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Axis Football 19 - 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
  • Relatively feature-complete
  • Emphasis on weekly preparation and coaching
  • A scout for each region of country
  • Improved draft UI
  • Clock run-off when making substitutions
  • Mod support!

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Were there any improvements to on-field gameplay?
  • Stiff, robotic animation
  • Locomotion feels floaty
  • Safety play is abysmal
  • Missing some football rules
  • No special teams depth chart
  • Practice squad is under-developed
  • Overtime rules do not match any version of football that I'm aware of
  • Little to do between games in Franchise
  • No practice mode or tutorials
  • No instant replay
  • PC lacks PS4 button icons?
  • Higher price tag

Overall Impression : D+
Improved Franchise; not-so-improved gameplay

Axis Football 19 - cover

Developer:
Axis Games

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

MSRP: $30 USD

Original release date:
27 September 2019 (Steam & XBox One),
[PS4 release due VERY SOON]

Genre:
sports, gridiron football

ESRB Rating: E (for Everyone)

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

Official site:
axisleague.com/

Well, the football video game price wars have apparently begun. Unfortunately, however, the prices are not shifting in the direction I'd like. Instead of EA being forced by competition to drop the price of Madden to something reasonable, like $30 (as they had to do in 2004 to compete with ESPN NFL 2k5's budget price of $20), both Maximum Football 19 and Axis Football 19 have upped their price from $20 (in 2018) to $30 (in 2019). I've already complained that Maximum has shifted its retail price out of the budget indie tier and into the middle-market (or "double-A" tier), and that Maximum isn't quite up to the level of quality that I might expect from a title at that price.

Axis Football doesn't feel quite as over-priced, as it was a much more feature-complete product to begin with (and remains a more feature-complete product this year, despite Maximum's new dynasty mode). That being said, I don't feel that Axis is improved enough to warrant a 50% jump in price.

Whereas Maximum focused on adding a much-needed dynasty mode in order to prop up its mediocre-at-best on-field gameplay (and moderately succeeds in that regard), Axis already had a working Franchise mode. What Axis needed was to improve its on-field gameplay. ...But they kinda didn't... Like, not at all...

Same as last year?

I was optimistic about Maximum Football and Axis Football because I expected them to make significant improvements to on-field gameplay from year-to-year -- something that EA has consistently failed to do with Madden over the last ten-to-fifteen years. So to see both of these indie games play virtually identical to last year's counterparts is very disappointing and has substantially deflated my initial optimism.

My excitement for the potential improvement of Maximum and Axis has been deflated
by both games releasing with virtually identical on-field gameplay compared to last year.

If you read the gameplay section of last year's review, then you pretty much know how this yea'rs game plays. Axis Football 19 still has much of the same rigid and robotic player animations. The locomotion system is terrible and allows runners to cut and turn on a dime. Defensive players still frequently stand in place. Deep zone coverage is still atrocious. The CPU still never defends 2-point conversion attempts. Receivers still lack varied or convincing catch animations, and defenders similarly lack pass defense animations. Blocking and tackle interactions can still be triggered with players who are not in physical contact with each other. I can still run my defensive end around offensive tackles, unblocked, for free sacks.

Some football rules are also still wrong or not implemented at all. Axis might as well just end games in ties if they can't implement a working overtime ruleset. I can still exploit kicking kickoffs out of bounds without penalty in order to pin opposing offenses deep. There's no fair catch. I can't motion receivers before the snap to see if the defense is in man or zone coverage.

The developers failed to address many of the problems that plagued last year's game --
such as poor deep zone coverage [LEFT] and the ability to easily run around offensive tackles [RIGHT].

Much moreso than last year, I'm noticing that outside runs seem to be far too effective. The reason for this seems to be the crazy success rates of receivers making (and holding) blocks on the edge and in the second level. Safeties are not only bad at deep coverage, but they're also terrible in run support. They stay back too deep (and sometimes just stand around), instead of trying to meet the runner in the lanes or trying to force an outside run back inside. If a receiver or tight end gets into the second level and blocks the safety, then the play is practically a guaranteed touchdown.

Similar to Maximum Football, I feel like I have to babysit one of my safeties in order to prevent a huge play. However, just like with Maximum and with Madden, I can only user-control one defender at a time. No matter how well I play my user-controlled safety, I'm still dependent on the other DB or two doing their job(s) on their side(s) of the field.

Good receiver blocking and poor safety run support allows too many big runs around the perimeter.

To its credit, Axis does have a lot of bells and whistles that Maximum lacks. It has a more functional audible, hot route, and pre-play adjustment system, including comprehensive defensive adjustments. You can shift the defensive line, linebackers, and secondary (though you can't flip the defensive play). You can change playstyle settings prior to every play in order to emphasize aggressive or conservative play (though I wish this could only be done during timeouts and quarter breaks). And so forth. None of this stuff is new. It was all in last year's game. But it is stuff that Maximum still lacks. So it's all worth noting as a potential selling point.

