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Axis Football 18 - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • On-field action is not dictated by prefab animations
  • Aimed passing works OK with mouse
  • Full Franchise Mode
  • Includes an accelerated clock
  • Lightning-fast menus (on PC)
  • Quick position subs UI
  • Features commentary team from NFL 2k5
  • Network TV-inspired soundtrack
  • Mod support!
  • Budget price

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Tackles are occasionally made without contact
  • Lacks varied catching animations
  • Deep zone coverage is atrocious
  • No practice mode or tutorials
  • No instant replay
  • Missing some football rules
  • Overtime rules do not match any version of football that I'm aware of
  • Stubby-armed player models
  • Commentary is imprecise

Overall Impression : D
Needs to clean up the on-field gameplay,
but at least it has a Franchise Mode

Axis Football 18 - cover

Developer:
Axis Games

Platforms:
PC < (via Steam),
XBox One (via XBox Live digital download),
PlayStation 4 < [COMING SOON?] (via PSN digital download).
(< indicates platform(s) I played for review)

MSRP: $20 USD

Original release date:
31 July, 2018 (Steam),
30 November, 2018 (XBoxOne),
[COMING SOON?] (PS4)

Genre:
sports, gridiron football

ESRB Rating: E (for Everyone)

Player(s):
1 or 2 player (local)

Official site:
axisleague.com/

This is the one indie football game that I was most looking forward to. Unfortunately, it is also the one that ended up being delayed almost to the point of irrelevancy -- at least on consoles. The game did see a PC release on Steam in September, but the console versions had to wait until much longer. The XBox One release didn't make it out until after Thanksgiving. The PS4 release had to wait even longer, not seeing a release till after Christmas! I was trying to hold out for the PS4 release, but the college season was coming to a close, the NFL was well into its second half, and I was jonesing for some football gameplay. I ended up buying the Steam version when it went on sale (only a couple bucks off) for Black Friday.

Many football fans probably gave up on the season long before Axis Football showed up on storefronts.

If they want to be successful in the future, Axis is going to need to make sure that they get their game out on time! In fact, they should probably follow Canuck Play's Maximum Football and try to release before Madden hits shelves, and thus capitalizing on the period of greatest excitement and anticipation for the football season. Being delayed until after Thanksgiving on consoles surely hurt Axis' chance at success. I'm sure Lions, Bills, Raiders, and ... yes ... UNLV fans have long-since given up on the football season and may have also lost interest in playing football video games.

I still hope that Axis sees decent sales on all platforms. Hopefully, Axis has learned lessons about the certification and release process so that they can get their game out on time next year. Hopefully they can also spend less time going through certification, and more time working on ironing out the rough edges on this game. Axis is definitely a more feature-complete product than its direct competitor (Maximum Football), but its on-field gameplay might lag a little behind Maximum in some areas. And both games are light-years behind Madden.

Third and long

There's a screen-shake to accompany tackles and make the action look more visceral. It's ironic, however, when this shake accompanies a tackle animation in which the tackler didn't actually collide with the runner. Simply grazing a defender can often cause the runner to fall to the ground. This can sometimes happen with a couple yards of separation between the tackler and runner, and sometimes even with the tackler on the opposite side of a blocker. I also see defenders shift through blockers, such that the blocker is behind the defender, yet the blocking animation continues as normal.

Runners are frequently tackled without actually colliding with a defender,
or the defender phases through the runner and misses the tackle.

The game also lacks a robust set of catching animations for receivers, or swat animations for defenders in coverage. Many passes feel like a crap shoot because the receiver and cover man both stand there waiting for the ball, and it could be a completion, and interception, or a drop, without any real appropriate animations playing to accompany the action. Players don't seem able to jump or dive for passes. They just kind of put their arms out, and the ball either hits them (in which case, it's still random whether it's caught or dropped), or it misses.

There's also no blocking or block-breaking animations. Linemen and defenders just kind of magnetically attack to one another until the block is broken. At that point, the defender just kind of steps away from the lineman with there not really being any indication that the two of them had ever interacted at all. There's no hand-swatting, or jostling, or swim / rip moves, or anything.

Receivers and defenders don't put much effort into catching or swatting balls in the air.

More generally, the game is in desperate need of a better locomotion system. Players don't feel like they have much weight. It takes a moment for a player to get up to speed, but once at top speed, they can cut, change direction, and go in circles without much (if any) loss of speed or momentum. In general, players feel like they're skating rather than running. Axis' controls feel less jerky and more fluid than with Maximum Football, but Maximum's players at least feel slightly more tethered to the ground.

