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The original NFL Head Coach was a game I greatly anticipated. While most people are playing Madden I’m simming games in Franchise mode. The concept of the original Head Coach was awesome, however the execution was terrible. The AI in game was awful and the front office side left a whole lot to be desired. Head Coach bombed both in sales and in critical acclaim. I thought the franchise was dead.
Fast forward two years and surprisingly enough here we are with another NFL Head Coach game. NFL Head Coach 09 was billed as the game NFL Head Coach ‘07 was supposed to be. The development team was committed to putting out a game that actually represented life as an NFL Head Coach (and actually reached out the gaming community via OperationSports.com and other means.) I was skeptical but hopeful that this would be the game I thought I was getting two years ago.
So did Head Coach live up to my expectations?
The amount of options in Head Coach is nearly overwhelming and it might present too daunting of a task for a casual fan. When starting a new career (think franchise mode) you can select any NFL team and selecting either to use it’s pre-existing coach or creating a new coach. Since there is no difficulty setting for the actual game play (unlike Madden) teams are graded on a difficulty scale. Start with the Patriots (easy) and your expected to win the super bowl, start with the Dolphins (very hard) and winning 6 games is a coup. After picking your team your get the option to either start from the pre-season or go back to February, right after the Super Bowl, and rewrite and history.
If you choose the route of creating a new head coach your going to be greeted with options that are normally reserved for role playing games. You get to select the personality of your coach and this will directly affect the relations between your coach and; his coaching staff, the media, the owner, the GM and the players. The RPG elements come in the form of a skill tree. You will gain experience throughout the game, these experience points can be used to buy new skills that will make you a better coach. Again a very smart and well done system. It captures the many different ways you can build a football team, you can have a flashy offensive minded coach or an old school three yards and a cloud of dust type.
The menus in Head Coach are both incredibly simple and intuitive. Considering how much is actually going on in this game this is a gigantic plus. The hub is the Coach Clipboard which gives you access to everything you need. Every event in the off-season happens in real time and is constantly streaming. For example every week during the off-season you will engage in draft scouting. You start with senior bowl workouts and move on to the combine and pro days. Every important task comes up on the clipboard and the ones that require action are highlighted with an exclamation point.
Head Coach has a very unique take on free agency. Once free agency starts every day different players will pop up on your clipboard to negotiate contracts. Unlike Madden you can’t sign every single big name player in the span of five minutes. Once you enter the contract negotiations screen you will have to bid for the players services. It works like E-Bay. The player has a demand for the total value of his contract and by hitting A you bid more money. Slowly teams will drop out and if your the last man standing you win the bid rights to that player. I say bid rights because after the bidding process you actually have to negotiate the players contract. You get to pick from different packages (the amount varies I’ve seen up to 26 packages) to offer the player. The player will obviously demand the most money, however you can counter and offer him less. The player can have a lot of different reactions to your contract offers and they depend on his personality. Every player has personality traits and those personality traits will affect everything from contract negotiations to the player ripping you on his blog. Low ball a greedy playboy and watch him walk away from negotiations. Again I can’t express how well done this is. Every player actually feels like a real person and it forces you to think about the way you want to build your team.
I can’t reiterate enough how well the off-season is done. It’s everything that Maddens franchise mode has been lacking for the past decade. Every decision feels important and like me you’ll soon be dreading cut down day. What’s also great about the career mode is how alive the game feels. It really creates it’s own NFL universe. Coaches come in from college and bring their own NFL philosophies (in three years several teams might be running the option) as well as the CPU AI downloading plays from the internet and add them to their play books.
Rather than going to route of randomly generating players for the draft the game comes with 60 preset draft classes. Each class comes with their own story (told by virtual Todd McShay and Adam Schefter) and again the players feel very real. This isn’t a game for everyone, the off-season took me about four hours the first time I did it. However you have the option of delegating any and all responsibility to your GM if you so choose.
After building your team and coach in your image it’s time to actual start coaching some games. This is where Head Coach hits a speed bump. The game runs on an older Madden engine so the graphics feel slightly dated (of course you aren’t playing this game for it’s graphics however.) You can elect to call the plays yourself or have your coordinators call the plays. After calling a play you have the option of make adjustments, hot routes and blitzes for example, than you watch the results from the sideline. It’s a frustrating experience in both a good and bad way. Since your so invested in your team your going to be banging your head agaisnt a wall when your rookie QB makes a horrible read and throws a pick.
However, the AI isn’t perfect. It’s no where near as bad as Head Coach’07 (where QB’s threw backwards) but it’s incredibly annoying to watch your running back juke backwards instead of hitting the open hole. Kicking field goals is also an experience. Get ready to see 20 yarders shanked off the cross bars and 35 yarders kicked into the bleachers. Adjusting the sliders helps, but only to an extent.
There is another way to coach games using the “super-sim” mode, in fact I greatly prefer this mode. Super-sim mode allows you to do everything you can in the actual coaching mode except without graphics. It’s like watching the a NFL.com game cast, except you call the plays. I find it gives you more accurate statistics and you don’t have to worry about AI issues because the engine super-sim runs on is different than the Madden based coaching engine. You can jump from in game to super-sim and vice versa which is a nice addition.
Where the wheels really fall off for NFL Head Coach is in it’s many glitches. After playing a few games you might get an error saying your disk is dirty and unplayable. This glitch has happened to me and yes it’s as frustrating as it seems. Also people are having problems with the game freezing during the off-season. Unfortunately these are considered minor glitches.
Certain aspects of the career mode are totally broken. Entering the play creator feature will turn off injuries in your career. Players will never get injured and anyone currently injured will never get healthy. This glitch sabotaged my first career mode. Most recently someone found a glitch where if you save during free agency poorly rated players (like 65 rated Samkon Gado) will ask for elite contracts. The CPU AI will sign these players and in turn destroying their cap.
What I don’t get is how so many of the glitches got through testing. The games been out for a week and already players are finding major bugs. Are you telling me that the developers never started a career, created a play and never realized, “wait injuries no longer exist?” Many of these issues can be fixed with a patch and I can only hope such a patch will be created.
It’s tough to give an overall grade to Head Coach. As I’ve written before theres a great game somewhere inside NFL Head Coach, unfortunately that great game doesn’t always come out. The bugs seem to affect more than others, Anthony luckily enough hasn’t been affected at all by glitches, for others the game is totally unplayable.
Despite all it’s flaws NFL Head Coach is a very enjoyable experiences for the hard core NFL fan. It has so many features (so many I couldn’t fit them all in this review) your never going to be able to go back to Maddens franchise mode again.
I give NFL Head Coach a grade of…
Incomplete. I’m going to reserve final judgment on this game until I see if it’s patched or not. I think a lot of the bugs can be easily fixed with a patch, whether that happens or not is another story.
For more NFL Head Coach Information check out this thread at OperationSports.com