Gridiron on the PC may be a niche market, but over the years the PC platform has been host to some truly great gridiron simulations - the FBPro series, Front Office Football, and of course EA's Madden NFL to name a few. However, in more recent times, very little progress has been made, particularly in the areas of user customization - an aspect most other genres on the PC have long since embraced. This is where Maximum Football comes in - a PC gridiron game which puts user interaction first. Want an 8 man indoor league with your own created teams, user made uniforms and all? Want to mix and match rules between Canadian and American style? Want to design a playbook with custom formations? It's all possible with MaxFB, and then some.
One of the unique things about MaxFB is it was primarily made by one man - David Winter of WinterValley Software. While the game is under the label of Matrix Games (the publisher), it was David who did most of the work, and work he did. Although MaxFB was originally announced in April of 2001 and intended for a 2002 release, it has taken until early 2006 for it to hit gold status. That's a long time for a game to be developed. To think, during this game's development, terrorists knocked down the Twin Towers in New York City, the US and its allies went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, NASA sent robots to Mars, and Conan O'Brien was named the successor to Jay Leno.
When you fire up MaxFB for the first time, you'll notice straight away that the menu's are not designed with convention in mind. First of all, there is no "Options" section to speak off - all you can do from the Main Menu is choose to play a "Quick Game", a "League Game", or exit the game entirely. It is before each game where you define your options - whether they be the rules and boundaries of the game about to be played, or the game's visual detail and resolution. I can understand having the rules option menu come up pre game, but having a general "Options" section for users to toggle their technical settings accessible from the Main Menu would seem to have made more sense - there's a reason just about every PC game has this. A lot of the times graphical detail options are settings you tweak once and forget about, so having them pop up before every game seems like a waste of menu space really.
The "Quick Game" mode is pretty self explanatory, but "League Game" is where the meat of MaxFB is located. The League section is a little confusing to navigate at first, but if you experiment for a little bit you get the hang of it pretty quickly. From here, you can edit leagues, teams, players, as well as obviously run games. Unfortunately though, MaxFB fails to provide much more than this when it comes to league gameplay. There is no money or contract system to speak of, so for the armchair General Managers out there, unfortunately MaxFB is probably not for you. This is actually quite disappointing, as a 3D based gridiron game with a realistic emphasis on the financial dealings of a football team is sorely needed in this genre. On top of this, while there is a player draft, this acts the role of free agency and the rookie draft, which again won't appeal to the team management enthusiasts out there who want realism. At the very least though, MaxFB's Leagues are in a "career" mode, meaning players progress, age and retire.
Naturally, MaxFB does not feature any big league licensing, but it doesn't have to. Thanks to the versatile platform that is the PC, MaxFB can have any league, teams and players you want it to have - providing you're whiling and able to produce the content required to make it happen, or someone else already has and have made it available for download. While Matrix Games won't host content featuring copyrighted material for obvious reasons, such as NFL teams, there are fan based websites that will provide you with such content (links down the bottom of review). This adds a new dimension to MaxFB that no other game, including Madden, can match - if the community interest is there, MaxFB could become a force to be reckoned with when it comes to user addon's. The question is, will there be a user mod community big enough to really drive this aspect of MaxFB? The level of community interaction could literally make or break a game like MaxFB, so it is at least encouraging that Matrix Games are focused on this area by supplying hosting resources and discussion forums for interested users.
When it comes to the actually playing MaxFB in-game, there are three ways to do it - Arcade mode, CPU vs CPU mode and Coach mode. Arcade mode is comparable to Madden's classic mode, which means you have control over the players. However, in MaxFB, this is really not a great way to play given the shortcomings of the game's 3D aspects, which will be discussed in detail later. CPU vs CPU mode is where you watch two teams play out - perhaps useful for online GM leagues, although as I've already outlined there is very little "GM'ing" to be done in MaxFB. Finally, there is Coach mode, which is how most gamers will probably spend their time playing MaxFB. In this mode, you select the play and let the CPU AI execute it for you. Given MaxFB's emphasis on user designed plays, this is by far the most rewarding mode as you know success comes down to how well you plan and coach, not how well you tap buttons.
