After several years of writing about the bloody things, I can confidently say that the bits I like best from video games are those I'm exposed to long before release – in the form of trailers, press releases and closed-doors presentations, when the game is an emerald of potential unsullied by the greasy palms of Mortal Man. Sometimes, while walking home from the pub, I drunkenly look up old announcement videos, snuffling for a whiff of that departed glory. Ah, Watch Dogs. How marvellous, nay, epoch-defining you seemed in 2012. Now look at you: a surly pretender to GTA's throne, armed with little of note besides a jailbroken phone and a pocketful of dried-up memes. Look at you, damn it. Look at what you became.
Such disappointments have been very prevalent in the biz of late, with games like Destiny falling well short of their hoped-for critical and enthusiast reception. I suspect that's down to people not having as much disposable income, which naturally makes us pickier about things like launch-month bugs, while being sand blasted with hype via the internet. To arrest this headlong slide into ennui, please accept this list of ways to keep your expectations at a manageable simmer, rather than a raging boil.
DON'T TRUST THE VERTICAL SLICE
As the name implies, the "vertical slice" is a supposedly representative chunk of mission or scenario, taken from the middle of a work-in-progress game. You know, just like how you'd show off a beef calf to a cattle trader by carving out the organs that look most developed and putting them under a spotlight. Vertical slices can be very informative, but they're also the worst kind of pre-order bait – something that feels like a finished product, but which has been artfully arranged to show what hasn't yet been created in the best possible light.
Moreover, vertical slices often consist of parts that will get the chop as work continues. Consider Dragon Age: Inquisition. I like that game a lot, but it sure as sherbet isn't the RPG they showed me back in summer 2013. Where's that mission where I get to choose between defending a keep and saving Crestwood? And what happened to all that vaunted terrain destruction? This isn't to suggest that developers BioWare has been telling fibs – I don't doubt that these features were seriously intended for inclusion once upon a time, and that tears were shed over their cancellation. But billing them as part of the package a year or two out is asking for trouble.
LOOK FOR DISTURBANCES IN THE FORCE
A few basic rules of thumb. If a game's review embargo is the day of launch, it's probably a bad game. If a game was announced a year ago and they're still showing hands-off demos, it's probably in trouble. If they've pushed the release date to January or February – the post-Christmas dead zone – they're expecting it to sell bugger all even if it does prove to be a decent play. If the game's out in the middle of summer, they're clearly aware that the slightest breath of competition would shatter it like a sandcastle. If there's more concept art than there are screenshots, hold your horses. If you know what the microtransactions are like before you know how to play the thing, start running and don't look back.
DON'T LET CELEBRITY DEVELOPERS CHARM YOU
To kick the elephant in the room squarely up its arse, I have a certain lingering affection for Peter Molyneux – the ex-Microsoft, ex-Lionhead chap behind the strategy sim Godus, which has failed to meet key development goals despite hundreds of thousands of pounds of consumer investment. Molyneux's radiant, elbow-flapping conviction of the greatness of everything he works on makes a pleasant change from the leaden, PR-approved evangelism of the average senior producer. But good gosh does he have a knack for not following through on his promises. Now that social media is ubiquitous, and calculating sorts like #LetMarkSpeak Kern are able to pander directly to thousands of people, the odds of succumbing to Molyneux-style charm offensives have risen. Stay frosty.
DON'T LET INDUSTRY POLITICS SHAPE YOUR BUYING DECISIONS
Just think – right now, thousands of people around the world are determinedly telling themselves that The Order: 1886 is a fantastic game, because it's exclusive to Sony's PS4. "Critics and their tittering egghead sympathies be damned," they fume, having taped up the corners of their mouths to form a rictus of enjoyment. "This is the best shooter on a console since Resistance 3. Anybody who says otherwise is a backslider who hates games and secretly wants to review caviar or something."
Friends, I know them feels. I was once sincerely of the view that Gex 3D: Enter the Gecko was a better game than Super Mario 64, just because it came out on PlayStation. Fuck, I might have actually said that out loud in the playground – it's a wonder I still have fingers to type with. But there comes a time to put aside such childish ways, to face sternly up to manufacturers and declare: "No. Never again. I am more than the console I own. I am a real human being with genuine emotions that show up on a lie detector. I will not be part of your sinister drone army. I will not be fuel for your word-of-mouth campaign."
HEAR WHAT THE PREVIEWS AREN'T SAYING
Contrary to popular opinion, when games journalists wax lyrical about iffy games it's not because they're doing so from the comfort of armchairs stuffed with EA bonds. Generally, it's because they don't want to shit on other people's hard work without sampling it in full. Previewers are enthusiasts too, don't forget – they'd much rather champion what the game does right than apply a toilet brush to the stuff it royally chuffs up.
This has led to some nasty clashes between overweening writers and readers who've blown the bank on special pre-order editions (see below), as gushing previews percolate down into so-so reviews. It's definitely a process the press could handle better – I'll hold up my hand and say that I was wrong to hail Need for Speed: The Run as a great racer, weeks before a colleague with superior automotive knowhow slapped it with the 5/10 stick. Still, it's possible to glean hints of an impending disaster from even the most ecstatic first impressions piece. Be sure to memorise these telltale phrases:
"Fans of the genre will certainly have nothing to complain about, because those slovenly sorts would buy nuclear sludge if it came as part of a FIFA bundle."
"This game is total balls right now, but there's still two months until launch. Providing Activision invades Thailand and turns the whole country into a QA lab, it'll be a flying success."
"It's shaping up to be a visceral and polished experience that ticks all the boxes, because it is in fact a series of visceral and polished boxes."
"This game is a bucket of cack, but then again what isn't? Maybe the secret to happiness is just to be content with the things we have."
"Badness is relative. I mean, what if you had to eat wasps?"
Because it's silly. You're effectively gambling on an unfinished game – what better recipe is there for disappointment? You want a 10% discount on the Hyper-Mega-Special Edition, with its "exclusive" pre-order goodies? Give it a few days or weeks after release and I guarantee that all those downloadable hats and brittle statuettes will be available separately. In the meantime, you can enjoy the show as incautious mates struggle to justify the £130 they've spent on a silver-rimmed plastic crate with a copy of this year's Call of Duty in it.