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Is Shill Journalism Killing Games Like Deathloop?

Deathloop: the latest AAA game with mixed public reviews after receiving 10/10 ratings by industry giants IGN. Shill reviews or difference of opinion?

Deathloop Controversy - Shill Journalism or Difference of Opinion?

 

"A delayed game is eventually good, an unfinished game is bad forever."

- Shigeru Miyamoto, Donkey Kong, F-Zero, Pikmin; Super Mario, Star Fox, The Legend of Zelda, Nintendogs

It would be very easy to start this (rather lengthy) article with the historic and shameful controversy that Cyberpunk 2077 provoked, with rave reviews pouring in before launch. That’s a cheap and easy shot, and I won’t take it (yet).

If we want to start with an example of shill journalism and PR suicide, then I would wager that the Driv3rGate scandal is a much better warm-up act for what’s happening right now with Deathloop. It should give you some perspective and understand where the rest of this article is going.

The Driv3erGate Scandal

At the beginning of this story is Reflections Interactive, a Newcastle based development studio responsible for smash hit releases like the Shadow of the Beast trilogy, then later, Destruction Derby 1 & 2 and the mostly ignored Monster Trucks on PS1. With plenty of critics on their side, and with a baying public awaiting their next release, they managed to develop a game that became an instant Sony PlayStation cult classic: Driver.

Driver (June 1999) was an homage to the 1970’s car chase movies like Bullit, The Driver, Gone in 60 Seconds and to some degree, Smokey and the Bandit. Kids that grew up watching muscle cars growl and squeal through city streets, leap into the air and smash through cardboard boxes were now adults with expendable income, ready to hand said income over for a chance to relive their youth. The game would see players start the game with an almost impossible tutorial in a parking lot, earning Driver the infamous title as one of the PS1’s most difficult games. Gamers played the role of NYPD detective/former racing driver, John Tanner. Going undercover, your job was to bring down a crime syndicate from the inside, assuming the role of a getaway driver and car chase expert.

Things Were Going Well For Reflections Interactive

Everything was going well for the Reflections and publishers, GT Interactive/Atari (now Infogrames); Driver 1 and 2 were massive hits. IGN, E3 and a raft of gaming publications were pouring high praise over what was, indeed, a great game. With both titles on track to sell multiple millions of copies, it makes you wonder what the hell they were thinking with Driver 3 on PlayStation 2.

Right after Stuntman was released by Reflections, the world opened up its grubby claws and eagerly awaited Driver 3. While Stuntman was a pretty decent game in its own right, gamers and the media just wanted it to move over and let the third instalment through.

Driver 3 - or Driv3r – was an amazing feat of development and had little trouble competing with the likes of GTA 3 at the time. Set over three cities and using over 150 miles of road, and the choice of over 70 vehicles, all put together with superb physics and realistic damage - Driv3r had fans salivating. Magazines lined up in an unorderly fashion to get their copy first, hoping to get the scoop on the franchise.

Here’s where it gets murky.

PublisherAtarihad thrown so much money at the game that they would need to sell 4 million copies to break even. They were on the brink of financial ruin, knowing they had to make Driv3r a success – and to rival the GTA series. An example of their spending on the game is the voice cast. To make a blockbuster AAA title, they decided to have it voiced by familiar names like Mickey Rourke, Michael Madsen and even Iggy Pop.

 

The IMDB cast list for Reflections/Infogrames Driv3r, featuring celebrities such as Iggy Pop, Mickey Rourke, and Michelle Rodriguez.

Courtesy: IMDB.com

 

2004: Atari vs. Rockstar

It was 2004, and the open world of GTA 3 had Atari quaking in their boots. With the developmental setbacks suffered by Driv3r over three and a half years, it was clear something had to give. Rockstar had already put out GTA Vice City and were tying up loose ends on an October release for GTA San Andreas – both of these games being classics that redefined gaming at the time. Atari were getting ever desperate and would need to chuck even more money at the game to rival Rockstar. Driv3r looked like it would hit the shelves at least a month after GTA San Andreas in November 2004, possibly running into 2005. This would not do.

Atari discussed this dilemma with Reflections Interactive, and pretty much laid down the law: release the current Driv3r game before GTA San Andreas. With potentially 6 months development left on Driv3r, Atari and Reflections knew the game would be released with problems. Nope. Still not going to mention CDPR. Not yet. What I will mention is Enter the Matrix – a release from Atari that hung on the coat tails of the movie franchise in the desperate hope that fans wouldn’t realise the publisher rushed the devs to put out a game that was unfinished. Granted, it was mere weeks away from completion, but the wrath of Atari had to be satiated.

