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Elden Ring’s inflated Metacritic score reveals an ugly truth about game reviews

Open worlds and echo chambers.

BANDAI NAMCO

Elden Ring reviews went live on the morning of February 23, and the result was a deluge of sky-high scores. But just how accurately do those scores reflect the game’s mainstream appeal?

Developer FromSoftware’s latest is already a game-of-the-year contender. As of this writing, the title falls just outside the top 10 highest-rated games ever on Metacritic and is even listed as the best game of all time on OpenCritic. While these review aggregator websites can be a helpful snapshot of the pros and cons of the game, they can occasionally highlight some of the flaws in the complex system that brings game reviews from the farm to your table. This is one of those instances.

Make no mistake about it: Elden Ring is a crowning achievement for its developers. (We scored the game a 9/10 in our own review.) However, for a variety of reasons — including the notorious difficulty of FromSoftware games and a tight review window — many of the folks reviewing the game are already fans.

Getting early and free access to major new releases is a great perk of the job. But more often than not, this time is uncompensated and done in addition to ordinary work hours. In most cases, reviewers were given about a week to play Elden Ring, an experience that can take as long as 60 or 70 hours to complete. This inevitably devolves into its own kind of crunch, especially when development teams often polish a game up to the last possible second, even when it has ostensibly “gone gold.”

The race to meet the Elden Ring embargo was a tough one to conquer.BANDAI NAMCO

What’s particularly tricky about a game like Elden Ring is that, because of developer FromSoftware’s well-known penchant for making extremely difficult games, an outlet’s bench of possible reviewers is a lot more limited than for something like Horizon Forbidden West or the latest Pokémon game.

Some may find the accessibility barrier offputting. Others may have concerns they won’t be able to get through enough of the game to evaluate it fairly. Every outlet is different, but many editors would be reluctant to assign a time-consuming review — an additional commitment of several dozen hours — to someone who doesn’t want to play that game.

So our review went to our biggest Souls fan, and this happened at a lot of other outlets, too. When you have reviewers coming in as devotees of this specific type of game, that’s inevitably going to skew scores upward, as observers like Joshua Rivera of Polygon and Giovanni Colantonio of Digital Trends point out:

A newcomer’s experience with Elden Ring will likely be quite different from that of a seasoned series veteran. (To their credit, Digital Trends’ review is written with this perspective in mind.) None of this is meant to devalue expert opinion — there’s always a space for reviews that know a given genre or franchise inside out and backward.

But that doesn’t change the fact that games media as a whole need to carve out a bit more space to serve the people who are curious and intrigued, rather than an audience of fellow die-hards. Inflated reviews can persuade someone to try a game they'll struggle to enjoy, and that defeats the purpose of reading or writing a review in the first place.

So how do we get from where we are to where we want to be? That’s a more complicated question.

Elden Ring is available now.

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