A tale of three games

What with the dissertation and other various and sundry responsibilities, I’ve dialed back my gaming somewhat. There have been three games that I have been playing, so here are some quick notes on them:

— The Witcher Enhanced Edition (PC). The Witcher is an RPG, but it’s an action RPG like Skyrim or Fallout. The publisher is Polish, so there’s some East European themes in the game. The quest design is really good; there’s your standard “kill this bad guy” and “get me this stuff,” but also some really lovely and complex ones. One lengthy quest has you try to figure out who is leading a particular gang of unsavory sorts. There’s a clear answer, but it takes you a while to figure it out. The “right” answer isn’t always obvious, because it’s a game with shades of grey rather than white and black morality. Your choices matter. The graphics are slightly dated, and the combat is a little too D&D for an action RPG. In other words, your ability to defend is based on invisible die rolls, which are shown in animations. There’s not a whole lot of skill involved in combat. Still, it’s been a good one so far (Steam says 19 hours), and I do recommend it. Looking forward to the sequel, which I already own, once I finish this one.

— WWE 2k16 (PS4). I love wrestling and I love video games. That said, I have occasionally found this series frustrating. There have been plenty of bugs in games past, WWE Universe mode (which creates an unending series of shows to play through) gets dull unless you really like winning, and there was very little challenge 99% of the time. The new version offers some great changes, including the MyCareer mode, where you take a single wrestler through a career in WWE, hoping to end up in the Hall of Fame. You get better as you go, and you will lose plenty of matches early on in your career. I miss the somewhat random story modes from previous games (like Candice Michelle gets a magic wand and attacks the Undertaker for some reason!), but the 2K showcase goes through Stone Cold Steve Austin’s career, which is enjoyable. Hit detection is great, the game feels heavier (which it should) when you are beating someone down, and I like the star ratings that tell you how exciting your match was. There is one downside: the god awful, nonsensical submission system. You can lose a match very easily even with no damage because of the way it works. It needs serious rebalancing; the latest patch has done nothing for it yet, but perhaps it will in the future.

— Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (PS4). Assassin’s Creed in Victorian London is amazing. No bugs (so far), no crashes, very stable. There are two main characters, twins, a male and female, which is a first for the series. Sometimes you switch back and forth, sometimes you don’t. Carriage races suck, but then again, I loathe most types of racing. Really enjoyable so far, even if the story is taking a little too long in my opinion. It’s not clear what the overall objective is yet, but then again, I’ve got some other fish to fry. Combat is really good, more Batman-esque than ever.

I’ve got a bunch of other games I haven’t started yet. I did finish Grim Fandango not too long ago (which is very highly recommended). I’ve also got the final chapter of Starcraft II preordered, which comes out next week.

Front Office Football 7, A Review

I love Out Of The Park.  I was looking forward to Beyond The Sideline but it sounds like that project has been delayed indefinitely.  I also didn’t want to get a new console so I could play Madden (that’s my co-blogger’s bag, anyhow), so I went searching for games and landed on Front Office Football 7.

Now that I’ve had a chance to put 12 hours into the game, I can begin to give a review.  Basically, if you love stats and don’t care at all about interface or graphics or other niceties, FOF7 is a great choice.

The Good

This is not an easy game.  Starting out with the Buffalo Bills of 2013, I learned through two play-throughs that some players have very different stat lines.  In one playthrough, Jerry Hughes was a world-beating defensive end (which is kind of what he ended up being in 2014), but in my second playthrough, he was replacement-level and ended up being one of my first cuts.  FOF7 has some level of replayability in that respect:  you can start franchises a dozen times and have players vary each time.  Tom Brady will always be excellent, but a pretty decent percentage of players will have wide variances.

Speaking of wide variances, you have to trust your scouts…but you can’t trust your scouts.  The scouting director will update ratings throughout the season, and players can make big jumps.  See a list of awesome-potential undrafted free agents?  Go and load up on those at your own peril.  Just like in real life, you can uncover a gem, but most of the time, most of those guys will be duds by the end of preseason.

