Launch issues aren’t new. They may not be expected at a game’s launch, much less hoped for, but to say that they are entirely unforeseen is probably unlikely at this point. After all, even big titles from Battlefield 3 to the more recent Dishonored 2 - triple-A games no less - have been plagued by them, and they aren’t exactly unique exceptions. Launch issues may not exactly be the norm (yet, perhaps), but they aren’t abnormal either.
This article won’t tackle the question of whether the nature of modern-day game development is able to justify the existence of these issues. It’ll simply stick to the question posed in the headline, which is whether launch issues - namely major ones that really get in the way of playing a game - should affect reviews, whether by gamers or critics. In a world where it is possible for such issues to be quickly rectified by post-launch support, should this be the case?
For Bulkhead Interactive’s Battalion 1944, there are people who say “no”. The numerous negative user reviews for it, however, indicate that many others hold the opposing view. Steam user reviews have steadily remained “mixed” for the early access shooter since its release, which was a few days ago at the time of writing. Many (but not all) of the complaints stem from server and performance issues that make the game effectively unplayable. The shortcomings of the launch have been acknowledged, most notably with a rather frank video by studio lead Joe Brammer, but the discontent on the discussion threads has yet to be soothed.
This discontent, some argue, is unfair. “Don't [sic] give negative review for shaky launch,” reads the title for a discussion thread on Steam. It’s followed by the reasoning that since even triple-A studios aren’t immune to shaky launches, the early access status of Battalion 1944 means that such early negative user reviews are unjustified. “Give the devs a chance, and don't [sic] scare away potential new players!” finishes the poster.
The poster of this topic isn’t alone in his thoughts or support for the developers, and that’s understandable. These issues will likely be fixed in a fairly short span of time, if not immediately as some are hoping for. And to have a sizeable portion of the audience potentially lost forever because of a likely temporary issue, especially when the game is unlikely to rival the player base of more established multiplayer shooters to begin with, is a scenario few would wish for. But should that exempt the game from criticism regarding its launch issues, even if it’s an early access one?
Last year, the PC version of NieR: Automata was noted to have some performance issues at launch. While that didn’t make that game as wholly unplayable as Battalion 1944 seems to be for many, there was a personal worry that the problems would be enough to cause a mixed user rating on Steam and make many refrain from getting this gem of a game. There was indeed a flurry of negative user reviews at one point, but that was due to the game not having Chinese language support, as well as the price being doubled in China. As of now, the game holds a “mostly positive” rating for both “recent” and “all” reviews.
The fact that performance issues did not affect NieR: Automata’s Steam rating or result in mediocre critical scores was something this writer was very much relieved by. Looking back however, maybe it would have been a good thing if they actually did. It has been nearly a year since the game released on PC, and while there were AMD and Nvidia driver updates that fixed some things, there has yet to be any official patch for it. Instead, those who still struggle with running the game have to rely on a user-created patch called FAR. Sure, it’s not unplayable, but it’s still a poor show of support from the developers. This was something Kotaku called “ridiculous” last May, which PC Gamer agreed within an article from last November. At this point, it seems unlikely that any further official effort to fix these launch issues will emerge.
The point of the NieR: Automata anecdote isn’t to say that Battalion 1944 will suffer from the same lack of developer support if no frustrations were voiced early on. Neither is it a given that a notable stream of negative reviews pertaining to its performance would have resulted in a patch actually being issued. However, a personal theory is that the result of the latter scenario might have actually happened if the scenario itself had been a reality. After all, aren’t the critical voices of reviewers and the unhappy voices of consumers a compelling motivation for companies to fix their product’s issues? If reviews are so positive despite the issues however, why bother, especially when there’s a user-created patch doing the job for you?
Given Bulkhead’s response to their game’s issues, it seems likely that they are the kind of developers who would have taken note of those and worked on them with dedication even if their Steam user rating was not so affected. But it’s also possible that seeing that section be orange instead of blue provided additional motivation, because it is a sign that a good number of people are already unhappy with the game in its early days. It’s also a sign to other gamers, one that tells them: “This new game you’re interested in buying? There are some problems with it. Maybe you should hold on to your cash for now.”
It’s true that this is effectively scaring the game’s potential audience to the obvious detriment of the game’s population, although the issues would have done the same job anyway. But looking at it from another perspective, these negative Battalion 1944 reviews serve as a benefit to gamers because they are scaring them away, or at least providing them information that has the potential to do so. This is a bit different from the negative NieR: Automata reviews that complained about lack of localization, because while those might indeed scare away some buyers, that would be a very specific and localized group instead of the general audience. Battalion 1944’s issues are ones that culminate in an outcome that affects more than just native Chinese players, and that is the inability or extreme difficulty to experience the multiplayer of a solely multiplayer game regardless of the player’s country. Early access or not, indie developer or not, this is a severe issue that is worth highlighting. Instant refunds, declarations of lost hope or red thumbs downs without backing points may seem more questionable, but it shouldn’t be considered unfair for gamers to point out serious existing problems. Indeed, turning a blind eye to them as a form of support to the developers is perhaps a more unfair practice, and potentially inspires a lax attitude in the developers.
Something to note about game reviews in general is that they report on the state of the game at the time in which they were written. The past or potential future state of a game, or a developer’s quickly-issued promise to fix any issues, may understandably be factored into the verdict depending on the circumstances. Ultimately, however, they are or should be most influenced by whatever constitutes at the present of the time in which they were written. If kinks exist in that present and people buy the game at that point in time, then they will be experiencing those kinks as they are, not a potential future in which all kinks had already been ironed out. Surely it’s reasonable, then, to warn those people about that fact, especially if they understandably want to receive a game that works on a fundamental level in addition to supporting the developers. That’s not to mention that the time spent dealing with these issues might well affect one’s eligibility for a refund, because it counts as “playing” the game. Even if that present is official launch day or an early access launch, why should issues - especially ones that prevent one from playing a game - be entirely excused? People buy games in order to play them, and developers sell games so that they be played. It’s only a natural fact that if a game cannot be played due to its issues, then it is a cause for concern and complaint. Early access doesn’t magically change that fact, at least for early access buyers.
Maybe it would be unfair for Battalion 1944 if the negative reviews persisted or weren’t updated appropriately after the issues got fixed, or if the issues were never so major as to overshadow the game’s achievements. Maybe it’s unfair to bash on developers relentlessly and mercilessly, especially in Bulkhead’s case given their admirable attitude to the problem. Maybe it’s unfair to give up on a game immediately when patches could be issued within the week. Maybe a chance really should be given, especially if the developer or the content of the game deserves it. But giving a chance or acknowledging the quality of a game’s content should not be equated to ignoring actual, serious performance flaws to give a good review or bemoaning reviews that bring attention to these flaws for good reason. That’s just not fair. In short: yes, bad reviews should be given if a game has launch issues severe enough to warrant them.