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Quarterback Club 99 (N64) Review

Publisher: Acclaim Sports
Release Date: October 1998

Background Info

Acclaim's Quarterback Club 98 was like a stereotypical swimsuit model - all beauty, no brains. On a poster, you have a hard time taking your eyes off her. But if you see that same model being interviewed on TV and hear her actually talk, you think, "She's gorgeous, but what an airhead!"

While Quarterback Club 98 looked better than the competition last year, its glaring AI weaknesses ultimately made it a poor game. For many video football game fans, their infatuation with Quarterback Club 98 was short-lived, and they moved onto more realistic and challenging games. This year, with a strong Madden 99 already out and selling well on the N64, the stakes are higher for Acclaim. To retain its spot as the best-selling football title on the N64 console, Quarterback Club 99 (QBC 99) needed to be a better game.

Presentation/Graphics : 93
Simply put, QBC 99 is the best-looking football game ever released for a console. The high-resolution players are almost photo-realistic, with incredible details and excellent shading. Their uniforms look perfect. Players are sized appropriately to their height and weight. In the snow, the players' breath is visible, and they leave footprints in the snow. In rain games, you can see the water splash around their feet. During night games, you can even see reflections of the stadium lights on their helmets. As a game progresses, the field degrades gradually, especially during rain games. Compared to Madden 99, QBC 99 has vastly better-looking players. Even the guys who carry the yardage markers look great! This may be the first game that I've actually let the computer play itself for a while just so I could watch it and admire many of the nuances of the presentation without worrying about controlling the action on the field.

Unlike the previous version's players, who moved somewhat awkwardly, almost bow-legged, the players in QBC 99 move smoothly and naturally - they walk, run, spin, dive, and hurdle realistically. During the game, the tackles, hits, throws, and catches all look great, with a variety of animations for each action. Players display a variety of reactions to events. There are sack celebrations, first down gestures, and a variety of endzone celebrations. Sometimes you'll see players celebrate when another player scores, such as a nearby teammate who pumps his fist in the air after you scamper into the endzone. In addition, players also show signs of frustration - a runner stopped for a short gain or loss may sit on the ground for an extra second dejectedly before getting up, or a player who just took a big hit may struggle to get to his feet.

In addition to incredible player graphics and animations, Acclaim provides a lot of animations and graphics that add more personality to the game. The game begins with a great animated introduction, unlike Madden, that leads into the main menu. As with most games, all NFL stadiums are presented with great realism. At the start of a game, you see players run into the field from the tunnel. At halftime, cheerleaders take the field and perform. When you kick a field goal, the net goes up behind the goal post, and it moves when a ball sails through the uprights and hits the net. After a game, there is an animated sequence showing your team with celebrating victory or leave the field looking dejected and pounding the turf in disgust. The instant replays are breathtaking, with rich detail and endless viewing angles, perspectives, and options.

While the game's graphics are extremely impressive, they aren't perfect. The most obvious graphical weak spot is the crowd, which looks horribly generic and flat, with little appearance of variety or difference from section to section. It almost looks like a grid. Another annoyance is that the visual effect of players breathing hard is terribly overdone. Once the novelty of seeing players hunch over to catch their breath or seeing their breath in the cold wears off, the effect seems overused, as if the players are all out-of-shape and winded after every play. For example, after an interception by my defense in a game, my offense returned to the field after being on the bench for the better part of the quarter, but when they huddled up, everyone was bent over, breathing dramatically, as if near exhaustion, despite having relaxed on the bench until seconds earlier. Another graphical blunder is that you will see your opponent's banners in your home stadium. Home at Soldier Field, against the Rams, I saw a banner for "Pace, the Pancake man!" behind the endzone. The stadiums and fields look nice, but aren't as impressive as the players. The stadiums actually look better in Madden. Finally, despite mostly smooth animation, there are some moments when the players move with noticeable jerkiness and you can see the noticeable shift from live animation to canned "motion-captured" moves.

