One of the constant discussions I've noticed amongst my game critic friends this year has been about the excess of high review scores. Some see it as a sign that game critics are too soft, or even corrupt. Or perhaps the games really were just that good? Other, more detailed theories (like mine) focus on the 10-point review scale triggering a certain inherent inflation. Or particular review constraints and embargoes.
There's also the theory that maybe the games this year have really been just that good. I didn't necessarily buy this theory at first, but I've come to believe that a variation on it may be true. But "good" is a vague term, so I think we should be more specific.
I think it starts from the extra-mature console cycle. Traditionally consoles have roughly five-year lifespans, but we're getting into years six and seven for the Xbox 360 and PS3, which have come to dominate the blockbuster side of gaming. In the past, as consoles have matured, the games have tended to get slicker, more certain of themselves, and generally better. Consider God Of War for the PS2, or Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger on the SNES. But as we've moved past that rough time scale. The consoles are beyond normal maturity, they are, perhaps, stagnant.
So that's why we see a pile of third games in a trilogy coming out this year that all share similarities: Uncharted, Modern Warfare, Gears Of War, Battlefield, Resistance, Saint's Row, and a few other single sequels, Arkham City and Crysis 2. What do these all have in common? They're all slick, impressive, not-much-wrong-with-them sequels to popular franchises. That's essentially a guarantee of a high-scoring review. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
But the thing is, with three games using similar if not essentially identical engines over a five or six year span, there's very little chance of surprise. Which is why most of these games, with the exception of Arkham City, aren't appearing very highly on Game Of The Year lists, I think. Instead you have games like Portal 2, Skyrim, and Skyward Sword, which may all be sequels, but they're sequels to games from several years back at the very beginning of the console cycle. They have the chance to both surprise and impress.
I'm not saying this is a bad thing. Most of those third sequels are games that I'm not terribly interested in to begin with, so if the people who are want to give them high scores, it's no skin off my back. But I do think it's a plausible explanation for high scores that doesn't imply that reviewers or fans are idiotic slaves to marketing.