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Front Office Football 2 (PC) Review

Publisher: EA Sports

Background Info

Most computer football aficionados know of the name Jim Gindin, the author behind the title Front Office Football (FOF). Now Jim's partnered with Electronic Arts (of all companies), and released a sequel to FOF, officially known as Electronic Arts Front Office Football, but more commonly referred to as FOF2.

FOF2 is a football management simulation. The game makes very little effort at being anything else other than what it sets out to be, and does a very good job at that!

FOF2 casts you in the role of an owner of a (American-style) football franchise. Your objective is to manage your team from season to season, juggling the team's payroll and the costs of the stadium against the revenues your team brings in. Sounds simple enough, but FOF2 brings such a wealth of options and attention to detail that managing a winning team year after year while staying in the black is quite a challenge. How much of a challenge? Read on.

FOF2 is a bit of a throwback to a time when computer games were packaged on floppy disks. Well, FOF2 isn't really distributed that way, instead being made available through Digital River, an online vendor. However, weighing in at a paltry 4mb, FOF2 could easily be distributed on 3 floppy disks. I don't think the fun-to-megabyte ratio was ever so high as it is with this game.

FOF2 is a standard Windows desktop application. It installs just like any other utility or application you may have installed. As it is distributed over the Internet, FOF2 does not come with a manual. However, FOF2 does have a help system that does a good job of explaining each of the menu items and dialogs in the game.

After the game installs, double-click the FOF2 icon and you're set to manage your very own football team!

Interface/Options : 75
As mentioned, FOF2 presents you with an expansive array of menus and options to manage your team. At first this can be quite bewildering, as you don't know really where to begin after selecting a team to manage. The help system doesn't help you out here either, since it only serves to explain the function of individual menu items, and does not provide an overview of the game and how to get started.

There is no sound in FOF2, nor much in the way of graphical flair. The interface is effective, but if you're new to the FOF series it does take a little while to figure out what's what and what's where. Traversing from dialog to dialog does take a fair bit of mouse-clicking, as it did with the original FOF. You're often forced to exit one dialog (the trading screen, for example) in order to get to another (like the team roster dialog). It sounds like a small point, but in FOF2 you're always hopping around from screen to screen and mouse-clicking is endless. It would have been nice if a pop-up menu or multiple toolbars were made available to aid in navigation.

Once you get used to the interface though, the fun-factor begins to take hold. So let's get to the meat of the game and see how FOF2 handles your managerial chores.

Gameplay : 85
At the heart of FOF2 is a series of dialogs from which you control the revenue- generating side of your responsibilities (ticket prices and stadium renovations) while managing the expense side (scouts, coaches and players). Of course, both are linked. A good team will draw in the fans which in turn will build up revenues with which you can renovate your stadium to keep the fans coming in.

A game of FOF2 starts off with you selecting a franchise to control. You can start off with a strong team such as the Minnesota Vikings (actually called the Norsemen due to a lack of an NFL license, but franchise names can be easily changed from within the game), or you can choose a struggling team such as the New Orleans Saints. All games begin at the start of the 1999 pre-season. FOF2 sports three difficulty levels, which determine how difficult it is to generate revenue (and thus how much money stadium features generate and how much money must be offered to sign free agents).

After choosing a team, you'll spend quite a bit of time poring through your roster, coaching and scouting staff to determine the strengths and weaknesses of your team. Although FOF2 doesn't have an NFL license, it does have an NFLPA license, so all the NFL players are present and on the right team.

Coaches and scouts are rated according to their ability to assess talent at various positions, such as quarterbacks, receivers, defensive line, etc. Hiring the best coaching and scouting talent available is essential to developing young talent into franchise players. However you can't juggle your coaching staff until after you've completed your first season.

To get through a season involves playing through the regular season games and, if you're lucky enough, playoff games leading to the Super Bowl. It is this aspect of FOF2 that, in a limited way, allows you to suspend your GM duties in favor of taking up the task of coaching your team to victory.

Every team has an offensive and defensive game plan, which consists of a set of parameters that influence how often you run, how often your throw and how far, and on what downs. You are free to modify this to your liking, though FOF2 is pretty adept at setting your offensive and defensive game plans to match your teams strengths.

You can also modify your depth chart prior to a game, though again FOF2 is smart enough to place the best player in a given position at the top of the depth chart. The AI does tend to keep injured players playing though, so it is a good idea to keep tabs on the depth chart in case you want to give a less experienced player some playing time and rest the players nursing injuries.