Sadly, there's still no practice or tutorial mode that will allow you to train the muscle memory to make these adjustments before the CPU QB snaps the ball (or you get a delay of game on offense). You'll have to learn it all on-the-fly, through trial-and-error, in live game situations. The game does sort of pause when you try to do audibles or hot routes, so learning on the fly isn't as impossible as it might sound.

Aimed passing works well enough with the mouse, but I hate the keyboard controls.

Just like last year, the keyboard controls are uncomfortable, but the aimed passing using the mouse works pretty well. The aimed passing works less well with the gamepad, but the rest of the controls are more comfortable on the gamepad. If only there were some way to have the precision of the mouse for aimed passing, but still have the comfort of a gamepad for everything else...

I'm still using a PS4 gamepad, which causes some problems because all the button icons and prompts show XBox button icons. There's no option (that I'm aware of) to switch to using PS4 button icons. It didn't take long for me to map the buttons in my mind though. But every now and then, it still throws me off.

I use a PS4 controller, but all the on-screen prompts show XBox button icons.

A better Franchise mode than Madden?

Instead of improving the game engine or fixing the myriad issues that plague the on-field action, Axis opted to spend the vast majority of its resources on extending the Franchise mode. While this is not the direction I would have wanted them to go, I do have to say that the end result is that we now have an indie football game on consoles that some people are suggesting is deeper than modern Madden. Personally, I think these reviewers and would-be pundits are over-rating Axis a little bit. But the fact that the small team of part-time developers at Axis put together a Franchise mode that even competes with Madden is a testament to the lackluster effort that EA and its dozens of full-time programmers and designers are putting into Madden.

You have a full staff of coordinators and assistant coaches.

Axis 19 does have some areas where it far surpasses what is available in Madden 20. The headline feature of its Franchise mode is the ability to hire a full coaching staff. Not just the head coach (which is all that Madden offers). Not just offensive, defensive, and special teams coordinators (which has been available in past versions of Madden). You can hire a full staff of 16 coaches, including the head coach, coordinators, and a position coach for every position group in the game. This includes a quarterbacks coach, running backs coach, receiver coach, offensive line coach, defensive line coach, linebacker coach, and a defensive back coach, a medical trainer, as well as a set of scouting and recruiting agents.

Some coaches have badges that improve
player ratings at the specific position.

Each coach has ratings in various categories. Some coaches can earn special badges that improve the players whom they coach. Each coach tracks his win / loss record, playoff appearances, championships, and so forth over his career.

The emphasis on coaching staffs also brings with it a small emphasis on coaching and preparing your team each week. You don't get detailed scouting reports on an opponent (as in NFL 2k5), nor can you practice executing schemes or concepts (as in Madden 20), but you do get to assign a practice schedule each week. Similar to NFL 2k5, you get a set number of points to spend on various practice activities. The number of points available is determined by how hard you decide to work your team this week. Pushing your players' practice schedule too hard for too long may lower team morale (especially if the extra work does not translate into wins), and it will increase the chances of players getting injured. It's all much more abstract than NFL 2k5, but it is simple and functional.

You can set a weekly practice schedule to emphasize your strengths or improve problem areas.

Unfortunately, the game doesn't give much indication of what, exactly the various coach attributes or practice actually do. Does a high-rated coach improve the attributes of players at that position? Does he improve their progression between seasons? I can guess that the "Development" attribute influences player progression between seasons, and that "Discipline" attribute decreases the frequency of players committing penalties, but what do the "Evaluation" and "Motivation" attributes do? Does practice improve player ratings? If so, by how much? And how long do the effects last? The game doesn't explain any of these things. There's a detailed list of all the causes and effects of morale change, but nothing for coaches or practice.

Some of the badge effects are not immediately clear as well. When I first loaded up my Las Vegas Outlaws Franchise, my offensive coordinator had a "DB Expert" badge (you read that right, Las Vegas' offensive coordinator had a defensive badge!) I moved that offensive coordinator to defensive coordinator. But I'm not sure if that's even effective, since the "DB Expert" badge says "Requirement: DB Coach+". Does this mean that the badge has no effect unless the coach is assigned as a Defensive backs coach? Or does it simply mean that I must have a defensive backs coach hired in order to receive the badge's effects? I assume the former. And what does the "plus sign" mean? None of this is explained anywhere!

Scouting the nation

The new scouts also bring with them a completely new scouting mechanic. You have four scouts, each of whom covers a certain region of the country. You have a west coast scout, a midwest scout, a northeast scout, and south east scout. Each scout gives you three points that you can spend to scout players in the scout's region. The better the quality of the scout, the fewer points they need to spend to fully scout any given player.

Each scout covers a region of the country.

While I like this idea in principle, I don't like the implementation at all. The problem with this mechanic is that Axis uses a draft similar to the NFL. You therefore have very little control over your position in the draft, and it can often feel like a crap shoot whether a sought-after player whom you scouted is available or not. Each of your scouts only gets three scouting points for the entire year! I thought I'd have three scouting points every week, so I was annoyed to find out that I had burnt them all in my first season on stupid players.

You only get (on average) seven draft picks per year, and only have 12 scouting points. The players you scouted, and want to draft, will likely be drafted by someone else before you get a chance. And for each "bust" who you rule out of drafting thanks to your scouts, you'll have to chose from a hundred other players who you know nothing about. So while the in-season scouting mechanic works well in its own right, it just doesn't provide a tremendous sense of payoff for your efforts.

