Friday, March 31, 2006

Maximum-Football Review

Maximum-Football, developed by Wintervalley Software and published by Matrix Games.
The Good:Three versions of football, custom rules and leagues, play editor, different player skill levels (pee wee, high school, college, professional), realistic results
The Not So Good: Not enough default plays, no multiplayer
What say you? A highly customizable football strategy game: 6/8

Second only to curling, football is the most popular sport in America. This is mostly due to the fact that baseball is entirely too boring to watch and football features all the hard-hitting action bloodthirsty Americans crave. Not surprisingly, most of the popular sports video games are football related, with EA’s Madden series heading the pack, mostly because they have the cash to eliminate any competition. Isn’t capitalism wonderful? But lo, is that the small, shimmering light of hope I see in the distance: another football game on the horizon? Indeed, Maximum-Football is the first 3-D sports strategy game of the new millennium, contrary to the lies of Electronic Arts. The main attraction of Maximum-Football is its high level of custom options and three rules variations: American (both college and professional), Canadian, and Indoor. Will this be enough to make it worth your while and pry you away from the siren song of Madden? His voice is so dreamy!

There are two approaches you can take in dealing with the graphics and sound of Maximum-Football: compare them to an arcade Madden-style game, or compare them to a football management game. If you are comparing them to Madden, then obviously Maximum-Football is lagging behind. Maximum-Football just doesn’t have the budget or resources to rival the cheap showiness of Madden, with its glittering helmets and sweaty armpits. However, compared to football management games, the graphics in Maximum-Football are quite good, mainly because they are in 3-D, instead of the usual 2-D text simulation. Overall, the graphics in Maximum-Football would probably fall into place around Madden 2001 or so (give or take a year or two). There are some nice graphical effects, such as muddy uniforms as the game continues and snow covered fields. The animations don’t have the realistic flow of some other games, as players can change directions rather abruptly. Still, as long as you’re not expecting high-class graphics, Maximum-Football doesn’t really disappoint, especially coming from a sports management game background. The sound falls along the same lines: there are grunts with tackles, catching effects, and some crowd reaction. There isn’t any commentary (only text play-by-play), which I actually consider a good thing; if I hear one more “when you talk about precision passing, that’s what you mean,” someone is going to pay (as you can tell, Madden has ruined my life; lawsuit pending). With Maximum-Football, it’s all about frame of reference: behind Madden but ahead of management games.

Maximum-Football features both quick games and complete seasons using Indoor, American, or Canadian rules (or some combination). Sadly, Maximum-Football lacks any online play; it would have been nice to test your play calling and play making ability against other people in real time. You can set up a league with multiple participants, however, and let the games resolve themselves automatically based on the playbook you’ve designed, so at least that’s something. Like most everything else in Maximum-Football, you can customize a league to essentially you’d desire, altering the number of teams, divisions, and conferences, the season length, skill level, roster size, and team characteristics, including name, location, stadium name and size, playbook, and any custom artwork you’ve made. Changing the skill level is really neat: this means you can simulate a pee wee league, high school region, collegiate conference, or professional association all with the same game (this also affects how many years the players are on your team in league play before they retire). This should satisfy any football fan that may have his (or her) favorite level of competition.

For each league or quick game, you can fully customize the rules. There are preset defaults for all the major types of football, but you can create any combination you desire. You can alter the field size, number of downs, number of players, fair catch rule, whether field goals are returnable, goal post location, motion before snap, rouge, two point conversions, overtime, kickoff, PAT and two point field location, scoring system (touchdown, PAT, field goal, and safety), and clock rules (play clock, warning, and quarter length). Eight players on a college field? Sure. Touchdowns worth four points? Fine. No fair catch rule? Excellent. The number of possibilities is endless, provided you are willing to create the plays for your specific rule set. Almost any league of the past can be replicated in Maximum-Football, including the glorious XFL (player skill level should be set to pee wee, also known as Tommy Maddox).

Another one of the main features of Maximum-Football is the ability to create you own playbook. This is done through the play development system, a utility that give the user the ability to create pretty much any play, as long as the formation follows the conventions of football. Because the play development system is powerful, it is also slightly difficult to learn. Each player needs to be given specific instructions on where to run, who to block, and when (or if) to expect the ball, which is slightly more complicated than drawing some routes and letting the computer fill in the blanks. Of course, creating a good play is much more rewarding this way. The game doesn’t ship with very many plays, especially for the Indoor rules (and, to a lesser extent, the Canadian rules); users familiar with a 75 play Madden playbook will need to create a lot more plays for Maximum-Football. The developer was probably relying on user-created content, and I’m sure playbooks will crop up days after the game’s release, but I’d still like to see a well-rounded default playbook.

Playing the games in Maximum-Football consists in calling plays, although you can play the game in “arcade mode.” The game wasn’t really intended to be played like Madden; Maximum-Football is a test of play calling and play design (coaching) and not of reflexes (ten-year-old attention deficit Madden arcade gameplay). Passing the ball does become easier if you can pick out the open receivers, however, as the AI quarterbacks sometimes throw the ball to the guy in triple coverage instead of the open tight end. You’ll be playing all of your games against the AI, which seems to do a fairly decent job of calling plays. For example, I was playing a game where the AI was able to run the ball against me (mostly due to the fact that the default playbooks have a lack of run defenses), so the AI continued to call running plays on 1st and 2nd down until I stopped him. That’s pretty smart. They will also learn your tendencies on offense and call more appropriate defenses to keep you guessing. Like real football, successfully playing Maximum-Football is a matter of calling the right play at the right time and making the other team unsure of what you intend to do. I’ve been able to beat the AI in Madden successfully long ago (so much so that I hardly play single player anymore); I’m still working on Maximum-Football’s computer opponent. The games seem to result in realistic stats, even on default game lengths. There is no accelerated clock in Maximum-Football (resulting in a lot of plays using American rules) but the results are believable for a defensive-oriented contest. Maximum-Football does seem to favor the defensive side of the ball (which appeals to me), resulting in 21-20 scores rather than 52-48 scores like some other games. The higher scoring in the Indoor games really results from the shorter field more than anything else. There is a small number of bugs associated with the game, mainly related to the specific rules used by the different leagues. For example, if a missed field goal goes out of the end zone using Arena rules, the ball is spotted at the line of scrimmage, instead of being treated as a punt. Also, when you are selecting plays, you cannot “back out” to the primary selection screen where you choose between a punt, field goal, or standard play. This becomes an issue if you forget which down it is (or forget that Canadian rules football only have three downs) and you’d like to punt after you’ve selected the list of standard plays; hopefully this will be fixed in a future patch. Still, the overall gameplay experience of Maximum-Football is positive, resulting in some realistic football at every level.

Maximum-Football will never compete with Madden, but it doesn’t intend to. Maximum-Football is made for those aspiring coaches who feel they could call a better game, not pre-pubescent boys who want to lob touchdowns to Terrell Owens. Maximum-Football almost plays more like a strategy game that involves sports, rather than the classic arcade sports game. The level is customization is the main draw of Maximum-Football, allowing the user to change the rules, teams, leagues, and plays. The play editor is difficult at first to handle, but given enough time and drive, most people will be able to master it. The graphics and sound won’t compete with software that’s been in development since the early 1990s and has a multi-million dollar budget, but it’s definitely better than staring at 2-D squares moving around a flat football field. People who actually think and enjoy football will probably find something to like in Maximum-Football, and the ability to mold to game into any shape you’d like (as long as it’s a prolate spheroid) only adds to the appeal.