Total Pro Basketball Review
By Tim Martin - Reviews Editor
In recent memory, gamers have traded the mouse-and-pad for Playstation 2 or Xbox controllers. And who can blame them? Buying the console is much cheaper than upgrading a PC. There are no driver or graphic problems, either. As a result, the PC sports gaming world has changed greatly - especially after the PS2 and Xbox became online compatible - as only a small group of games are offered on the PC. And, even then, those games are usually watered down ports from the console version.
But PC sports gaming has a niche genre that more and more console games are trying to incorporate but have yet to fully succeed: all-text or simulation games. Around since the early to mid-1990s, the all-text games remove the arcade gameplay and focus solely on the front office/GM responsibilities such as contracts and depth charts. But, the games aren't that simple, as financial strains and variables as micromanaged as player emotions and practice time is also worked in. Many of the arcade sports games (Madden, ESPN NBA Basketball, All-Star Baseball, etc.) have begun to assimilate many of the options all-text games have had for many years, such as setting ticket prices or remodeling a stadium. The nice thing about all-text games is that, since they are not overloaded with graphics, they can be loaded onto computers that don't have thousands of dollars worth of cutting edge equipment.
To my best knowledge, there have been three all-text basketball games: Jump Shot Basketball, Fast Break Basketball and the most recent, Total Pro Basketball, a game created by .400 Software Studios, which also develops four other all-text games. This comes as a bit of a surprise because football and baseball have had all-text games for almost a decade, such as Front Office Football or Baseball Mogul. Total Pro Basketball does not have NBA or player licensing, so you will have to download logos, rosters and edit the team names if you want an authentic simulation. Otherwise, you can plug along using fictional players and team names.
Interface/Options : 80
The interface, although basic in its design, makes maneuvering from stat to stat and screen to screen too difficult. You spend most of your time managing your team during the daily schedule screen, which lists either the team's overall records or final score. Although you can view the box score from this screen, this screen frustrates me for a number of reasons. First off, the season's schedule progresses in total number of days instead of calendar days, meaning you see Day 105 instead of Feb. 25. Even the months go by number instead of November, December, January, etc. This makes it difficult to gain perspective of the season, and this could have been solved easily by putting a small calendar in one of the corners. The game does have a calendar, but it's an offshoot of the team standings screen and not easily accessed from the daily schedule. To get the screen where you can access the calendar, along with player/team statistics and depth charts, you have to click on the "Teams" button that takes you to a league standings screen, where you then must click on your squad name. From there, you must click on roster -- then you finally have access to all that critical information. You get the point. The route from your main screen to the critical variables that affect your team's play is multiple clicks away. This is frustrating especially since another .400 Software game, Total Pro Football, has a wonderfully accessible interface where there is a constant button bar in the left-hand corner.
What results with the multiple clicking is the interface takes a while to get used to. Trust me, designing an accessible interface is difficult, especially when you have so many variables and information to toggle. But, while getting from Point A to Point B may be a click away, the ability to leapfrog to and from other screens - going Point A to Point D, perhaps - is tedious in this an all-text game. Other bits of information, like seeing your team's record during a given month, are not available anywhere.
The information and variables are dense in the game, so having a incompetent help section makes common moves like offering a contract or trading players a confusing task. In Total Pro Football, little bubbles with text would accompany most confusing situations. Total Pro Basketball, unfortunately, leaves much in the hands of the gamer to figure out. The help section is accessed online.
But what's good about the interface? As I said above, the interface is simple. Once you have the designated screen selected, moving to and from the various subcategories is a breeze. Most subcategories have their own button, rather than selecting it from one line in a click-and-drag screen. And, for an all-text game, there is a certain aesthetic value as a backdrop image always accompanies the text. Think of the interface used in the ESPN Sports games where you're pitted in a virtual coaching office. Total Pro Basketball has the same visual package. For the history section, bookshelves are the backdrop image, and for the league news section, the backdrop image is a television screen. Again, though, Total Pro Football took the visual looks a step farther, as the interface for personnel management was 3-dimensional (think: Sim City or The Sims neighborhood screen). There is an e-mail service that uses a Palm Pilot-like gadget as an interface.
