NFL Head Coach 09 Review
Hardcore football fans anxiously await the new Madden each and every year. They wait outside GameStop for the now-requisite midnight launch, rush home after purchasing, and spend the night setting up their franchise, going through drafts, off-season moves, and assembling the coaching staff. They’re as detailed as the game allows them to be (and that’s pretty damn detailed), but even some of these guys might shy away from something like NFL Head Coach 09. It’s only for the die-hard hardcore; the armchair quarterbacks who know they could call better plays than that idiot coach the owner hired to handle his favorite team. They say to themselves, “put me in charge, and I’ll fix things pronto.” Well, here’s your chance. You can oversee most every last aspect of the off-field proceedings, and when you’re finally ready, you’ll call the games from the sideline. The only problem is, there are several glaring flaws and really…it’s not for everyone.
The graphics appear to be similar to the late PS2 days of Madden. While there’s plenty of vibrant color and detail, the technical display suffers from jerky animations, and when up close and personal with certain camera angles, one encounters even more visual errors. There are a lot of clipping and aliasing issues, but you can avoid most of them if you simply utilize a far-away view. As you might expect, the graphics aren’t a focal point as they are in football games where you actually play, so we’re not about to condemn the rest of the game due to a lackluster presentation. But it would’ve been appreciated if EA had simply worked to erase some of the more significant drawbacks; those “sliding” and herky-jerky animations can get downright comical at times. As for the coaches, they look fine, although it’s not a critical aspect of the game. Perhaps some of you will be expecting a semi-old-fashioned graphical production with NFL Head Coach 09, and if you are, you won’t be surprised.
The sound is a little better due to some solid voiceovers – those coaches can get really heated if things don’t go well! – but the gameplay sound effects, like the graphics, seem to come from a time long past. There’s some good chatter going on while you select your play on the sidelines, though, as players will offer realistic encouragement and admonitions depending on the situation. We just wish the coaches sometimes had more to say because far too many lines repeat, and some aren’t appropriate at all. For example, no matter which pass play we chose, regardless of whether it was a quick sideline pass or a post pattern, the coach would say, “we’re going deep, guys.” …no, we’re not, coach. There isn’t much in the way of a soundtrack so that’s not worth mentioning, and with the subdued on-field effects, the entire experience feels a little too quiet. However, the typically strong voiceovers do help a lot, and the players on the sidelines have a way of adding some much-needed authenticity.
This is where we usually talk about the gameplay, but perhaps that’s the wrong word to use with NFL Head Coach 09. You don’t control the players on the field; you assign the plays and handle the team from behind the scenes, just like a real head coach. That’s the point, so if you think it’s just a slightly more simulated version of Madden, you need to revise your thinking and accept the fact that this title is strictly for coaching, and that’s it. Still, some of those aforementioned true-blue hardcore fans may find this to be a fulfilling and satisfying game, primarily because you really do have plenty of control. You can create your own plays and playbooks, issue special packages, train and practice during the week between games, handle your assistant coaches, and even issue last-second adjustments to any play during a game. In other words, you will have your hands full regardless of whether you play online or choose single-player Career mode. And you should have your hands full.
Each head coach has a set of skills, which you must keep an eye on throughout the season. Furthermore, as each head coach has strengths and weaknesses, you must surround yourself with assistants that can make up for your lagging in certain areas. Furthermore, everything is quite dynamic, as things can change and fluctuate throughout the course of every game; the coaching advantage can shift, you will learn how best to approach the other team’s offensive and defensive packages, and players will learn to execute plays better the more they’re used. On top of all this, how your players perform will also rely heavily on what you drilled them on during the previous week, which only proves just how essential those practices really are. The only real problem with this progression is that your team always starts out at the low end of the stick, which means you’ll likely lose many more games at the start of the season than at the end of the season. That’s hardly realistic.
The other problem is obvious: unless you’re really into this type of thing, the game can get very tedious, very fast. For most any ardent football follower, it’ll likely be entertaining for at least a few hours, but things may cool down after that. It won’t be long before you have a solid playbook, a good set of coaches, and players who are learning with every passing day. Once that happens and you have an established plan of attack, all you really have to do is hope your team matches up well with your opponent. Of course, some will argue that adaptation and assimilation is part of the fun, but there really isn’t much of that going on. Too many of the teams seem like carbon copies of one another – no way on earth Minnesota and Peterson pass as often as Cincinnati and Palmer – and worse, we got the sneaking suspicion that catch-up AI may have wormed its way into this supposed simulator. It didn’t happen all the time, but we lost one game when we certainly shouldn’t have…what happened doesn’t seem possible, and we’ll see if you agree.
We’re using San Francisco and we’re leading Arizona, 28-10 heading into the fourth quarter. Strangely, Arizona drives 77 yards, passing the whole way, against defensive packages that never had less than 5 defensive backs on the field. Then, at 28-17, we get the ball back and of course, try to eat up some time on the clock by running. Gore promptly fumbles and Arizona recovers. Receivers are suspiciously wide open, regardless of which play we choose, and they go in easily to make it 28-23 (missed the 2 pt. try). So what happens on our very next offensive position? Well, we move the ball pretty well for a bit, mixing in different running and passing plays, staying in-bounds and all that. Then…you guessed it: Gore fumbles again, Arizona recovers again, our secondary is useless again, and we lose, 30-28. Now, we suppose that’s plausible, but it certainly isn’t likely, and we really don’t think it would’ve happened if we weren’t so far ahead going into the 4th quarter.
Anyway, funky catch-up AI notwithstanding, the depth is undeniable. If you’re wondering what this process is like, just imagine going through the off-season franchise setups in Madden (it’s very similar in this game), but instead of taking control of the players when the season starts, you order the plays and handle management from the sidelines. If you like, there’s a SuperSim option you can enable that will speed things up on the field, but it also takes something away from the realism and the only other option is awfully slow. You will achieve success based on the underlying chance of success and how familiar your players are with the chosen play. You must select your assistant coaches based on the abilities of the head coach, and the longer you play, the more comfortable you’ll get with issuing quick adjustments, and the more confident you will be with certain plays. Being able to choose three special Game Plan packages at the start of every game – each of which can be used three times – also adds some extra flair. Know you’ll have to deal with L.T.? Choose a Plan that boosts the halfback tackling ability of your defensive players.
But NFL Head Coach 09 only caters to a very select group of gamers, and even then, there are obvious shortcomings that will frustrate even the most hardcore fans. The gameplay moves forward at a snail’s pace (unless you use SuperSim, which sacrifices accuracy), the AI is awfully questionable, and there just isn’t enough in the way of distinctive team performance. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the sheer level of depth and customization, as pigskin aficionados can spend hours constructing the most effective playbook possible and examining his team’s weaknesses. The game really does reward the diligent, and that’s a definite positive. Also, you can jump online and get real-time NFL news, play against other like-minded fans, and even download/upload playbooks. Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff here, but a few annoying factors drag the game down significantly, and in the end, it’s just very, very niche.
10/2/2008 Ben Dutka