If there is one sport in the world which combines the two extremities of brains and brawn, it is American Football. With playbooks often featuring thousands of complex plays, and with the fastest players often around 200lbs, there is hardly any room to disagree with that statement. Unfortunately, in the gaming world, no one Gridiron game has really managed to capture both the mental and physical prowess needed to excel in the real world alternative - it seems you're either playing a 3D arcade game with awesome real time physics but basic management options, or a simulation game with little or no 3D representation and in-depth management options. Front Office Football 2004 from Solecismic Software is an example of the latter, so while right from the start it is obvious this is not the perfect overall Gridiron experience combining both elements, there is no doubting it is as close as you'll get to the perfect management experience in today's market.
Being distributed via an online download only, it is a good thing FOF2004 is a mere 30MB in size. Of course, this is mainly due to the fact the game does not have any significant media on hand - there is no texturing, 3D models, menu music etc as the game is almost purely text based (apart from the menu background pictures). Even with this in mind though, 30MB was still a nice surprise, so even dialup users shouldn't have any problems getting in on the action.
Unlike some of the leading NFL titles in the gaming market, FOF2004, being unlicensed, does not have harsh editing restrictions. You can edit everything from the team names and cities to the player rosters and incoming draft classes. This obviously adds a unique level of depth to FOF2004, being able to truly edit these aspects gives you unmatched control on your franchises and generally gives FOF2004 a much longer "hard drive life". Although the game is unlicensed as mentioned above, if you look hard enough, you'll find realistic NFL rosters and even draft classes for the upcoming 2005 NFL rookie draft including names like Derrick Johnson and Cedric Benson (Go Longhorns!). Of course, these aren't officially endorsed, but time and time again we see communities improving the gameplay experience, particularly for unlicensed sporting titles such as this one. Hopefully developers can use games like FOF2004 as an example of what can be achieved if control is given to the gamers, it is clear the result is a happy community with increased interest when compared to a product without such editing features.
Once you setup your franchise, including options like a fantasy draft and difficulty settings, it isn't long until you're ready to start simulating games. Naturally, all games are simulated within FOF2004's text based sim engine. This includes the standard quick sim, which basically simulates your game in the matter of seconds, and a very impressive real time, play by play simulation engine which allows you to call the plays, or if you so desire, the CPU can call your plays for you. This is a superb feature, because my first fear about FOF2004 was I'd bore of the quick simulation process which tends to lose satisfaction after a while, however I was pleasantly surprised to see the ability to call every single play in the game via a real time scoreboard. This means all your planning and strategy unfolds in front of your eyes, rather than unfolding in the time it takes you to blink, so for some gamers it will probably be the game's best feature, as not only does it test your planning skills, it tests your ability to execute. Playcalling is obviously an aspect the coaching staff handles, and since you are technically the GM in this game, the ability to call plays is a little unrealistic, but that is a small imperfection that can be overlooked for the sake of better gameplay.
On the topic of the simulation engine, despite having no universal gameplay sliders or stat setting adjustments, FOF2004 still manages to produce realistic sim stats so it is obvious a lot of time was spent here trying to get this aspect down to an art. Often sport and management games do leave this to user controlled sliders but if developers want to perfect the realism of stats themselves hence making sliders useless, as it seems to have been done in this case, then by all means do it. What it does do, though, is prevent people from customizing stats and league structure to another league other than the NFL - whilst FOF2004 is not NFL licensed, it features 5 pre season weeks, 17 regular season weeks with 1 bye per team, and the normal playoff structure, all of which are found in the NFL. This, in turn, produces stats similar to what you might expect in the NFL - 1 to 3 4000 yard QB's, 10+ 1000 yard RB's etc, so while you will have a good time achieving NFL based realism, maybe not so if you attempt to base your franchise on other real life leagues. One obvious example is the quarter length is stuck on 15 minutes, another NFL standard.
However, although as mentioned there are no universal sliders or stat changing settings, there are a plethora of team based settings you can tweak, and the depth here is really borderline insane. For instance, not only can you change personnel for certain formations, you have a load of gameplan style settings at your mercy, including situational percentage values. So, for example, should your team enter a situation in a game where you are leading, you can define a set offensive and defensive gameplan including percentage values for such aspects as chance of a running play, aggressive vs conservative play calling, blitz frequency and so on, and these items can be set for an incredible amount of situations - inside your opponents 6, inside your own 3, with a forth quarter deficit and so on, it really is mind blowing. It is much too hard to comprehend into words really; the amount of depth here must be seen to be believed.
When it comes to the off season, FOF2004 really shines. In many mainstream NFL games, keeping free agents is a breeze and cap management is typically non existent, but FOF2004 is the complete opposite - a realistic FA system means some players will simply jump straight into the league's FA pool once their contract runs out, creating a much more balanced FA market between you and the CPU. On top of this, the cap limit rises realistically per year; in fact you can define how much per year you want it to rise, which is incredibly handy. Although some football game developers may say otherwise, having a realistic salary cap is vital to the enjoyment of a long term franchise, anyone who thinks it is fun to have a pro bowl caliber team each year with $20M still under the cap is only fooling themselves. Since keeping a respectable team each year is indeed a challenge in FOF2004, gamers who crave a realistic team management experience will lap this up, because the experience is simply unmatched. As for other off season features, there are really too many to cover in one review, but basically, expect CPU trade offers, unique dealings with particular agents, an 'Attitude' system, and a realistic scouting system which doesn't base players purely on hard rating numbers. It doesn't get much better than this.
Well, I did say it can't get much better than this. If there is a complaint about FOF2004, it is the interface can, at times, feel restrictive. For instance, it is hard to sort your players by certain values and position at the same time, and you'll often find yourself juggling interface after interface just to retrieve some basic information as instead of a few fully featured dialog boxes, there are a lot of specific ones. Another example is the transaction log, which is just a big document often growing so large in size it becomes hard to find specific information, and the lack of any filter or sortable function prevents it from being overly useful. The game's design itself is fine; it could just use some more sortable and filtering functions to make information retrieval a little bit easier. One great little feature, though, is the "recommend" engine, which basically searches the league for players matching your criteria - more features like this elsewhere in the game would be useful.
FOF2004 does feature multiplayer support, but maybe not in the way you're thinking - this isn't a real time server system where players connect and sim it out, it is a turn based setup where a commissioner basically runs a league occupied by participants, who set their gameplan, submit exported files to the commish and get their results, more than likely, on a league setup website. This is not the best multiplayer implementation, but the structure is at least there; often management games like this leave gamers out to dry with no MP support whatsoever, forcing them to make do with whatever is on offer or worse, to look elsewhere. This is an area which will most likely improve in future revisions but one aspect will probably never change, and that is the people involved in a multiplayer league in FOF will have to be very dedicated and patient.
When it comes down to it, a text based simulation engine is not for everyone, obviously. Some gamers enjoy real time 3D football games because they involve quick gamepad reactions and real time decision making in an impressive 3D environment, however it is clear that lately, this market has neglected the hardcore football fans out there who want a more immersive front office experience, which is where FOF2004 comes in. With that said though, it is also clear FOF2004 is not meant to be competing with any real time arcade football game, it exists in its own niche market, aimed at Gridiron gamers who want to fill the void found in mainstream NFL titles. As it stands, FOF2004 is an excellent title for this purpose and well worth the US$29.95 price tag, but there is also room for improvement, so it will be great to see what Solecismic Software can do with this in the future. The bottom line is, if you want a management game that will challenge your skills as a professional Gridiron GM, then this is the game for you.
You can download a demo and purchase FOF2004 from Solecismic's website - there is no boxed copy, this is the only way to get the game.