The game options are standard. You can create your own league or join a multiplayer one online where a small number of leagues are active. You can load real team names and rosters at the inception of your league. Also, if you own .400 Software's college basketball game, you can load draft classes into Total Pro Basketball. You can't toggle many options once you have started a league. I was able to edit all the teams in my league, giving them their real names. You can re-adjust the salary cap and luxury tax also.
Gameplay : 74
While Total Pro Basketball gives you the option to play the games (think the "manage" or "coach" modes of the PS2 or Xbox games), the actual control of the game's outcome feels diluted when compared to other games on the market. You can adjust how often a player shoots three pointers or when they will be subbed in or out, but you can't choose to double a certain post player or even to speed up the tempo. I would just love to have the option to play a fast pace of game against one team, while a slower pace against another. I became quite familiar with the Indiana Pacers, as I took over the Chicago Bulls in my created league. The Pacers had a Yao Ming clone who always torched me for 30+ points and 15+ boards. Aside from speeding up my team's gameplay, I could do nothing.
When you're playing a game, you see the players' numbers flash on the screen if they do something noteworthy like score a basket or block a shot. The play by play works like a manuscript, as you'll read "Bulls in a half court defense" or "Johnson scores." Interestingly, there is a button where you can work the ref, but the number of ways you can alter a game is minimal. The simulation engine is set up for a more systemic effect. Obviously, I can't press the space button as an indicator to tell my star shooting guard to shoot, but I would like more tweaking ability for more specific times or situations in a game. For example, there is no ability to have one player shoot more down the stretch than another. You can't adjust if you want to crash the boards or drop back for defense. Aside from four basic defenses (full/half man, full/half zone) and generic offensive pace titles (very fast to very slow), you have no control. Also, you can set substitution patterns by what percentage of energy they are subbed out or in, but toggling this had little effect. I chose to play up tempo for many of my seasons, which calls for a deep bench so the players remain fresh throughout the game and season. Adjusting the player sub in and outs had little or no effect, as my starters still averaged between 35 and 40 minutes a game. I would normally write this off as the coach's style (you have the option to use your own offense/defense preferences, or use the coach's. I chose the latter), but the coach has no substitution patterns category. The number of options pales in comparison to the Front Office Football games where you can set a certain percentage to specific plays, and adjust the percentage of the playing time is given to starters and backups.
Player management is entertaining, but tedious. You can look at your team in a spreadsheet-like table, sorting through contracts, season statistics and player ratings among other things. But what bothers me is you can't sort through stats that look at their last week, month or since the all-star break. I want to know who is slumping and who is hot. The game does highlight a player in red (hot) or blue (cold) to indicate the streak, but other than looking at each box score, you can't get stats to back that observation. But, all in all, managing your team during the season is not tremendously laborious. You can sim one day, one week, before the all-star break or until the playoffs. Micromanaging seems to have little or no effect. During the All-Star break one season, I adjusted my team's defense and offense from very fast to very slow and noticed no statistical difference.
The offseason is a different matter. As I said above, the ability to collect necessary information is impeded by having to sort through various screens. This isn't more apparent than during the NBA Draft where you can view a player's current abilities and potential in one screen, and actual statistics and ratings in another. Unfortunately, you can't ever view your scout's opinion in the same screen as the empirical information. Worse off, you can't ever fire your scouts! My talent judging in international players is always going to be "average." The scouts, other than the one to five-star ratings on current abilities and potential, offer no comments. Unlike the college draft in the console versions of NBA Live, there are no ability tests like 40 times, vertical jump or bench press. I understand those are more commonly used in football, but they could be copied just as effectively for basketball. Tell me their strong/weak hand dribbling the entire length of floor. Tell me their number of makes from 25 three-pointers around the arc. Tell me ... anything! I actually prefer how NCAA Football does its recruiting, as you aren't given the ratings outright, but rather you're given a series of ability tests. This is how things work in the real world, as strong predraft camp and workout performances can launch or sink a prospect. As a result, I have drafted sometimes on statistics and others on the scout's assessment. I would like to think both stats and the assessment match up, but, usually, the stats lead me to believe that X player is the best available, while the scouts say it is Y. To confuse things even more, the game offers you a CPU suggestion at each position, which often times has lousy statistics and poor evaluations from the scouts. So, there's Z.
