Borderlands 3 was only officially announced earlier this year, but in the lead up to the looter shooter sequel's release it has been at the center of a significant number of head-scratching stories. The latest of them is the result of multiple games media outlets coming forward about how 2K Games handled distribution of review copies for the game. The issue isn't that certain outlets didn't receive advance copies of the game, but rather 2K's inconsistent messaging and relatively strange way of handling it all.
The controversy began shortly after reviews dropped earlier this week. Only 20 or so outlets went live with scored reviews, including USgamer, while many others posted articles with titles like "Where's our Borderlands 3 review?" Many cited 2K's official explanation, which was that "security concerns" resulted in fewer than expected codes.
It was notable not just because so few outlets received review code, but because of how 2K handled it. Rather than provide a download code, 2K offered a PC copy of a non-retail build of the game tied directly to a separate Epic Games Store account.
In an article on Kotaku, reporter Jason Schreier characterized the situation as "bizarre," stirring up conversation among other outlets. Vice Games reporter Patrick Klepek tweeted, "We were given the same 'security' line. In the past, such lines are often because a publisher wants to give priority to certain outlets, and if you're one of those outlets, will explicitly tell you not to reveal you have code to colleagues. This situation seems weird [sic] than that." Sam Machkovech of Ars Technica tweeted that the outlet didn't receive code either, and "instead of linking to a BL3 review," provided a link to Ars Technica's coverage of the Randy Pitchford vs. Wade Callender lawsuit from January 2019.
During the Giant Bombcast's news segment on September 10, Giant Bomb co-founder Jeff Gerstmann said the publication didn't receive a code due to past coverage: "We were told, and I'm paraphrasing here, but we were told by a 2K PR representative that, based on the sentiment of our E3 coverage, that they were going to send [a review code] to us a little closer to launch."
Gerstmann went on to speculate that review codes were being withheld from select publications in an attempt to boost Borderlands 3's day one aggregate review scores at sites like Metacritic. IGN's Executive Editor of Reviews Dan Stapleton followed up by commenting on the idea of past tone determining access, remarking that the practice of "picking and choosing which outlets get Borderlands 3 codes based on the tone of their coverage" is "bad for all reviewers."
For our part, we ran our review of Borderlands 3 on the morning of Monday September 9. 2K Games provided the same review code to USG, sent the week of August 26, that they gave to every other outlet that got code. Fellow Gamer Network publications such as Eurogamer and VG247, meanwhile, did not receive code.
There is no straightforward explanation for why outlets did or didn't receive review codes. Some publications that previously ran critical coverage of Borderlands 3 or past Borderlands games still received code ahead of the review embargo. The security concerns that were cited to our sister publications evidently did not bar us from receiving code.
This is only the latest in a strange sequence of events in the run-up to Borderlands 3's release. The marketing push for Borderlands 3 has previously been marred by the initial Epic Games Store exclusivity backlash, last month's action by 2K against YouTuber SupMatto for his videos on leaked Borderlands 3 information, and a history of controversies involving Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford.
2K Games Must be More Transparent With How It Handles Reviews
Whatever 2K's reasons are for selectively granting reviewers access to Borderlands 3, the lack of transparency has itself become the story. Its odd approach to distribution, as well as its relative silence on the matter, has resulted in publications discussing the reviews themselves rather than the actual game. Worse, it casts the actual reviews in a more sinister light, as it makes it seem as 2K Games is fishing for favorable review scores.
For 2K, the solution is simple: be transparent about the way it distributed access to the game. That way, all parties can simply discuss the game on its merits rather than wonder why 2K has inserted itself into that discussion at cross-purposes. Until that happens, this feels like one more unnecessary headache among many for Gearbox and 2K Games.