Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Head Coach (part two)

One more note about the draft before we move on. After the draft concludes, rookie contracts need to be negotiated. In other games, this usually takes place in one shot immediately following the draft, but not in Head Coach. Instead, rookie contract tasks will show up at different times in the clipboard. Your number one draft pick may not choose to negotiate his contract until five days before camp starts, and the contract negotiations (in another piece of great design) are in real time, so if you run out of time without reaching an agreement, the player remains unsigned until he comes back to the negotiating table.

Why does that matter? It matters because the rookie has zero familiarity with your playbook, and in this game, that matters. He needs reps in practice and in games to be familiar with the scheme you're running, and he's not getting them if he's not in camp.

Oh, by the way, you also get to invite some undrafted rookies to camp. That's a great detail.

Let's move on to free agency, which is also handled in an interesting way. First off, you have to be organized--looking at the list of available free agents and selecting your potential targets is crucial.

When the free-agent period begins, you don't get to bid automatically on any player you want to sign. Instead, free agents show up as tasks in the clipboard, and when that happens, you can enter into a real-time bidding session in competition with all other teams who want to sign a free-agent. The focus on a single player at a time, and the real-time bidding atmosphere, is very intense--and very fun.

Not all free agents will show up in the clipboard, because not all free agents are interested in signing with your team. So even if you have a boatload of salary cap room, that premium defensive end you want to sign may not be available. Plus, if you overspend early in the free agent period, you may not have enough cap space left to bid on players you desperately want who show up later. Again, this adds an element of variation inside repetition that is so crucial to successful sports games.

I think that's an important comment on the design in general--there is a tremendous amount of variation inside repetition, and it makes the game so much fun to play.

I can't possibly discuss all the features that Head Coach has, not even in a dozen posts, so let me use playbooks as an example of the tremendous depth this game contains. I started a game as head coach of the Chiefs, and the first thing I wanted to do was install new offensive and defensive playbooks. Again, in a regular game, that's no problem--all players have full playbook knowledge immediately. In this game, though, each player has three possible states of knowledge for each play--unlearned, learned, and mastered. This knowledge is only gained through repetitions, both in practice and in games. Plus, and this is even better, play knowledge will slightly decay over time, which is a terrific bit of design. Deciding on a practice priority is a balancing act, because you can't possibly do everything you want.

Which is the point, really. In general, there are no "absolute win" decisions in this game, which makes it far more interesting and challenging to play.

The tremendous amount of complexity and sophistication in this game would be entirely unmanageable were it not for the well-designed interface. This is actually more detail than I would normally even want in a sports game, believe it or not, but it all plays out so well in the gaming sense that it works, and works extremely well.

Also, and I haven't mentioned this previously, the graphic design and layout of the interface is outstanding--bright, full of color, well laid out, and very visually appealing.

So what's not to like? It's not a long list, but let's take a look. First, there's no question that the game needs a patch-- there are enough bugs that need to be fixed that a patch is absolutely mandatory for this game to reach greatness. Having said that, though, it's only a fraction of the bugs found in the NCAA and Madden. If you're curious about those bugs, as well as temporary workarounds suggested by the dev team, the Operation Sports forums are a good place to start.

Second, the actual playing of games is not nearly as good as the management aspects, and for this, we can thank the Madden 08 engine, which is what Head Coach uses (there's also a "Super Sim" option, but it has its own issues). I've had a difficult time finding a good gameplay balance during the actual football games, and I'm still tinkering with sliders in an attempt to achieve a better balance. There's also a significant gameplay issue that occurs in the last two minutes of the half or game. When a team starts running a no huddle offense, you lose control of selecting plays. The problem is that your team will continue running the same play until there's a dead ball situations. Yes, you can use a timeout, if you have any remaining, but this is still a very clunky moment for a brilliantly designed game.

The developers have been tremendously active in the Operation Sports forums, even after release, and they've mentioned that they're working on a solution. I think something as simple as assigning a hotkey to signal the quarterback to spike the ball would work just fine on offense. A solution on the defensive side of the ball is not so simple, but I know these guys can find a resolution, because so much of the game design is superior.

How does Head Coach compare to Madden? I can't tell you, because Head Coach has been so good that I still haven't even put the Madden disc in the tray. Not once.

Head Coach is a huge game, but it absolutely bursts with energy. It's incredibly absorbing and involving, and it does something I didn't even think was possible: it makes the players on your roster seem human, instead of just being numbers on a spreadsheet. That is high praise. With one patch to fix the issues that have been identified, I believe this game will deserve mention in the same breath as the very best versions of the Front Page Sports: Football series, and I consider that Hall of Fame territory.

One last note: this game is so tremendously deep that I highly recommend purchasing the Prima Strategy guide if you want to get everything out of the game. I know--needing a strategy guide for a sports game is inconceivable--but it's full of valuable information.

One other thing I recommend would be to start a game in the offseason, go through the draft, free agency, and training camp--and if you're not satisfied with what you've done, start a new career. I found that the second time through, I made much better decisions and managed the game environment far better. Plus, you'll see loads of detail that you missed the first time.

Like I said, this game is just too massive to discuss to completion, no matter how many posts I make. In short, though, it's full of win.

Now, if you're one of those people who skips the impressions and goes to the last paragraph for the summary, this is for you: WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN WIN.

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