Don’t forget about the draft, signing free agents, and even the occasional trade.  This jockeying for players is a major part of the fun that I’ve experienced so far.  Trades are very, very difficult to pull off; the AI is rather smart about these trades.  I was able to move up 15 slots in the 1st round to draft my QB of the Future Today! but I had to fight to get that pick.  This isn’t Madden, where you can trade your 1st round pick for 1-2-4 indefinitely.

As far as signing free agents, I haven’t gotten it down quite right yet.  It’s difficult to tell if a player is going to sign, and I’ve done a bit of save-scumming to try to figure out how free agency works.

I haven’t won the championship yet, but have made it to the AFC Championship Game two out of my first three seasons.  When simulating games, I really like the HTML page box scores.  They are very detailed and include stats like Adjusted Line Yards.

The Bad

It’s a hard game.  The computer makes pretty good decisions and they make it so that there aren’t too many easy beat-the-AI cheats like Madden always has.  Maybe it’s easier if I start playing each game and calling the plays myself, but I haven’t done that yet.

The player skills are also difficult to understand.  Some players like quarterbacks have a lot of skills, and it’s hard to tell what set of skills is better when comparing two quarterbacks.  I’m still a naive player who focuses too much on the overall rating.  I’m hoping to pick up more as I play the game.

The Ugly

The UI.  Seriously, it’s bad.  It took me about two hours of gameplay and a full season to figure out where the free agents are—you go to View Rosters and select Free Agents in the drop-down list.  The rest of the UI screens are just as difficult to navigate.

It’s also pretty hard to get player stats and tell what’s going on.  Yeah, I know about the “Individual Statistics” screen, and it took me a long time to figure that out.  This is the biggest problem with the game:  there’s a lot to it, but it takes so long to figure stuff out simply because it’s all hidden behind various unintuitive screens.

The Conclusion

Even with the UI issues, I recommend the game.  If you’re looking for a great GM simulator, I think this is your best choice.  Just don’t expect any niceties; this really is “Spreadsheets:  The Game.”

Season 2 Madden 16 recap

Since I haven’t posted here in awhile, I thought I would share some notes from Season 2 of my Franchise in Madden 16.

— I went undefeated, mostly through beating teams into submission with my West Coast offense and Isaiah Crowell, who arguably had the greatest season of any running back in the history of running backs, destroying every record.

— Manziel got hurt about halfway through the season, so my rookie QB (that I took in the second round at the end of Season 1) got a chance to shine. Shine he did. Jeremy Clay has the “Superstar” development trait, which means the XP costs for everything are much lower. After half a season, he Pipped the shit out of Manziel, who only does one thing better than Clay (throw on the run/scramble). Clay is hardly slow, but it’s true he lacks the explosiveness of Manziel. Still, Manziel’s contract was up for Season 3, Buffalo offered me a second round pick during the preseason, and I took it without a second’s hesitation. (Now I wonder if I could have gotten more. Oh well.)

— I cannot overstate how awesome my offensive line is. I mean, it was almost embarrassing how often I ran for huge yards and how much time I got to throw. My rookie RT fit right in. He and Cameron Erving (who I play at RG) got holding penalties a little frequently for my taste, but I suppose I can let that slide, since he made the Pro Bowl his first year.

— Going to 12 minute quarters helped my defensive players get more stats, but they still couldn’t keep up in terms of tackles.

— Speaking of defense, most games turned into shootouts because all of my corners were relatively slow and could only break up pass plays by timing routes. Now, I usually won by four or more scores, but there was exactly one game that I can credit my defense for winning: the AFC Divisional game, when it was snowing, and we sacked Marcus Mariota like a dozen times and picked him off five times. It was glorious.

— With all this in mind, I entered the draft with a goal: more speed on defense. To that end, although I had scouted multiple players, I relied slightly more on combine results than actual skill, and as expected, I got wildly varying results. My first round pick was an amazing cornerback, Justin Blake, a physical specimen at 6’0 and 97 (!!) speed. He can’t tackle that well and his play recognition needs some work, but other than that, I’m extremely pleased with him. My second rounder, Antoine Hunter, is a pretty good defensive end and a strong pass rusher, but his awareness is awful. He hits hard but his tackle technique is bad. He’s a work in progress, but he has elite speed and good strength. Pick #3 was a strong safety, Delbert Bowers. Delbert’s greatest asset (apart from his name) is amazing speed (90). Other than that, he’s decent in zone coverage and hits hard, but again, is a bad tackler. Both Hunter and Bowers are in the high 60s (Blake is a 78). Rakim Dukes, my fourth rounder, was a 65 overall middle linebacker. Again, very fast (87), but unlike Hunter or Bowers, Dukes has some pretty decent technique, and is a good run stopper or pass rusher. He has fairly low awareness and bad play recognition and sucks in coverage, but hopefully with some development time, he’ll improve in the mental aspects and be a stud linebacker.

