Thursday, January 28, 2010

Professional Football Simulator Review

Professional Football Simulator, developed and published by Barcode Games.
The Good: Accurate game simulations, good multiplayer league support, NFL-like injury system, robust statistics, easy to import real teams and players
The Not So Good: No in-game documentation, non-interactive games, needs more offensive formations, no penalty for being over salary cap, easy to acquire quality free agents, low injury frequency, occasional interface quirks
What say you? A text-based football simulation that needs a bit more polish: 5/8

With the Super Bowl only a week away, now is a good time to evaluate another text-based football game. Ever since Madden pushes all of the contenders out of the market, the only real alternatives have been Maximum Football and a host of text-based sims like Football Mogul. I certainly don’t mind the removal of 3-D graphics for a more complete and customizable game, so titles like the very generically-named Professional Football Simulator fit the bill. This particular game is designed for multiplayer leagues (they are quite popular) but can also be enjoyed by lonesome people with no friends (like me!). How does this title stack up against the other text-based sims?

Because this is a text-based simulation, there's not much to talk about here, so we'll delve in to the interface that Professional Football Simulator offers: it’s OK. Most of the information is accessible by the main menu at the top of the screen, while the remainder is found through the team pages. It should be easier to get to your team page: there is no option along the menu to instantly warp to your team’s data. Since almost everyone will only control one team, the lack of this feature becomes annoying once you get in to the game. There are also some assorted inconsistencies in the interface: for example, overall skill rating is displayed in most, but not all, player lists, the free agent data being one that is missing this useful summary. Still, despite these minor (but accumulative) annoyances, Professional Football Simulator features a usable interface that makes it easy to access most, but not all, of the pertinent data. Oh, and there is no sound. Next!

Professional Football Simulator puts you in the general manager’s role of a professional football team. You can play both offline and as part of an online league, and Professional Football Simulator has nice support for leagues: data can be automatically uploaded to your FTP server, and other players can download the data from within the game. You can also send a message to other owners, all from within the game. In addition, you can export data in CSV or HTML format if you want to have a more manual approach, and players from Bowl Bound College Football can be imported to continue those legacies. While Professional Football Simulator does not include an NFL license, the author has provided real rosters on the forums and you can download the real teams and real players from the 2009 season (and they are pretty accurate, too). You can customize the schedule and teams when a new league is created, or expand an existing league between seasons. Picking a particular team is overly complicated: you must select the team (after you have created the league), choose “config,” and unselect “AI controlled.” I had to e-mail the developer to figure that out, as Professional Football Simulator lacks both a tutorial and documentation, either in-game, offline, or online. Boo/hiss.

The first thing you’ll do with your new team is free agency, since the draft has already been conducted without your consent. But I’ll start there since it’s first chronologically in the off-season endeavors. The draft is a fairly typical procedure: pick people. You can import a list of players (from Bowl Bound College Football or any other CSV file) if you so choose. Players are given overall ratings, and, like most games, some positions are given relatively higher overall ratings (tight ends and fullbacks, specifically), but you can easily filter them out. I like being able to see the team recap, which displays your draft picks and the team position analysis, during the draft. However, drafts run out of premium positions far too quickly: all of the quarterbacks are gone by the end of the first round, which should never happen as there is always more talent to choose from. I think the AI drafting procedure is partially to blame for this, as they put a large premium on certain spots. The result is the ability to choose better players at other positions, as the AI is more concerned elsewhere. I also bemoan the lack of potential ratings: a player may be bad now but good later on, but Professional Football Simulator just assumes all players will develop at the same rate from their initial ratings. Thus, there isn’t any uncertainty in the drafting process like there is in real life. The other way to make your team better is through free agency, and unfortunately this aspect of Professional Football Simulator has one major problem. There is an entire free agency bidding period like there is in real life, but you can actually go over the salary cap without penalty, making acquiring talented players a real problem. Of course, the real NFL won't have a salary cap next season, so maybe this isn't a big deal, but if you are going to have a cap, enforce the cap. Any free agents remaining after the initial period can be acquired for the minimum salary, even if their ratings suggest that they should be paid more. The AI is inconsistent enough in their handling of free agency that you can stock up on cheap, veteran talent very easily. Extensions are automatically negotiated: players want a set amount and you either agree or not.

Professional Football Simulator does have extensive statistics and record keeping. League leaders, top performers, draft results, pro bowl history, playoff results, and historical stats are all kept for current and future reference. Team stats (passing, rushing, defense, et cetera) are kept for the current year, and team records are meant to be broken. Players get their stats through their ratings: an overall summary, plus things like strength, agility, speed, accuracy, blocking, and run tackling. You have to guess which categories are best for which positions (which is why the overall rating is quite useful), but all of your ratings seem to be the actual numbers so there are no scouting errors involved to make for a more uncertain (and interesting) game.

Once you have acquired your players, most of your contact with Professional Football Simulator is finished. This is because all of the actual games are completely simulated: you can only watch the text-only play by play after the game is over (and after you see the final score, unfortunately). The simulation results are actually quite accurate, but those looking for a more interactive experience will be disappointed. You can customize the team’s approach somewhat though the play calling, which is a nice feature. You can set offensive (run versus pass) and defensive (blitz versus coverage) tendencies, in addition to how often you use certain formations. Offenses choose from the I, pro, shotgun, and spread formations, while defenses get the 4-3, 3-4, nickel, dime, and cover 2. You can designate the depth chart for each of the formations, allowing you to tailor your gameplan towards your team’s strengths. While the defensive formation selections are complete, I would like many more offensive possibilities to take advantage of multiple tight end or receiver sets. As it stands, the I and pro are the same (2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE) and the shotgun and spread are the same (1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE): rather limited, I would say. You do have to pay attention to injuries, as Professional Football Simulator uses the NFL system of out/doubtful/questionable/probable (I like that). However, injuries are not as frequent as in the big leagues (I rarely used injured reserve), so there are never teams decimated by injury like in real life. Once you have your roster set during the offseason, there is really nothing left to do. Just like a real GM! Because Professional Football Simulator doesn’t let you play the games, the AI only crops up during the draft and free agency, and it seems to provide competent opposition to your dynasty.

While not the best football text simulation out there, Professional Football Simulator has the potential, with additional development, to be a good title. As it stands now, though, there are too many rough edges to make it a fully recommended title. It starts with the interface, which does a good, but not completely good, job giving you access to all of the important statistics. And there are a lot of statistics to access, as Professional Football Simulator provides a good amount of detail for both individual and team stats for the current and past season, satisfying the urge of any armchair general manager. This game is designed for multiplayer leagues, and it has good support there, too: you can have the game automatically upload your data to an FTP server or download the latest standings and results whenever you load the game. Drafting is simple, although the game is deficient in the number of players it provides for key positions: good luck finding any quarterback after round one. Free agency can be exploited, as you can sign any left-over quality players (of which there are typically many) to a minimum contract after the free agency period. There is also no penalty for going over the salary cap, so you can overspend and have great success. Sure, you could be a good boy (or girl?) and not cheat the system, but the fact that the game allows you to do so shows the rough nature of the product as a whole. You do not interact at all during the actual games (meaning you are in a GM role rather than a coach), so you are given some very basic formations to use in place of calling specific plays; I like the approach, but more formations are needed for a more complete feel. The AI-controlled teams are good enough; since all they do is sign free agents and draft, their importance is minimal. In the end, Professional Football Simulator gets the basics right, but it needs about another year of work to iron out the bugs and inconsistencies.