Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Bowl Bound College Football Review

Bowl Bound College Football, developed and published by Grey Dog Software.
The Good: Most user-friendly management game in quite a while, easily moddable, comprehensive, game can handle undesirable aspects
The Not So Good: Serious problems with played game results that are arbitrary and frustrating, relatively small selection of plays with no play editor, potential opponents not arranged by interest level
What say you? An easy to handle and, for once, polished college football management game, just don’t try to actually play the games yourself: 6/8

As college football enters the bowl season, we sit and reflect on how great football is. Personally, I follow the NFL more than college, although I am going to the first ever bowl game for my South Florida Bulls and I usually end up watching it on Saturdays when nothing else is on except for E! True Hollywood Story reruns. Now that the evil empire has cornered the market on the professional leagues, we’re relegated to playing text management games to get our football fix. Enter Bowl Bound College Football, a college football management game. Now I know where I was going with that intro! It’s been several (or more) years since the semi-successful Front Page Sports series graced the marketplace, so the genre’s been looking for a good descendent. Will Bowl Bound College Football fill the empty, empty void that’s been plaguing humanity for ages?

It’s a (primarily) text management simulation, but Bowl Bound College Football has one of the best user interfaces for this kind of game, which is a very important aspect of management games since everything takes place from the menus. One of the best aspects of the game is the checklist that’s provided each week to make sure you complete all the important tasks. Far too often in management games you’re left with the feeling that you forgot something important, and don’t find out until you’re blown out in the next game. Bowl Bound College Football has a clickable, straightforward method of completing tasks that’s much appreciated. Hopefully other games of this sort will follow suit (and by that I mean steal it). Bowl Bound College Football also has clear, color-coded indications of player strength, spanning from blue (Reggie Bush) to dark red (Waterboy). About the only addition that the game could make is animated plays, but I’ll rip into that later. Oh, and there’s no sound. At all. Next!

Each season can be fully customized. First, to satisfy every college fans dream, you can have a playoff season. Yes, not even university presidents can stand in your way! You can also customize all of the conferences and divisions, even going to far to randomize each conference (Arkansas State in the ACC? Sure!). Bowl Bound College Football also is very and easily moddable: since all of the nicknames are fake when you first run the game, you’d probably want to change it and it’s as easy as opening a database in Access; some fans have already done it for you. You can also change a college’s prestige to make them more competitive and/or realistic based on this year’s results. In a side note, all of the players are alumni from real high schools, which is very neat. You can also have the game automate many of the aspects of the game; if you’re not interested in maintaining the budget, let the computer to it for you! Another big aspect of the game is multiplayer, and there are already several leagues forming with individuals controlling each team (the ultimate association would have one person per team, and they’re getting close). The tools for creating an online seem easy and work well enough without any major problems, so you can virtually control virtual teams virtually! Neat-o!

Before the season begins, you start in training camp, the favorite time of the year for all players. There are several things that need to be completed here. First, the school budget needs to be set, allocating money for recruiting, staff salaries, and scouting. The amount of income your university receives is dependent on their prestige and alumni. Your overall offensive and defensive philosophies need to be set as well, choosing the style of play that best fits your personnel and coaching staff. Each of the philosophies offers bonuses for using specific formations, discouraging a smash mouth offense from using spread formations (which is a great idea). The game seems to pick the best one to begin with once all of the athletes are seeded, so you probably won’t be changing it much unless you want to screw your team up (I am an expert at this). Strangely, you can’t choose which philosophy you want to begin with and then seed players according to that, so you’re kinda stuck if you end up with vertical passing players but you like running a balanced attack. One of the rare things that cannot be edited is the plays themselves: you are stuck with the default plays for each formation. They work OK, but with the amount of customization in the rest of the game, it’s kind of surprising that plays can’t be changed or added. This isn’t a problem with much of the game, but only two deep shotgun passes? I need more variety than that! You can also order your depth chart and assign redshirts for the freshmen with the highest potential ratings. A big part of the preseason is setting your upcoming schedule. The only games that are set are the conference opponents and a rival (if they are outside of your conferenece), so filling the schedule with 11 or 12 total games is up to you. One problem I have is that you can’t sort the potential foes by their interest in playing you, making you select each of the 117 (or whatever it is now) teams before you find someone willing to play you at home. This is one of the few problems I have with the interface, and hopefully will be fixed in the future.