My fifth rounder was, easily, the steal of my draft, and proof that careful scouting pays off. He was another cornerback named Ben “Don’t Call Me Bob” Evans. He is a slightly slower (93 speed) version of Blake. He’s even worse at tackling and not quite as bright, overall, as Blake, but they’re both amazing. Evans is a 76 overall, and the second best player in my draft.

Then we get to the dregs. With my sixth rounder, I needed to grab a wide receiver, since I let both Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline walk (I later re-signed Bowe, discovered his speed was a glacial 78 now, and promptly bumped him down the depth chart). Tavarus Rosemund is fast (94 speed), but a stiff breeze will keep him from pushing off at the line, or catching the ball, or successfully running his route. His stiff arm rating is so low (< 40) that I’m pretty sure his arm would snap off if I tried it. He is an extreme work in progress, with an overall rating of 56. He might turn out, maybe, to be a good slot receiver, but I have my doubts about that too.

For Mr. Irrelevant, I went back to defense, and took Rodriguez Mack, an outside linebacker. He’s basically a much dumber version of Dukes, with even worse technique. He grades out as a 58. He’s not worthless on special teams, I guess.

Still, for my draft, I picked up two great CBs, one who’s my nickelback right now and the other who’s my #4 (Blake and Evans), three players who will end up starting in the near future (Hunter, Bowers, and Dukes), a new kick returner who might catch enough balls to be a threat some day (Rosemund), and a linebacker who exists (Mack). Bowers is probably going to start within the next year or so, as I did re-sign Donte Whitner, but he is also getting old. Hunter might get some playing time this season, depending on how my current ends work out. Karlos Dansby retired on me, but I signed a guy on a one year deal to back up Christian Kirksey. Dukes will start next year. That’s five potential starters out of seven. Not too shabby!

Most importantly, I re-signed Joe Thomas and Joel Bitonio the split second after the pre-season was finished. I will back a literal dump truck full of money to Alex Mack’s house to get him to stay in Season 4. The longer I can keep this line together, the more Super Bowls I will win.

On defense in Madden NFL 16

I talked about offense yesterday. What about defense?

I’ve added little in the way of personnel to the original Browns defense. In my draft, I took RT, QB, TE with my first three picks. My first fourth rounder (from trading John Del Greco) was a running back, basically a much dumber but slightly more athletic version of Crowell. My second fourth rounder was my first defensive player — and one that I accidentally simmed the pick for. Segwick Olsen is a decent defensive lineman, but doesn’t excel at anything athletically. He’s also kinda dumb. If he develops perfectly, he’ll be a second string DT. Maybe. I wouldn’t have drafted him if I hadn’t hit the wrong button. Oh well.

My fifth rounder was middle linebacker Curtis Riley, who I like much better. He’s fast, good strength, great hit power, and reasonably sound at tackling. Of course (say it with me), he’s a moron. But, he has a much higher ceiling than Olsen, and could one day start if his awareness improves. He’s even pretty decent in coverage. My 6th rounder was the kicker. Rounding out my draft was the seventh rounder, who I also did not actually draft, Mr. Irrelevant Dominik Terrell. As a raw athlete, he’s about as good as Riley. However, he’s smaller, and at football, he is just the worst. Can’t tackle, if he does tackle it hurts as much as being hit with a feather, which is also covered in nerf stuff because a feather could poke you in the eye. He can’t cover. He has literally none of the traits you want in a football player except he’s pretty fast. For a linebacker.

I mention all of this to say that my team has some obvious strengths and even more obvious weaknesses that I haven’t really addressed on defense. I will give a shout out to punter Andy Lee, who is a coffin corner kicker’s dream. He is practically Robo Punter.