Atari – in their infinite wisdom – did something indefensible. Remember those eager magazines and their grubby outstretched hands? They were still waiting for an exclusive on the third instalment of Driver, and the success of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto had not put them off. There was still a huge fanbase waiting on news of Driv3r, and this meant readership. Readership meant advertising revenue and magazine sales.

All Atari required in return for a review copy of Driv3r waaaay before release was guaranteed 9/10 reviews. You might think that in 2004, gaming journalism was a pillar of integrity and neutrality? Future Publishing was certainly not subscribing to that notion.

Future Publishing were responsible for incredible magazines like Amstrad Action – their first magazine, and official console magazines covering Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft brands. Notably, here, we must mention two of the unofficial magazines that covered Driv3r two months before launch: PSM2 and Xbox World.

Naturally, these magazines received record sales for the issues that had Driv3r reviews. Fans of the series were elated that their long-awaited trilogy would be complete, and it was a 9 out of 10 to boot!

Driv3r Is Released To The Public

Two months later, the fans got their hands on the game themselves. They handed over their money expecting a 9/10 game, of course. What they got was this monstrosity:

 

 

Texture tearing, stuttering, falling through scenery, and a whole host of other problems that had gamers feeling entirely cheated.

Other publications were quick to back the gamers up with realistic reviews.

  • A buggy, unfinished and uninspired game.” – PSX Extreme
  • It hints at brilliance on occasions, but is ultimately flawed by poor execution, sloppy glitches and an overall unfinished feel.” - Total Video Games
  • It’s astonishing that a series with such unlimited potential has turned into such a farce, but I guess that’s what happens when you drive blindly without taking to the time to ask for directions. As is usually the case, that leads to a dead-end street.” – Game Revolution

And this derisive quote from Kristan Reed at Eurogamer:

The sorry truth is that Driv3r is in a shambolic state to release into the market. It's not even an Enter The Matrix situation. Sure, many accused Atari of releasing that before it was ready as well, but at least it was pretty good fun from time to time, no matter how derivative or contrived the package was. In that sense ETM was below average, but Driv3r commits the cardinal sin of rarely even being entertaining on any level. It feels old, its design ethics have long since been usurped, its missions are unbalanced and largely lacking in imagination and no amount of cool vehicle physics and destructibility can mask some serious errors of judgement in the design stage, not to mention some appalling AI, botched third-person controls and all round weak programming.”

Kristan Reed, Eurogamer (2004)

The backlash came thick and fast. The internet did what it does best (even back in 2004), and spread the word via places like Future Publishing’s GamesRadar forums, telling whoever would listen that Driv3r was a huge flop. Better yet, they called out the magazines and journalists responsible for the misleading hype.

 

Nick Ellis, Deputy Editor of Xbox World responds to criticism of their 9/10 rating for Driver 3 on GamesRadar.

 

The idiocy continued as the GamesRadar forum owners and moderators began deleting threads and allegedly banning members. New accounts were created, and the backlash continued. Driv3rGate was gathering steam, and fans were not going to be put off by a poorly organised damage control mission on behalf of Atari.

Nick Ellis, Deputy Editor of Xbox World, famously responded on the forums, stating “perhaps a 9 was a little too enthusiastic”. Really?

The world seemed to turn on Nick in particular after this, and plenty of independent journalists took aim. Summing up Driv3rGate, Stuart Campbell of the infamous “World of Stuart” website said:

Videogames magazines and videogames publishers nowadays exist solely as a mutual-support network aimed at squeezing money out of your pockets and into theirs. They know only too well that the days of games mags are numbered, so they have no interest in building reader loyalty, and hence no interest in integrity. All they want is to get as much cash out of you as possible before they die forever. And the best way of doing that is by hyping publishers' games, artificially inflating readers' enthusiasm, getting lucrative advertising from the publishers in return, and meanwhile cutting back on staff and budgets to the point that even reviewers naive enough to want to do their job properly simply don't have the time or the resources for it.”

The magazines, however, had some respite. Their counter (and it was a good one) was that Atari had allegedly told them that the bugs they experienced would be ironed out before launch, and could glaze over that. They could have been honest, though, right?

