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10 Jul 2006
by Mike Tanier
EA Sports' Madden football games are already so in-depth that they allow you to offer contract extensions, participate in off-season drills, and set the price of stadium hot dogs. Is there anything left? What element of the NFL experience hasn't already been simulated by the Madden series?
The answer, according EA Sports Head Coach, is the tedium. Head Coach literally puts you behind the skipper's desk and introduces you to a weekly grind of staff meetings, scouting sessions, and conference calls, with some practices and football games mixed in. As coach/GM of your favorite NFL franchise, you have total control over your roster, coaching staff, and scouting department. You develop your own playbooks and implement your own gameplans, and you decide who gets practice reps and what gets emphasized in training camp. You can't actually control the players on the field, but you direct every other element of management, micromanagement, and nano-management.
Hey, we're the Football Outsiders -- the micromanagement people. We can tell you which running back gained the most yardage when it was second-and-3 in the third quarter (Willie Parker). This game seems tailor-made for us. I'm a veteran of the Railroad Tycoon series of strategy games, and I've wasted many hours merrily assigning freight cars to the Altoona-Binghamton run. For ham-handed video gamers like me, Head Coach promises the cerebral challenge of assembling a Super Bowl team without having to worry about the juke stick or the spin button. This game seems tailor-made for the Football Outsiders audience, which is why we wanted to give it our first-ever video game review.Unfortunately, the game's shoddy AI and clunky interface detract from the fun.
Head Coach offers Bill Cowher wannabes a wealth of options for assembling and helming a perennial contender. The familiar player ratings of the Madden series have been expanded, so you can now select a quarterback based on his play-action passing rating, a receiver for his route accuracy, or a safety for his ability in man or zone coverage. The ratings are dynamic and will go up or down based on practice time or game performance. Scouting reports on rookies and opponents are incomplete, so you need to budget your scouting efforts properly: you must balance between game-planning for opponents and preparing for the next draft. Menus loaded with coaching options allow you to fine-tune plays, so you can tell cornerbacks to go for the interception or play it safe or tell your quarterback to tuck and run if no one's open. You can also motivate players using either the Stuart Smalley or Facial Expectoration methods of interpersonal communication.
But a sim like this has to meet gamers halfway on the complexity, and Head Coach doesn't. With thousands of variables to consider, information management becomes a big issue. It's hard to tell what impact your decisions make without checking and rechecking multiple screens and menus, and screen navigation is a headache. After a few hours of play, Head Coach starts to feel too much like work.
The complexity and weak ergonomics of the game would be forgivable if the designers didn't cut so many corners. But you'll discover the first major oversight soon after you load the game. You're asked at the start of Head Coach to customize your coach's appearance, from his body type down to his headgear. There's only one problem: there are no facial hair options. What gives? I've been customizing lifelike avatars of myself in EA games for almost a decade, some of them convincing enough to fool my three-year old son. But instead of creating a realistically paunchy, gray-whiskered doppelganger to roam the sidelines, I was forced to watch a baby-faced imposter carry out my directives. It's seems like an odd omission for a game that features Cowher on the cover.
The "no beard" gaffe seems like a minor issue, but takes away from the game's immersion factor. It's one of many elements of Head Coach that feel unfinished. There's a lot to do in the game, from selecting assistants to developing "money plays" through multiple practice reps, but unless you have the patience of Job you'll be frustrated by the repetitive gameplay and dopey AI long before you scratch the surface of the features.
Here's a partial list of the problems that plague the game:
Ultimately, Head Coach cannot decide whether it's a strategy game, an RPG, or a management simulation. The game has many role-playing elements â€“ changing ability scores, character creation, dialog menus â€“ but there's not enough to make you think of the owners, assistants, or agents as actual characters. Gridiron contests themselves feel a little like real-time strategy battles, but there's far too much drudgery to be done in the office and on the practice field to get your troops in top fighting form. When you watch your computer avatar sitting at his desk, fidgeting, and conducting interviews, you'll swear that you are playing an educational management simulation. That's probably not what EA had in mind.
I've given up on this year's edition of Head Coach, but not on the series. If the designers scrap "Office Hours," automate the practice process, and improve the AI, I might come back. If they add more dynamic elements â€“ how about shouting matches on the sidelines? â€“ I might come back. Until then, well, I'm waiting for Madden 07.
66 comments, Last at 24 Jan 2007, 7:14pm by Geoff