Friendliness is the biggest hurdle that sports management sims have to face. Unwieldy text-based interfaces and dated production values, which leave games looking like spreadsheets, have been the death of many-an-otherwise-exacting simulation. This is a particular problem in the early editions of a budding series, and as such, titles are usually made on a shoestring budget. So it's a welcome surprise that .400 Software Studios' Total Pro Football (only available online at the official Web site) gets all of these elements correct, right out of the gate. Colorful graphics, an interface that practically leads you by the hand, and fantastic depth make this the best inaugural football sim since the release of the original Front Office Football.
What first stands out is the vibrant interface. Vivid menus and an opening splash screen that features the pad-smacking and grunting of a play being run make you immediately aware that this isn't your typical numbers-first sports management release. All of the usual accoutrements are on hand, so as usual, you get to take complete control of a pro franchise from front office to sideline--and you get to do it from now till doomsday. Furthermore, these accoutrements are beefed up by design frills that provide a lot of personality. Player cards not only contain reams of stats and ratings, but they also feature color photos. Agents are represented by pictures and brief biographies. The in-game interface boasts colorful transparent windows, an attractive background photograph, and even crowd sound effects. Nobody's going to mistake this game for Madden NFL 2004, though it is much more attractive than its closest competitor, Front Office Football 2004.
The game's interface was obviously designed with an eye toward ease-of-use. All of the oft-onerous offseason tasks, such as signing free agents, negotiating contract extensions, and scouting players for the college draft, have been simplified by a 20-week schedule that's set up with a PDA. Finish a week's duties, such as submitting the year's budget in week three or cutting players in week 16, and you simply click a button to advance. A panel of buttons in the lower left corner lets you access all of the tools needed to complete these tasks. You can get lost in some situations, but it usually isn't for very long. For instance, when signing rookies, you need to access the team roster screen, pull up each individual player card, and then click on negotiate. The only serious annoyances come when trying to sort players for the draft or when making trades. There just aren't enough options here to arrange players according to skill ratings, so you often have to wade through player cards to get needed information.
Finding your way around during the season is also a snap. The home view features a top-down view of your team's stadium and associated buildings, like the practice field, media center, and coach and general manager's offices. To access any function, all you have to do is click on the appropriate building. Go to the GM's office to sign free agents and check out the salary cap. Head to the practice field to work on the training schedule and determine how much time your players spend in the film room this week. And so on.
Despite this mostly friendly surface, Total Pro Football has a remarkable amount of depth. Players are exceptionally well detailed. Each is loaded with the usual position-specific ratings for things like route-running speed and pass accuracy, but each also comes with 12 personality and character traits, in addition to a sliding morale scale. While you might recruit a QB who can go deep with the accuracy of Joe Montana, this skill doesn't mean much when he is always in the dumps, thanks to a zero work ethic and dollar signs in his eyes. Players also come equipped with high-powered agents, who have ratings of their own when it comes to such things as stubbornness, pricing, and holding a grudge. Even owners have to be taken into consideration. They also have personality ratings, so you need to know when you're entering a bidding war with a guy who's a profiteer and just wants to maximize the bottom line. Likewise, you need to know if you're dealing with his polar opposite--a guy who wants to win at all costs.
Needless to say, contract negotiations can be very complex. So in addition to all of the above factors, money and terms are big issues. Dealing with the salary cap seems to require a degree in sports economics because you have to juggle contracts, which can run up to seven years in length, with such things as prorated signing bonuses. You'll also have to handle such things as offering optional incentives for reaching performance milestones, like providing cash rewards for those players who reach a certain number of sacks or games started. Furthermore, there are even different contract options for restricted free agents. Don't forget, those cranky player-agents can also hit you with additional demands before their clients will sign on the dotted lines. Thankfully, you can assuage egos by guaranteeing a starting job, the chance to compete for a starting job, or even just the opportunity to be a long-term depth player.
A lot of decisions also need to be made on the field. Not only do you run the show in the boardroom, but you also have the option of putting on a headset and calling all the plays from the sideline. As with the other interfaces in Total Pro Football, the one-governing playcalling is first-rate. Suggestions are given for every play, and the main screen even shows diagrams of your options, complete with Xs and Os. The game screen also features a play-by-play window that gives a descriptive rundown on all the action, which adds more character even though some lines are marred by spelling mistakes and typographical errors.
A more significant problem becomes noticeable after you get about midway into a season. Nearly all stat-generation is inflated. The box scores on some Sundays are almost CFL-like. It's as if the developers took regular NFL totals and added 20 percent or more across the board. After a few seasons, this becomes an issue because you'll see career totals, like running yardage, passing yardage, and even interceptions, mounting faster than is normally possible in the league that Pete Rozelle built. Stick with a league for a decade, and you'll see seven or eight running backs who are already approaching Emmitt Smith's NFL career running yardage record, which means that each is averaging well over a hundred yards a game. That said, there is a level playing field here since all players enjoy the benefits of this hepped-up offense. It would be nice to see the numbers adjusted to something closer to the norms (patches are being released on a frequent basis, so changes are possible), but at least the higher stats and scores don't unbalance play. Also, fictional team nicknames and players are used due to the absence of an NFL license. As a result, it's not like you're confronted with players who are performing beyond their capabilities in the real world.
Add to all this the multiplayer mode, which supports online leagues, and you've got everything needed to carry football diehards from the Pro Bowl to next summer's training camps. Total Pro Football does an outstanding job in simulating the trials and tribulations of running a pro football club, and it manages to put a friendly face on all of the number crunching, to boot.