AFL Evolution is a terrible game that’s endearingly entertaining to a footy fanatic. It’s a regurgitated disappointment – it’s basically a repackaged version of AFL Live 2 from last-generation – littered with glitches and unpolished oddities that suggest the development team isn’t very familiar with modern football. Yet, it’ll carve out an audience that spends plenty of time forging a lengthy career and fighting for supremacy in tense multiplayer battles, where AFL Evolution shrines its brightest, albeit with barely a glimmer.
The elation of an AFL game finally coming to PS4 and Xbox One was quickly quelled by the realisation it wasn’t going to be very good. A lack of information heading into the season and then a sudden release date, with no gameplay footage, was a bit of a giveaway. We, AFL fans, are lucky to get a dedicated video game at all, even if it has been a few years between drinks. For a game that only sells in three states of Australia, the logistics aren’t there to support more frequent updates.
I can live with bugs and glitches, the shoddy presentation, horrendously bad commentary and even the baffling gameplay choices that don’t reflect modern Aussie rules footy (player positioning is more reminiscent of the sport in the ’90s than today). The reason AFL Evolution is a colossal disappointment is that it isn’t an “evolution” at all. Rather, it’s a basic port of a four-year-old Xbox 360/PS3 game that wasn’t very good to begin with; I’m loath to even call it a remaster, but it’s much closer to that than a new game.
AFL Evolution comes complete with several of AFL Live 2’s glitches intact, and almost exactly the same gameplay. Granted, it’s been tweaked in some of the right areas. The pacing feels a little stronger and popular players and the main stadiums do look much better, but that doesn’t distract from the simplicity of a port masquerading as a brand new game. The official description is a blatant lie, saying “AFL Evolution represents the next evolution in AFL video games… thanks to a completely new gameplay system built from the ground up.” That just isn’t true; it’s not even remotely close to the fresh take on AFL we were promised, and it would be a stretch to call it AFL Live 3 – it’s AFL Live 2 with a couple of tweaks and updated playing lists.
The additional of AFLW is a selling point (although clearly an afterthought, as it’s downloaded in the day one patch), but in reality is no different to offering the VFL and TAC Cup. It’s nice to have the female players represented, but they are merely skins over the same old gameplay. Unlike FIFA’s, and to a lesser extent the locally made Don Bradman Cricket 17’s, introduction of female players, women don’t play or move any differently to the men in AFL Evolution, so what was the point in adding them? Like female soccer and cricket, women’s football has a unique style in contrast to the men’s competition, and the lower scoring contests with more shirking of tackles and positional play better lends itself to a video game adaptation, and yet it hasn’t been genuinely implemented.
I know there will be realists calling bloody murder because I’ve already mentioned FIFA. I understand the rationale that we can’t expect an AFL game on par with FIFA or NBA 2K due to the small budgets and limited market, and that’s true. However, $100 spent on AFL Evolution doesn’t feel any different to my wallet than $100 spent on FIFA 17 or NBA 2K17. If you’re going to charge top dollar, it’s fair for fans to expect the same quality, even if such a feat is impossible. With a tiny budget and a primary purpose as an AFL marketing tool, AFL Evolution would have been a much more attractive proposition at $30-50.
AFL Evolution maintains the same gameplay from AFL Live 2, which itself was a mash-up of a Wii game from 2011 and some ideas from AFL Live. Evolution remedies the ridiculous error of AFL Live 2 by actually manning up forwards – Buddy Franklin won’t be left alone in the goal square this time around. But this newfound manning up has gone too far in the other direction. Whereas AFL Live 2 was a sea of free players, AFL Evolution employs ridiculously tight tagging, regardless of the defensive tactics selected. It’s impossible to switch the play or even take an uncontested mark, really, because players are so closely checked by their opposition.
Goal kicking benefits from some refreshed animations while retaining the same mechanic. Regardless of the selected camera angle, entering set shot mode swings the camera behind the player. Taking aim, factoring in the wind, the right stick is pulled back to determine the power and then flicked forward to execute the kick. The ball should go in the direction the control stick is pushed. Moving a little to either side will cause the ball to float left-to-right or vice versa. It’s a solid system, but one that still forces you to be within 40 meters of goal, and ideally even closer. Only star full and centre-half forwards can kick anywhere near 50 meters, with most players severely lacking in the kicking department.
Gameplay around the ground feels a little more fluid, but it’s still extremely jittery and well off the mark set by the original AFL Live, which hasn’t aged well. Players are more flat-footed than in the previous instalment, but that’s true to the current trend of AFL, where leading seems to be a dying art in favour of kicking down the line to a contest in hope, interspersed by the occasional passage of riveting fast play. Holding the ball and high tackle free kicks seem to be totally random, with more chance of being awarded in the backline — but credit where credit’s due, as that’s completely accurate to real life AFL umpiring.
