Reviewing or previewing a new game is not a difficult concept. Yet, each blogger, gamer or gaming website approaches it differently. Some are perfectly content playing a game for a few hours and slapping a numerical rating to that bit of time. Others wouldn't touch a rating system until they've finished the game.
For me, I tend to stay away from reviews -- especially for MMOs. First impressions are another thing entirely, as I'd be happy to relay my initial thoughts to anyone who may be interested in hearing them. I'm not telling you to buy or not buy the game, just saying that this is how I felt.
Something related to this is... let's say, influences. At Massively (and the whole Joystiq Network), we have strict policies against accepting anything that could potentially sway our opinion about a game or a game studio. It doesn't matter if the promises of free dinners, free subscriptions or free travel would actually sway our opinion, it's the fact that it could be perceived that way. Do I think this is a good policy? Well, it has its advantages when you want to fall back on credibility and honesty, but I don't think it's the best way to handle things anymore. Sometimes I feel like a food critic who is invited to sit and watch the other food critics eat away, and then expected to give my impressions of the food based on the table scraps that fell to the floor.
Do I sometimes feel resentment for those people at other sites who are flown around the world to see the newest and shiniest games? Hell yes I do. They get the exclusive and no one says anything about how they got that exclusive. Their traffic numbers go through the roof, and it's a win-win for their site. It's really hard to stay competitive in a market like that.
Related to this is the very real issue of reviewers getting paid or 'influenced' to give a game a little higher score. Does this happen? Hell yes it does. Have I seen it happen directly? Nope, and I hope I never do.
Many game studios (especially the smaller ones) will do what they can to make you as comfortable as possible while playing their game. Want a few extra items from the item mall? Hey, no problem. Whatever we can do to help! Professional game journalists know that this is just the way things go, and they roll with it. They're getting paid regardless of the outcome of their review. Smaller bloggers who may run a self-funded hobby site about what games they love to play might see this a bit differently. Whoa! Free stuff in a game! And all I have to do is review their game? They'll even give me a free subscription and free box copy! I love this studio! Now I'm going to play this game and write a review of this awesome game from this wonderful studio that I love! Whoooo!
You can see how that could be a problem. I'm not saying that all small-time game bloggers are easily bought and sold, but to me, it seems that they're much more impressionable. Heck, any time an ArenaNet developer even acknowledged my presence when I did GuildCast, I'd flip out.
So now, what I do is only talk about the games that I enjoy. I recently gave a raving first impressions "review" of Allods Online. Is it because of anything the studio did? Nope, not at all. I even went into that game expecting crap, and was pleasantly surprised. So I wrote an article on it and made a short video. I think it deserved it. On a side note, it makes me happy that so many other bloggers are now starting to check that game out. Hopefully I had some influence in that, even if they'd never admit it.
When I play a game and don't enjoy it, I'm not going to trash it all over Massively. I will simply give it minimal coverage. If someone else on the team enjoys that game, more power to them. I realize that everyone has differing opinions on different games, and that's just the way life is. When there's a game that has been popping around the other sites here and there, and we're not talking about it... it's because no one enjoys the game. We're certainly not going to lie and say we like a crap game, no matter how many free in-game horses or paid subs are offered.
I really think we're doing it right. I often wish our more skeptical commenters could take a look 'backstage' sometimes and see how this all works, but it's really not as complicated as many make it out to be. We like a game, we rave about it. We hate it, we don't rave about it. We're not in the business of trashing games, but I think we are in the business of telling people what we like.
I can sleep at night knowing that I am being honest. And I'll take those table scraps.