However, even coach mode can't escape MaxFB's suspect in-game abilities. First of all, the game is simply buggy. It is hard to complete a game without coming across a few bugs, some of which can be quite devastating in effect. For example, on one occasion, I suffered a delay of game penalty on 1st and 10, but rather than move me back 5 yards, the game gave possession of the ball to my opponents on my 30 yard line, which quickly led to a score. I'd like to say stuff like this is rare in MaxFB, but it isn't. Secondly, since coach mode relies on the CPU to execute the plays, AI is very important, but at times MaxFB fails to deliver here too. Defensive coverage is often a problem, as is blocking. Luckily, both of these issues outlined - bugs and AI - could be addressed in future patches, but whether or not they are effectively of if at all is another story.
The best part about MaxFB is quite easily the "Play Development System" - a fancy name for a play and playbook editor. In this editor, you can pretty much do anything. A lot of game developers out there release utilities for their games and say "this is the same utility we used when making the game's content", and then a few sessions later you find out it can't do something which is in the game. You won't find this with MaxFB's "PDS". When making a formation, you have complete control of which positions go where, and when I say complete, I mean complete - players can line up anywhere as long as they're not over the LOS, which means you can basically make any formation you can think of. When making a play for your formation, or an in built formation, you can define receiver routes down to the pixel, and you can also add events to positions such as "block and release", "wait", "random snap count" and "lead block" to name a few. As I said, this is quite easily the best part of MaxFB. The only draw back is the utility is external to the game, but it can be easily accessed from the game's initial menu screen. While the less than enthused MaxFB gamer might not care for making his or her own plays, if you are prepared, it could literally be the most important part of success on the field given the control you have.
Visually, MaxFB is about as low end as you'll find a 3D game on the PC these days. While the stadiums don't look too bad and the player models are semi decent when standing still, it is the animations that really let MaxFB down. We can understand that such a small time project might not have access to stuff like motion capturing, but even if you put aside the less than life like movement of the players, you'll still find disjointed animations that, at times, can be hard to even see properly given their uneven execution speeds - for instance, most tackle animations are so damn quick and featureless you can't even tell what happened. It sounds like players collided, and two guys are on the turf flat on their backs, but that's about as convincing as it gets. At other times, you'll see the backs of defensive linemen facing the QB and still being blocked, defenders making tackles through blockers, and tacklers disappearing off the screen after making a hit just to name a few other animation related quirks. While the game isn't intended to be on par with Madden in terms of its 3D engine (which itself is getting quite dated these days), that doesn't excuse some of the obvious shortcomings in MaxFB's 3D aspects. If you had to take one positive from MaxFB's visuals, it is that the low range quality means you won't need a beast of a PC to run this game smoothly, which might be more important to some fans of this genre than visual quality.
Maximum Football is a very unique game - it's not often gridiron games outside of EASports are released these days, not to mention gridiron games made primarily by one person. While it is an admirable effort given the circumstances of development, it won't be for everyone. Sure, it features an arcade mode like that of normal gameplay in Madden, but it is the coach mode and CPU vs CPU mode which will offer the best gameplay in Max Football, and that filters the user base considerably. For PC gamers out there looking for a coach mode gridiron game that will give them control over most facets of the game and aren't expecting much when it comes to flashy visuals and lifelike animations, Maximum Football is probably a good title to check out. However, for gamers who like the thrills of EA's "hit stick", Madden PC is probably more what you're after, or for gamers who enjoy the GM and roster management aspects of American football, Front Office Football 2004 is probably more what you're after, and you will find both cheaper than MaxFB's retail price of US$ 49.99 (US$39.99 as a digital download) too. Even for the coach mode and customization nuts that MaxFB is aimed at, that's a pretty steep price for a game that is probably 2 or 3 patches and 6 months worth of user created downloads away from what I'd consider a fully featured product.
Matrix Games MaxFB forums - discuss MaxFB.
FBMax.com - MaxFB uniform and other downloads.