Even though the on-field play has a lot of problems, at least it is never taking control away from me in order to play scripted animations. Aside from the crap shoot that is catching passes, I always feel very in-control of my player, and most mistakes are on me.

There's other minor cheats with the simulation of physics. Kick and punt returners will often teleport to the destination of the ball once its kicked.

Kick returners will teleport to the destination of the ball when it is kicked.

Axis is also missing some rules. Staying on the topic of kick returns, there is no penalty for kicking a kickoff out of bounds. "Coffin corner" kickoffs are, therefore, a very exploitative way to keep your opponent pinned deep in their own territory. There also does not seem to be any fair catch button (that I could find) or the ability to kneel in the end zone for a touchback.

Overtime also follows a ruleset that is unlike any overtime rule that I've ever seen. Play just resumes as if the game hadn't ended, and the game repeatedly tacks on an extra minute to the game until time expires with one team winning. No coin toss. No kickoff. No sudden death. Doesn't even bother to give the teams extra timeouts. It's not even some weird[er] variation of the college rules!

Overtime in Axis Football is even more screwed up than college overtime!

This is clearly something that is unfinished, and so I don't know why Axis even put it into the game. Just end the game in a tie if you don't have a functioning overtime implemented! Is Axis planning on implementing a version of college overtime? Or are they going to implement NFL rules? Will they go with their own overtime rules (such as just adding a fifth full quarter, without the NFL's hybrid "sudden death")? Maybe they'll implement multiple overtime rulesets, and make it an optional setting for exhibition and franchise modes?

There are several game customization settings.

Timeout!

Not having a specific football league license, Axis does provide the user with a lot of customization options. You can tweak the teams, uniforms, and rosters. There isn't a logo creator, and the uniform customization options seem oddly limited -- maybe I'm missing something here? There's also a lot of options to tweak the gameplay experience. You can adjust the game speed (I set mine to 0.72), the accelerated clock, the camera angle and distance, how much lead the QB gives to receivers, and other various settings. Taking a page out of Madden 18's playbook, there's also options for multiple passing methods, including traditional icon passing and free aimed passing.

Aimed passing works OK with a mouse, but it's not very comfortable with a controller at all. It's too bad I can't somehow have the precision of the mouse while still using the controller, because the keyboard controls are also pretty crappy. I tried holding the controller in my left hand, and the mouse in another, but the game would force me to throw as soon as I made any input on the mouse. If only someone made gaming keyboards with a little analog stick on it...

Aimed passing is relatively simple with the mouse.

The passing reticle even grows as you scramble, but the center dot is still visible, which means it's not any less accurate to use. There's no way to snap the reticle onto a specific receiver, nor is there any indication of how far to lead a receiver on his route. Madden 18 had both of these ease-of-use features, and the feature was still so un-popular that it was cut after just one season! As such, this method in Axis is very hard to use, and getting good at it will surely require a lot of practice (which is hard because there's no in-game practice mode). It's too bad Madden 18 didn't release on PC. Perhaps mouse support would have saved that game's targeted passing mechanic...

Even with a mouse, however, I'm pretty terrible at hitting my receivers. Part of this comes from the very narrow window that players have to make a catch (a result of the aforementioned lack of varied catching animations). The fact that receivers can't really stretch out to go for the ball, and the fact that they don't motion-shift to it (as in Madden) means that passes are much more likely to miss a receiver by a yard or two. I'm not saying that I want motion-shifting; just that the receivers just don't seem to put much effort in. This can be realistic in some ways, because it means that the game doesn't have to force an "inaccurate" pass (as determined by RNG and the player ratings) to be wildly-off-target (by 10 or 15 yards), which is the way that Madden has to do it. Nevertheless, the game is in desperate need of better catching mechanics.

Timing routes (such as curls) are hard to hit because bullet passes hang too long.

In fact, passing and catching in this game are pretty bad in general. Poor passing and catching mechanics are probably the single biggest problem that keeps me from recommending this game. Because of the lack of a true locomotion system, receivers rarely feel open, and because of the narrow passing windows, they often don't catch balls that do go right to them. Passes hang in the air for too long -- even bullet passes -- which makes timing routes (such as quick outs, curls, and slants almost impossible to hit.

Defensive play is robust, but un-polished

Defenses can make pre-snap adjustments ...
if you have time before the QB snaps the ball.

