IGN Review of Arena Football
Here's a great sequence that sums up Arena Football. It's the fourth quarter, and with four seconds remaining in the game, the Arizona Rattlers scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion to go up by six points over my San Jose Sabercats. All is lost, right? In Arena Football, you will quickly learn, no game is ever out of reach.
On the ensuing kickoff, my receiver sprinted left, following his lead blocker. He then throws a vicious stiff-arm, shakes a tackler and sprints loose down the left sideline. On the way, the opposing coach just happened to be standing on the field, and the receiver was sure to lower his shoulder and knock the coach to the ground before crossing the goal line to tie the game.
While celebrating, the receiver started bowing to the crowd and yelling, "I'd like to thank all you people over here," and then, turning around, "and all the people over here." Suddenly, an angry Rattler defender pummels my receiver and screams, "You're welcome, punk!" The ensuing extra-point wins the game for San Jose with no time left on the clock.
Yeah, that wild, rough-and-tumble sequence of Arena Football embodies exactly what EA Sports was trying to capture when it set out to create the first ever AFL-licensed football game. It should come as no surprise then that, with coaches being pounded to the ground, some of the best tackling animations ever seen in videogame football and on-field smack talking, that Arena Football was developed by the same deranged minds that brought us the Outlaw Golf series, now working with EA Tiburon.
Of course, Tiburon is the outstanding development studio that handles the Madden NFL and NCAA Football franchises, and no less effort went into Arena Football, one of the most enjoyable gridiron experiences of the year.
First thing's first though. This is Arena football, not to be confused with that stuff the Steelers and Seahawks will be playing in the Super Bowl. The field is only 50 yards long and is surrounded by walls, like a hockey rink with turf. Arena is eight-on-eight, Ironman football in which six of eight players go both ways. It's high scoring; the average game tops 100 total points. It's hard-hitting, it's fast and it's fun.
Obviously, Tiburon had a unique challenge in trying to capture the high-energy style of the AFL, and the developers couldn't simply settle for a 50-yard version of Madden surrounded by walls. Instead, Tiburon ripped the playbooks straight from the hands of AFL coaches like Jay Gruden, brother of Tampa Bay Bucs coach John. The playbooks are small but feature the same goofy motions that you seen in the AFL; receivers sprinting forward when the ball is snapped or looping around the backfield. As for playcalling itself, it's a good idea to avoid using the "Coach's Picks" selections because there doesn't appear to be much logic in them at all, unless it's normal to run the ball on third and long in the AFL, or run the same passing play four times in a row, that is.
On offense, you will throw the ball about 90 percent of the time if you want to be successful. Running, other than in short-yardage situations, is completely ineffective. But, because the passing game is so enjoyable, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
As an eight-on-eight game, the field is wide open, and you'll be throwing a lot of deep balls and crossing routes, many of which end of with a receiver being pounded into or over the wall resulting in some of the most satisfying collisions outside of a destruction derby. There are some seriously bone-crunching hits in this game -- more on that later.
Remember back when the Madden series made its debut on Playstation 2. For some odd reason, with the improved receiver animations, it became very difficult to make a user-controlled catch. Soon, many of us resigned to let the CPU make the grabs for us. This is where Arena Football really shines on offense. When you loft up a deep pass to a receiver, it's such a satisfying feeling to switch to the receiver, hit the sprint button and then make a diving catch (after which you are creamed by a number of defenders). You'll see one-handed catches, leaping catches, one-handed leaping catches. It's simple and intuitive and you'll end up making many more user-catches than CPU-catches, which is the way it should be.
Tiburon also included a nifty new feature where you can select a receiver before the snap and let the CPU control the quarterback. Although you may not use this option much, if at all, it works great in multiplayer games as a way to fake out your buddy.
You may think that with such high-scoring games, defense would be boring, if not a complete waste of time. You would be wrong. Even though an offense is going to score on you, and score on you a lot, Tiburon implemented a lot of nice touches to keep the defensive game fresh with each set of downs. First, tackling. There is an astounding amount of tackling animations in the game and almost all of them are sadistic and devastating. You can chop the legs from underneath a ball carrier. You can chop his legs while a hulking linebacker cleans up, spinning the ball-carrier completely around in a discombobulating helicopter move. Factor in the Arena walls and you can do everything short of manslaughter.
