After hearing so many people say how vastly improved ABC Monday Night Football '98 was over the '97 edition, I couldn't wait to see how it stacked up against games like Madden NFL and Front Page Sports: Football Pro. After a couple of hours with it, I've got to admit I was fairly impressed: The on-field action wasn't anything to write home about, but a truly impressive array of coaching, management, and playbook options made the staid arcade action a weakness I could definitely live with.
But a funny thing happened on ABC MNF '98's way to the goal line: It started out rumbling, then started stumbling, and finally wound up bumbling - and pretty soon it became clear that there was no chance that it could go all the way. Normally, I'd just write it off as another failed football sim, but what makes this especially disappointing is that ABC MNF '98 does so many things well that you can't help but think how great a game this would be if all the kinks were ironed out.
To be totally honest, the problems started for me from the moment I installed the game: I got error messages when I tried to load a league to play a season and when I tried to run the Play Creator in stand-alone mode (i.e., without starting a game). Turns out there was a bug in the version that shipped to stores that forces you to install the game twice before those features work - not an auspicious beginning for a game trying to make a name for itself in the crowded PC football genre.
But once I got that straightened out, I actually started having some fun with ABC MNF '98. The Play Creator, which can be accessed on the fly during a game or in stand-alone mode, is one of the friendliest yet most powerful play editors I've tried - and you've gotta love the inclusion of historical sets like the Double Wing, Wing T, Full House, and others.
Another outstanding feature allows you not only to set your virtual coach's play calling tendencies for specific situations during simulated games (normal, passing, red zone, goal line, two-minute offense, etc.) but also to specify such details as the types of blocks that'll be used on certain plays.
Player, team, and league management are all handled just as well. Setting the depth charts for each of your offensive and defensive sets is fast and easy, and all the usual options - player editor, variable rule sets (back to 1980), player imports and exports - are nicely implemented. About the only shortcoming I could find here is that there's no way to customize a schedule for a new league: You must use either the 1997-98 schedule or select a randomized schedule. Best of all, the results of simulated games were among the most credible I've ever seen: 300-yard passing games actually meant something, and when I checked the stats I could see that teams tried to use balanced rushing and passing attacks. True, it takes around 40 minutes to sim out a week of play - but for that investment of time you also get complete game films for each matchup, because the games are actually down by down.
Once you hit the field for some arcade action, you'll find that ABC MNF '98 can't match the fluid play of Madden NFL '98 - in graphics and animation, MNF '98 is adequate at best. Perhaps the biggest hindrance on the field is finding a good perspective: In both behind-the-QB vantage points, the "camera" drops down close to the field when the play starts, making it a little tricky to spot receivers. Also, the dark football and the high speed at which passes are thrown make some passes almost invisible. The animation is fairly choppy, but again it was something I could live with - until I started to run into many more problems.
Take league play, for instance. For each team to call plays from its own playbook, you must manually assign playbooks a team at a time - not fun when the sluggish Windows '95 performance means it takes around 30 seconds to do it for each club. But even more damning is the amazing lack of injuries: Even though I created four leagues and simulated out at least two weeks' worth of games for each, I never was able to find anyone on the disabled list at the end of a week's games. I double-checked to make sure I was turning injuries on when creating the league - same results. Folks, I don't even have to explain why this oversight is both inexplicable and inexcusable.
Say you've figured out a better controller configuration once you've played a few downs or want to change a graphics setting. Well, too bad - no setup options are accessible once a game's started. You'll be amazed at how quickly the computer opponent gets to the line on offense (around ten seconds or so); you'll wonder why the play clock isn't visible until it's down to 15 seconds; and you'll search in vain for a pause key (instant replay is the only way to halt the action, and after you use it, it always takes you back to the playbook even if you've already called a play).
The list of nagging flaws goes on, such as the absence of a fake field goal in any team's playbook - and no way to create it. Nail the power meter at maximum strength on kickoff - and it goes ten yards. Speaking of kicks, they're almost always straight down the middle of the field regardless of wind or field position; coaches in this game must not like pinning other teams on their own goal line with a coffin-corner kick.
And that's not all. How about Frank Gifford calling Ericksson Stadium "Carolina Stadium"? (I guess it's OK since the only difference in stadium graphics is the mascot painted on the field.) Or halftime drive stats that didn't show a TD I'd scored at the end of the 2nd quarter? Or an in-game statistics feature that leaves the clock running when viewed? The canned play-by-play is an on-again, off-again affair, with Dan Dierdorf saying stuff like, "The defense is playing like a fine-tuned machine," after a 20-yard completion, or Frank Gifford spouting, "It's those kinds of plays that are keeping the offense from establishing any type of running game," after the first play of the game. At halftime and at game's end, you're taken back to Chris Berman in the studio, but apparently he decided to split after halftime, because he's just not there at the end of the game.
I could mention a few other quirks, but it'd be flogging a dead horse. MNF '98 is definitely an improvement over its predecessor, but it still has a ways to go before it can be considered a true champion. The good news for ABC Interactive and OT Sports is that there's so much done well in MNF '98 that the next version (or patch) will be built on very solid ground.