Cleveland’s defense, in brief, has lots of pretty good players but few truly outstanding ones. Joe Haden is a very good cover corner, but isn’t very tall, and loses jump ball battles all the time. Tashaun Gipson is a great cover safety but doesn’t hit very hard. Donte Whitner is the opposite. My best linebacker is Barkevious Mingo, but Karlos Dansby is an awesome tackler who isn’t quite as athletic as Mingo. Paul Kruger is Karlos Dansby if he played the outside instead of the middle. My defensive line can’t rush the passer (unless Phil Taylor, who I did not cut, unlike Cleveland, gets free), but that isn’t really their job. My DBs are mostly nondescript, good at man coverage and okay tacklers, but they aren’t that hard to beat.

How am I at defense, then? It all depends.

The Browns run a 3-4 scheme, meaning they have three down linemen and four linebackers in their base set. The defensive line is there, mostly, to occupy space, while the linebackers rush the passer in various configurations. The key to a successful 3-4 is to blitz and blitz creatively. Zone blitz, man blitz, bring up the safeties, drop the tackle into coverage, you can’t rely on raw meat to stop the run, and your line won’t rush the passer. Therefore, having a lot of players who are functionally identical isn’t the worst. The problem is that Cleveland doesn’t have much speed on defense. Only Mingo and MLB #2 Christian Kirksey have good speed (80+) in the front seven. Only one DB is over 90 speed (Justin Gilbert).

If I keep up the pressure, every DB is an INT threat. Most of my linebackers hit hard enough to generate a fumble or two every other game. However, if I can’t get to the QB, either because he has a great offensive line, a great running game, or he simply has the presence to avoid the blitz, I’m pretty much screwed. None of my linebackers, except Kirksey, can keep up with a good tight end. Mingo could, but he’s usually rushing the passer. I will give up huge plays because my corners are the worst combination of kinda slow and kinda small. Tramon Williams is the slowest corner and is just 6’0. Gilbert is the best athlete, but lacks the experience to put that athleticism into practice. I have a team, in other words, of route jumping defensive backs, and if they fail to jump a route, I’m doomed.

The 3-4 is kind of a curse, and kind of a blessing: you live by the blitz and die by the blitz. Rattle a QB — as I did Joe Flacco in Game 1 of Season 2 — and there’s nothing they can do. I picked him off three times, ran one back for a TD, and just constantly hit him right as he threw or even sacked him. My nightmare is facing, well, my own offense: a QB who avoids blitzes, a great running attack, and huge receivers that can outjump my tiny DBs. Or, you know, any really great offense.

For my team, the best defense is a good offense. My season 2 draft, apart from possibly replacing Bowe and/or Crowell (maybe just Bowe) will focus on defensive playmakers. I want to target a very fast end, maybe a prototype linebacker, and above all else a truly elite cornerback or three. Donte Whitner will need to be replaced eventually, as he’s getting up there. The key is to improve athletically, so that I won’t have blitz every down unless it’s third and long.

On offense in Madden NFL 16

With a full season, two preseasons, and an absolute jolly stomping of the Ravens in game 1 of Season 2 (71-10 — and the score shouldn’t have even been that close), I wanted to add a little more about the passing game and the offense I run with Cleveland.

The new passing mechanics make it difficult for quarterbacks to play too far out of their comfort zone — which means deep balls for Johnny Football. He has a decent, but not great arm strength (89), and I’ve developed both his short and medium yardage accuracy to the point where he’s well above average at both of those (both 80+). His real value comes from his speed and toughness; one play, he broke a defensive lineman’s tackle and hit a tight end fifteen years down the field.

The secret to playing well with Manziel is the West Coast offense. That means relying on running the ball, and I’ve found Isaiah Crowell to be a great power back, behind a Cleveland offensive line that’s only gotten better with my #1 pick, a right tackle, and a surprisingly great blocking tight end that I drafted as a pass catcher (see below).

When I do throw the ball, I rely on slants (which are not the world beaters they used to be; DBs can and will jump the ball if you get complacent), crossing routes, curls, and the occasional screen pass. Corner post routes are great in man to man — you’ll always find a mismatch — but regular corner routes or double moves are still more or less broken because of how long they take to develop.

