Saturday, May 26, 2007

Roman Bowl Review

Roman Bowl, developed by CopleyGames and published by Garage Games.
The Good: Simple controls, streamlined gameplay with appropriate difficulty, good AI opponent, semi-random play selection, no stats or ratings to skew results or allow for exploits
The Not So Good: No “extras” like multiplayer, limited defensive control, no turnovers decrease outcome variety
What say you? An enjoyable arcade football game that’s a few features short of being excellent: 6/8

America’s obsession with football is evident during the off-season. When the draft is televised live over two days, then you know the alarming level of interest the game has. It’s not surprising, then, that the most popular video games simulate football. There have been a number of relatively minor titles here and there (such as Maximum-Football), and another of these is Roman Bowl. This title restructures the gameplay to a five-on-five contest and removes the kicking game, replacing it with a catapult. Will Roman Bowl provide a more simplified but equally fun gaming experience?

Roman Bowl is played from a side isometric perspective like a television viewpoint. The graphics look like an upper-end independently developed game and it doesn’t look terrible. There is crispness to the graphics that is refreshing: the interface is easy to navigate and there are no camera issues. The players are well detailed and the action on-screen is decent. While Roman Bowl might lack cutting-edge graphical enhancements like shiny helmets and sweat, the game still looks quite decent. The sound effects are a bit worse off: there is no Roman trash talk and the sounds of football are sporadic at best. Still, Roman Bowl is one of the better presented games out there for an independent title.

Roman Bowl features an interesting take on football in a unique setting. The game has five-on-five action, five downs, no punts, and a catapult for field goals. There are a good arrangement of plays for offense and defense, which include anywhere from one to four-man lines. Before the snap of the ball, you are given a choice of three randomly selected plays (from the playbook of about fifteen or so). Part of the strategy of Roman Bowl is picking plays that will be mismatches for the opponent’s plays (you can also see their three choices). Choosing a defense with four linemen versus an offensive with four receivers will usually result in a big play, if the quaterback can get the pass off in time. Once you snap the ball on offense, you run around using the mouse to point where you’d like to go, press left-shift to stop to pass, and click to tackle or pass the ball. Roman Bowl doesn't feature any of the Madden silliness, such as sprinting, jukes, and stiff arms, that rewards quick reflexes over better strategy. Offense features a realistic arrangement of passing and running opportunities, and passing the ball is suitably difficult: it’s possible but not automatic. Passing the ball ends up almost being more realistic than in other games, as you must be mindful of defensive lineman and cornerbacks knocking down passes (there is no pass interference in the game). On defense, you a limited to controlling the safety until you start tackling: then, control switches to the next closest defender to the ball. While you have good control over your offense, playing defense is mostly out of your hands since you can’t switch players. You can try to position yourself in the best place for defending passes, but a lot of the time you have to rely on the AI to prevent big plays on the other side of the field. The defensive linemen will always go after the quarterback and pursue the ball carrier, while coverage guys will follow the receivers. Thankfully, the AI is good enough where good play selection will prevail. The AI in the game provides an admirable challenge and controls your players well; I’ve never had any issues with the computer controlled players. This is partially helped by the fact that Roman Bowl lacks player ratings; this levels the playing field and allows for a balanced game. Roman Bowl does lack turnovers: there are no fumbles or interceptions in the game. This means that the offense can control the clock and the game pace, and if you have a big lead near the end of the game, the outcome is decided. I both like and dislike the turnover deficiency: it makes gameplay more dependent on skill rather than luck, but also removes a lot of the exciting randomness associated with fumbles and interceptions and makes the waning minutes less tense.

You are given five downs to move the ball into the end zone. If you fail, the ball is automatically “punted” and placed halfway to the end zone, where the opposition takes over. If you are close enough to the end zone, you can kick a field goal. Kicking the ball is another unique aspect of the game: here, you aim a catapult at a castle tower located at a random location in the end zone, adjusting for wind and adding the appropriate amount of power. Like the passing game, kicking the ball is satisfying due to its appropriate difficulty: it’s not automatic but it’s definitely possible, and hitting a long field goal is quite rewarding. As you can tell, the basic game is very well executed and quite entertaining. Roman Bowl comes up short in terms of “extras.” The game features exhibition games between the Romans and the Visigoths; you can adjust the game length (time and number of periods), difficulty, and clock speed. There is also a playoff mode where you play at increasing difficulty levels. But that’s it: no season mode, no franchise mode, no league setup options, and more importantly no multiplayer. This game would be great as a multiplayer game since the controls are simple (so lag would be minimal) and games are quick. Adding Gamespy functionality to Roman Bowl would result in a very entertaining online game, but unfortunately these options are not in the game.

Roman Bowl is a good arcade football game. It has simple controls that anyone can learn, quick games, some elements of strategy in play selection, and enough randomness for different experiences each time. There have been other arcade football games, but I prefer Roman Bowl over titles like NFL Blitz or Chaos League. The game is also family-friendly as violence is limited to tackling. Roman Bowl is in desperate need of additional features beyond the basic game, as the exhibition mode and playoffs are not enough. Multiplayer would be a great addition to this solid game, as would leagues (either single player or online) with schedules and season play. Maybe these will be future additions to fully complete this title. Of course, some people might like the fact that you don’t have to worry about signing the top rated players and worrying about injuries. I'm afraid that the lack of variety will hurt Roman Bowl's replay value: once you've played it a couple of times, each game is the same and there's no large overall goal to shoot for past the four-game playoff mode. Still, Roman Bowl definitely has a solid foundation for an entertaining arcade football game and enhancements will hopefully be added in the future.