If you’re wondering how good a new restaurant is, who would you rather ask, someone who has dined there normally several times, or someone who went there once for an eating contest and ingested several pounds of food in a single sitting?
Or if you’re wondering which James Bond movie to buy, do you want to hear the opinion of someone who has watched them over the course of a year and had time to reflect on the series, or someone who just ended a bleary-eyed, caffeine-fueled marathon of all 23 movies?
Odds are, if you’re actually wondering how to spend your money, you’d ask the person who experienced the item in question in a natural way — not the person who gorged on it.
Many modern video game reviews are done by people who gorged on the game.
That’s not to say their opinions are wrong or bad, but it does mean that their experience playing the game probably won’t match yours.
The latest example of a binge-style review is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The initial reviews are in, and they’re looking good. Very good. Word on the street is that this may be the best Metal Gear Solid game yet, another bonafide masterpiece in a string of classics.
However, some publications decided to withhold their full opinions until they’ve had more time with the game. Why would a publication hold off on giving a game a final score when they’d get more clicks if their article included a score? It’s because they didn’t have enough time with the game to construct a full assessment.
Blame developer and publisher Konami. Konami sent out review copies of the game four days prior to lifting the “embargo,” the time when reviewers are allowed to post their reactions.
Let’s do the math. Reviewers had four days to play and write a review of a game that by all accounts takes over 40 hours to beat. That means reviewers had to put in crazy marathon gaming sessions each day in order to see the credits roll. Divided evenly, that means reviewers had to spend 10 hours playing the game and probably at least an hour writing every day for four days straight.
When you devote that much time of your day to a single game, you end up experiencing it in a different light than a normal gamer, who would play it for weeks, with any given session lasting a few hours at most.
If you’re looking for reactions to the game, of course you’ll want to read those early reviews. But realize that you’re going to play the game differently than they did. You’ll be able to quit for the day when you butt up against a part you find particularly challenging or frustrating. You’ll fit the game into your schedule, rather than fit your schedule around the game. Early reviewers couldn’t.
None of this means that the critics are wrong about the game being great. It just means that you experienced the game very differently, which can have an effect how you perceive the game.
We’ve seen it happen before, when the initial critical opinion is very strong, and over time the pendulum swings the other way. In fact, that happened with Metal Gear Solid 4, a game many publications awarded perfect or near-perfect scores, only for the game to take on the reputation of an over-loaded slog of endless cutscenes and nonsensical plot twists over the months that followed.
Something similar happened with Bioshock Infinite. The initial reviews were staggeringly good, but then the game came out and lots of people realized that it wasn’t nearly as interesting as reviewers had suggested.
I’m not saying that will definitely happen with Metal Gear Solid V. The open-world gameplay here sounds fantastic, and some of the drawbacks from previous games (the controls, for one) don’t seem to be a problem here. But the reviewers didn’t play the game the way you’ll play it. They haven’t had time to reflect on the experience. These are quick-fire responses based on a series of unnaturally long gaming sessions.
Buy the game if it sounds good to you. But if you’re hesitant, give it a few weeks and read reactions then. Chances are, you’ll find a more nuanced story by then.