Xs and Os

Every year, like clockwork, the big gaming megacorps turn out this year’s model of their (American) football games. A little more glitz, a little more glamour, some new player statistics. Every year, like clockwork, the gaming press issues their boring roundups of the subtle differences between the nearly identical games. This one has better graphics, that one has a better running game. The commentary on this one sounds more realistic, that one has better stadiums.

I’m not going to do that. I’m going to do something a little different.

I’m going to compare the latest megacorp NFL Football game, EA Sports’ Madden 2005 to an older game: XOR’s NFL Challenge, a mixed text-and-graphics DOS- based game first published in 1985. The thing about sports videogames that both attracts and repels me is that I’m not good at any sport that doesn’t involve a firearm. On the upside, sports games provide an outlet for me to fantasize about a world where I possess some degree of athletic prowess. And sport by its nature contains many dramatic moments that lend themselves well to videogames. On the downside, I feel the residual guilt of willingly playing a game where I am in some respects pretending to be one of the people I loathed in high school.

You’d think that football, with its macho tradition and homoerotic undertones, would be my least favorite videogame. In truth, it’s one of my favorites. This is because football, more than other sports, is a tactical game. The tactical aspect of football shines through in the videogame versions. All football videogames, deep inside, are just immensely complex versions of rock-scissors- paper. This isn’t as evident in other sports videogames. I “know” that on some level there are formations in soccer, and plays. I “know” that I can tell my basketball team to go full court press, or take a zone defense. But the constant action in those games means that I, as a player, end up focusing more on making whoever has the ball engage in some outrageous piece of on-field bravado in order to score. In football often a play’s success depends more on trying to trick the opponent’s defense into anticipating a run when I am really going to pass than on raw playing talent.

In most videogame versions of football, it is considered legitimate to pick a play, hike the ball, and then not touch the controller, but to just let the players run the play as best they can. So most football games already allow you to treat them as nearly pure coaching games.

NFL Challenge is a pure coaching game. The game has a statistical mode where it simulates an entire season, but for this review I’m going to focus on the “play one game” mode. If you like football as an abstract battle, NFL Challenge might be the most fun you can have with your pants on.

You can have two human players, or one player can challenge the computer, or you can let two computer players fight it out and you just watch. Assuming you choose to control a team, the mechanisms are simple: choose a formation and a play. Then, watch the play happen. There are more options than that, of course – you can call time outs, substitute players, go to a “hurry up” offense – but the core of the game is choose a play, watch the play.

XOR NFL Challenge

XOR NFL Challenge

The play calling interface is sparse but effective. You see an overhead view of the field drawn in colored ASCII graphics. A red triangle indicates the position of the ball on the field. Pop-up text menus let you choose a formation by number. Once you choose a formation, you choose a play. The perspective then transfers to the “run the play” view.

This is where the simplicitly of the game shines through. What you see is nothing less than a colour version of the old Atari arcade football game: 11 Xs represent the defense, 11 Os represent the offense. The play commences, and the Xs and Os begin their dance. There’s no control on this screen at all. You’ve chosen your team, they have their preset skills, and they run the play to the best of their ability. The game is simple. The game is elegant. The game is addictive.

Madden 2005 stands up surprisingly well to NFL Challenge as a strategic game. In addition to allowing you to play “hands off,” it has some features that are of use to the football novice. The best of these is “Football 101”, which allows you to explore different offensive formations and plays, with a voiceover explaining the purpose of the formation and how the play is supposed to work. Regrettably, I haven’t found a way to get Football 101 to explain defensive formations and plays to me yet, but half a loaf is better than none.

As you’d expect, it is in the overall presentation of football as a beauty pageant where Madden 2005 outshines its predecessor. The actual player animations are underwhelming. If you’ve played any of the 2000-era games on the Sega Dreamcast, then this is basically more of the same. Ball collision detection is still loosey-goosey and feels unnatural and otherworldly. You have complete control of your players, if you want it. If you’d rather not play as a coach, you can control one player at a time with great precision, making him juke, stiff-arm, dive, and run. Also, the spit and polish on the other aspects of the presentation are notable.

For example, the first time you start the game, it asks you what your favorite team is. From that point forward, all of the animations and background movies in the menus are of your “favorite” team in action, and the color scheme is coordinated to your team’s colours as well. When you start playing with the “play now” option, you’re given an setup menu which by default has your favorite team as the home team, with you controlling it. This is one of those optimizations that seems so obvious after you actually see it in action that you marvel that everyone hasn’t already done it.

The color commentary from John Madden and the other crew “in the booth” is generally on-target and feels very natural. There are none of the discontinuities and aberrations that plagued earlier games. Stadiums and teams are all correctly depicted, and Electronic Arts gets a nice big plusplus for remembering that the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t have cheerleaders. You can create customized players, and even customized fans who show up in some cutscenes. It’s cute.

Madden also provides a large number of play modes, including online support (via Xbox Live on the Xbox version – welcome to the 21st Century, EA). There’s also a sort of strange “collectible card” thing going on. As you play the game, complete training challenges, and meet certain goals (for example, “make 5 tackles with the same player”) you earn “tokens” which can then be used to buy “packs” of Madden cards. The cards have various powers that can then be deployed during the game, up to and even including cheatsing. I’m the sort of obsessive-compulsive collector who should like this, but it doesn’t really work. It muddies the focus of the game.

One specific area where Madden isn’t quite as enjoyable as NFL Challenge is in substitutions, penalties, and injuries. In several weeks of Madden games, I haven’t seen a single penalty. I haven’t seen a single injury. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out how to get the game to stop undoing my roster changes. I send Bettis out on the field, and three plays later Staley is subbed in for him without the game even telling me. This drives me nuts. The frequency of penalties and injuries in NFL Challenge feels about right to me, and you have complete control over your roster.

Both of these games will be a pleasure for the “coach style” football addict. If you’ve never played NFL Challenge I suggest you try it. I give it the edge because it feels more like “actual football” than Madden. If you are seduced by the glitz and presentation of Madden, well, you won’t be alone. It’s a pretty game. But I think NFL Challenge is the deeper one.

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