To make up a bit for the poor offensive play, it's a lot easier (and more fun) to play defense in this game than in Maximum Football. There's more immediacy to my actions, and I feel like I have more agency. There is no defensive assist (just like in Maximum); but, unlike Maximum Football, there is a pre-play defensive "coach cam" that includes play art. So you can at least see what your assignment is before the ball is snapped. There's also a defensive strafe function that makes it much easier to manually play zone coverages and to keep the play in front of you.

There's also a full suite of defensive adjustments. You can shift the alignment of your linemen, linebackers, and secondary, and even assign individual hot routes. Unfortunately, I can't really use the hot route mechanic because the CPU QBs snap the ball very quickly, leaving very little time before the snap to do any comprehensive adjustments. This is perhaps the biggest issue with defensive play, because formations can be easily used to create mismatches. Defensive players don't automatically adjust their assignments based on the offensive formation, and you can't even flip the defense (either during play-selection or as a pre-snap adjustment or audible), which means if the offense overloads all its receivers on one side (like in a trips or trio formation), the defense will end up with its strong side cornerback covering a tight end, and a slot receiver being covered by a linebacker. Heck, if you played a double team coverage in this situation, and the offense comes out in trips left, you're corner and safety will both be covering the offense's tight end. And I guarantee you that tight end isn't Rob Gronkowski, and does not need to be double teamed...

You can't flip defensive plays, which can lead to frustrating mismatches in the coverage.

On the topic of on-the-fly adjustments, the play-calling screen has a quick and efficient interface for making position substitutions. The game will even run out some of the clock after you make such a sub in order to simulate the extra time it takes to get the substituted personnel on the field. Does the opponent have a particularly speedy back who is dangerous on wheel routes? Well, this positional sub UI allows you to counteract this by subbing a corner into the MLB position on deep passing situations.

Despite all these bells and whistles, defensive play is still generally pretty bad. Put simply, the defensive A.I. is atrocious. Coverage A.I. is the particularly bad, and defenses will routinely leave certain routes wide open (or completely uncovered). My biggest concerns are with deep zone coverages. The safeties do a terrible job of keeping the play in front of them. It doesn't help that the failure of the defense to align with the offensive formation means that out-of-place defenders are often caught having to run laterally across the field to their assignment. This leads to a lot of deep passes and easy scores -- if the QB is accurate enough to hit a deep pass. I end up playing as the safety on a lot of plays because I feel like I have to baby-sit him. Even then, if I don't move him pre-snap, he has a tendency to take a step up as the ball is snapped, which can easily put him out of position against a streak or post route. Even if I adjust to that, I can only control one safety at a time, which leaves one-half or two-thirds of the field uncovered, no matter how perfectly I play my assignment.

On the more exploitative side of things, offensive tackles are very bad at protecting the outside. It is far too easy to manually run a defensive end around the offensive tackle in order to get free pressure on the QB. CPU QBs are fairly decent at getting rid of the ball under pressure, so you won't be sacking them every time, but you will get a lot of easy and cheap sacks due to this poor blocking logic. Combine this with the coffin-corner kickoffs I mentioned earlier, and you reliable get several safeties every game, if you want to.

Deep coverage is atrocious [LEFT], and it's too easy to manually run around O-Tackles [RIGHT].

To the drawing board

Axis also beats Maximum with regard to its playbooks. Unlike Maximum, Axis includes concepts like play action passes, screens, draws, onside kicks, D-line stunts, and so forth. They don't all work, but they are at least present. There are no clock-management plays however (like spiking the ball, QB kneel), and there isn't a "no-huddle" button either.

The A.I. does have problems recognizing certain football situations. 2-point conversions are trivially easy to convert because the defense always calls Field Goal Block on PAT attempts, even if you put the offense on the field. They also don't seem to call onside kicks unless the clock is under two minutes in the half. I've seen the A.I. get within 2 scores with 2:04 left in the game with only 1 timeout, only to kick the ball deep. I lined up in an Onside Kick Return formation, but the A.I. didn't bother.

A rebuilding season

So the on-field action for Axis football is still very rough. Fortunately, this game one-ups Maximum Football by having an actual, functional Franchise Mode! You pick a team, set a depth chart, sign free agents, send players to the scout team, deal with injuries, and have a draft during the off season. Pretty much everything that you would expect from a Franchise Mode is here, and it all works.

The game tracks stats and ranking for both teams and players, but only seems to track stats for a single year at a time. The progression system is obtuse (especially compared with Madden's RPG-like experience system, and it's hard to tell exactly what factors will cause a player to progress or regress. This is especially true for offensive linemen, who don't even have any stats to determine how good their season has been. The system is similar to older Madden and NCAA Football titles in how its progression works, but I actually much prefer Madden's current methods of player development.

