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Football Mogul 2007

(Enlight; US: 15 Dec 2006)

Fractured Fantasy

This past American football season, around 15 million people played fantasy football.  In a way, it makes sense—almost everyone who follows football becomes an expert in the art of trades about a week before the trade deadline, almost everyone who follows football knows exactly what free-agents should be picked up in the off-season, and almost everyone who follows football becomes a backseat general manager and a talent scout come draft day.  And an awful lot of those almost-everyones honestly believe that they could, if only given the chance, out-GM the real GM of their favorite team. 


Such is the appeal of a game like Football Mogul 2007.  Not only is the Football Mogul franchise a solid substitute for American Fantasy Football in the off-season, it adds all of those other pieces that the typical Fantasy Football league omits—free agent signings, the college draft, and even ticket and concession prices are here to be controlled by megalomaniacal fans.  This is a game for the thinkers, for those befuddled by the yearly iterations of the Madden football games yet could explain in detail the salary cap implications of a new contract.


Indeed, there’s not a single frame of animation in the game, and even very few pictures to speak of.  Football Mogul is almost entirely text-based, aside from the play diagrams that appear within game day simulations.  That’s right, you can call the plays, but then you’ll have to read the “play-by-play” as it happens on the field.  While it may sound unappealing at first, it’s a mechanic that actually works quite well for this type of game, allowing the player to concentrate less on the individual achievements of whatever player is being controlled when the quarterback calls hike, and more on the team-wide trends and patterns, even as the games are being played.


Unfortunately, problems begin to present themselves almost immediately.  For one, Football Mogul 2007 is for one player, and one player only.  American football is built for social gatherings.  Whether it is through friendly rivalries, the camaraderie of common rooting interests, or even just weekly excuses to share some beers and laugh at the jokes that have been funny every game day for the last ten years, a huge part of football’s charm is in the social phenomena that it inspires.  The same goes for the fantasy incarnation.  Ask anyone who has ever played fantasy sports of any kind, and they’ll tell you: it’s just not the same if there’s no personal connection between the players.  Sure, public fantasy leagues exist that allow one to assert some form of dominance on complete strangers, but there, the victories are hollow, the losses not nearly as devastating.  It hurts so much more to lose to your slow-witted college drinking buddy, or the casual player that decided kicker Adam Vinatieri was worth a second-round pick, even as you mocked the selection on draft day.


It’s not so funny when Vinatieri puts up five field goals on you.


American football needs that connection to survive, and Football Mogul entirely strips the game of its social element, turning it into a purely academic exercise.  This would be fine, then, if it could succeed at that—maybe someone would want a study of football as a chess match, reducing it entirely to a game where strategy triumphs over brute force.  But it doesn’t succeed.  There are too many little mistakes, too many annoyances, and far, far too many AI glitches to allow Football Mogul to succeed as the “thinking man’s” American football game. 


For one, I am a Buffalo Bills fan, so naturally, my first inclination was to take over the Bills in hopes of capturing the Super Bowl title that so cruelly eluded them in the early ‘90s.  Well, Football Mogul has the Bills playing in Rich Stadium rather than Ralph Wilson Stadium (as what was once Rich Stadium is now known), which might have been a forgivable oversight had the name change been recent.  Given that the name change actually happened in 1998, however, it’s hard to see how the developers could let such an oversight go unchecked.  Further, as a way of leveling the playing field, I decided to randomize the players on the teams, shuffling the rosters of the entire league.  As I went to play my first game, however, I realized that I had no quarterback.  How is it that any team-generation algorithm can come up with a team that does not employ a single quarterback?  As it turned out, Dallas running back Julius Jones was my starting running back and my starting quarterback (with superstar Shaun Alexander wasting his talents as the starting fullback), and at one point the play-by-play decided to let Jones hand off to himself.  It was at this point that I decided that playing with the original, current NFL rosters was the way to go.


It may be true that I could change the name of the stadium, I could sign a free agent quarterback or two, and I could fiddle with the positioning to avoid such AI disasters, but should I have to?  One of the game’s strengths is that it allows for varying levels of devotion—every single decision that has to be made can be performed by a player or simulated—yet when the “simulation” results in these sorts of experiences, it’s enough to convince the more casual players to gravitate back to the Electronic Arts line, as both the Madden series and even the poorly-received NFL Head Coach are more immediate, appealing experiences.


Of course, that leaves the diehards, those who will actually want to sign every free-agent, pick every player, and call every play.  This is the experience for which Football Mogul 2007 was made, and for them, this may well be football heaven—the increased control puts the responsibility on the gamer, and if there’s no quarterback, it’s the gamer’s fault.  If LaDainian Tomlinson ends up filling in at defensive end, well, that’s the gamer’s prerogative.  Still, the rather unintuitive menus and the plain, largely green and yellow presentation may shoo off even that audience. 


Football Mogul is a great idea in theory, with an incredibly large established potential customer base—unfortunately, to capture those customers, this product is going to need a little bit more flash and a lot more polish, and it will absolutely need multiplayer capability, preferably online.  Until that happens, Football Mogul is a franchise destined to be overlooked.

Rating:

Mike Schiller is a software engineer in Buffalo, NY who enjoys filling the free time he finds with media of any sort -- music, movies, and lately, video games. Stepping into the role of PopMatters Multimedia editor in 2006 after having written music and game reviews for two years previous, he has renewed his passion for gaming to levels not seen since his fondly-remembered college days of ethernet-enabled dorm rooms and all-night Goldeneye marathons. His three children unconditionally approve of their father's most recent set of obsessions.


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