Monday, July 10, 2006

NFL Head Coach Review

NFL Head Coach, developed and published by Electronic Arts.
The Good: No reflex button mashing, dynamic player attributes, robust career mode, viable running game (finally)
The Not So Good: Online play removes a lot of coaching options, task substitutions are limiting, voice recognition is buggy and not useful, user interface is not built for PCs, too many interceptions, coordinators call some strange plays, team playbooks are classified incorrectly, AI trade proposals are generally garbage, motivation is a shot in the dark, AI snaps the ball quickly preventing defensive adjustments
What say you? Despite all the (easily fixed) shortcomings, it’s still a decent attempt at a more strategic approach to football: 6/8

It’s that time again. Time when the less important sports part like the Red Sea to make way for football. Time when EA releases yet another game in their Madden series. But what is this? A coaching game? As the second sports strategy game (Maximum Football was the first), NFL Head Coach hopes to deliver the goods to players, like myself, that are tired of the overly arcade nature of the Madden series and much rather win a game through good planning rather than moving the QB view cone.

NFL Head Coach uses the graphics engine of Madden from a couple of versions ago. Sure, it doesn’t look as good as the main football franchise, but since you’ll be viewing the game from a far perspective, it doesn’t really matter. As long as I can tell what players the numbers are wearing, that’s fine with me. There are some bugs with the graphics though: once, my quarterback had a black head and white body, which was kind of weird. Near the end of the game, NFL Head Coach goes into a slow-motion heartbeat fly-over before key plays that is really stupid and unnecessary. Punting on forth down is not a stressful situation that needs this kind of special effect. The menus are somewhat difficult to maneuver; it’s obvious that this is a port of the console version of the game. In real sports management games on the PC (such as Total College Basketball and PureSim Baseball), a lot of information is displayed on one screen. Because of the console roots of NFL Head Coach, the amount of information displayed is minimal (to allow for navigation through a DualShock) and getting to key information takes way too many clicks, especially during games. This area could have used a lot more improvement, but I don’t see that happening as long as EA concentrates on the consoles.

The sound is average for an EA sports game. The general sound effects are the same as Madden, with some additions made for more audibles. Your coordinators will also verbally say the plays they plan on running. The best part is that the crappy licensed music has been replaced with classic NFL Films themes, which goes great with the overall theme of the game. I was wondering how long it would take EA to get the “real” football music in their games, and thankfully it’s here in NFL Head Coach.

The main part of NFL Head Coach is the career mode, a pretty good look into the life of a NFL coach if he was greatly restricted on the number and types of activities he could do during a week. You’ll start out by getting hired, then change your assistant coaches, resign your players, sign other players, go through the draft, experience the fun of training camp and the preseason, and finish it all up with regular season action. Each day, you can complete four tasks, most of which are fixed and some of which can be substituted. You have two sets of office hours per day, where you can change the depth chart or playbook, and that’s about it. You are restricted to only two changes per office hour, so if you want to completely change your offensive line, you’re out of luck. Signing players is done through their agents, and consistently giving low offers to agents will sour your relationship with them and make signing other clients of theirs more difficult. Draft day comes with some ESPN-like enhancements, such as Mel Kiper evaluating the draft class (even for future drafts; there are forty different drafts in the game). Draft day is pretty much what it’s like in real life: extremely boring until your team picks. There aren’t many trades on draft day, especially from the AI general managers.

Once training camp rolls around, every week becomes a carbon copy of the previous week. You start with a meeting with the owner. A staff meeting is next: your coordinators give feedback about the previous game and suggest depth chart changes (which are always correct and save you time). As they try to make excuses for last week’s loss, poor performance results in lower trust with a possible knowledge gain and good performance results in higher trust and better information. You can make unlimited changes to your playbook during the gameplan task; it’s better to make alterations here than during office hours, where you are restricted to two changes. You’ll get a scouting report on your next victim and be able to scout eight players from other teams or the upcoming draft. Most of these tasks are done through the computer, which includes a calendar to view and swap tasks, e-mail to receive insane trade proposals from other GMs, your playbook, stats from, and rosters and depth charts.

The week ends with a series of practices. Each player has a dynamic range to their attributes instead of a set value. Their attributes go up during a “good” practice when they make a pass, run, block, or make an interception, and go down during a “bad” practice. This is a really neat system that not only encourages specific practices to help individual players but is also more realistic. Not only are the practices used to improve player ratings, but your team will become better at running plays you’ve practiced, which makes so much sense. There are a number of different practices you can run: inside running, passing, 11 on 11, and individual drills. You can choose between non-contact and contact drills, but injuries are so few that there’s no reason to do any non-contact drills. Even though it might become tedious to some players running multiple practices each week before the game, you’ll never want to simulate practices without being there. Simming practices not only chooses random plays you might not want practiced, but the number of injuries is insane. Despite the good format and general ideas involved in the career mode, there are some small issues, generally involving the illogical task restrictions. You are not only restricted in the number of activities per task, but most of the tasks can’t be swapped for more important tasks. Signing or trading players during the season is takes away from precious practice time, which means once the season begins, you’re stuck with the players you have, even though the trading deadline extends to week six of the regular season.

