Fans of Australia’s great game have been patient in their wait for the long-overdue newest adaptation of the sport, myself in particular, whose own football career ended prematurely due to a lingering foot injury. Melbourne-based developer Wicked Witch are the team tasked with bringing to the sport to digital life, and for the most part they deliver a relatively fun AFL experience despite some frustrating mechanics and inconsistencies.
For those not from Down Under, the AFL is Australia’s (and the world’s) highest league for Australian Rules football. It is a contact sport that is predominantly played in the Southern states of Australia and utilises foot, hand and jumping skills. Goals are worth 6 points and are scored whenever a player kicks the ball through the big middle sticks. A point is scored whenever a player kicks it between the posts either side of the goals or if an opposition player touches the ball before it crosses the goal line.
Surely Cloke can’t miss from there?
Before we get into the heart of the review, let’s discuss one thing: expectations. It’s a well-known fact that the budget for an AFL game is well below what say an EA Sports would spend on an iteration of FIFA or 2K would on their NBA2K series. While this doesn’t excuse them from criticism, it does to some degree influence the severity of which components are judged. Furthermore, Australian Rules football is an extremely hard sport to translate into a video game due its unique ball physics and mixture of foot and hand attributes. Now that the preamble is out of the way, let’s get stuck into it, shall we?
If you’re an Aussie Rules fan and a gamer, you’ve no doubt experienced one of the previous iterations of the sport’s video game entrants. AFL Live and AFL Live 2 were both…mediocre… at best, and AFL games since have had a certain stigma surrounding them, mostly due to the developer’s limited budget. Even AFL Evolution’s announcement was met with scepticism that it would be a low-budget clanger. However, despite its shortcomings, AFL Evolution is better than its predecessors in practically every facet.
The gameplay itself feels like it has a lot more fluidity than it has it in past; it feels easier to get a chain of handballs going up the guts before delivering the Sherrin lace-out to your leading forward target. Both the kicking and the handball animations look natural too, with players not looking like they’ve never kicked a ball before as in previous instalments. Players have a variety of kicking options, with surgeons opting for the stock-standard drop punt or a short little dart into the chest of their teammate. More mercurial types will go for the banana, checkside or dribble kick, all harder to pull off, but sexier to watch when it all plays out nicely. Goal kicking is relatively easy to get the hang of but has enough risk that it’s not guaranteed every time (like penalty kicks in FIFA). Basically, you pull the right analogue stick down and then push it up enough before the meter fills up while also compensating for any wind. Do this right and you’ll be kicking more snags than Bunnings cooks during a Saturday sausage sizzle. However, the same cannot be said for the AI, who are often guilty of missing total gimmes from less than three meters from the goal.
Dicko kicking a tasty sausage roll
Ironically, the umpiring is another hit-and-miss facet of the game, with the AI getting the rub of the green when it comes to holding the ball decisions practically every time
Not all mechanics are intuitive though, with marking especially frustrating to master, and the gameplay suffers a bit as a result. Marking is when a player kicks it to another player 15 or more metres away and they catch the ball. Players who’ve marked the ball cannot be tackled until they’ve played on or been called to do so. Early doors I was getting smashed in the marking count, sometimes being tripled even. Short passes with players on the lead are essentially unstoppable, but they’re not the really the issue. The issue is the contested marks, where both defender and attacker have a 50/50 chance of marking the ball. But more often than not the AI will muscle you out of the way or clunk the mark despite myself being in the best position to take the grab. Furthermore, the ease at which the AI take ‘hangers’ (jumping on the back or shoulders of another player and taking the mark) is alarming. In fact I think I have to change my PSN to the Step Ladder due to the amount times the AI climbed my back and shoulders. Whereas for me it felt like I had lead boots on most of the time. Spoiling is also another frustrating mechanic, with players the majority of the time looking like they’re auditioning for a Toyota or Jetstar ad as they jump up and punch the air and missing the ball entirely.
The lack of a tutorial or training modes is a disappointment. Players would benefit drastically from having drills in order to get them comfortable with the controls. Instead, the best way to learn is to drop the difficulty down to easy, but then the AI becomes witches hats. It’s hard to say whether you learn more from winning by 80+ points on easy or being pumped by 10+ goals on medium.
