To say it’s been a long time coming would be an understatement. It’s been over four years since the last AFL game, and while the PS2 incarnations were, frankly, terrible, AFL fans were happy just to get their fix. They wanted to be able to play their code of choice as soccer gamers had been doing for years. While footy fans have been starved of a solid experience since the NES days, there’s no denying their cravings for an AFL game. Big Ant Studios has taken a risk in what they hope will be the first of many in a long running series. It’s finally time to see if all that work has paid off.
What AFL Live Got Right
The best AFL game to date - AFL Live has easily surpassed every AFL game released before it. Yes, it even rivals the NES classic (which we remember as being better than it actually was). It rectifies many of the issues that plagued the IR Gurus games of last generation and is the most comprehensive AFL experience ever crafted. It’s the first game by a new developer of a sport that has never had a standout release. As such, it cannot, and shouldn’t, be compared to the likes of Fifa. However, AFL fans who desperately desire a virtual footy fix will love it. If you spent considerable time on the PS2/Xbox games, AFL Live will blow you away.
Basic gameplay components - It was imperative that Big Ant nailed the basic gameplay, and for the most part, they’ve done just that. There are heaps of missing features, and plenty of room for improvement, but the foundations have been laid. Players move in a somewhat realistic fashion and the general flow of play is quite good with an awesome pace. Results are diverse, and unlike past AFL games, you can’t assume you’re going to win on the harder settings once you’ve learnt the A.I. patterns. They mix it up and offer a genuine challenge with relatively accurate tactics.
Player positioning and tactics - While not perfect, it’s the difference between a decent AFL game and the shambles we’ve had to put up with thus far. No longer do your players stand in position until the ball comes. They move like actual AFL players, to the extent they can in a video game. Furthermore, tactics actually work. Past games have had the option to adjust your structures, but they never did anything useful. This time around players will position themselves according to your directives.
Controls - While not perfect, they’re arguably the best we’ve ever seen. Once you understand ruck work with the right control stick, it’s a stroke of genius. It’s a massive learning curve, but well worth it. Once you’ve mastered it, you’re never assured of winning the tap. That might be to the disliking of some players, but it makes everything so much more realistic. Goal kicking has been simplified to include the player’s natural arc. While it needs to be tweaked a little, it vastly out shines those of the past.
Custom teams - The ability to not only create your own teams, but edit the stats of existing ones almost solves the issue of developers not being able to accurately rate every player in the competition. The options are all fantastic, but unfortunately they cannot be used in the official 2011 AFL season mode. Hopefully this can be fixed by a patch, as it’s a massive oversight on the developer’s part and undoes all of the positives that customisation brings to the table.
Auto-interchanges - With the modern pace of the game we don’t have time to make every interchange ourselves. The auto-interchange system is surprisingly accurate. There are some blunders, like a midfielder to CHB or a ruckman to rover, but it generally works well. The player has the option to set how regularly interchanges occur or can make them completely manual. There’s also an option to use the D-pad, which is more useful in non-stop multiplayer. Ridiculous changes tarnish the system, but could be fixed by an option to remove players from the rotation. It would be almost perfect if the player could make ruck or defender changes manually, while forwards and midfielders automatically interchange.
Online offers longevity - With limited solo options, online is where players will spend a bulk of their time. It's a great system for such a small audience, with minimal traces of lag and no real problems finding a match. The population several weeks after launch will determine how much life AFL Live has in it.
What AFL Live Wrong
Shocking bugs and glitches - There are far too many glitches for a modern game. It’s great that there’s a patch on the way, but it won’t fix everything. The biggest game crippling bug stops you from being able to complete a season with specific teams, so far Carlton, North Melbourne and Port Adelaide, without simulating a match that otherwise freezes the game. That’s unacceptable. For that matter, freezing in general is one of the game’s biggest failings. Getting through a season without it locking-up at least once appears impossible.
No career and lack of features - No career mode is a massive disappointment, as is the lack of overall features. It feels like the barebones of a game, rather than the finished produced. While I’m the biggest advocate of AFL Live being a stepping stone to bigger and better things, it’s hard to justify the $100 price tag to anyone who isn’t desperate for an AFL game. The Wii version includes state leagues such as the SANFL, VFL and WAFL, but they are nowhere to be seen in AFL Live. A single season, quick matches and online just isn’t enough for a full price game.
