This decade of the internet has led way to newfound tactics for fans to express displeasure, protest, and be very loud about it online. And often these tactics take tools meant to share ideas and opinions and let people use them as a form of online harassment. A tactic that has been used frequently in the games industry for fans to rail against developers is review bombing.
Review bombing is a mass action where a large group of people will leave negative user reviews for a game, usually on either its Metacritic or Steam page. Often these review bombs are completely unrelated to the game's content and are politically motivated or a response to a developer/publisher statement or action. Sometimes games will be review bombed before release, proving that these actions often have very little to do with the game itself and act as either a form of protest.
Rarely positive review bombs are a thing, like in the case of Assassin's Creed: Unity following the Notre Dame fire, but for the most part they are fueled by angry fans who have realized that they can have their way by leaving negative reviews for a game they may or may not have played. What follows are six of the biggest review bombing controversies of the decade and the impact they had on the gaming industry.
The Mass Effect 3 Ending
One of the earliest examples of review bombing making a tangible difference was Mass Effect 3 and the controversy surrounding its ending. When the game was released in 2012, fans of the trilogy were extremely outraged by the way Bioware wrapped up Shepard's story. This led to backlash, online harassment of developers, and of course review bombing.
The very first instance of review bombing may be hard to nail down, but the Mass Effect 3 controversy marked a shift in the power dynamic between fans and developers. Bioware released the Extended Cut as a response, which didn't change the ending too much but sent a signal to consumers that in many ways set the stage for the next decade of controversies.
The Titan Souls "TotalBiscuit" Controversy
When indie action game Titan Souls was released, a Youtube controversy sent thousands of fans to the Steam store page of the game. Youtuber John 'TotalBiscuit' Bain, who passed away in 2018, made a comment that the game was not for him. Andrew Gleeson, a developer and artist on Titan Souls, tweeted out: “TotalBiscuit doesn’t like TS. This is the best day" and posted a print out of TotalBiscuit’s tweet stuck to his fridge.
This led to fans of the Youtuber to take to Steam to bomb the game with negative reviews. Bain later made a statement that he did not endorse this behavior. Most of the negative reviews were later removed.
Skyrim Paid Mods Review Bombing
In 2015, Bethesda almost introduced paid mods into the Steam version of The Elder Scrolls V: Skryim. The idea of adding a payment system to Skyrim upset the vivacious modding community. This led to an influx of negative Steam reviews on the game, eventually causing Bethesda to rethink its decision.
This is a case where a review bombing campaign saved a game from unwanted monetization and intervention into the community. Of course, Bethesda came back in 2017 with Bethesda’s Creation Club, which is the latest incarnation of a paid mods system that is now in place for Skyrim and Fallout 4.
Firewatch and PewDiePie
Following PewDiePie's 2016's heated gaming moment, the Youtuber began posting a series of Firewatch videos of him playing the melancholic narrative driven indie. Sean Vanaman, developer of Firewatch, filed a DMCA Takedown against PewDiePie's channel, requesting that all his Firewatch content be taken down. It stated that the company would make copyright strikes against any videos of Campo Santo projects, which led many to review bomb the game.
The Epic Games Store and Borderlands 3
The most recent ongoing review bombing campaign is that of angry gamers vs. The Epic Games Store. Games exclusive to the Epic Store or games that have timed exclusivity on the platform have been getting review bombed. On Steam, negative reviews flooded in for the Borderlands games right as Borderlands 3 was preparing to release. Later in the year, the Borderlands 3 Steam page was reviewed bombed as well. These negative reviews are just one aspect of the larger cultural outrage against Epic and the expanding marketplace of PC game launchers and platforms.
It took until earlier this year for Valve to release an official statement on how it wanted to handle review bombing.
"We’re going to identify off-topic review bombs, and remove them from the Review Score. They’re technically not a part of the game, but they are an issue for some players. In the end, we’ve decided to define them as off-topic review bombs. Our reasoning is that the ‘general’ Steam player doesn’t care as much about them, so the Review Score is more accurate if it doesn’t contain them.”
The Latest Modern Warfare Review Bombing
In the latest review bombing effort, Russian Call of Duty fans are review bombing Modern Warfare for its depictions of the country. The Modern Warfare campaign paints the American military as heroic and the Russians as the "bad guys." The campaign depicts Russian soldiers committing atrocious acts of violence and goes out of its way to attribute the destructive "Highway of Death," an American war crime against Iraq, to Russia.