Andrew Gaff, you beauty!
The old percentage booster
Being a Pro in action
The most impressive visuals come in the form of star players, such as Carlton’s Marc Murphy or the Western Bulldogs’ Marcus Bontempelli
Ironically, the umpiring is another hit-and-miss facet of the game, with the AI getting the rub of the green when it comes to holding the ball decisions practically every time. Far too often I would receive a handball or a ruck-tap, only to be gobbled up by an opposition player before I even knew I had the ball and be pinged for either holding or throwing the ball (I GOT A HAND TO IT REF!). Conversely, whenever I lay a tackle the opposition would either somehow dispose of the ball or receive a free for a push in the back. In fact, I don’t believe I have been awarded a free kick for the AI holding the ball once. Either that or the opposition would slip out of a tackle like they coated themselves in Teflon pre-game. Clearly rigged.
The last major letdown with the game is the commentary. When it was announced that the legendary Dennis Cometti and Richmond champion Matthew Richardson would be shouldering the game’s play-by-play duties I was excited. Sadly, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Players are often called incorrect names, Dennis refers to a mark as a catch occasionally (carn Dennis, you’re better than that) and the flow of the commentary is choppier than the seas during the final scenes of The Perfect Storm (great film by the way). There are some classic Dennis lines here, such as “that shot out like a chocolate bar from a slot machine”, which serves as some Dennis nostalgia, however after hearing the same eccentric lines over and over they become a little tiresome.
Exhibition matches aren’t the only game mode available, additional modes come in the form of Career Mode – which is akin to FIFA’s Be A Pro Mode – where players take control of a singular player (which can be a creation of yourself) and build their career up through the lower leagues or simply take control of a modern-day gun. The biggest annoyance in this mode is that once you’re tired in the game and the coach wants to bench you you’re given two options, you can either simulate the rest of the game or watch the game until you’re given another gallop. Meaning you can be sitting there watching your team play for over half the game. More refined versions of this mode, such as in FIFA, allow players to simulate until they’re brought back on (or subbed on in the FIFA example).
There’s also a Competition Mode, which allows players to play a regular season as a team of their choice in search for the Holy Grail. Thankfully, this is not limited to a singular season and players can attempt to build a dynasty by drafting and trading in the off-season. The downside to this is that it is fairly easy to secure top talent from other clubs for next to nothing. The juxtaposition between player trading in AFL Evolution with the same element in EA Sports’ NHL series shows a clear difference in reality. In AFL, superstars are acquired with ease, while in NHL you need to shift heaven and Earth to land a big fish.
Lastly there is Free Roam, which is the most pointless mode here. Free Roam is as it sounds, you have one player kicking the ball all by themselves up and down the ground. It’s possibly the most pointless mode in a sports game I have ever seen. Instead of Free Roam, Wicked Witch should have implemented some form of training mode, like I mentioned earlier.
The game’s graphics are hit-and-miss and look like PS3 era graphics at best. The most impressive visuals come in the form of star players, such as Carlton’s Marc Murphy or the Western Bulldogs’ Marcus Bontempelli – which are brilliant digital renditions. Lesser known players like St Kilda’s Jack Billings or Carlton’s Dennis Armfield are far from body doubles and leave a lot be desired. The stadiums and crowds are well rendered, and it’s good to see Tassie get a stadium included in the game.
To give the game a bit more replayability and appeal, Wicked Witch have included a host of additional teams from various leagues and comps. Players can choose from AFLW, VFL, NAB U18, TAC Cup, International Cup teams and bonus teams (such as the 2016 All Australian team or the Indigenous All Stars). Players also have the ability to create their own players and teams, with Wicked Witch providing a deep customisation system which you can spend hours on. The biggest win here is that Tip Rat is a selectable nickname.
Fire the boys up, Murph!
Wines unloading a barrel
The fundamentals of the game are all here, albeit a bit frustrating to execute at times, and there’s a good range of modes and teams for players to occupy themselves. Ardent AFL fans are likely to find the game enjoyable while casual and curious fans might find the game’s shortcomings hard to overcome. AFL Evolution is far from a flawless product, but in saying that it has provided a good foundation for Wicked Witch to build on should they continue to develop AFL games in the future.
Reviewed on PS4 Pro