Pigskin preview. (computer football games) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Peter Scisco
A way from the dim projection rooms, away from the bright classrooms and close-walled weight rooms, before television begins the frantic circus of Monday night contests and Sunday play-offs, you can lead your own football team to victory-right from your PC.
Four computer football games released in the last year provide excitement and glory for football-coach wannabes. Three of the four--Mike Ditka Ultimate Football, NFL, and John Madden Football 11-mix arcade action and joystick reflexes with strategy and play design. The fourth, NFL Pro League Football, combines strategy with complex football terminology to form a game with an intellectual challenge not unlike that of chess. Each of the four offers you a chance to coach and play your way to the Lombardi Trophy.
The Whole Nine Yards
A good computer football game is more than the sum of its parts. The best games in the league blend realistic action, firm grounding in statistics, innovative play features, editing capabilities, and state-of-the-art sound and graphics to re-create Sunday afternoon on your PC.
Mike Ditka Ultimate Football from Accolade has a simple design that lets you customize each contest to match your skill level and enables you to set the amount of control you want over the action on the field--you can play, coach, or coach and play. The game supports league play, team editing, player editing, and playbook design. Visually appealing and enhanced by solid sound effects, Ditka balances realistic presentation with arcade fun.
Like Ditka, Konami's NFL offers you choices over game control (Coach Only, Player, or Both). Unlike Ditka, however, NFL doesn't have separate skill-level settings. Instead, how you configure the game determines how the play-action control is divided between you and the computer. This interplay between human and machine is evident with the Choose Player option. In this mode, you command a particular player for each play; if you choose a receiver, you must run the pattern. If you can't get open, the computer-controlled quarterback will select a secondary receiver. This elegant division of labor provides a welcome solution to the sometimes overwhelming command structure of sports simulations.
NFL Pro League Football from Micro Sports offers only one mode of play-coaching. You don't control any of the action on the field; each contest is a straight-ahead strategy session in which you try to outguess your opponent in the selection of an offensive or defensive strategy. Graphics are limited to either a side view of a representative field-position display or an abbreviated overhead view of animated figures. The game's strength lies in its realistic play selection and its support of modem-based play. Although weak in graphics, sound effects, and interactivity, Pro League makes an excellent choice for portable systems.
John Madden Football 11 from Electronic Arts improves on the original with a more intuitive interface that makes the game's complex series of offensive and defensive sets and plays readily accessible, With three skill levels, Madden II will appeal to pigskin prognosticators and Monday morning quarterbacks alike. The plays available in Madden II rival in complexity those found in Pro League but are presented in a graphical fashion. The game's use of oversize animated figures--especially the huge comical football--hints at Electronic Arts' approach to videogame platforms such as the Super NES and Sega Genesis, where large figures compensate for a muddier television display. Madden II runs a good balance between strategic thinking and arcade reflexes. It supports team, player, league, and playbook editing.
Playing by the Book
Ditka's simplified team editor owes a lot to the editing system first developed by Accolade in 4th and Inches. Each player is defined by position, number, and name. His talent is represented by three numbers: one for speed, one for skill, and one for strength. The rating for these attributes falls on a scale of 50-99, with 50 being an average rating and 99 being near perfection. Each player in the Accolade league (the default league) has a preset number of talent points, which you can shift from one attribute to another. Editing Ditka teams involves making a series of tradeoff s in order to strike an overall competitive balance.
Like most PC football games, Ditka allows you to modify existing plays or to create entirely new ones. After you select one of six formations, all you have to do is assign responsibilities to the main players (receivers, running backs, quarterback) and then draw patterns for them on the screen.
This "chalkboard" play editing is also present in Madden II; it was originally developed for the first edition of the game. In this updated edition, it's easier to make player assignments, create formations, and save plays into a playbook. A practice mode lets you run your plays against a defensive set of your choice; a Walk Through view lets you see your plays unfold without having the animated players on the field.
The complex team and player editing in Madden II requires study, but don't let that keep you from creating rosters that mirror your own favorite pro or college teams. Player ratings are divided among four categories and set on a scale from 0 (worst) to 9 (best). Categories include General, Offensive, Defensive, and Special Teams.