Once you have your depth charts set and your game plan finalized, you're ready to tackle playing another team. You have several choices in deciding how to have FOF2 play your games. You can either let the computer handle the game, calling plays according to your game plans, or you can call the plays yourself. This is as close to coaching as you can get in FOF2.

There's nothing fancy to either means of playing a game. If you choose to let the computer handle your play calling, you can sit back and watch the play of your team from your luxury box. You can also adjust how quickly each play is executed, resulting in a game that can take as little as a handful of seconds to complete. This is the option I choose.

Or, if you choose to call your own plays, you can setup what type of play you want your offense or defense to execute. A small graphical display shows your team's formation based upon the play you call. The outcome using either option is the same - a concise paragraph describing the events of the play.

The AI play-calling is quite intelligent, and I often find myself staring attentively at the screen, cheering on my offense or defense to make the big plays. The AI will call timeouts to stop the clock near half-time and end-of-game. The AI also makes intelligent use of 2-point conversions, weather conditions have a distinct effect on play outcomes (players slip, fumbles increase, field goals spray wide left or right more often). All told, FOF2 makes for a compelling game of gamepad-less football.

If you only want to get many seasons under your belt in a hurry, you can have a week or even an entire season's worth of games played. Availing yourself of this option is less than satisfying however, as all you'll see is a final score put up beside each week's games.

However, in FOF2 the play is definitely not the thing. It's a game of management after all - of juggling your roster as injuries pile up over the season, of trading your high-priced veterans for promising young rookies so you stay under the salary cap, of trying to keep the right balance of personnel on the field so fans keep filling the stadium. It's about the bottom line.

It's the period in between the seasons that'll keep you most preoccupied, and this is where FOF2 is the most fun (at least for me it is). It's after a season is completed that you get to assess your team's performance, view team and league records (which are all very realistic by the way - no bizarre statistics that'll leave you scratching your head), and determine how popular a draw your football team was in your market.

It's after a season has been completed, after veterans have retired and players become free agents, that you must assess the strengths and weaknesses of your team. Is next year the year you go to the Super Bowl, or do you shed yourself of your high-priced talent and enter a rebuilding period? It's entirely up to you.

In the second and subsequent seasons, you can hire a new coaching and scouting staff, go through free agency signing, draft college players, and then take your team through training camp. FOF2 assesses your team's strengths and weaknesses at various positions for you, identifying what areas you need to improve on. This is one of the strengths of FOF2, the sheer amount of data that the game offers on virtually every facet of your team. While the interface can be cumbersome at times, you'll never find yourself wanting for information.

Replay Value : 90
FOF2 is very replayable, in large part since player attributes are somewhat random when you begin a new game. Thus, Ricky Williams may set the league on fire in one of your games, but may turn out to be a dud in another. Player injuries, random off-field player incidents and new stadium technologies help to keep FOF2 fresh and unique each time you start a new game.

Seasonal outcomes do appear to be quite random too. In one season St. Louis made it to the Super Bowl in 1999 against Cincinnati; in another it was Atlanta vs. Buffalo and St. Louis went 3-13.

FOF2 does have a few snags though. It is possible to take advantage of the AI's weakness in contract re-negotiations. Consequently, it's possible to backload your player contracts - offering very little up front while offering scads of money in year 3, 4 and beyond of a long-term contract. When those years come up, you can dump those players at minimal cost. Of course, you can simply choose not to engage in such behavior in the first place, but this is an area of FOF2 that could use some shoring up.

The trading algorithm also seems to be a bit askew. If you offer a player to trade for some draft picks and are reported to be extremely close to closing the deal, offering up a draft pick of your own to sweeten the pot tends to put you worse off in the negotiations.

The MVP awards that get handed out after each week's set of games seem out of whack. Too many linemen are awarded an offensive or defensive MVP award while QBs that throw for over 300 yards and several touchdowns are overlooked.

I also wish that FOF2 modeled player personalities to a certain degree. As it stands now, a player's abilities are fairly static for the duration of his career. It would be more interesting to see some dynamic created between the coaching staff and the players whereby certain players responded to a coach, either negatively or positively, resulting in a change in a player's abilities or a demand to be traded, etc.

There aren't any significant shortcomings of FOF2, however. Its magnificent depth will keep you coming back for more, each and every season.

Overall : 85
FOF2 is the best stats-oriented football game available today. FOF2 is not a substantial leap forward over FOF; however, it is barrels of fun while offering unparalleled depth of play. To me it's a little too lacking in the eye candy department, where further development of the interface could yield a more intuitive means of navigating the wide array of controls available to the player. Perhaps EA's continued involvement with the FOF series will result in some progress in this area.

By: Bill Cranston 10/1/99

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