Football Heroes Review (iOS)
It's fun when you can play a game that is made by developers that have a passion for throwback gameplay and presentation. The folks at Run Games are trying to go after a piece of the free-to-play pie on iOS devices by evoking the feel of Tecmo Bowl, mixing it with modern RPG unlocks and then adding in a dash of wacky superpowers. It's one of those mash-ups that seems kind of weird on the outside, but when you play the game, it starts to make a lot of sense.
I got to try a build of the game back at E3, and I'm glad to see that the final version has iterated further to create some fun gameplay scenarios, both for solo and multiplayer. Your mileage may vary if you don't drop a few bucks into your progression, and there can be some frustrating moments as the difficulty ramps up, but at the cost of free, there is a lot of fun to be had when you boot this one up.
While you can play Football Heroes on any iOS device, the developers have said that the iPad mini probably provides the ideal experience. Obviously you'd have much more real estate on the iPad and much less on the iPhone, but all devices seem to handle the game quite well. I did end up reviewing this on the iPhone 5, and while the small screen does make the controls feel somewhat claustrophobic (specifically for character switching and power-up use), the on-field action remains relatively playable if you're focusing on what you're doing.
The most direct comparison for this game is indeed Tecmo Bowl, and the sideline presentation and expressive character models evoke that retro feeling but in a fresh way. There's a lot of personality on the field, as everything looks and sounds appropriately vibrant and exaggerated. There's some decent animation work here, too, as players will flex their muscles, throw out comical stiff-arms and generally blast through other players with style.
The default controls work by simple touches and swipes for almost everything, so you'll tap the screen to hike the ball, tap on a receiver to throw to him, tap and hold up the field to run, swipe to tackle, etc. It's an elegant control scheme in a lot of ways, and for offense, it's actually quite good. You'll generally be able to throw and run the ball how you see fit, at least on the lower levels of difficulty. Defense doesn't fare as well under pressure, as even after a recent patch, it can still be hard to switch players and tackle correctly when there's so much going on. With lower-tiered CPU opponents you'll definitely have extra time to think, but when you're getting blitzed and pressured, it can feel like a lot to take in.
Adding to this complexity are activated power-ups for each player. You have a selection of powers on a hotbar at the bottom, and they allow you to speed ahead, disappear, blow up pursuing defenders, shock the whole defensive line, and much more. These power definitely add a lot of fun to the gameplay experience and were a smart add by the dev team, and if you keep track of who has what ability, it can aid you greatly in the game. That does become the issue, though, as your characters are constantly being upgraded or changed, and managing (during gameplay) who has what powers and whether they've recharged or not can start to boggle the mind. It's also a bit confusing to keep track of the iconography of the powers, and I found myself forgetting exactly what each one did sometimes. It's a great idea, to be sure, but it can get busy when you're playing against tough CPU teams.
Besides the powers, the main hook for the game is the RPG progression of your team, and this is where the free-to-play element comes in. You can level up your guys by playing games and succeeding, but you'll also need to use free coins and real money to unlock custom plays, new players and temporary boosters. Players are tiered in gold, silver and bronze, and they'll come with pre-defined abilities and powers. All of this really helps to add to replay value, as you'll be regularly adding new pieces to your team (and you can even customize players names and your team logo).
As with any F2P venture, your fun may bump up against the financial realities of this game's business model, and there is a fairly steep time commitment that prohibits you from getting that much good stuff without putting in some real money. It's always a tough balance for this type of model, but I must admit that it was a bit disheartening to see the CPU difficulty spike so fast and basically force me to consider buying better stuff in order to compete. I certainly was able to buy some decent players and extra plays with my free currency, but eventually the CPU became so good at blitzing that things got rough. Conversely, my team was having a difficult time getting to the QB, and this led to lots of big plays for them on offense. Power-up usage is key here, but I still found myself hitting a bit of a “money wall” after a few hours of play.
After the most recent patch, single-player content comes in three flavors: sudden death, quick play and cup mode. The sudden death mode pits you against an equal team with only 20 seconds on the clock for each half, and quick play puts you against a random team with normal rules. Cup mode is where you'll progress through the game's CPU teams and improve your squad, and it's where you'll bump up against some difficult teams after the first couple of cup ladders.
Multiplayer is only supported for local play right now, either from WiFi or bluetooth. There will be global multiplayer at some point, which will be a welcome addition, as that will add a lot to the longevity of this title while truly testing out the progression and unlock model that the devs have created.
There's a ton of charm and personality in how Football Heroes looks, feels and plays, and I love the clash of styles that are on offer. The promise of global multiplayer also adds a lot of hope for what this game can deliver in the future. Still, your tolerance for monetization will dictate how you feel about the difficulty spikes in this one, and the defense in particular gets a bit maddening when the CPU starts hulking up.
Score: 7 (Good)
Scoring Note: A seven is a good rating, which indicates that the game does a lot of things right. There are, however, some flaws with the game which hold it back from greatness, but it is still worth a look for fans of the sport at the very least.