Presentation/Audio : 78
The audio in QBC 99 is a mixed bag. On one hand, for a Nintendo title, the game has a good amount of surprisingly clear speech and commentary. ESPN's Mike Patrick and Randy Cross provide commentary and color for the game. While not as extensive as many football games on the Playstation, the commentary in the game is relatively well done. Patrick gives the down and yardage information before each play and lets you know the result as well. Cross chimes in with reactions and observations. From time to time, the color commentary misses the boat on what happened on the play, and the speech also occasionally sounds artificial, with obvious shifts in tone and volume. But most often, the announcers do a good job simulating real reactions to the play on the field. Some examples: after a dropped pass, Patrick quips "Get that guy some stickum!"; after an injured player gets to his feet and walks off the field under his own power, Cross says "He looks fine! Get back in there! That's just a little 'boo-boo'!" The commentary is certainly not as horrible as Gameday 99, and is markedly superior to the lackluster (and often nonexistent) commentary on the N64 version of Madden. In addition to the commentary, players speak as well, with taunts and cheers at appropriate moments during the game. Acclaim has proven that a N64 cart has enough storage space to include a fair amount of good-sounding speech in a sports title, even if it can't match the amount and quality of speech on the PSX. Speech from both announcers, as well as from players, adds a touch of personality and humor to the game that Madden unfortunately lacks.

The other sound in the game is less impressive. The game has decent player and action sounds - grunts, tackles, QB signal-calling - but nothing revolutionary. The music that plays during menus is fine, but after a while, becomes numbingly repetitive. The biggest liability as far as sound, as with the graphics, is the crowd. In general, the crowd sounds like a low droning in the background. The crowd does react to touchdowns and some big plays, like first downs, but seems generally disengaged from the game. For example, in a game I was playing, as the clock expired at the end of the half, at home, I picked off the CPU's pass and ran it back fifty yards for a touchdown, breaking open what had been a tight game. There was no reaction from the crowd whatsoever. The crowd didn't react at all to the interception, the return, or the touchdown. Any one of those three actions should have warranted some kind of crowd surge or increased volume.

So while the game does a solid job providing commentary and color, overall, QBC 99's audio fails to enhance the sense of environment and excitement that should be part of the NFL experience.

Interface : 85
QBC 99's main menu is simple and easy to navigate. The game offers the typical array of game settings and options. Game lengths, however, are limited to 2, 5, 10, or 15-minute quarters. A few nice settings not available in Madden are the option to turn the referee animations off and to change the speed of the game clock from realistic to either accelerated or slower that normal. Both of these options allow you to speed up non-essential parts of the game. This allows you to play a brisker game and not have to wait for the referee to pick up a ball and retrieve it after every play, like in Madden.

The playcalling interface is relatively straightforward and simple. There are team-specific playbooks and custom playbooks you can create. While the playcalling choices seem sufficient, it seems like there are fewer total plays to choose from in QBC 99 than other football titles other than NFL Blitz.

Options The game offers the standard slate of gameplay options (Exhibition, Season, Playoffs, and Tournament), plus a practice mode and a simulations mode. The two latter modes are both nice additions to the game. The practice mode, like Madden's, allow you to work on certain plays, either on offense or defense, outside of a real game, in order to get a feel for timing and execution. QBC 99's practice mode is a little better than Madden, actually, in that you can choose to practice against another team. So let's say your buddy, who always plays as the 49ers, is coming over. You can practice key plays against the 49ers defense and offense, looking for weak spots on the line or isolating the weakest defensive back.

The Simulations mode is also a great feature that I think all sports video games should adopt. The simulations put you into key moments of past Super Bowls and famous games, such as Montana's 4th quarter drive against the Bengals in 1989 or the white-knuckle finish of last year's Super Bowl, and lets you try to change or preserve the outcome. You can even create and edit your own simulations, setting the location of the ball, the score, and the time remaining in the game. One drawback, however, is that the historical teams in QBC 99 seem to be available only in the simulation mode, so if you want to match up the 85 Bears against the 73 Dolphins, you'll have to go get Madden.

QBC 99 allows you to select from several standard camera angles, or to create your own angle, setting the zoom, height, and perspective to your personal preference.

Gameplay : 55
Here's where QBC 99 really needed to improve this year. All the great graphics and animations can't make up for a game that's riddled with money plays and easy cheats.

And unfortunately, QBC 99 still has both.