The sim engine, after downloading the two patches available at the .400 studio's Web site (www.400softwarestudios.com), is accurate. You don't see guards blocking 10 shots or centers nailing 15 three pointers. But, the game sways toward unrealistic year-to-year team results, which probably is the outcome of a high percentage of players re-signing to their incumbent teams. For example, either the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers has won the NBA Championship. During one six-year span, the Pacers won 424 games and lost only 68, which roughly averages to a 70-12 record every season. The real NBA record for wins in a season is 72-10, while two teams own 69-13 records. The Pacers won 69 games five of those six years.
The sim engine is based upon NBA results of the last three years, and I'm sure the dynasty success only mimics the fact that the league generally has one or two teams win championships for consecutive years. The Detroit Pistons won two straight championships in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then the Bulls won three, followed by two by the Houston Rockets. Michael Jordan returned and the Bulls won three more, followed by a San Antonio Spurs victory in the strike-shortened 1999 season. The L.A. Lakers won its three, followed by another Spurs win last year. So, the last 15 NBA Championships have been won by five teams, but, still, the simulation engine goes overboard. The stats line up OK. Nothing seemed extraordinary, aside from rookies tending to have deflated statistics. Rare is it that a rookie averages more than 13 points or grabs more than five or six rebounds. Usually, two or three hit those marks, and every once in a while, a player doubles those standards.
Free agency, as I said above, is a chore because you are severely limited by the salary cap and your owner. You can always drive player salary past the cap, but you're then subject to a luxury tax. I believe maximum and minimum contracts, which also include mid and low exemptions, are set by the owner's willingness to spend. The financial model lacks any substance, as it does little than provide figures for a salary. You can set ticket prices and there is a financial reporters menu screen, but there is little negative or positive reaction to ending the year in the red or black. Things seem to roll over. For example, I set ticket prices very high while maintaining a strong attendance, but my owner's willingness to spend remained low, even after five straight years of earning $30 million or more. My last year, the Bulls grossed $60 million, a total 10 times more than any other NBA team. More than half the teams lost money. Still, the owner did not want to spend for free agents.
Replay Value : 84
Despite the lack of feeling that you have any control and a confusing-at-times off season, Total Pro Basketball can be addicting. You fall in love with players you drafted, watching them progress from bench player to NBA All-Star. Because of the confusing free agency, you do stick with the same core of players year in and year out. That loyalty and familiarity builds character development, which is something you rarely talk about in sports games. What is Bret Favre to the Green Bay Packers? What was John Stockton to the Utah Jazz? You get that feeling - whether it's intended or not - playing this game. And, I liked starting out with the fictional players as it allowed for less of a predictable player pool. I didn't know who the next stars were, or who were the studs of today. I didn't feel angry when the Lakers center averaged 17 points and not 25. Admittedly, I only scanned the multiplayer league options, but all the major components are there. Finding honest gamers is the difficult part.
Overall : 72
I like playing this game, but I enjoy playing a lot of the all-text games. Total Pro Basketball, due to its lack of competition, is the sole option for NBA all-text fans, but the game is well below average when compared to other all-text sports games. The interface is too multilateral, while there is a feeling that you have little impact on the simulated games. I wondered, "Can I do anything that'll make a difference?" too many times. That is the shortfall of this game: the lack of entry points for a gamer to tinker with their team's performance. Enjoyment, however, is still found in the player development, a key component in any sports game on any platform. Hopefully, .400 Studios will pool its resources into improving the interface to make it more like its Total Pro Football game, while adding more gameplay options.