with publishers.

These are professional contacts we have maintained for months and years. I don’t want to ruin that relationship just because I think an element of the review embargo is bull shit, but I also want to push the criticism of games as a medium forward and discussing a key element might prove tantamount to that effort.

I guess I just wish they'd trust me not to use our review to spoil a detail that gets unwound within the first few hours of the game anyway.

Related Games:   Watch Dogs

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