There's plenty of Blitz-style unnecessary roughness too. On offense or defense, you can press the X button to light up the nearest opponent. Most of the time a penalty isn't called and it's so tempting to smash your opponents over the boards and into the speaker equipment placed precariously close to the field. Also, coaches stand on the field, near the wall behind the line of scrimmage, so feel free to give the opposing coach a flying-forearm after each play. If you don't like your own team's coach, you can give him the business as well.
Choosing a defensive player to control is a bit of a conundrum. Using a defensive back, a rarity in Madden, is fun for the same reasons it's fun to control a receiver - you can make plays on the ball. Tiburon added a nice control scheme for defensive linemen, with which you hold the B button and move the left analog stick for a swim, spin or a good old-fashioned bull-rush. Using linebackers is another story. For those new to the AFL, there are a whole lot of rules you've never heard of. For example, only one linebacker is allowed to blitz and he must do so in the gaps next to the center -- no outside rushes. Also, backers must stay in a box between the offensive tackles and cannot drop back into deep pass coverage. Thankfully, EA highlights the "box" when you are controlling an LB, but you will get flagged a number of times before you learn all the rules.
This is another thing Tiburon did right. The rules of the AFL are hammered home in just about every loading screen in the game. When you pause, a crazed coach starts yelling out the ins and outs of Mac linebackers in his best monster-truck-rally voice. It's pretty much impossible not to understand AFL rules after a few games.
To make Ironman football a factor, EA created a new Telemetry system that reveals scoring patterns, pass patterns and the health of your opponents. This comes in handy when you need a big play; simply check out the health of the DBs, pick the most tired one and exploit the matchup. This is a nice bit of in-game scouting that, while not revolutionary and you may never use it, accurately reflects real football. What team in football doesn't record opponent's plays and tendencies and make adjustments? What QB doesn't throw at tired DBs? I'm looking at you, Mike Rumph.
The kicking game is new, too. As part of the fashionable trend to use the right-analog stick, Tiburon took kicking analog as well. Aim the kick, then pull down to start the power meter. Press directly up to kick. If don't hit the right stick directly up, then the kick will be off. It's a fine mechanic, but it's no better than current kicking setups and in no way revolutionizes kicking the way, say, analog control changed golf games.
Off the field, Arena Football is a bit shallow. There's a practice mode, an exhibition mode and a season mode, which shouldn't be compared to the deep franchise modes in Madden. Of course, there's no draft in the AFL, so in the offseason you simply sign free agents and resign your own players. While the season mode stretches out to 20 seasons, it lacks any sort of player development or training camps, which would have been fun additions. Since many of these players hold other jobs in the offseason, it would have been fun -- and a bit insensitive -- to include mini-games where you take the role of an Army reservist or maybe a UPS delivery man. Anything would have been better than the simplistic mode in place. That said, it is fun to accumulate some great college players that never quite made it, like Kansas State's Michael Bishop, Oregon's Tony Graziani and Georgia Tech's Joey Hamilton.
Visually, the game is a treat to watch, mostly because of the wonderful player animations. The models themselves are run of the mill. The fields are accurate but are surrounded by a dull crowd shrouded in purple light. The Xbox version is much sharper than the PS2 version, and the PS2 version suffers from a strange sort of flicker around the player models.
The sound is also a mixed bag. In an effort to give players more of an "on-the-field" experience, EA opted not to include a broadcast team. Instead, a dull P.A. announcer calls the game and a techno-rock track plays in the background. As a matter of opinion, I feel that a colorful broadcast team could have added some real humor and fun to the amazing variety of crazy plays that you will see while playing Arena Football, like the old NBA Jam announcer. Accepting the lack of a broadcast team, Tiburon should have improved the crowd, adding some team-specific cheers or some organ music. Instead, the crowd cheers blandly the entire game, getting a bit louder in key situations and booing when a kicker attempts a field goal -- AFL fans don't pay to see field goals.
Tiburon did, however, nail the crunch of big hits and off-the-wall tackles. As part of the "on-the-field" experience, there is a lot of entertaining chatter from players and coaches. Sometimes after you turn the ball over, a coach will yell at a player. After a big hit, a defender may ask if you want your mommy. Zing!
Online and multiplayer are particularly well done. Arena Football is almost made to be played with a friend, and EA really made the game accessible as a pick-up-and-play title that is one step shy of being an arcade game. There wasn't a hint of slow-down during our online sessions, but plenty of smack was talked after excruciating de-cleaters. The online modes are standard EA fare: there's four and eight-player quick tournaments, as well as ranked games and leaderboards. It would be nice to have online leagues, but we'll look for that option next season.
©2006-02-03, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved