Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Backyard Football ‘09 Review

Backyard Football ‘09, developed by FarSight Studios and published by Humongous.
The Good: Straightforward mouse-driven controls, simplified but entertaining gameplay, numerous game modes, real NFL teams and players
The Not So Good: Completely unfair power moves, have to unlock some players, no online play, stability issues
What say you? Despite some technical concerns, this is how you make a sports game for kids: 6/8

Those of us looking for an NFL-licensed game outside of the DRM empire have been out of luck for several years, due to an exclusive license between the NFL and the DRM empire that involves an uncomfortable three-way with John Madden. But lo! What is that gleam of hope on the horizon? All right, I admit, it’s a “kids game,” but still, Backyard Football ’09 might offer up some simple gridiron fun, right? I mean, the game does features real NFL teams and one real NFL player from each time, and who doesn’t want to play with an even shorter version of Maurice Jones-Drew? So grab your helmet and let’s head outside for some kid-on-kid sports violence!

Backyard Football ’09 looks exactly like you would expect a kids’ game to look: underwhelming. While there are varied environments in which to play (fair, school, yard), the whole game in general just doesn’t compete with any recent sports games on any platform in terms of the visuals. While you can increase the screen resolution to eliminate some of the problems, the textures remain poorly detailed and the character animations are canned. In addition, the kids do not look much like their adult counterparts. I don’t have a problem with reaching out to a wider audience with more pedestrian graphics, but I’d still like to have the option of having a better looking game if I have the computer to do so. The sound fares worse: while I like the (repetitive) background music that flows in and out of the game, the effects are few and the color commentary is tiresome. The announcer sounds like he has a cold and the jokes (although some of them are humorous) get repetitive after a couple of games. I guess you get what you pay for, and you get $20 worth of graphics and sound here.

For the first time in what seems like forever, Backyard Football ’09 runs completely off the CD. That doesn’t affect the gameplay in any way, but I don’t remember any game in recent memory that actually required the CD in order to play it (other than for DRM purposes). Once you fire up the game, you’ll find a nice assortment of game modes to choose from. Pick-up games let you choose from the complete roster of NFL and fictitious players to make a seven-person squad; the AI is pretty bad at choosing people, so you can usually get the best players in any category (players can be sorted according to various skill attributes). You can also enjoy and entire season using the 2008 NFL schedule, eight-team tournaments, or an all-pro game pitting the NFC against the AFC. Backyard Football ’09 features at least one player from each NFL team in the game, but some of the players have to be unlocked through the season mode (I think) and I hate having to unlock things in a game I paid for. Backyard Football ’09 lacks Internet play so you will have to go at it against the AI. Still, there is enough here to keep you busy.

Since this game is geared towards a younger crowd, it’s nice that Backyard Football ’09 features a fine assortment of simple control schemes. My personal favorite is using the mouse: point to run there, mouse buttons to do something or switch players, and keyboard letters to pass (or click in the general direction if you have that setting). The pass icons are too small, however, if you use higher resolutions (they don’t scale, apparently), so a lot of squinting is involved here. You can go more advanced with a gamepad if you so choose, but the game does a good job picking appropriate actions when you click.

Like arena football, the 7-on-7 action of Backyard Football ’09 is very much geared towards the offense and games will be quite high scoring. The game provides a nice selection of plays on both offense and defense and calling plays has about the same amount of depth as the more mainstream football offerings. One thing I detest with a passion is power moves: as you perform well on the field, you can get power moves that are essentially an instant touchdown or tackle. This throws the whole strategy of football out the window and it makes Backyard Football ’09 quite silly to play. Luckily, you can turn this option off (as I did) and completely ignore this unrealistic aspect of the game. I should note that I had some significant technical problems with Backyard Football ’09: whenever a game ends, it locks up. This means all of the progress made during the game was lost so I could never progress through a season and unlock players. I contacted Atari tech support but, of course, never received a response.

Despite the intended audience, Backyard Football ’09 is a surprisingly sophisticated and feature-filled football game. The game is reminiscent of arena football with an emphasis on the passing game and high scoring affairs. We have real NFL teams with real NFL players, although some of them need to be unlocked. All of the important features of sports games are included: quick games, playoffs, and complete seasons. The simplified controls work well and the unjust power moves can be turned off. I did have some notable problems running the game, and since the game is completely on the CD, the likelihood of a patch is minimal at best. Still, I had some fun playing Backyard Football ’09 and you certainly get $20 worth of fun out of it in any age group.