Let’s deal with the obvious stuff first: Fallout 76 is a mess – crashes, lag that makes you want to pull your hair out, and bugs and pop-ins galore. If online abuse was the sole metric of game quality, you’d think that Fallout 76 spent all its time sleeping with critic’s girlfriends and kicking puppies. Which leads to an important question. Is Fallout 76 the worst triple A game to be released in 2018? Or is it just the one that’s safe to hate?

Over the past several days, I’ve seen the gaming media treat Fallout 76 like it causes cancer while expanding the hole in the ozone layer. The reaction to the game was so extreme that some people felt the need to comment on how out of proportion it was. That’s when I had a revelation. Watching the so-called gaming media pile on Fallout 76 revealed something we gamers need to know.. Gaming journalism as a whole is cowardly.  

I started thinking about this issue after watching my son’s reaction to the game. I have a 14-year-old son who loves the Fallout franchise. He saved up to buy Fallout 76 – did chores, saved birthday money, all that stuff. A snarky gaming critic would say that he feels sorry for my son. The poor kid worked so hard for a shitty game. But my son doesn’t care what the gaming media thinks. He’s devoted hours to the game already. He enjoys running around with friends and people he meets online. When the game gets buggy, he doesn’t run to make an irate video about it. He looks up tips or remembers that he hasn’t eaten or done his chores and his parents are getting increasingly irate.

So is my son wrong to enjoy the game? Or was the rush to condemn the game a bit much? And what does this say about the gaming media as a whole?

The problem is that game critics see themselves as these high priests of the medium. They turn into gatekeepers, deciding what is worthy or “cool” and what it not.

But critics (and not just the gaming ones – critics of all kinds) don’t experience the thing they criticize the same way most people do. Film critics go to dozens (or hundreds) of new movies – unlike the average American, who only goes to the movies about four times a year. Restaurant reviewers eat at high end restaurants constantly, not just on a special occasion or anniversary. And game critics play tons of new games on a regular basis. That isn’t how most people experience games. Most people buy and play far fewer games per year. They don’t go into the game with the same expectations. They aren’t waiting for the game to knock their socks off or looking for a reason to blast it on YouTube.

Good critics know about this problem and go to extreme lengths to avoid letting it affect their reviews. But some critics fall into this trap where something that is good or fine or average is so boring that it becomes worse than bad.

Nickelback doesn’t cause cancer. They’re not the scourge of the earth. But if you listened to music journalists, Nickelback’s very ordinariness makes them the worst thing ever. And that happens all the time with video games.

When Fallout 76 came out, critics were ready to jump all over its many problems. They couldn’t wait to get in their blandly humorous rants about how much the game sucked. If this was the only bad game released this year, I might not have an issue. But it wasn’t. Not even close.

So where were these warrior critics when 2018’s other mediocre titles dropped? Where was the outrage for FIFA 19? Where were the hot takes on the unfinished and highy problematic Battlefield 5?

Consider the metacritic summaries of NBA 2k19, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, FIFA 19, Battlefield 5, and Hitman 2. Do you see the common denominator? Critics gave all these games very high marks, yet user scores absolutely trash them.

Now, I don’t want to get into a philosophical debate over absolute truth and game quality. This isn’t about who is right or who is wrong. But consistent high reviews on games that fans know are disappointing demonstrate how cowardly gaming journalism has become. Their consistent high reviews of mediocre games proves that critics don’t take risks with their opinions, especially when it comes to the Triple A gaming space.

You may be asking, “What about Fallout 76?  The gaming media trashed Fallout 76 and it’s a Triple A game.”  True. But the critics also waited to see which way the wind was blowing before they jumped on that bandwagon. Youtubers like Jim Sterling, CleanPrinceGaming and Skill Up led the charge because they are consistent in their own way. Integrity is Sterling’s, Skillup’s and CleanPrince’s common denominator. They made it vogue to be brutally honest about Fallout 76. If you watch the timeline, every major outlet waited 2 to 3 days before really ripping into Fallout 76.

What’s really tough is finding a game that the public loves and critics loathe. When you think about it, that’s kind of strange. I can find movies, music, restaurants – hell, even board games – that are derided by the critics while being massively popular. Why doesn’t that happen with video games?

If game criticism was honest, at least a few times a year, we would see a big outlet come out with a review that boils down to: “I don’t care how popular this game is, I thought it was morally bankrupt and the storytelling blew like a washed-up groupie at a Motley Crue cover band convention.” The fact that this doesn’t happen suggests that game critics stand there with one finger in the wind and another on the pulse of public opinion, waiting to find out what it’s safe to say.

Of course, I am speaking generally. There will always be an exception that proves the rule, etc. etc. Show me a real profile in courage – a mainstream reviewer going against the tide on a big title – and I’ll pin a medal on him and still point out that he’s the exception.

You could even see this trend in the whole Diablo Immortal controversy and backlash. The announcement went down like a lead balloon at BlizzCon, and immediately the industry line was that the fans were entitled. When the gaming media saw the way the wind was blowing, they jumped onboard and trashed the fans.

Then a few days went by and the backlash started. The same media started backpedaling, coming out with a few articles and videos saying the fans were right. Even desperate politicians have more dignity than this.

Seeing the cycle of coverage for Fallout 76 made me realize how corporate the mainstream gaming critics have become. I’m not talking about the indie YouTubers. I’m talking about the Gamespots, IGNs, Polygons and Kotakus of the world.  Fallout 76 is a mess, but only a few YouTubers and gaming pundits were willing say it immediately. And those same pundits were also ready to acknowledge that some people were still going to enjoy it.

The overreaction came late. And it came from the mainstream gaming media, which seems to be more corporate and “safe” than ever.

On the bright side,  there is some integrity in gaming coverage, but we as gamers have to seek it out and support it.

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