All of this preparation is for one thing: gameday. Your job consists of calling plays, making adjustments, and motivating players. Your playbook is organized by situation instead of formation (at least on offense), but some plays are in the wrong spots (dime plays in base formation, for example) or just not there. For example, Tampa Bay uses a Cover 2 defense, and the game even says this. However, there is not a single Cover 2 play in the Tampa Bay defensive playbook. Spending task time during the week reorganizing the playbook to what it should be seems like a huge waste of time, mainly because it is. Your coordinators will suggest plays to run, but their choices are very odd sometimes (an all out 4-3 blitz on 3rd and 20 against 5 wideouts? whatever). You can theoretically call plays using voice recognition, although I successfully used it once and then muted my microphone; it’s just easier to use the keyboard and mouse.

Most of the options in the game are made from the circular quick access menu. Pre-snap control lets you call fixed audibles (why can’t they be changed?), quarterback strategy, hot routes, formation changes, blocking assignments, linebacker shifts, receiver progression, and more. When playing the AI, it is difficult to make adjustments on defense because the computer snaps the ball so damn quickly (with 30 seconds on the play clock; in real life it’s under 10). You can also make changes to the depth chart and substitutions, although tired players will automatically be subbed for by your coordinators (one less micromanagement issue to worry about). Some will say that a major part of coaching is motivating your players and offering strategies. Motivating players in NFL Head Coach is a crap shoot: you have a 50-50 chance of success for the most part (unless your coach’s motivation rating is high, which is only the case after many seasons of play), so it’s recommended to just ignore this part of the game altogether. When a player who just ran 80 yards for a TD responds negatively to praise, there’s something wrong. You can offer strategies to your players to alter their behavior slightly (since you can’t directly control the players), such as throwing more quickly, running with power, or concentrating on stopping the pass. Your players seem to respond to the strategy changes, so picking good strategies for your opponent can actually make a difference in the game.

In some strange move, the developers of NFL Head Coach have removed some of the customization options from Madden. For example, you are fixed at five minute quarters and AI sliders cannot be changed. NFL Head Coach would work a lot better with an accelerated clock (which is in Madden for goodness sakes) and longer quarters so you couldn’t exploit the short periods. As it stands, teams will run around 40 plays each if you call plays and snap the ball as soon as possible, instead of the 60 plays per side in real NFL games. You don’t see baseball management games restricting the user to 6 innings, why should a football game capriciously lower the amount of game time? This results in lower offensive stats and better defensive stats. If you overall goal for the year is to increase passing and running stats (which mine was), short quarters makes it impossible to do so. While the run game in NFL Head Coach is pretty good, there are also too many interceptions in the game. If NFL Head Coach allowed the user to tweak the sliders (like in, say, Madden), this problem could be fixed, but the developers decided they know better than you.

There is a sense of accomplishment when playing NFL Head Coach when a good play results in a big gain on the field. This is kind of washed out near the end of the game when the computer player displays some heroics as catch-up mode is turned on. There are numerous accounts of being up by 14 points late in the 4th quarter and the computer team storming back to tie or take the lead. Coincidence? I think not.

NFL Head Coach also features the ability to play single coaching games against the AI or take your skills online to match wits with (sort of) real humans. Finding opponents is pretty simple, although they may be in the lobby or quick play (or neither) and it takes some time to find out where they are located. I like how the online play of NFL Head Coach seems more strategic and dependent on good play calling, but for some reason online play removes pre-snap control, roster changes, and game planning before the game and during time outs! Why remove major features of the game for online play? This means that you can’t make adjustments before the snap to audible against a defense. This means that you can’t make adjustments before the snap to audible against an offense. If you want to check out the stats, change the depth chart, or discuss strategy with players on the bench, the AI takes over calling plays (which are questionable) and calls them so quickly that you can’t change them until you exit the meny (usually consisting of three to four presses of backspace; thank you very much console interface). Plus, you’re stuck with the crappy, unorganized playbooks. While I like playing online against human opponents, the perplexing deletion of a lot of the core game elements for online play makes playing over the Internet less of a desirable proposition.

Regardless of all the complaining I’ve done in this review, I still like NFL Head Coach. It’s an enjoyable game for anyone who’s looking for an alternative to the Madden series of console arcade tomfoolery. The career mode is the highlight of the game and it’s generally easy to use and interesting to play, despite the artificial limitations. I don’t even mind the games being restricted to five-minute quarters, although the inclusion of longer time periods with the accelerated clock would result in better stats. Online play could have been a lot better if they would allow for the use of the audibles, hot routes, and the like, but it’s still better than the alternative of exploitations found in Madden. Unfortunately, you can tell that NFL Head Coach is built for multiple titles, much like the Madden series. It’s like the developers threw together a bunch of ideas without really beta testing them, and will let the community feedback decide the changes for next year’s full price version of the game. It’s sad that the gaming community almost expects there to be bugs or other inadequacies in sports games theses days; games in other genres are not given the same amount of leeway. All of this said, NFL Head Coach is still pretty fun to play. I enjoy calling the plays and making adjustments much more than using the truck stick and scrambling Michael Vick for 10-yard gains each play. Frankly, I’m sick of the arcade play in the Madden series and I’ll probably stick to the NFL Head Coach series from now on. NFL Head Coach is possibly one iteration away from being a great game, and it’s kind of disappointing that they weren’t able to hit it out of the park on the first try considering the pedigree of the Madden series and how long it’s been around. Still, for those people who rather call a game than play a game, NFL Head Coach is an enjoyable experience. Even though there is a long list, most of the problems I mention are easily fixed and probably will be, but not for this version of the game. Instead, I’m sure you’ll have to shell out another $40 for a “new” version of NFL Head Coach that’s really a patch of this year’s version. Oh well, I know I’ll be doing it.