My biggest weapon is that I have not one, not two, but three amazing tight ends. I will actually pass out of goal line sets or singleback jumbo, which makes the computer weep if it blitzes. Antonio Gates is my starter, and we all know about him. Emmanuel Bibbs (you can read his real life scouting report here) was a TE that Cleveland signed as UDA before this season. He isn’t very fast, but his hands are amazing (80+), making him a reliable possession target. Rounding out the group is Neil Weatherford, the TE I drafted in the third round, is extremely fast (83 speed), strong (70+), a wonderful run blocker, and has hands that would make Shannon Sharpe weep. Weep because they suck. (This is why he was a third rounder). He’s also dumb as a post and a bad route runner. However, these are fixable flaws, and he’s such a top notch athlete that I think he’ll move very fast up the depth chart once those flaws are corrected.

When I do have to throw deep, I use my other secret weapon: Dwayne Bowe. He is tall and big, so when Manziel throws one of his dying quail “bombs,” Bowe will fight any DB for the ball, making some great hands-type catches. Josh Gordon is the superior athlete, but for whatever reason, he doesn’t hang onto the ball like Bowe. Gordon does have lower awareness, perhaps his greatest weakness, and doesn’t jump quite like Bowe. Still, Gordon could be as good as Bowe, if not much better.

The last secret weapon (the SUPER secret weapon) is Duke Johnson, who people that watched Cleveland play San Diego will admit is no real secret any more. Johnson is the fastest back on my team (90 speed) and has great hands (70+). Crowell might not be able to run sweeps or pitches, but Johnson can.

My offense does have one fatal flaw: if a team can stop me from running, especially if they can do it without blitzing, I’m in trouble. One thing my offense lacks is speed, which means that every deep ball is a jump ball. One-on-one, either Gordon or especially Bowe can and will fight for the ball, but if the defense gets safety help, Manziel doesn’t have the power to throw them open. It also takes away play action and bootlegs, both of which Manziel excels at. My new QB, who I took in the second round, is as good at Manziel in every passing category, but he lacks speed and can’t salvage a dead play. He’s a great system QB, and Clay shined in the preseason, but he would be even more doomed with a bad day running the ball.

My new kicker is really tremendous, both at kicking and because he is as white as I am yet wears Ricky Williams style dreadlocks. It never ceases to make me laugh.

Tomorrow, you can read about how I run my defense!

Season 1 of Madden finished

I have completed my first full franchise season in Madden. It was a roaring success, going 13-3 and winning the Super Bowl. I eventually progressed to 12 minute quarters with the accelerated clock burning off 25 seconds. Game pace feels about right, stats look more realistic, etc.

Gameplay wise, now that I’ve played about 30 games of Madden (including the supershort Draft Champions mode), just the tiniest bit of bloom has come off the rose. Two areas need attention, in my opinion: returning kicks is still all but impossible because blocking AI sucks (this is less true for punts, but I’ve still never run one all the way back) and there has to be a faster way of making defensive changes on the fly. I should, ideally, be able to tell my entire defense to concentrate on one play in just a couple of button presses — it’s more like four or five, which means it’s the only change I can make. The UI for this has to be streamlined.

I’m also thinking of going back to All-Pro, or maybe just adding some sliders to make Pro harder. Once I got back into my Madden rhythm, I was dominating most games. Cleveland has an awesome OL in real life, so my running successes aren’t that surprising, and I do feel properly limited when Manziel has to throw deep. It’s much harder to upgrade QBs (which is good; I turned him into a 99 in I think two seasons in Madden 15), so you have to be smart about their weaknesses. You can no longer get ungodly numbers of sacks either; I’d like to see slightly more intelligent AI play on defense, but it’s not a deal breaker. I might play one more season on Pro before making any other decisions.

Why did I lose three games? An annoying feature of Online Franchise mode. Every other PS4 game lets you suspend the game. I can start a game, watch Netflix with my wife, then go back to the same game having lost nothing. With Madden, you get disconnected for inactivity (even with a single player franchise)… which means your game is meaningless. Even if you reconnect. To be fair, the game does warn you, but for some reason I hoped it didn’t actually apply to me. Lesson learned. I lost a game I originally won (by a lot) and simmed the rest of the season until the playoffs.