Advanced gameplay needs work -
While the basic gameplay is a shining light, too many small issues collaborate to blemish the greater experience. Sprinting doesn’t seem to make any difference – Michael Gardiner can chance down anyone; marking doesn’t always make sense and umpires call decisions only to do the opposite. Clearing out of defence with a kick is borderline impossible and none of the injury settings are realistic. All of the camera angles have their strengths and weaknesses; while it’s great that Big Ant gave the player so many choices as to how to view the action, none are perfect. Close broadcast works best in general play, but it’s impossible to put the ball out in-front of a lead. The option to use this in general play, but to revert to behind the player when they go behind the mark would have offered the best of everything for single player and online. All of the options consider two people playing, and fail cater for one person per screen.
Steep learning curve - While not a mistake, it’s something to be aware of. On one hand, nobody will dominate early. It takes at least a season to understand how to handball correctly; for the first 5-10 hours it feels like you get tackled instantly and anything other than spamming handball is impossible. The positive is the depth is allows, but conversely it might scare off potential fans as it takes too long to master general play. It’s compounded by the lack of features, as by the time you truly understand how to play, there’s nothing new to explore.
Terrible commentary and audio -
Like all low budget sports games, the commentary is severely lacking. There are only a handful of phrases, it stops for half a match sometimes and Brian Taylor comes in at random times with pointless statements that are wrong and irrelevant and then fails to say anything else. The music is just as bad. In a game that’s all about sitting in menus, creating players and editing your teams, there are only two songs. That’s approximately 7 minutes of audio constantly on repeat; it’s enough to drive any man to loathe Hunters & Collectors.
Lack of stats -
Statistics are crucial to the success of sports games; they need to be as detailed and comprehensive as possible to give the player a sense of achievement. AFL Live needed to offer complete match summaries including players’ stats for each game and more reasoning as to why their form has been affected.
Player accuracy - For the most part, they’ve done a fantastic job with players, but the mistakes have already reared their ugly heads. Without looking for them, West Coast’s Jack Darling is called Jeff, and Port Adelaide’s Paul and Daniel Stewart – one a mid-sized half-back and the other a tall forward/part-time ruckman – have their stats mixed up. It wouldn’t be so bad if they were fringe players, but Paul is in the starting 22 in the backlines, where he should be, and has a terrible rank unless he’s moved up forward. Likewise, some of the player ratings are incomprehensible. That was bound to happen, and could have easily been fixed if gamers were able to take their custom team into the 2011 season.
Team line-up menus are unusable -
Big Ant has tried to be clever by using a colour-coding system to show positions, but it’s gone horribly wrong. Instead, it’s too complicated and difficult to see where all your players are. It needed a basic match line-up system to easily show all players, their position and who they are playing on. I shouldn’t need to go into the tagging menu to see who my back pocket is covering. Furthermore, it desperately needs an option to see opponent player stats. Without an intricate knowledge of every AFL player, you don't know which defenders to put on which forwards. Even then, that wouldn’t be enough, as you wouldn’t know their in-game stats.
Perhaps most disappointingly, there’s no easy way to see player stamina or injuries in the team menu. In-game each player has a stamina bar and is marked yellow or red when injured, but these are nowhere to be seen in the team selection menu. Making the all-important sub becomes nearly impossible as there’s no way to easily identify which of your players has nothing left in the tank. The menu system is too complicated for its own good and doesn’t show the basic information any virtual coach needs to make informed decisions.
The Final Verdict
AFL Live is a great first effort from Big Ant Studios and the best AFL game to date. It will satisfy the cravings of any virtual AFL fan, and have them pondering why on earth they ever played the garbage that came before it. The lack of a career mode will hurt longevity and it’s full of problems that were to be expected. There are too many bugs and glitches for a full price game and the whole package is very rough around the edges. The commentary and audio is about as enjoyable as attending your own funeral and the menus are too confusing for the lack of information. Having said all that, the fast-pace basic gameplay is great and has laid the foundations for future AFL games. Be aware of the flaws, but recommended to anyone who has been desperately awaiting an AFL game for the past four years.
By Ben Salter