Players seem to progress/regress based on their (and the team's) performance in the season.

The offseason also follows pretty much the same outline as old EA football games. Players progress/regress, then there's retirements, then you go through a draft, then sign players to contracts, then start the new season. There's no off-season mini-camps, no preseason, no contract negotiation process, no in-season draft scouting. But at least there are injuries, so Axis at least beats Backbreaker. And the mere existence of a Franchise Mode (no matter how rudimentary) is better than what Maximum Football offers.

The UI could use some work though. I have to do a lot of switching between menus when drafting players and signing free agents. There's no roster breakdowns or anything like that, so if you can't remember what positions you need to improve, you'll probably be backing out to the depth chart screen over and over again. Fortunately, the game (on PC at least) loads lightning fast. Even with all the switching between menus, the whole thing is still pretty quick, especially compared to Madden's bloated, laggy menus.

Cutting a contract player results in cap penalties.

I wish the game included some kind of budget overview. The game tells you that you'll have to pay out cap penalties for several years if you cut a player that is under contract. Without any sort of budget overview, there's no way for you to see how much of your budget is currently going towards these penalties (or even verify that the game is enforcing these penalties at all).

Hopefully, these sorts of UI issues will be addressed in future iterations of the game.

Up the ladder

The league is divided up into three tiers (similar to English soccer, or the Backbreaker football video game). If you build a successful team in a lower tier and win a championships, you'll be offered a chance to play against the bottom team from the upper tier. If you beat that team, you'll be promoted and take their place in the upper tier. If you win it all in the top tier, then you've reached the pinnacle of Axis Football. There's a lot of teams available, which all seem to be inspired by an ecclectic set of real-life football teams, past and present. The Dallas Lawmen are clearly a knock-off of the NFL's Cowboys. But instead of being a knock-off of the NFL's Eagles, the Philadelphia team looks like it's based off of the Purdue University Boilermakers. The Las Vegas Outlaws have a similar color scheme to the UNLV Rebels, but their name is clearly pulled from the defunct XFL team.

If you win your tier's championship, you have an opportunity to play a team from the next tier and take their spot.

If the on-field gameplay isn't to your standards, you can opt to coach the game (only calling plays and not controlling players on the field) or spectate (just watch the CPU play against the CPU). You can even spectate other games in the given week, if you'd like! The teambuilding aspect of the game is pretty rudimentary, but after simming a few quick seasons, I found that managing the salary cap is actually quite a challenge -- especially when I tried to build a practice squad to go along with my active roster. Salary demands inflate pretty rapidly, even among B and C-rated players. A-rated players will demand massive salaries (regardless of position), and it will be hard to keep more than just a few of them on your team any given year. As such, turnover is very high, which will force you to have to make tough decision on who to keep and who to cut.

I did find some small tricks for dealing with the salary cap. For one, I always try to sign some rookies and low-rated (D/D+ rating) practice squad players to a full 7-year contract at the minimum possible salary. If they progress over the course of the years, then I may end up with an affordable backup. I haven't seen any teams poach my practice squad players, and I'm pretty sure that doing so is not possible, so keeping mid-tier players stashed on your practice squad is trivially safe.

Salaries inflate rapidly, making it tough to keep under the salary cap.

The practice squad is definitely under-developed, and I mostly just use it as a makeshift injured reserve (not sure if that's the intent). There are no rules or restrictions for who can be put on the practice squad. You can move players between your active roster and practice squad whilly-nilly. Their salary demands also aren't any different, so it's hard to keep more than just a few practice squad players before you run out of money.

Just make sure that you build a team based around the strengths of your playbook. You can't change playbooks once the Franchise starts. So if you select a power run-heavy playbook, and then end up with a stacked receiver corp and franchise QB, you won't be able to change to a more pass-friendly spread offense. Same goes for defense. If you start the Franchise wit a 4-3 defense, then end up with an excess of linebackers and a shortage of defensive linemen, you'll have to shift players around to accommodate your playbook; not vice-versa.

Axis' more robust feature set edges out Maximum... but barely

In the end, Axis is a much more feature-compete game than Maximum Football 2018, even going so far as to include mod support. There's a full NCAA football mod that I was interested in, but it has a limited number of teams that can be added to Franchise, so I ended up not playing with it except for a few exhibition games.

There is a full NCAA mod, but it doesn't play well with Franchise mode...

Axis also beats Maximum hands-down in the presentation and production design department. The menus are much cleaner and easier to navigate. The music is better, and closely mimics some television broadcast music that you'll hear on Sunday (particularly if you watch football on Fox). There are also in-game stat overlays.