In NFL, team editing is a simple matter of calling up the roster and editing player attributes. Because NFL is not endorsed by the NFL Players Association, real player names aren't used (nor are they used in any of the other three games considered here). But you can change the names and the skill levels as you wish. As in Ditka, each player in NFL has a total number of points that you can split among ten attributes including speed, agility, intelligence, injuries, and blocking. In addition, you can edit personal information such as weight, height, birth date, and experience. Konami constructed the player attributes from stats accumulated during the 1990-1991 season. Each of the five key players per team has a total of 700-800 skill points; all other players have a randomly assigned total of 600-700 skill points each.
NFL'S Training Camp is the place to edit and practice plays. Konami has modified the chalkboard approach in this game with a push-button interface. Novices will soon be diagraming and inventing plays just like the pros. If you don't have a lot of experience assigning blocking patterns and pass routes, NFL'S approach is an excellent compromise.
The playbook challenge in Pro League isn't in designing the play, but in fitting the right play to the right time in the game. With so many plays to choose from, it's difficult to imagine designing something more effective, but if you hunger to draw up a secret weapon, you're out of luck here. The game also lacks a team-editing feature; instead, you must purchase accessory team disks or download team stats during the season from the USA Today Sports Center network.
Monday Morning Armchair
Most of the time, Pro League's coach is pretty savvy, up on all of the intricate patterns and strategies that create a winning team. At other times, the computer coach seems downright dimwitted. A TV commentator might excuse a screen pass to the short side of the field on 3rd and 14 by referring to it as an innovative and gutsy offensive call, but the people in the front office probably wouldn't see it that way.
Because Pro League limits the computer to the personnel and statistics of actual teams, you can gain an edge if you're familiar with the computer team's offensive and defensive strategies and you have a good working knowledge of your own team's strengths and weaknesses. For example, in a game against the 49ers, you can bet that Montana will look for Rice in a 3rd and 11 situation. Your edge disappears in league play against human opponents, who can develop unique strategies for the teams they coach. A Scouting Report option available from the General Manager module during league play helps you set your competitive strategies.
With three levels of computer intelligence for handicapping the computer coach, Madden II provides the most flexible and versatile coach among computer football games. It's not easy to catch the computer on a bonehead play; when configured to Aggressive Al, the computer coach can be unpredictable--and downright dangerous.
The new version of John Madden Football replaces the original game's complex play-selection. process with a push-button interface complete with scroll bars and a pop-op window that displays the play on the screen. An added advantage of the new interface is that it puts detailed playbooks at your fingertips and reduces the separation between the player and the machine--instead of wondering how to play, you spend your time selecting a play.
Konami limits your play choices in NFL; this simplifies selection but slightly diminishes the game's strategic elements. The offensive side of the line has 32 plays (not including the kickoff); the defensive team has 24. Plays are grouped in sets of 8 on separate pages, which you can move through in making your selections. When you edit or create a play, it replaces one of the plays on page 2 of your playbook.
Ditka's playbook, like Madden II's, is divided into sets and plays. But Ditka's selection process is similar to the one used in NFL. You must first select a formation and then select a play to run from that formation. Both offense and defense have eight formations. The offense has eight plays that it can run from each formation; the defense has four.
Ditka's computer coach doesn't deviate much from standard, conservative football. Once you begin t6 recognize the patterns, you'll gain an edge. But that doesn't mean you can abandon your own strategies. Running a reverse on 4th and 3 won't necessarily get you a first down just because nobody else is crazy enough to try it.
Passing is the most difficult offensive element to learn in computer football. The newest games for the silicon gridiron share some elements but differ with respect to others. The biggest challenge of successful passing is using the means provided to select a receiver without becoming overwhelmed by the other action on the field. Three of the games examined here stress quick reflexes in a bid to capture the feel of standing in a pocket and delivering a pass downfield, while the fourth demands an exacting knowledge of pass routes and zone coverages.
With Ditka, you can set the passing game at any of four skill levels, allowing you to learn as you play. The Beginner mode stops the action as you examine potential receivers. As you move to more difficult skill levels, you must learn how to read defenses, cycle through receivers without pausing the action, and then, finally, hit the open man while eluding a fierce pass rush. NFL offers three ways to play the pass, depending on what level of control you have selected. If you elect to control the quarterback, you must drop back from the snap, press a button to enter passing mode, cycle through your eligible receivers, and then hit the fire button to throw the pass--all while avoiding the pass rush. If you elect to control a receiver, you must execute the selected pass route, break into the clear, and then complete the reception. Your third choice, and the most challenging, is to control both ends of the play, from calling the snap to running for the end zone.
