Friday, June 23, 2006

It Doesn't Matter If It's In The Game If You Don't Finish The Damn Game

Here's the thing about EA's NFL Head Coach: I won't be buying it.

When it comes to team sports games, EA is Lucy, I'm Charlie Brown, and the game is the football. I'm tired of landing flat on my ass and yelling "ARRGHHH!"

EA Sports, when it comes to team sports games, is all about great design documents and shitty execution. For years they've shipped, at best, late betas. And we've bought them--again and again and again.

Not only do they not finish them, but they don't even want to let us finish them. An entire modding industry has grown up around writing custom tools to unpack various game files into their constituents so that they can be modified, then repacked and inserted back into the game.

The poster child for this is the last version of MVP. Modders spent, collectively, literally thousands of hours trying to finish the game. I put in over a hundred of those hours myself fixing player progression, which was crap in its release state. Helping me were a dozen testers, who collectively put in over a hundred hours themselves.

So here comes NFL Head Coach. Great idea. Great design document. Great pre-release interviews with producers who seem to care so damn much.

This time, though, I waited. I wanted to wait at least a few days to see if any of these were addressed:
1) Draft logic
2) Trade logic
3) End of game clock management
4) Basic gameplay balance
5) Player progression
6) Flexibility for user

Please note that the Madden series has been working on some of these items for EIGHTEEN YEARS and they still don't work right. This is why I'm skeptical.

Bill Abner has a long series of posts about the game up on the Blog for the Sportsgamer and here's an excerpt:
The devil is in the details when it comes to games like this and the more you look at what's going on the more you feel as if you're playing in bizarro-world.

So let's look at the critical categories. Italicized comments are from Bill, and I've confirmed each of his comments through other sources.
1) Draft logic
The draft AI is just plain goofy. Hawk goes #1, Bush #12, Young #20, Santonio Holmes #9 to the Lions (who need every wide out in the league I guess). I know the game doesn't know it's Bush, but his ratings are very very good...and he goes #12.


2) Trade logic
I haven't seen enough about this to comment. The fact that I haven't seen a ton of complaints is a good sign, although the A.I. doesn't seem to value draft picks properly. Draft picks in the NFL are valued more highly than in another other team sport, and I've never seen a graphics-based football game value them properly.

3) End of game clock management
Browns 17 Eagles 14, :55 secs to go, Philly at midfield w/o any timeouts. They call a run. Hmm, ok, maybe trying to catch me off guard? No gain. They come back, call a toss sweep to Westbrook, who gets 5 and stays in bounds. :20 secs to go, they run a HB screen for no 4 yards. 4th and 1 at the Browns 41 with about :08 to play and they finally call a deep pass, which is picked off. Game over.

Eighteen years has clearly not been enough time to fix this. EA has been working on this since before the Berlin Wall fell.

4) Basic gameplay balance
The killers in terms of the games are the crazy number of INTs (in the 3 games I played I saw 8 INTs on average per game), the fact that there are next to no penalties called (I get called for clipping on an off-tackle running play, which I'd LOVE to see...) and the CPU playcalling is just plain broken.

No gameplay sliders, by the way. If it's broken, it's broken. And, by the way: it's broken.

5) Player progression
This is a real gamekiller area for me, because I always want to play multiple seasons. Here's what happened after Bill's first preseason with the Browns (from a Digital Sportspage forum post):
I took the Browns and by the time I was done with training camp most of my starters went from being rated in the 50s, 60s, and 70s to being mid to high 80s to low 90s. I have a DB Coach with an *11* overall rating because I screwed up the coach hiring at the start of the game and you can't go back and redo it. It doesn't seem to matter though as my entire secondary improved dramatically during camp and is playing like the '86 Browns rather than the 2006 version. Trent Dilfer went from a 56 OVR to an 87. Trent Dilfer. And his progression was pretty much par for the course for my team.

Uh, okay. Player progression: not just broken, but totally broken.

6) Flexibility for user
Quarter length is 5:00. Period. No accelerated clock, no option to change the quarter length. Why does this matter? Because it screws up the A.I. during the last two minutes of the half. Timeouts are called at the wrong time, strategies are incorrect for the remaining time, and it generally sucks ass.

Don't take my word for it, though:
...just like Madden's AI, it sees 1:00 left in the half/game as if it were a REAL 1:00 when of course it is not. In Madden [I think he means Head Coach, based on the following comments], 1:00 to play (hell it's 1/5 of a quarter, so it's basically like having 3 mins to play) is an eternity and yet the AI takes a knee on its own 20 with 1:00 until halftime. Of course I call three fast timeouts and get the ball in great field position with :47 secs to play. Nice.

Again, eighteen years just aren't enough to get things like this fixed. I don't know why I'm so impatient.

I could buy this game and confirm everything Bill says, but I don't need to. His reputation is impeccable--he's meticulous and thorough. If he says it's there, it's there.

Here's the best part. I've already seen people talking about finding table structures inside the game (hidden and not meant to be modded) that maybe could be modded to change in-game A.I., quarter length, etc. Hey, it's another EA Sports game where we can spend a thousand man-hours trying to fix what they didn't finish!

Two words: no thanks.

Now does this mean there isn't anything good in Head Coach? No, and that's the pisser. There are a TON of interesting things in this game, and it's a fantastic idea, but it doesn't matter if you don't finish the damn game.

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