Rucking has remained an unchanged timing event, while marking has been altered to become much worse. The old indicator was slow, but accurate, whereas the new one feels like a total lottery. With players very rarely in space, unless you draw a man and handball to the one free teammate, every kick is to a contest in hope of the rubbish marking system falling in your favour. Marking is the Achilles’ heel of all AFL games, as it has to be skilled based, yet means there’s no straightforward way to pass to a teammate, as there is in most big budget sport games; imagine a soccer game where the pass mechanic was dodgy. AFL Evolution makes a total hash of it, with a worse mechanic than its predecessor and almost no opportunities to take uncontested marks — which while being more accurate to modern AFL, would also have gone some way towards solving the issue by allowing easy, consistent passes. As much as it seems boring to switch or pass backwards to a free man in a video game, it’s infuriating that it can’t be done.
After mastering handpasses and short kicks, there’s really nothing more you can do to better your performance. On hard and above, the challenge is increased by taking away what little time you had. In theory that makes sense, but it restricts your options as time is required to charge the power of a long kick or handball, and AFL Evolution wants you to go long all the time.
Glitches are annoying, but errors in how AFL is played, like the pointless auto-interchange system, are unforgivable. It claims to handle the continuous player swapping for you, something quite unique to AFL, but it just doesn’t. With 5-minute quarters, my bench players aren’t brought on at all, or there is one or two insane changes, like a short midfielder coming on to replace the fullback.
The interchange bungle is inconvenient playing through the 2017 AFL season, either as a stand-alone competition or as part of the coach career mode, but it’s heinous in the pro player career. This horrible excuse for a pro mode has you start as a rookie in the TAC Cup, VFL or AFL, controlling a single player in the team (or you can take control of an existing player). But your player is so bad, he can barely kick 15 meters and is totally spent halfway through the first quarter. That’s all ridiculous, but it gets much worse. When that happens, you’re substituted out of the game due to fatigue, and can watch or simulate the rest of the match (which ruins the season’s stats). That’s right; for some reason you’re substituted, not interchanged. The developer responsible for that mustn’t have seen an AFL match before. Furthermore, whenever there’s a free kick, mark or any replay, your pro player teleports back to his default position. If you’re a CHF and lead to halfback, where a free kick is given, you’re sent back 50 meters, which takes you out of the next play (presumably this is only meant to happen after a goal). These are basic errors that should have been picked up within minutes of testing.
The coach career mode is better, simply by virtue of actually being playable. You’re responsible for financing the club, and managing players out through injury or suspension, while playing or simulating games. There are heaps of stats and players can be upgraded by spending experience points earned by training them and playing matches. That adds more incentive to play younger players, or you can save time by editing any player’s stats.
AFL Evolution has community options to create and share teams and players. Like both its predecessors, the player ratings are dubious at best, and presumably haven’t been updated in at least 12 months. Hidden away in the menus is an option to tweak the stats of existing players, overshadowed by options to create new ones. While licensed AFL players can’t have their likenesses altered, you can change their stats and preferred positions to something a little more accurate.
Local multiplayer is where I’ve had the most fun with AFL Evolution. There’s no clear best camera angle, as you can either see around the ball or further up the ground, but not both. The dynamically shifting camera tries to rectify that, but doesn’t work for two players, so the default side-on camera has to suffice. Online play is a mixed bag, as while I’ve enjoyed matches that worked, I’ve encountered some disastrous lag, where the ball stops in mid-air, only to later appear halfway down the ground. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve given up trying, as it’s just not possible to put up with it in a game so reliant on timing.
Commentary is atrocious, as it has been in all AFL games, and I can’t image Matthew “Richo” Richardson spent more than half-an-hour recording his mundane nonsense. Retired great Dennis Cometti returns, mostly through reused legacy lines, and I wish he hadn’t. It’s a sad way for him to go out, even worse than the Woolworths’ ad, bumbling with robotic quips and blatant inaccuracies.
If you’re an AFL fan and want an AFL game, there’s no other choice. AFL Evolution is certainly the most playable attempt we’ve had at an AFL game for a while (let’s not forget the disastrous glitches that plagued both AFL Live games at launch), but it’s also the most disappointing. AFL Live and its sequel tried new things, with mixed results. AFL Evolution disgraces its name as a plain port of a game that was already full of problems, many of them easy to resolve. There have been some improvements, but so many issues linger and new ones have been introduced. Realistically, AFL games are never going to be great. The budgets are too small and the sport is too complicated to recreate, but a challenge is no excuse for phoning it in and rehashing mediocrity. AFL fans might never get the game we’ve been dreaming of, but we deserve a much better attempt than this quick cash-in.
AFL Evolution was reviewed using a digital copy on Xbox One, bought by the reviewer. Click here to learn more about Stevivor’s scoring scale.