NEWS - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Driv3r Sparks Review Controversey

The launch of Driv3r has been telegraphed for weeks as being an important event - not necessarily because of the anticipation for the title, which is the annoyingly-monikered current generation update of the well-received PSone franchise, but rather because of the huge impact its success or failure will have on the future of its publisher, Atari. For a second year running, Atari has effectively bet the farm on a single title - with some estimates suggesting that the game will need to sell four million units worldwide just to recoup its huge development and marketing budget, while speculation runs rife within the business community that should the game fail, Atari could well go to the wall. We’ve all been here before, with last year’s Enter The Matrix; it sold millions of units, and Atari lived to fight another day. Something else also gives a distinct sense of deja vu - like Enter The Matrix, early reviews of Driv3r have divided broadly between those which consider it a disastrous failure, and those which have lauded it to the heavens, with the bulk of opinion seeming to come down in favour of a critical slating. What’s different, this time, is that the divided opinions have ignited a firestorm of discussion and debate over the entire issue of reviews and the politics which surround them. Accusations of review scores being "sold" in return for advertising and other such incentives have flown back and forth, publications have been forced to admit to reviewing from incomplete code and taking Atari’s word that bugs would be fixed, and the whole question of how trustworthy reviews actually are has been given an airing once again - along, of course, with the ultimate question of the credibility of publications which are supported by advertising for the products which they attempt to review impartially. These are important questions for the games media, but there’s a single more important question which won’t be answered until the sales figures for Driv3r finally appear - namely, just how relevant are reviews at all? Driv3r may have achieved incredibly - arguably ludicrously - high scores from some publications, but major sites such as IGN and Gamespot have both criticised the game harshly, as have several other publications. It seems likely that the balance of professional critical opinion will come down heavily against the title; but while Atari is unlikely to be happy with this situation, nobody seems to believe that this critical slating is going to make Driv3r bomb. In fact, even those journalists who have slated the game admit that it’s probably going to ride high on the charts for months; and while review scores might drive sales lower than they would have been otherwise, Driv3r will probably still sell the four million units it needs to shift with ease. Reviews certainly aren’t irrelevant; hardcore gamers rely heavily upon them, and those elusive "key opinion formers" probably read reviews, even if their friends don’t. But there’s little doubt that the Driv3r episode should prompt much navel-gazing in the games media, and perhaps some deep thought among publishers. If a game can be released in an unfinished state, filled with fairly serious bugs and - in the opinion of many professional critics - badly designed in the first place, and still sell four million units, then a host of problems are raised. Where are those purchasers getting their information from? Why are poor reviews failing to influence them, and what can the games media do to help this situation? Will bad experiences with hugely hyped games damage their interest in gaming as a hobby, and hurt our industry in the long run? None of the answers are apparent - but it’s important that answers are found, both for the future of the games media, and for the future of the games publishing industry as a whole.

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