The story of the day is Atari suing reviewers for bad reviews of Alone in the Dark. Which obviously is a bad idea, because the negative backlash for suing them is going to hurt them more than the positive effect of getting somebody to retract a bad review. And far more people will now be aware of that game having bad reviews than if the bad reviews would just have been allowed to stand.
But of course there is more behind the story than the headlines suggest. Atari isn't suing reviewers for bad reviews, it is suing for bad reviews that came out before the game was officially released, and written by people who didn't receive an official preview copy. Atari claims the reviewers basically pirated the game, and there are effectively already pirate copies on Bittorrent, before the game is even released. The reviewers claim they got copy from distributors who didn't take the official release date all that serious, or got a second-hand preview copy.
So what interests me about the story is the question in how far a game company should be able to control pre-release reviews. Even single-player game preview copies might be incomplete. And alpha- and beta-leaks of MMORPGs are not always representative of the real game. Some companies start a beta only when their game is nearly complete, other companies still do major changes to the game during the beta process. Some games, like AoC, even still do major changes in the months after release.
I will see a version of Wrath of the Lich King this weekend at the Blizzard 2008 Worldwide Invitational at Paris. How close will that version be to the release version? If I see a bug or badly designed game feature, should I write about it, or assume it is going to be fixed and keep mum? I simply don't know how much development is still going to be done on WotLK, I don't even know the release date.
Warhammer Online is a similar story: It is public knowledge that the game changed significantly during the beta process, which is a long one. When I read comments from people who said "I tried the beta and it sucked", I don't even know whether whatever they didn't like isn't already fixed, nor do I know what changes will still come before release. Of course it doesn't help that this sort of comments usually isn't very specific. How do you measure "suck"? And is that "suck" based on personal dislike of a feature, or more objective? No game is perfect, and again Age of Conan is a good example for a game where some people love the game so much they are willing to overlook the imperfections, and other people are so annoyed by the imperfections that they are willing to call the whole game bad.
In the case of Age of Conan at least Funcom can't complain if they get bad reviews, at least these are based on a released game, where people paid money for in the current state. Blizzard has more of a case when it shuts down sites with alpha leaks for WotLK. EA Mythic apparently only kicks people out from the WAR beta without going after their reporting, as far as I know. Putting a genie back into the bottle is hard to do anyway. Certainly alpha- and beta-leaks are at least a breach of some NDA.
I think there are cases where even if a game company doesn't want the word to spread, it is justified to warn people from a bad game. I remember the collective jaw-drop from all beta testers when Vanguard announced they'd release the game in 4 weeks, and everyone said that it was far, far from finished. But for games where there is no fixed release date yet, or the release is still several months in the future, complaining too loudly about some bug or feature that might not even make it into the release version is unfair. The closer a release date is, the more accurate is a judgment about the state of a game. So the bad reviews about Atari's game were probably justified, even if the law might be on the side of Atari concerning reviewing pirated game copies. But anything you hear about WotLK or WAR I'd take with a grain of salt. That includes announcements from the developers.