For PC football fans, it's become almost a given that you can't have impressive on-field action and realistic league and simulation results in the same football simulation. Front Page Sports: Football Pro? Great league management, a vast array of coaching options, and solid simulation results - but anemic play on the gridiron. Madden NFL 98? Addictive gameplay and pulse-pounding drama on the field - and merely average coaching and league-play features away from it.
NFL GameDay 99 is no exception. If you're looking for a simulation that lets you use real-life lineups, create custom leagues, or launch a career that spans several seasons, you're out of luck here. But if you're in search of the most realistic - and consequently most challenging - on-field play you can find in a football simulation, GameDay 99 is at the head of the class.
There are lots of reasons for GameDay 99's success on the field, but the biggest is the artificial intelligence (AI) programming of the computer-controlled opponents. If you think you can rip off big chunks of yardage by running the same play over and over again, you've got another thing coming. The defenses really do adjust to your play-calling tendencies, and gamers accustomed to steamrolling even powerhouses like San Francisco and Green Bay in other action-oriented games will be a little miffed to learn that it's just not gonna happen here. Your only hope for scoring success in GameDay 99 is the same as in the NFL: Establish a balanced attack and stick with it as long as possible.
And the AI doesn't slack up when a computer-controlled team gets the ball. Play against Detroit, for instance, and you might see Barry Sanders and fullback Tommy Vardell run for three nice gains in a row - but stack the line with eight men to jam up the ground game, and you'll probably see Herman Moore blowing by the single coverage and hauling in a TD pass. Thankfully, the graphics are up to the task of bringing all this to life: You'll need a 3D accelerator to play GameDay 99, but with a 3Dfx chipset and a fast (200MHz or faster) PC, you'll see some of the best animations and graphics ever to grace a football sim.
Controlling the players can be a little frustrating at first, but at least it's because so many different actions are available. Besides the usual moves such as jumping, catching, spinning, and diving, you can also lateral the ball, make a one-handed catch, use a stiff arm (a "swim" move on defense), and even high step to elude a diving tackler. Actually, there are so many moves that I don't know of a gamepad that could accommodate them all. But there's still a lot you can do with an eight-button controller like a Gravis GrIP, and it's nice that all the special moves were included.
The play-by-play by Dick Enberg and color commentary by Phil Simms sound impressively accurate at first, but after a few plays you'll hear the same comments over and over. What's more, the commentary only focuses on the last play that was run: After three consecutive running plays for eight yards or more, for example, Phil Simms will make a statement like "The offensive line isn't getting the job done" if the fourth play ends with no gain.
Turn off the play-by-play and take control for an exhibition game or two, though, and you might start thinking this is the game we football fans have been waiting for. Well, don't get too excited, because many of the other facets of NFL GameDay 99 are as weak as the play on the field is strong.
Take season play, for instance. The games here aren't being truly simulated; instead, GameDay 99 is merely "rolling the dice" based on the statistical strengths of each team and using the results to generate scores and stats. Fortunately, the outcomes seem to be pretty accurate, although passing yardage seems considerably lower in GameDay 99 than in real life (around 50 yards less per side on average).
But that's about the only good news for season play. Injuries appear to be mix-and-match affairs - players can be out for two weeks with leg cramps, 13 weeks with a bruised thigh, or ten weeks with a concussion. Come on - if a guy is out ten weeks with a concussion, he's either retired or in a coma, and if someone had leg cramps so bad he had to miss two games, he'd probably have to undergo an amputation. There's no way to generate a custom league or schedule; the single-year, six-round draft uses veterans, not rookies, and strips you of key players and forces you to draft them; and you can't correct errors in position for any roster other than your own (more on that later). Shorten a season game to less than 15 minutes per quarter so you can finish it more easily in one sitting, and you'll find that the 14 other games simulated by the computer for that week of play were 60 minutes long.
That last bit doesn't sound too crucial - just play 15-minute quarters and save the game if you have to quit before it's over. But in a true slap in the face to PC gamers, GameDay 99 doesn't feature an in-game save feature. I'm getting sick of developers creating cross-platform titles and not bothering to include something as rudimentary as an in-game save for the PC version, especially in a football game - there's absolutely no justification for not being able to save whenever you like.
The list of other missing features - many pretty standard fare at this point in the development of football sims - is extensive. There's no option to adjust music volume, no player names on jerseys, and no way for two players to control two teams through the course of the same season. If you adjusted graphic settings for performance reasons, you'll have to do it again for a new season. And in another example of laziness in porting the game to the PC, gamepad users must assign the pause command to a button in order to call a timeout at the line of scrimmage - a real waste, considering you could use that button for one of those fancy moves if the game would just recognize the keyboard as well as the pad.
Then there are the rosters. I like to set the rosters in a football sim to match their real-life counterparts, but in GameDay 99 it's simply impossible. Although the README file that comes with the version 1.1 patch says the rosters were updated as of August 31, that's only true when you're playing season games: the exhibition rosters remained severely out of date.
But even the season rosters aren't kosher, because special team assignments have been completely bungled. Marquee players like Keyshawn Johnson, Chris Carter, Terrell Davis, Curtis Martin, and many other stars are assigned to kick coverage by default - and there's no way anyone would chance injuring a key player by having them cover kicks. Kick returners are similarly botched, with default settings that have fullbacks returning kickoffs and defensive backs bringing back punts.
I've already mentioned that you can't alter any lineups other than your own, so there goes any chance of simulating a real-life matchup in GameDay 99. But at least you can easily correct player assignments for your own team, right? Once again, the answer is no. GameDay 99 doesn't use a real depth chart, which has assignments for kickoff returner and punt returner. The only way to change who plays on special teams before a game is to change their position on the roster. But that's not practical: To have the Ravens' speedster Jermaine Lewis return punts, for example, you'd have to make him play defensive back (he's a wide receiver). And to relieve Terrel Davis of kick-coverage duties permanently, you'd have to make someone else the starting halfback.
The other method is to change assignments by formation after the game has started, but it's extremely tedious, and the changes only last during that game - and as insane as it sounds, you can't change the punt return lineup at all once a game starts. The sad part of all this is that there'd be no problem whatsoever if 989 Studios had bothered to see who handles these chores (the info is easily available), included a true depth chart, or let you make position assignments before game time.
GameDay 99 features the usual suite of multiplayer options - modem, serial, IPX, and TCP/IP connections are supported - and 989 Studios also hosts a matching service called 989Studios.net. To have any hope of controlling players while online, though, you'll need an extremely low-latency Internet connection; my guess is that 250 milliseconds would be the maximum latency for relatively smooth play. Unfortunately, the chat client lags severely whenever anything happens online, so you'll find it nearly impossible to type a full sentence while in the lobby without seeing extra spaces and transposed letters.
With NFL GameDay 99, 989 Studios managed to overcome one of the biggest obstacles facing developers of football sims: creating AI routines that not only result in computer-controlled teams playing like their real-life counterparts, but that also force the user to play in a realistic style as well. If 989 Studios can devote more attention to bringing the other areas of the game up to the level that we see on the field, the dream of a totally complete football package might finally come true.