After all of that preparation, it’s time to play the games. Something to concern you with during the season is a student not being able to play, either due to injury or being stupid. Those dumbasses that maintain a low GPA can be helped with additional tutoring time (of which you are given a finite amount at the onset of the season), and injuries have to be adjusted for using your depth chart. Essentially everything in the game can be adjusted using a “suggest” button, which uses the game’s best guess as to what the best decision is, and it works for the most part. You can also manually tune almost everything if you’re truly anal-retentive. For each week, you create an offensive and defensive gameplan tailored for your opponent. Gameplans cover each situation that can come up during the game and what plays should be called; it’s kind of tedious, so most users will just use the default choices. You can also set the amount of substitutions and the specific plays and formations you’ll call each down. It’s all overly complex and gives even the most intricate coach all the options they would want. You can choose to either play the game (by calling plays) or have the game results simmed.

By far the biggest problem I have with Bowl Bound College Football is how the games unfold. There doesn’t seem to be a good correlation between the offensive play, the defensive play, and the result. Here are some examples:
1. An inside run against pass defense for a gain of 0 yards
2. An inside run against dime deep zone for a gain of 1 yard
3. A completed streak pass for 3 yards
4. An inside run against dime middle zone for a gain of 0 yards
5. A 56-yard TD run off tackle to a side with 4 people run blitzing
6. A short curl route completed for 63 yards
7. A deep corner route completed for 4 yards
8. A deep post route completed for 2 yards
This is done with two evenly matched teams with mostly orange (average) players. The play by play is also sometimes incorrect, such as “for a small gain” actually being a two-yard loss. My first season, I lost three games in overtime: one fumble, one interception, and one blocked 22-yard field goal. I’m not sure if this is extremely bad luck or the game is cheating, but either way it is very frustrating. I also went down early 21-0 to a really bad team (at least worse than mine) because of a 77-yard TD pass when I was in deep zone, a fumble return, and a 65-yard run when I was in run defense. When I run a smash mouth (run oriented) offense with good linemen and running backs against a bad defense, I expect to get better than 30 rushes for 12 yards. The game provides more realistic play results when it quickly sims them without user input, however. I would tend to believe the results of the plays better if I could see the players running around, even if it was just a simple overhead view with circles walking too and fro (and that’s all I’d expect). I can’t believe the results of each play otherwise, because from my experience it just doesn’t make sense. The strange thing is that I haven’t seen other people complaining about this on the official message boards, so maybe it’s just me and my sucky play calling, but since you’re stuck reading my review, I’m going to make my complaints, darn it. The simulated results are seemingly realistic; I just get way too frustrated calling the plays myself, to the point of wanting to quit the game. That’s never good.

Once you’ve suffered crushing defeat after crushing defeat, it’s time for the nail-biting excitement of the offseason. You are first given offers from other schools that you can accept to shake the game up. You also need to hire and fire your assistants, especially if they are hired by a competing university (jerks!). The biggest aspect of the offseason is recruiting, both high school players and transfers from other schools. For each potential recruit you can scout them, adjust the contact hours, accept player visits to your campus (although there’s no option for whores for some reason), and even offer a pitch to impress that hard to convince recruit. It’s almost like a mini-game getting that star quarterback to come to your stinky university, and quite a nice diversion after the season that works well.

It’s obvious that a lot of thought went into Bowl Bound College Football: it’s an almost complete college football simulation. It’s full of all the features you’d want in this kind of game, including comprehensive customization options, gameplans, opponent scheduling, recruiting, and even setting the budget. It also has a great user interface that’s both easy to use and easy on the eyes, and also provides a list of all the activities you need to complete during the week so that you don’t forget every mundane detail. I just cannot get past the game simulations: the results of each play have to make more sense then they do, and animated players would do the trick. A 45-yard “short” curl route against short zone? Show me how that works. Other than that, Bowl Bound College Football is pretty great and should satisfy the hungry palates of all those aspiring coaches and Monday morning quarterbacks out there in computer land.