The Indianapolis Colts went 14-2 in the 2005-2006 regular season. They obliterated teams, and the record book along the way to what many thought was a trip to Detroit, the home of Super bowl XL. Their aspirations were quickly flattened, when they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC semi finals. Sure, they had a good season, but you could not help but feel that they could do so much more with what they had.
The same holds true for EA’s new football strategy game; NFL Head Coach, while it is a valiant effort to pump life into what is quickly becoming a stagnant genre, in the end, due to many problems that you just cannot ignore, it falls short of the end zone. Very short. You get the feeling that so much more could be done with such a novel new spin on the traditional sports simulation.
The game starts you off creating your very own coach. You set everything from your coach’s strategy and in game philosophy to his look on and off the field. While you do get to set multiple looks (office, practice and game-day), the choices available seem limited. Let us see, do I want a t-shirt or a sweatshirt? Brown or black pants? Really, that’s the extent of your choices here.
The gameplay is best described as The Sims series meets franchise mode in the Madden series. As Trey Wingo tells you on NFL live, you were part of the coaching staff (what position exactly depends on your choices when you create your coach) of the newly crowned Super bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers. In my experience with NFL Head Coach, I was the Offensive Coordinator, and while they talked me up as the next big thing in coaching, NFL Live showed actual highlights from Super bowl 40 in the Madden engine. Remember that awesome reverse that ended with a touchdown pass from Eugene Baker to Hines Ward? Yeah, it’s in there, and it looks pretty cool.
You are then ushered into your home office where you begin the interview process to land your first coaching job. Strangely, you interview with just one team, and you get interviews from four or five teams that never even contacted you before. For instance, I chose to interview with the Green Bay Packers, and received offers from the Pack, the Vikes, the Saints, the Rams and the Raiders, all teams with different play styles and systems. What’s more, all of these offers came the second I ended the interview process with Green Bay. It would have been better to make me wait; maybe have me interview with a few more teams in the process. Oh well, Trey Wingo did say I was being heavily courted by teams throughout the league.
Once you select your team, it’s on to the heart of the game, running your team. You literally control every aspect of your team. Everything (and I mean everything) you do is set into tasks that range from hiring your coaches and staff to changing your look. As much as this system tries to keep things organized, it manages to just annoy, as you must wait for tasks to come up on your calendar to do things that are quite essential to your team. Want to trade away that corner that has been going to the press and complaining about not getting enough playing time and disrupting your locker room? Too bad, you’ll have to wait until the “trade player” task comes up. Looking to sign a new fullback to fill a hole in your roster? The same. What’s worse, during most of these tasks you can only make three moves before your day is over. Want to reorder your depth chart after a big loss? You can only change three spots, and then you’ll have to wait until your next opportunity. This is especially annoying when you take into account that the “office hours” task pops up most on your calendar. It would be nice to be able to use this time to tie up any loose ends in your team.
One of the main features of the game is the ability to change the way your team is playing with your coaching style. At any point during a practice or a game you can pull any player aside in a group or separately and impart your words of wisdom on them. You choose between two dialogue boxes, one with a passive response and the other with a typical football coach aggressive style. Each player will react differently to how you approach them, which is shown in little Sims style positive and negative signs above their heads, and in truth it will effect their play, but with only two possible responses, it’s way to easy to please players. Priest Holmes doesn’t like that you yelled at him and chose the aggressive option? Simply go back and chose the passive option twice and not only has he forgotten everything that just happened, he’s also likely to play better as well. If only it was that easy.
You’d think that with such an in depth game geared towards hardcore football fanatics the game would at least have realistic AI. Truth be told it’s just plain ugly. During games, players make choices that would even make peewee football players wince. For instance, I’m playing my opening game of the season, my Green Bay Packers against the San Diego Chargers. After they kick off, we have the ball, and are pinned against our own goal line. I call for a dive up the middle. Since the only action you control after calling the play is the camera view (which you can set to everything from blimp view, to a very cool sidelines view), I sit and watch as Favre neglects to hand the ball off, and does his best Michael Vick impression only to be caught by Steve Foley, the Charger’s 265 lb lineman. Next, I try a passing play only to get the same results. What’s the point in calling plays when your guys won’t even run what you’ve called?
Off the field isn’t much better either. Looking to make a splash in the draft, I offer my halfback, Ahman Green and a very mediocre receiver to the Cardinals for their first round pick. They bite. So rather than having the fourth pick in the NFL draft, they chose to take a halfback and receiver, neither of their overall rating above 60.
Truth be told, the NFL draft is actually one of the coolest aspects of the game. It’s put together just as it would be on ESPN, with Trey Wingo returning to discuss the draft picks. After every team makes their pick, he talks about it, including background, and what he sees as their future on the team. This nice touch is interrupted by the utter incompetence of every other aspect of the draft. In what would be just next to impossible in real life, every team before me passed on Reggie Bush, Vince Young, Matt Lienart and Mario Williams. Let that digest for a second. Every computer-controlled team chose players that in reality went in the early second round, leaving me with my choice of the best the NCAA had to offer. Being up next for the fourth and fifth picks thanks to my earlier trades, I look to my draft advisor. He advises me to take some halfback from Bowling Green. Sorry man, but I’m going to go with Reggie Bush and Vince Young, remind me to fire you when we get back to Green Bay.
It must be noted that though this game does look similar to the Madden series, it is not a game for casual fans. This is not the hard hitting; fast-paced action fans have grown accustomed to from the annual pigskin classic. NFL Head Coach is a slow paced, strategy game for those people who really know their football. This is painfully obvious when asked to choose your defensive scheme for the game ahead. Sure, there are small descriptions of each option, but to really excel at this game, you’re going to need to know your X’s and O’s.
NFL head coach takes a bold leap and attempts to start something well needed in the sports simulation field, change. Unfortunately, it falters in more aspects than it flies, with horrible AI, and an in game system that makes the game feel like more of a chore than a fun experience. If EA continues this series next year, it has a great starting point where they can easily improve, but for now, NFL Head Coach feels like a drive that gets stopped at the 20-yard line.