Avatar Football Review (Xbox 360)
Most Indie titles on the Xbox 360 are as poorly built as the Jacksonville Jaguars' roster and about as much fun as sitting through a Kansas City Chiefs game.
Avatar Football, by comparison, is the San Francisco 49ers of Indie sports games -- not always the prettiest product on the field, but a winning franchise with an intelligent leader who has assembled a deep roster of features that can compete with Xbox Live's elite downloadable titles.
Like the NES classic, Tecmo Super Bowl, Barkers Crest Studio's Avatar Football is a side-scrolling, 2D football game that mixes arcade gameplay with TV-style presentation. The left-to-right camera mimics modern football telecasts, as do the color-coded score box, yellow first down line and blue line of scrimmage marker. All that's missing from the virtual field is an officiating crew.
While the player animations are functional, most look uglier than a shirtless 300-pound lineman. Endzone celebrations and post-play taunts often come with bizarre limb contortions and physics-defying stunts. Avatar Football's low-budget animations would look dated even if they had appeared on the original 2001 Xbox. The collision detection on diving tackles from behind, in particular, is so ridiculous that defenders five yards back can erase touchdowns with lunging shoestring takedowns. Somehow, for as archaic as everything looks, it still feels extremely satisfying to slice through four defenders and emerge out the pile for a touchdown, in spite of the juke move animating like a 1995 arcade game.
Weather, in a surprisingly modern touch, has a huge impact on Avatar Football's gameplay. Rain and snow will dramatically increase the amount of fumbles in a game. Additionally, every team in Avatar Football has unique weather patterns based on its geographical location, making road trips to stormy cities like Chicago or Buffalo a huge obstacle for warm-weather teams like Tampa Bay or Atlanta. The weather effects even cause the field to degrade over time, as large snow piles and mud patches gradually obscure the yard lines.
Passing in Avatar Football is mostly attribute-based, meaning the accuracy, strength and trajectory of each throw is automatically calculated from a quarterback's skill rating. Playing with a "2 skill" quarterback like Mark Sanchez yields numerous overthrows and wayward passes, whereas Drew Brees, a "5 skill" quarterback, might miss only one or two throws a game, if any. Avatar Football's passing game will please armchair quarterbacks, but run-first coordinators will be slamming their headsets into the turf due to major mechanical breakdowns in the ground game.
Inside running is virtually impossible in Avatar Football, as linemen have invisible barriers surrounding them while they block, which prevent ball carriers from running between them. These impenetrable walls of tightly packed polygons render dive plays and isolation runs useless. Thankfully, plenty of off-tackle and toss plays exist, which keep the ground game relevant and make teams with run-first offenses a viable selection. Even when the defense knows that the other team is limited to running exclusively outside, talented backs like Chris Johnson or Arian Foster can still find ways to bust out for 200-yard games.
Human coaches can easily ignore or remove broken runs from their play sheets, but against computer teams, it's common to see AI ball carriers stuck behind the line of scrimmage, bouncing endlessly against their own linemen. Offline gamers who only want to challenge the computer will be equally annoyed by CPU safeties frequently screwing up deep zone assignments and generally poor man coverage by CPU cornerbacks. Put simply, even Vince Young could outscore most Avatar Football teams on a Wonderlic Test.
Special running moves and special defensive moves are balanced with a rock-paper-scissors system. The truck button beats diving tackles, while a spin or juke move causes big hits to whiff. Offensive players receive one short speed boost per play, whereas the defense can perform a speed boost every five seconds. Spamming offensive special moves will lead to turnovers, as getting hit during a special move animation increases the ball carrier's chance of fumbling. This system of checks and balances works well, as one-on-one encounters require players to anticipate their opponent's special move then hit the proper counter button.
Special teams, unfortunately, are not quite as balanced; kick returns are great fun on both sides of the ball, but punt returns seem unfairly tilted in the punting team's favor. Because blockers cannot engage tacklers once the football is airborne, gunners who beat their jam at the line of scrimmage have enough time to circle around the punt returner and smash him in the back. With no fair catch option included, Avatar Football may be the first football video game where punting actually offers a better chance of retaining possession than a fourth down conversion attempt.