As far as the offseason is concerned, some things haven’t changed much. Guys do, indeed, re-sign in the offseason for reasonable sums, which leads me to believe that there’s something wrong with the re-signing logic in mid-season. I was able to keep most of the players I really wanted without much fuss. Free agency is something of a crap shoot, but then I spent some of my excess funds (from which you pay signing bonuses) to improve my stadium. The trials and tribulations of the NFL owner. Free agents want LOTS of signing bonuses. I did grab Antonio Gates on a cheap two year deal because the tight ends I have now need some development time before they’ll be ready.

Which leads me to the draft. As I mentioned in an earlier article, during the season (and some of the offseason) you scout players. The offseason adds the combine data. You don’t get the Madden numbers (95 speed or what have you), but you do get the drill results and where they rank in the class. I drafted the sixth fastest halfback (by 40 time) in the third or fourth round and ended up with an 86 speed back. I could have looked harder and maybe gotten a gem, but I didn’t.

When you make a pick, you get an immediate reaction if the player was a reach, a good pick, an okay pick, or an excellent pick, based on the OVR numbers of everyone in the draft. You get all the stats after the pick is made, so you can see how good or not the player is. I miss having to go through the preseason to find out, which was a nice touch in Maddens past. Overall, I had a good draft. As the champ, I got lousy picks, but I came away with a starting right tackle, a really good backup QB that could replace Manziel if he gets greedy, a kicker (which the draft REALLY liked, calling it my best pick), and a project tight end who’s extremely fast (82 speed), along with some other pieces and parts. Scouting didn’t help me find much in the way of amazing Brady-esque picks (unless you count the 97 power kicker), but it does help you avoid busts. There was a third round receiver who graded out as “undrafted” once I unlocked his top three stats. Keep in mind that Madden makes awareness weigh heavily into OVR, so you could find a great project player who’s dumb as a post for cheap.

All of my players were in the 70s, one in the high 60s, and one who was awful that the game auto-drafted for me because I hit the wrong option. I don’t know if steals (80+ players in the later rounds) are possible or not; I was filling holes more than finding best player available. My right tackle was a tremendous pick, despite his high 70s OVR, because of his tremendous strength (94) and good across the board blocking ratings (80s). His awareness will need work, and I’m sure he’ll whiff on his share of blocks until he gets smarter, but he’s a keeper.

I’m eager to play the preseason to try out how these new parts will fit together. I will report on any new lessons I pick up from season 2!

Clarification on stats in Madden NFL 16 and one possible bug

One thing that has not, sadly, changed from 15 is that it’s practically impossible to get stats from your defensive players commensurate with the top players in the NFL. While the offensive stats are realistic, the defensive ones are not — specifically things like number of tackles. The reason? The stats are generated based on 15 minute quarters with no accelerated clock. Thus, the #1 tackling linebacker in the NFL has twice as many downs played as Karlos Dansby. The fact my offense is pretty good at sucking up the clock probably doesn’t help either. Dansby should lead the NFL in tackles for loss with 15, over double those of J.J. Watt, but sadly the game does not recognize Dansby. It won’t hurt your team in a significant way, of course. They’ll still develop, but they probably won’t win many awards. I don’t know if EA will ever introduce proper stat scaling; it strikes me as fairly easy to fix, but what do I know? I’m no programmer.

There is one somewhat irritating bug I have discovered: 99% of players categorically refuse to re-sign during the season, no matter how much you offer them. I offered a backup guard three times what he was asking (which was 1.5 million a year for three years, but hey, he wanted the minimum…) and he refused. Some research on the interwebz suggests that in the offseason, players are more reasonable and will sign as they are supposed to. One thing I do find troubling is that Tashaun Gipson won’t even talk to me at this point in the season, although his contract is up and as a 91 free safety, I would dearly like to keep him in Cleveland. He doesn’t appear in my re-sign list at all.

I will keep you, loyal readers, apprised as I play through the season. I am off to a 5-0 start, but I face the Broncos next, the first truly elite offense I’ve run into.