Do you draft a player you scouted? Or take a chance that another player might be better?

The interface for the draft itself is also cleaned up and improved. A handy new reference screen will tell you the (estimated) top players available in the draft, as well as the (estimated) best players available for your team's weakest position(s). I wish it would also give me an overview of the undrafted players I've scouted, but I guess that's an idea for next year.

During the season, the fact that you aren't scouting players each and every week means that there just isn't anything meaningful for you to do each week between games. You're probably not going to be adjusting your practice schedule much, nor are you likely to be constantly adjusting your depth chart, trading players (or draft picks) with other teams, or moving players back and forth between your active roster and practice squad. You can't even extend player contracts during the season, even though the game lets you access the player re-sign screen.

I honestly believe that this scouting mechanic would be much better served in a college game. I could imagine a really neat system in which you assign scouts to a specific state (or a block of states) in order to have better scouting and recruiting success within that region. This could either supplement or replace the concept of "pipeline states". Each scout would have a specific number of hours (or points) to spend in their assigned region, while your coaching staff is free to scout and recruit any player in the nation (but much less effectively). Canuck Play, I hope you're looking at Axis and taking notes for possible updates to Maximum Football's Dynasty mode!

Regional scouts would work much better in a college Dynasty recruiting environment.
Canuck Play, take notes!

I also could have seen these scouts as potentially tying into the practice squad feature that was present in last year's game, but which feels completely under-developed. There are no limits to who you can put on your practice squad. You can put 12-year veterans or fresh-faced rookies on the practice squad just the same. Being on the practice squad does not (as far as I can tell) lower the player's salary to free up cap space. If you have the cap space to afford to keep a few extra rookies, you can stash them on the practice squad to develop them a bit, but I haven't found it worthwhile to do.

Players never get poached from your practice squad
(as might happen in Madden).

I also have never seen another team sign a player off of another team's practice squad, nor have I seen a way for me to view and sign players off of other team's practice squads. You could stash relatively high-rated players on the practice squad with impunity, though I don't know why you would want to.

With a properly-functioning practice squad mechanic, the new regional scouts could maybe have been given the ability to scout other team's practice squads for players that you could poach. This would more closely mirror the in-season recruiting of a college Dynasty mode, since you would have the agency to pursue signing a contract with any player who your scouts deem worthy of a roster spot.

Sign rookies to lengthy contracts with minimal salaries.

Then there are some of the returning problems which have not been fixed. Because there is no automatic salary growth or a fixed rookie contract, you can exploit rookies by signing them to max-length, seven-year contracts at below their market value. This ensures that you'll have enough cheap reserves to fill out your roster for years to come, and if one of those players has a breakout year and progresses his ratings, then you'll have a super-cheap stud for at least a few years.

Lastly, there are some bugs. After coming back from playing a game, all my coaches' win / loss records were based on the worst team in the league instead of my team. If I simulated games, the win / loss records were tallied correctly. If you want your coaches to have the right record, you can't actually play any of your Franchise games (unless maybe you happen to be the worst team in the league). I tried restarting my Franchise in the hopes that the bug would be fixed, but it persisted across multiple save files. I don't know if this will affect the coaches' off-season progression or progression of players that are tied to that coach, or have any other lasting effects. If so, I may have to fire my coach and re-hire a better one every single year. In either case, I really hope Axis fixes it. Or maybe it will just lower their contract expectations and end up being another money-saving exploit.

I ran into a bug that swapped my coach's career win/loss record with the record of the worst team in the league.

Another weird bug showed me the wrong team's schedule and upcoming matchup after coming back from playing a game. At first, I thought maybe my team was on bye, so I simulated the week, only to find that I had accidentally simulated my team's next game. (It seems that none of the teams in Axis Football 19 ever get a bye week!). I rebooted the game, and the dashboard seemed to now show the correct team's schedule.

Looking to the best football games of the past for inspiration

It's great to see that both Canuck Play and Axis are looking back to the best football games of the past for their inspirations. Canuck sought inspiration from NCAA Football 13 and 14 for Maximum Football 19's college Dynasty mode, and Axis seems to be taking notes from NFL 2k5 and Madden 2006. While Canuck seemed content to replicate NCAA Football almost verbatim, Axis is going one step further by adding in some more of its own new ideas, refinements, and modernizations. The result is a Franchise mode that is as feature-complete and almost as compelling as any we've ever seen in a football game -- but which still needs some polish and refinement.

The big problem is that the on-field gameplay continues to hold Axis Football 19 back. As much as I love where Axis is going with this Franchise mode, at the end of the day, what I want most of all is to be able to sit down and play football. If the football doesn't play well, then I'm just not going to have much reason to come back.

Just like last year, Axis Football is the more feature-complete and polished of the two indie football games available, and I feel it comes much closer than Maximum to being worth the $30 asking price. But both of these games are going to have to make significant investments into the quality of their on-field gameplay if they want me to shell out more money in 2020 and beyond.

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