It's more than a little ironic that Sierra On-Line chose Dan Marino over Barry Sanders to appear on the box for the latest edition in its Front Page Sports: Football Pro series. Think about it: Sanders, the man who graced the box of the two previous Football Pro games, had his greatest season ever this year. On the other hand, Marino, for whatever reasons you choose to believe, had the most mediocre campaign of his career.
And so it goes with FPS: Football Pro '98. Given how long Sierra's been refining this series, you'd expect the '98 edition to be the best ever - yes, this year's Barry Sanders of football games. Instead, in a case of life imitating endorsements, FPS: FP '98 turns in a Marino-like performance: There are definitely some high points, but not as many as you'd expect from a seasoned veteran.
Why does FPS: FP '98 improve so little on its predecessor? There's no way of knowing for sure, but if you consider the state in which the game was shipped it's hard to avoid the conclusion that it's because it was pushed out the door before it was ready. In the few weeks since FPS: FP '98 started shipping, three patches have already appeared (Sierra's officially supporting only one as of this writing). The problems in the shipping version addressed by these patches are numerous and vexing - but what's even more troubling is how some of these managed to get past the QA department in the first place. There's some pretty obvious stuff here: a mix-up in the second-half kickoff if the coin-toss winner chooses to kick, game crashes with certain camera angles, and even turf instead of grass at Jack Kent Cooke stadium. Out of curiosity, I started counting the number of problems that were addressed in the 1.04f patch (the version I wound up playing), but after I'd reached three dozen I didn't feel like going any further.
Of course, every PC game will have a few bugs, and the FPS: FP '98 development team deserves credit for working hard on these patches. But FPS: FP '98 falls short of expectations in other categories, too. The absences of a built-in player ratings editor and new team-specific playbooks come immediately to mind. It's true the latter was fixed with the second patch (a beta version, not officially supported by Sierra) after the game shipped, but Sierra seems to have taken a cavalier attitude toward the player ratings editor issue - the explanation on its web site goes something along the lines of: "Ours wasn't ready, and besides, there's a shareware tool on the game CD that does almost the same things." What the explanation doesn't say is that Sierra doesn't support any of the shareware programs that come with the game, which means you'll have to deal with a third party for answers to any problems you might encounter using it.
So if the player ratings editor is gone from FPS: FP '98, what's new in the game? The biggest enhancement is global: The interface has been totally revamped, and the good news is that it's much easier to use than before. Instead of forcing you to clunk through a "quick start setup" just to play an exhibition game, for example, FPS: FP '98 now takes you immediately to team selection and setup screens for every outing. Team and league menus are modular, with buttons always present for every function - you can skip from the league schedule screen to your team's front office menu with just a couple of mouse clicks.
Beyond that, though, little has changed. Naturally, FPS: FP '98 has new rosters (now with player photos) and new logos (Bus and Broncos). But many of the other new features - arcade play over the Internet, a full-screen mode, better chat interface, information on whether your opponent's running a special teams or regular play, audio play-by-play (it's boring), more camera angles, the inclusion of non-NFL stadiums and cities, more precise weather information, and others - are either things that should be expected in a top-rate football sim or are of little importance when it comes to actual gameplay. In short, nearly all the things that made the Football Pro games so compelling - impressive simulation results, a robust play editor, incredibly detailed coaching profiles, and the ability to guide a team over consecutive seasons by utilizing the draft, free agency, and trades - can be found in the '98 edition.
Retaining the good parts of a previous game doesn't exactly deserve a standing ovation, though. What would earn my applause is if Sierra had spent more time improving what historically has been the weakest part of the Football Pro games: the action mode. Sadly, that hasn't happened. To my amazement, FPS: FP '98 still supports only two gamepad/joystick buttons - Madden NFL '98 supports four and ABC Monday Night Football '98 supports eight. That might not sound like much, but the truth is that four- or eight-button support makes the passing game much easier to handle, allowing you to concentrate on play-calling and execution rather than trying to figure out if you've selected the right receiver. And extra buttons mean greater control over ball carriers and receivers; in FPS: FP '98, about all you can do is jump up and dive ahead.
And that's not the only facet of the action game that's been passed over for improvement. The graphics in FPS: FP '98 don't look any better to me than the ones from the '97 edition - or even '96, for that matter. Active players are still identified by a huge number hovering over them, instead of a subtle circle or star at the players' feet. The tackle animations we've seen for years are still here, slightly smoother but essentially unchanged. In fact, all the player animations remain pretty much the same as they've looked for the past couple of years, which wasn't very good to begin with - this despite the addition of an option to view the players from 16 different angles. Though you're treated to artwork for all 30 NFL stadiums, it doesn't make up for the flat, untextured field graphics (I once played on a grass field and mistook it for turf).
One area of FPS: FP '98 that Sierra did improve upon was Internet play. Besides the aforementioned chat and arcade-play enhancements, the game now recognizes that two leagues can be identical even though they have different names. With FPS: FP '98 Leagues popping up as more people buy the game, it's becoming much easier to find opponents - just make sure you're using the same version of the game and the same league files (unless you don't care if someone's loaded his team with all-stars, of course). And while Sierra doesn't support all the shareware utilities that come with the game, their inclusion is still welcome. Particularly useful is the schedule maker. It gives you the ability to re-create the 1997 NFL schedule for a custom league, something Madden NFL '98 lacks.
For gamers who revel in the challenges of play design, draft and trade decisions, game plans, and even practice-camp priorities, FPS: FP '98 is still the only game in town.
People who downloaded Front Page Sports Football Pro '98 have also downloaded:
Front Page Sports: Baseball Pro '98, Front Page Sports Football Pro '96 Season, Front Page Sports: Football Pro '95, Front Page Sports Baseball Pro, Front Page Sports: Football, Front Page Sports Football Pro, Hardball V Enhanced (a.k.a. Hardball 5 Enhanced), NCAA Football 98
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