Cyber Shula

NFL Head Coach wants to make a legend out of you.

Jul 19, 2006 at 4:00 am
The history of football videogames is one of adding layer upon layer of complexity. Tecmo Bowl, the first great football game, had just four plays to choose from. Fast-forward to the latest Madden, and it's more like 400.

The logical result of this evolution is Electronic Arts' NFL Head Coach, a deeply immersive if imperfect look at the harried life of a pro football coach. Here, meticulous planning and mental stamina are more important than dexterity with a controller. Casual Madden fans looking for quick thrills may leave disappointed, but fantasy sports nuts will feel right at home.

You begin as a rookie head coach interviewing for the job. Choose your employer wisely -- good teams offer a strong roster of players, but come freighted with owners who make stiff demands. Play a stacked team like the Redskins, for example, and you're expected to at least win the division. If you don't, it's back to the blocking sleds.

The ultimate goal is to win enough games to get into the Hall of Legends, where imposing busts of coaching greats such as Joe Gibbs and Paul Brown stare proudly as stirring orchestral music urges you on to immortality. (There's even a bizarre symphonic version of "What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor?" WTF?)

But beneath the silliness, NFL Head Coach takes itself very seriously. If you want to ascend to godlike status, à la Don Shula, you'll need to be a master tactician. First, assemble a crack crew of assistants. Then study your roster. Soon you'll be haggling with slippery agents over fresh talent and surly holdouts.

You will also design plays from scratch, scout draft picks, attend endless meetings, and, in general, absorb enough statistics to kill an actuary. After all, it could be crucial to know whether Ben Roethlisberger or Drew Brees has better medium-range accuracy while throwing on the run.

No sports game on the market makes you work this hard. You'll be researching and micromanaging for days in real time. And this is before you even get to training camp, where you're besieged by more choices: Run quarterback drills to boost individual skills, or practice as a team to develop "money" plays? Pads or no pads? Under 7 Slice or CB Dogs Blitz? Before you know it, you'll be muttering audibles to your morning cereal.

Unfortunately, the game's boneheaded artificial intelligence occasionally sabotages your diligent efforts. If you delegate play-calling to your defensive coordinator, you might find your linebackers in zone coverage on third and short. And crucial information can be buried in the convoluted menus. It's almost impossible to find the draft order, for example.

If you must, you can sim through much of the game's overwhelming detail. But the results are usually disastrous: Imagine your first-round pick traded away for a can of "Tough Actin'" Tinactin.

Also shaky are the motivational techniques you use to pump up your players: a list of one-liners from which you can choose. Half let you bark like Mike Ditka, the rest let you soothe like Dick Vermeil. Not that it matters: Players react to your bluster in random ways. And there's no telling which one is this year's Terrell Owens.

This was an ambitious but frustrating first effort. On the next try, EA, we want you to win one for the Gipper.