It transpired that Atari had now hired Babel – a reputation management company of sorts – who actually confessed to having a team of “native ‘guerrillas’ to infiltrate forums and message boards”. Unfortunately for Atari, Babel were not too good at this guerrilla warfare, in that they created brand new accounts just to swipe back at negative comments about Driv3r. This was eventually proven by GamesRadar moderator “Eighthours” who apparently traced the IP address of two of the accused shill forum members back to Babel’s offices.

Future/GamesRadar then, presumably incensed at not getting out of this cleanly, deleted any mention of Driv3rGate from the forums.

And so ends the saga. After Driv3rGate, the game could only manage 760,000 copies sold worldwide, with patches coming out for Xbox and the PC version delayed for over a year. The PS2 version couldn’t be patched, to add insult to injury.

Oh, and one more thing...

While we’re on the subject of GTA 3 and its rivalry with Atari and Driv3r, it would be remiss of us not to address the fact that, over the years, as speedrunners and content creators have been putting GTA 3 through its paces, they’ve revealed plenty of glitches. So many glitches, you could argue, that it “would make the Driver 3 bugs look like normal gameplay”, to quote one of my gamer colleagues here at CCL, who is a hardcore GTA 3 fan.

List of “general” glitches in GTA 3 at launch that are well worth a quick Google:

  • Accessing Joey's Garage
  • Ammu-Nation and rampages
  • "Black cars"
  • Blue Hell
  • Broken Import/Export Crane
  • Claude's "Killer Look"
  • Despawning traffic
  • Easy Vigilante Exploit
  • Ghost Car
  • Incorrect Vehicle Spawning
  • Invincibility
  • Missing Purple Nines
  • Overstuffed Garage
  • Police Officers Behavior
  • Porter Tunnel Skip
  • Rhino Spawn Glitch
  • Subway Tunnel Skip
  • Ultracop
  • Vehicle Challenge Timer Exploit
  • Zombie Car

Source: GTA 3 Wiki (where you will find a full list of glitches)

The GTA3 v1.1 Patch, released by Rockstar, fixed many of the small bugs that plagued the final release. It has to be said, though, that the fan base truly propped up the game with mods and patches of their own over the years, where Rockstar failed to meet their needs. The Grand Theft Auto III: Definitive Edition on Steam has been helped along by contributors to a point where the fans are happy and satisfied.

Opinion vs Fact

To sum up, it would appear that Deathloop has been judged too early by the public. Whilst you can’t blame people for being wary of suspiciously high rated reviews, you also have to realise that much of what we read in magazines and digital publications are based on opinion only. And how much faith you put in those opinions is your decision. Remember that time IGN writer Sean Finnegan mocked PCs because they couldn’t record gameplay like an Xbox? So, yes, this is a big issue when journalistic opinion is confused with factual information. If you must have another example, I personally like to dip my toast crust in my tea. In my opinion it tastes better.

In simple terms, the bugs in Deathloop are the facts. The gameplay, style, aesthetic and anything else about the game itself are opinion-based.

It seems to be that the media has created its own problem, where trust must once again be earned by their ex-readers. Deathloop – which may possibly be a 10/10 game – is currently not getting a fair trial, it seems, but only time will tell.

The public have only had a couple of days to play the game, and have made their way to public review sites like Metacritic to air their spleen:

 

Deathloop user rating of 5.3 on Metacritic for PlayStation 5.

 

Deathloop user rating 3.4 on Metacritic for PC.

 

The negative user scores are predominantly referencing the PC and exclusive PS5 performance issues, but as far as gameplay, there are lots of comparisons to Dishonored, plenty of praise for the unique aspect of the game’s plot, and comments acknowledging the lack of difficulty in the game. A mixed bag, not unlike most other games.

Final Word

It is this author’s opinion that Deathloop is being judged somewhat unfairly and being lumped in with games that deserved the outrage in the past. When readers see a 10/10 rating, they are expecting a 10/10 game. But this will always be subjective. If you only like driving games, for example, you might not like Sonic The Hedgehog.

There are reasons to dislike the game on both PS5 and PC right now, and most of them are gameplay related – not wholly about the performance issues.

I am yet to play Deathloop but will be doing so on PC. That means I should wait for the patches and updates to roll out and avoid early disappointment. Therefore, Deathloop is no different to my last few purchased on PC. With that, I submit that we should probably continue the sensible approach on the run up to a AAA launch:

  • Await independent review
  • Await public review
  • Never, ever pre-order