Before I go off on the AI of this game, let me take a second to note what does work well in terms of gameplay. The game plays quickly, without some of the slow transition animations that slow down a game in Madden. Another nice gameplay element is that players can fight through tackles. You can get hit, and your player is twisted back or sideways, but you still can make moves and try to continue driving forward. It feels and looks realistic. Finally, the weather affects gameplay realistically - in the rain, for example, you see a lot more fumbles.

The rest of the gameplay and AI, however, isn't pretty. In fact, it's downright ugly.

Any hopes I had that Acclaim had improved the AI were dashed on my first play from scrimmage in my first game, when Bears QB Eric Kramer ran 75 yards for a touchdown... without my using any special moves! The CPU defense, I learned very quickly, is almost always susceptible to a QB run. So if you hike the ball and roll out, you can either hit an open receiver, or if one isn't open, you can run for a first down at least half the time. What's worse, the CPU shows little ability to adapt to your playcalling and anticipate your offensive strategy, so you can almost always count on a first down with your favorite money play. When you watch replays of the CPU defense, you can see that some linebackers and defensive backs literally stand still during plays and often fail to move until the ball carrier is down field from them. I'm not sure I've seen such dopey CPU defenders since the days of Tecmo Bowl.

Ok, so what about the CPU offense? I'd concede that the computer AI offense isn't nearly as brain-dead as the defense, but not by much. The CPU running attack is actually a little tougher to defend than in Madden. And the passing game is tough to defend since receivers seem to have an uncanny ability in this game to make flying fingertip catches, so much so that an overthrown ball is almost impossible. The problem, however, is that the CPU shows terrible football logic. The computer calls inexplicable time outs in the middle of the third quarter, often fails to run out the clock at the end of games, and amazingly, in one game I played, went for it on fourth-and-fifteen in the middle of the game, on their own 20-yard line! Worst of all, the computer doesn't react to your defensive playcalling. For example, while playtesting for this review, I ran three straight defensive series where the only defense I called was "punt return." Not only did the I hold the computer to three-and-out on each series, without taking control of any player myself, but the AI wasn't smart enough to realize I was in the punt return formation and exploit my one-man secondary unit! [In the interest of fairness, I ran the same test on Madden, and while the CPU surprisingly didn't throw into the middle of the field for an easy TD, it did exploit my formation, running for seven- and eight-yard gains repeatedly, quickly moving the ball downfield for a score.]

The actual control of players is another problem in QBC 99. The player controls (spin, hurdle, speed burst, juke, stiff arm, and dive) work well and integrate smoothly into the action, provided you can get comfortable with the N64 controller's tiny "C"-buttons (I never have). However, the response to your actions feels very sluggish. It feels like there's a delay between when you push a button and when your players respond on-screen. As a result, for example, I've taken a lot of sacks when I should have been able to get a pass off easily. And before plays begin, it's hard to take control and move a player. For example, if you want to bring a linebacker up to the line for added pressure or to fake a blitz, you can't move him until some mysterious force releases the player before the snap and allows you to move him.

Finally, there seems to be some strange shifts in speed during the game. Sometimes, the action is so fast and furious (running plays, field goals) that it's hard to react quickly enough to make the right play. In other times, however, the game speed seems to slow to a crawl - the ball seems to hang in the air forever during a kick-off or punt and a wide open receiver seems to wait endlessly for a long pass to come down into his hands.

In summary, QBC 99 is another AI and gameplay fiasco.

Difficulty : 55
As mentioned above, the poor AI makes this game not much of a challenge at any level. Once you discover some of the money plays and gimmicks that can guarantee you that critical first down, the challenge of the game vanishes.

On the other hand, the game might still be fun for head-to-head competition, if you can ignore some sluggish control. As a one-player game, however, it looks to be an exercise in frustration and boredom, since you can almost always outwit and outguess the computer.

Overall : 73
QBC 99 made a lot of improvements this year. Unfortunately, they didn't improve the game where it needed it most - in the gameplay and AI. Despite a breathtaking new look, the game is still what it was a year ago - a gorgeous, dumb blonde. This year's model has a little more personality, but after a few hours, it just isn't much fun to spend any time with. If you're just looking for something nice to look at, QBC 99 might be the call, but if you're looking for challenging, realistic NFL football, go with Madden.

By: Matt P. 11/18/98

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