While at E3 back in June, I was able to get a look at the upcoming Football Heroes for iOS and Droid. Developed by Run Games (former big-studio devs who are now doing their own thing), this love letter to retro football aims to provide the simplicity and satisfaction of games like Tecmo Bowl and NFL Blitz while adding in some modern-day XP and character depth.
Football Heroes ends up playing a lot like Tecmo Bowl, with a sidescrolling perspective, squatty player models and comical hit animations. Similarly, the playbook is geared towards you correctly anticipating an opponent's selection for maximum effect. This isn't to say that the playbook isn't robust, as there are lots of formation and patterns to choose from, but the conceit of trying to rock-paper-scissors your opponent's play remains a factor here.
The twist comes from the fact that all of the players on the field have persistent levels and stats, and they can also use abilities during gameplay. Some of these abilities are fairly basic, like speed boosts and bigger hits, but some are pretty silly, such as lightning strikes against the opposition (complete with MK Raiden hat), bombs to keep away pursuing defenders, and grappling hooks to reel in a streaking receiver. All of these abilities are on a cooldown, so you won't be able to use them for several plays once you've triggered them.
The first thing to note is that the game has a great look, even though it's currently just targeting mobile platforms (a PC version may come later). The camera view gives you lots of real estate to see what's going on, and the color scheme on the players is fun and simple, and it evokes memories of Tecmo Bowl right away. All of the score clocks and stadium details come to life, and the sound presentation from the trailers is quite good. It was really cool to see full custom team support as well, and the devs demonstrated this by using the E3 logo for a team. The logo was properly scaled and placed on the players' helmets and in the middle of the field, which looked great.
Playing the game on the touch screen was a bit of a concern for me, as I've definitely experienced some muddled control schemes for other mobile products. I'm happy to report that the game played quite well on both an iPad and iPhone. To be fair, there's a lot more real estate on an iPad or iPad mini (with the devs stating that an iPad mini is probably an ideal experience), but the phone was able to capture the action relatively well.
You can use an on-screen controller if you like, but I found that the simple touch controls of poking and swiping worked as intended. I was able to select my defenders by just simply touching them, and I could do the same when I wanted to throw a pass as the QB. Abilities are activated from a hotbar down at the bottom of the screen, and everything has a vibrant, clean look that makes it pop. I did have some moments that felt a little confusing when big groups of players would collide or attempt hits, but part of that was me getting used to the momentum and tackling range of the game itself. The kicking is power-based, much like Tecmo Bowl, and that felt good as well. I'd say I was able to do what I wanted about 80-90 percent of the time, and the game is still in alpha/beta, so there's plenty of time to fine tune the feel of it all.
The persistence of your team is a massive part of the game as well, with lots of room for customization, upgrading and augmentation. Players are graded in tiers (bronze, silver, gold, platinum, etc.), and the developers wanted to stress how you're always getting XP and currency to upgrade your guys, even if you're not winning a whole lot. You'll see players gaining XP and levels after scoring touchdowns and the like, and this all feeds into their overall rating and stats. Certain players excel in specific areas (catching, running, hitting), but you can spend points to augment other players so that they can become almost as good as those stars (although, the devs said they wanted star players in certain areas to stand out). All of these contribute to a money value for your team, and this is how the game matches you up against possible online competition. Your overall franchise value is used to grade you against other players, so presumably matches will have some balance because of that.
The management and tracking of your team looked really intuitive, as you could view comprehensive stats and abilities for every player and spend your currency to add buffs. Each player had a really cool-looking trading card, and this added to the loot lust aspect of the game. You can upgrade players in various categories, including health, speed, punch damage, grip, kicking ability, and many more. Also, with the custom team options mentioned before, you can change up the color scheme of your team's jersey as well as the names of the players.
With all that said, the smartest thing Run Games is doing is making this a free-to-play game. Supported by in-app purchases, Football Heroes is looking to avoid the pitfall of most F2P games by making the free product a good time right off the bat, and it's not hindering players who don't participate in the ecosystem with tons of cash. The devs seemed all to aware of games that become imbalanced by wallet warriors and players who sink in tons of time, and it seemed that the online modes would rely on the matchmaking and balance of the game to limit the exploitation potential of certain matchups. Also, players who quit online matches will gain no XP or currency, encouraging users to tough it out and finish a match. The nice thing is that games are quick to play, making Football Heroes a natural fit for mobile and tablets.
It's pretty easy to get excited about these types of games, as the people making the product show an obvious passion for the gameplay style and the inspiration source material. There's definitely a fun game to be found in what I played, and the barrier to entry (free) is obviously palatable to anyone. I think the most intriguing aspect is that Football Heroes is trying to add some much-needed complexity to this popular type of retro gameplay, and the customization, both on and off the field, make it apparent that mixing styles this way might make the whole product stronger.
Football Heroes is slated to come out in "football season 2013."
Check out the two gameplay videos for Football Heroes here and here.