Given Jeff's recent assertions, and this community's piggy-backing on them, I thought I'd give the thought more than a cursory musing. Forewarning, I am tired and this will likely meander absolutely everywhere. Apologies in advance.
Now, I don't know how the rest of you use Twitter, but I follow a lot of those involved in the games industry. With the embargo on Assassin's Creed 3 being lifted (itself a totally revolting concept that requires a write-up of its own) this morning, my feed lit up with maybe a dozen different writers all linking to their own reviews.
Amused, I read the first two or three and leafed (well...) through the others. All followed a pretty standard format: put the game into context in the series, describe the setting/plot in brief, mission structure, aesthetics, technical issues, multiplayer component and conclude. An utterly arbitrary quantification of their estimation of the game's merits is then slapped at the bottom, with a single sentence summarily completing the experience. Besides, is ever ever necessary to have a four page review that I'm required to click through?
No, it is fucking not.
The thing is, there isn't just a standard format; given a game is a somewhat mechanical thing, a measure of common ground is more easily found than when compared to other entertainment mediums. Virtually every review picked up on the same technical issues, though some were more perturbed by them than others. Of course, it isn't certain that two reviewers will necessarily both enjoy the game regardless of it flaws, but I'd wager that most sites wouldn't assign a writer who dislikes a certain franchise/genre to a new entry in that arena. They all end up reading exactly the same way.
They go no way to actually providing the tactile sensation of playing a game. I'm sure we've all had an experience where a game has received raved reviews, we've been incredibly excited for it and when the time plays to get your hands round the controller... it just doesn't click.
Given that, we end up with a fairly homogeneous 'critiques' which the industry loves, and lots of them. Publishers can quite easily lift phrases and buzzwords from reviews verbatim and slap that shiny number on the box - and consumers fucking love numbers, man. Indeed, these numbers are so important that Metacritic averages have long been known to heavily weigh on developer's minds when it comes to possibly bonuses and determining who will develop possible sequels (assuming the title perfoms well commercially). A poor reception can also drastically effect the franchise potential of a title. ~Thanks to Brodehouse for clarification on this point. See here, here and here.
Now, there is a strong argument that we are to blame for the state of the industry at the moment. The truth is, the vast majority of us knew whether we were getting this game long before reading through one of these quite rote pieces, and arguing over scores given is merely a qualification of our own tastes. There are other factors, no doubt, but this must be the most prevalent one, as we are the factor that determines a products eventual success or failure. That is, the relationship with between publishers and the outlets through which we consume information about their products has come about as a result of behaviour. Indeed, the vast majority of games sites are marketing resources. This is not to condemn these sites, it is intrinsically what they are. A new game is on the horizon and they publish each and every tidbit the publisher throws their way. I don't want to delve too deeply into this now, considering there's been a lot of talk on this subject in the last week, but it's a salient point, regardless.
What is the alternative, then? I'm unconvinced quick-looks are the future. The issue is that there are two ends of the video content spectrum: on one hand, we have a 30-minute video where the narrator chatters away, totally failing to describe anything that could not be put into written-word, while idly browsing through menus and intermittently playing the fucking thing (and often poorly at that). On the other, we have riotous, hour-long videos that successfully show the wealth of multiplayer options, fluidity of combat, etc that we want to see and provide a satisfactory alternative to actually playing. This analogue more closely resembles actually playing, and is far more likely to sway opinion than an interchangeable 'opinion' piece. I'd argue, though, that often these are the (somewhat) structured EX videos, but these of course come with their own issues. The gang is far less inclined to savage something, or indeed be anything other than totally demure, given that they are sitting on the same couch as the developers. So yes, we're given a better understanding of the game, but any fundamental issues we can't couldn't possibly appreciate without playing are unlikely to be relayed.
In an attempt to try and tie this up quickly (typing this at an awkward angle on a very small laptop has caused me to become fidgety), I'll sum up. As far as I'm concerned, the future lies somewhere in the middle. No one wants to watch someone monotonously read their review script for five minutes in front of camera, but there needs to be some sort of structure in place in order that they accurately reflect what the game is like to play. Though reviews themselves are quickly becoming outpaced by the technology the internet has provided us, they most definitely serve a purpose. A meeting in the middle is the best option - one qhich Giantbomb has pioneered, but not mastered.
The written word is important, and if we see movement away from the classical review style, I would hope it would cause a surge in actual criticism, real opinion pieces and editorials. In this way, Giantbomb (along with Eurogamer, and likely a small handful of other sites) has really begun to push what games journalism can be.