The biggest presentation difference is the fact that Axis includes commentary. Long-time fans of football video gaming will probably recognize the commentary team. Terry McGovern and Jay Styne reprise their roles as Dan Dave Stevens and Peter O'Keefe Mike Steele, the commentary team from 2K's ESPN NFL 2k5. The commentary is not particularly good though. It's frequently inaccurate, and just doesn't flow particularly well.

Despite having a more robust season mode and more bells and whistles than its direct competitor, Axis is missing certain features. Neither game has tutorials on in-game help of any kind. Axis probably benefits from having the more familiar NFL ruleset, and doesn't have to teach complex concepts like the waggle to players who may not be familiar with the concept. It's not exactly forthcoming about what it's attributes or settings mean, however. There are no descriptions or tooltips for any setting in the Options menu, nor does the game bother to spell out what player ratings mean. What exactly is "stick push"? Is this some kind of pass-leading mechanic? What exactly do "aim sensitivity" and "P1 lead receiver" mean? The game doesn't explain any of these options.

What the hell does the "FIT" rating mean? "Fitness"? Is this an injury resistance rating?

Once I'm in the game and staring at my depth chart, I'm also wondering what some of the player attributes mean. What does the "FIT" player attribute mean? I can make an educated guess that it means "Fitness",, but what the hell does that mean? Is it some kind of injury resistance rating? It would really be helpful if the game would provide some kind of in-game documentation and spell this out for users who maybe aren't as familiar with football games as I am.

Depth charts also don't make any distinction between certain positions. For instance, all offensive linemen are under one heading ("OL"). The game makes no distinction between centers, guards, or tackles, let alone whether the player is on the left or right. Instead, you'll have to discover through trial-and-error that the top lineman on the depth chart is your left tackle, the second on the depth chart is the left guard, third is the center, and so forth. Same goes for receivers (no distinction between wideouts and slot receivers), defensive lineman (no distinction between tackles and ends), linebackers (no distinction between inside and outside, let alone mike or will), and defensive backs (no distinction between corners and safeties). There also aren't any specialist positions except for kicker and punter. I wasn't expecting to see a longsnapper, holder, or return gunners, but I am surprised that the game is missing a depth chart position for returners.

One big thing that Axis is missing in comparison to Maximum is an instant replay. This makes it hard to review plays to find out what went wrong (or what went right). If the defense completely blows a coverage -- and they will blow coverages! -- it's impossible to review the play to find out who missed their assignment or if a specific defenders was just completely mis-matched. It also makes it difficult for me, as a critic, to determine just how well its physics and A.I. systems work. I might be giving it a bit too much benefit of the doubt.

It looks like Maximum Football will be adding a college dynasty mode to compete with Axis' franchise mode.

Despite it's problems, I'm going to give Maximum a slight edge with regard to the on-field gameplay. That game gets more of the on-field details right. However, Axis has a much more robust feature set, which I think gives Axis a slight edge overall. Neither game has particularly good on-field gameplay, but Axis at least has a reasonable implementation of a Franchise Mode, which keeps me invested in that on-field action, and gives me a reason to keep coming back. Maximum's season mode is a total joke, but it looks that is going to be the focus of development for next year's game. If Axis doesn't clean up its on-field gameplay, then it's going to risk falling behind Maximum next year.

Put simply: Maximum Football 2018 feels like a very bad PS2-era football game with a gutted feature set; whereas, Axis Football 18 feels like a mediocre PS1-era football game that has a complete feature set. Take that for what you will.

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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Without Gravity

And check out my colleague, David Pax's novel Without Gravity on his website!

Featured Post

EA's Madden design philosophy, and why we can't have nice thingsEA's Madden design philosophy, and why we can't have nice things10/25/2018 I think I've finally decided to take a stab at some long-form video analysis and critique on Youtube. My first go at this came in the form of a nearly-hour-long breakdown of my frustrations with the Madden NFL video game series (broken up into 2 parts). For the benefit of my readers, I'm also transcribing the video onto this...

Random Post

Star Trek 12 plot speculation: A rehash of Khan is a horrible ideaStar Trek 12 plot speculation: A rehash of Khan is a horrible idea12/15/2011 If it ain't broke, don't fix it! The rumor mills are ablaze with the idea that the next Star Trek movie (being directed by J.J. Abrams) will feature Khan as the primary villain. Benicio Del Toro was originally planned to portray the villain, but contract negotiations broke down, and Del Toro bailed from the project. Maybe Toro...

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