Pro League avoids all player interaction with the receiver and quarterback. The computer implements the pass play you select. Just choose the dropback pattern (rollout or shotgun, for example), select the receiver, select the pass pattern the receiver will run, and select the distance the play is designed to cover.
Madden II, like Ditka and NFL, also uses the deliver-to-target approach, but instead of clicking through your targets one by one, you position crosshairs on the field of play to aim your pass. To overcome the difficulty of finding the open man while also watching the pass rush, Madden II provides auditory feedback--a series of beeps that increase in volume and speed to indicate increasing defensive pressure. In a way, this mimics the third eye that NFL quarterbacks must develop in order to be successful.
Plays up the middle or around the side on a sweep are easier than pass plays, but they provide their own challenges. Executing a well-designed running play is a matter of careful timing and scripted positions. If you do it right, you give the runner the chance to break one into the open field, where yards are more easily gained.
Pro League handles the running game the same way it handles the passing game: with plays numbered from 1 to 59. In a running play, you must select the ball carrier, the hole in the defensive line through which the run will be made, and the type of run, with corresponding blocking patterns. It's fortunate that there's no time clock to hurry your choices, since the sophistication and the detail of the plays make it difficult to select plays quickly.
Assuming that you've selected player-control and not coach-only mode in the other three games, executing a running play is similar in all of them. After selecting the proper play, you make the snap, execute the hand-off, and then guide the runner through tacklers and try to follow the blocking to gain yards. The differences lie in the amount of interaction and control you have over the hand-off.
Madden II makes the hand-off automatically, leaving you to control the runner after he has taken possession of the ball. Ditka, on the other hand, requires you to press the fire button to execute the hand-off. Your quarterback and running back must be close enough to make the hand-off work. If you don't execute correctly, the result is a broken play and probably a loss of yardage. With NFL, running plays are more open-ended. You can pitch, toss, lateral, or hand off to a runner. As in Ditka, a successful transfer in NFL requires timing and control. Once in the open field, you can straight-arm defenders to pick up additional yardage.
Wall of Iron
Defensive play selection in Pro League mirrors the offensive side of the line. You make the selection and let the computer run the simulation. The range of plays is as complex as those available to the offensive team. Defend against running plays by typing in a number from 1 to 40 or from 80 to 85 (the 80-numbered plays are for goal-line defenses). Pass defenses use numbers from 41 to 79 and from 86 to 97. For each selection, you must decide the strength and pursuit pattern of your defense (slow and to the right, for example), the alignment of your defensive linemen, the runner to key on, the secondary alignment, and, for passing plays, the kind of coverage (man-to-man or zone, and how tightly the pattern will be covered). How would you like to do that for a living, week after week?
The other three football games handle defensive strategies quite similarly to one another--again, the difference is in the amount of interaction you have with the game. Each game requires you to select a defensive formation and play. NFL and Ditka (assuming you aren't in coach-only mode) then allow you to control a defensive player as he goes for the sack, the tackle, or the interception. You can even dive for the ball carrier if he's in the open field. Madden II automates the defensive players after you select the play you want to run. You have no control over defensive backs, linebackers, or linemen.
These four football games address the problems inherent in computer football in various ways. Different levels of player control, different levels of complexity, differences in arcade sequences and interfaces, different graphical designs--all of these make for a healthy variety of games suitable for a wide audience. If graphics and animation are the most important elements to you, NFL and Ditka are the best games of these four. If complexity and strategy are the elements you look for, Madden 11 and Pro League should be on your roster. The diversity in this year's computer football games ensures that you'll find one or more that match your needs and preferences exactly.
Peter Scisco is the coauthor of The Big Book of PC Sports, a book of reviews, hints, and tips published by COMPUTE Books. He's still wishing for season tickets to the Bengals' home games.
Mike Ditka Ultimate Football--$54.95 Accolade 5300 Stevens Creek Blvd. San Jose, CA 95129 (40*) 985-17000 John Madden Football II--$49095 Electronic Arts 1450 Fashion Island Blvd. San Mateo, CA 94404-2064 (415) 571-7171 NFL--$49.95 Konami 900 Deerfield Pkwy. Buffalo Grove, IL 60089-4510 (708) 215-5100 NFL Pro League Football--$79.95 Micro Sports P.O. Box 1178 Hixson, TN 37343 (800) 937-7737