Placekicking in Avatar Football is equally wild and unpredictable. Field goals are easily missed if the aim is rushed, or easily blocked if the kicker takes too long centering his target. Leg power isn't an issue, as most kickers can punch the ball through from 50-plus yards with ease. But given the unpredictable nature of the blocking and the randomized starting point for the kick aiming, no field goal is ever a gimme.
Despite its name, Avatar Football is not an Avatar-only game. Gamers can also transform the 3D player models into normal football players. The game's entire roster is fully editable, making it possible to build a 32-team National Football League replica. By default, most of the team ratings and uniform numbers mimic the real NFL clubs. However, all of the players' names are made-up, and many of their skin tones are altered. Each team's roster consists of 15 offensive players, 11 defenders, a kicker, a punter and two separate return men.
The default teams come preloaded with their real playstyles, so Atlanta uses a pass-heavy playbook with a 4-3 defense, Washington bludgeons defenses with its run-first style and blitzes frequently out of 3-4 sets, etc. The 110 stock offensive plays provide great variety, even featuring play action throws, direct running back snaps, end arounds and designed quarterback runs. Defensively, just about every run-stopping and pass-stopping need is covered across the 58 default defensive plays.
Gamers who want to move beyond Avatar Football's preset play sheets can create their own formations, plays and playbooks using a built-in editor, which will have wannabe coaches drawing away on the virtual chalkboard for hours. Both custom playbooks and custom rosters can be shared via an in-game lobby that connects uploaders directly to other gamers for peer-to-peer file sharing.
Roster players are rated in three categories: power, speed and skill. Power determines the success of a player's truck move, his tendency to fumble and his blocking strength. Defensively, power will impact hitting strength and the ability to break blocks. Speed is, well, speed. Skill is primarily the awareness rating of a CPU-controlled player, but it also has position-specific effects, like improving a quarterback's passing ability or a runner's success with jukes and spins. Skill also impacts the likelihood of catching or intercepting thrown balls, plus it determines a kicker's leg strength and accuracy.
Avatar Football's single season mode is modeled after a 17-week NFL schedule. The regular season is followed by the standard 12-team, single elimination playoff, which culminates in the "Mega Bowl." The week-to-week matchups are identical to the real 2012-2013 NFL schedule, so Tennessee still plays -- and gets clobbered by -- New England in week 1, Minnesota hosts Green Bay in a key week 17 divisional game, etc. While there are no options for trading, cutting or signing players, the statistics engine does track full player and team stats during the year, even offering a brief cut scene honoring the league's statistical leaders once the Mega Bowl concludes.
Season mode games can also be played online, either by privately inviting friends or by allowing strangers to randomly drop in. Offline, Avatar Football supports up to four players locally, split into teams of two. Online, the limit is six players total, with a maximum of three players per side. Avatar Football's online matches run surprisingly well, with minimal input lag even when six different players are running around the field simultaneously.
While there is no official achievement list (Microsoft does not allow achievements in Indie games), Avatar Football does include dozens of unlockable player titles (think Call of Duty's emblems), which are earned by breaking specific single-game and career milestones.
Avatar Football may not display Pro-Bowl caliber production values or hall of fame AI, but it plays well with others (both offline and online) and it cleverly jukes out the NFL's exclusivity pact with outstanding roster and playbook editors.
Football fans who aren't bothered by the budget-conscious graphics or beginner-level animations will want to make Avatar Football a full-time starter on their gaming depth chart.
There has never been -- and likely never will be -- another Indie sports game on the Xbox 360 that offers so many features for so little money ($3).
Audio: You'll want to mute the bland instrumental rock soundtrack after only a few quarters of play. Thankfully, the background music can be lowered independently from the sound effects. Big hits do have a satisfying aural impact.
Visuals: The field, stadium and player models all look decent, but the player animations -- while functional -- display an amateurish, low-budget look.
Control Scheme: The left joystick controls player movement, and the face buttons perform special moves. The ability to switch players at any time before or during a play is welcome.
Learning Curve: The timing for special moves and tackles is tough to get down, but after a few hours, you'll be hitting ball carriers harder than Jadeveon Clowney and darting through defenses like Adrian Peterson.
Lasting Value: So many options and features are packed into Avatar Football that it easily blows out all other Indie sports games by multiple touchdowns; the feature list even beats most fully licensed, $15 Xbox Live Arcade sports titles.
Score -- 7.0 (Good)