It's a fine line to be tread, but tread it must be.
I did talk a little yesterday about how the preview, or to be more specific the press demo of Aliens: Colonial Marines was a clear forgery in hindsight. In part due to this, previews which heavily featured coverage of said demo could only be misleading. This is not to blame the sites that covered the upcoming game, after all even with the expectation that some features or scenarios might be embellished it's still a general assumption that you're not being outright lied to when a company shows you something.
It wouldn't be a long stretch to believe that in cases like these that the utility of reviews takes a hit, and the reliability an absolute nosedive. For example, the fallout from this one game has actually caused Jim Sterling to swear off previews entirely:
"Personally, I feel embarrassed by the interview I conducted with him.
One feels like a chump when they, in their enthusiasm for a game,
publishes an optimistic interview with a guy whose words turn out to be
little more than ash in the wind. Thanks to this interview, and indeed
the entire Colonial Marines debacle, I've gone off the idea of
previews entirely. I'm sticking to reviews, so I can have real code and
be sure it's not some chicanery."
I can understand where Sterling is coming from with that sentiment. His previews for ACM were filled with his anticipation for the game, and it's not hard to see that anyone that might have been leaning towards purchasing it and sees Sterling as a trustworthy voice could have been swayed by his excitement. Ultimately though, I find that I can't agree with Jim in terms of swearing off previews forever. I think that this experience has proved to be an eye-opener, but not one without some benefits.
I don't believe that previews are an inherently evil or bad thing. This may sound almost cliche due to the amount of times that I've said it before, but previews are just another tool to use in the marketing of games. If independent sites stopped doing reviews then companies would still put out trailers and hype their games; it might not reach quite as far, but given that anyone can take out adspace on any site these days it probably wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that it would still get around easily enough.
Previews, in some cases, can shed light on where a game might be coming short, or give more information than the company would be willing to put out themselves about an upcoming product. Previews can also serve to generate interest in the game, that's arguably their main function. It's this function though that must be used carefully. I think that part of the reason that ACM has scored so poorly is partially because of the tremendous hype that the previews generated compared to the lacklustre release. Now, this might be somewhat unique in that there was a level of bullshittery going on as mentioned yesterday, but I think that if the game would have just come out with no prior information aside from "it's an Aliens game" then people would have probably still been disappointed, but not horrifically so. We might have seen a median more towards a neutral or slightly positive side, perhaps a fifty or sixty percent. Still not great, but certainly not the shitfest that we've bared witness to.
I think that it's ultimately unfair to pin the blame on previews when, by their very nature, they are dealing with an unfinished product and have to use a decent amount of speculation in some cases as to how the final product will end up. Previews should be used to judge whether a game may be of interest to you when it comes out, not whether or not you should be lining up to preorder it or anything. These days preordering itself is somewhat less of an issue because with digital content there's no longer the risk of losing day one access to material as long as it's on sale on Steam, Origin, the Playstation Store, Xbox Marketplace, or the Wii U Shop Channel.
That being said, I do think that companies should be held accountable for blatantly misleading or dishonest previews. I'm not talking about a couple of cosmetic touches here and there or one feature changing by the time the product ships, but rather the kind of drastic transformations that lead to the situations such as this most recent one. Gaming magazines and websites shouldn't be afraid to come out and say when there has been something foul going on, and I think that this should be a catalyst towards making sure that it doesn't happen again.