Review: By day, porn star...by night, AFL cheerleader!
Electronic Arts owns videogame football, whether people like it or not. They have the NFL ? exclusively. They have NCAA college football ? exclusively. So what's left for the gaming juggernaut? Why, Arena Football, of course ? exclusively. 20 years old now, the AFL has grown substantially over the last few years, providing a springtime football fix once the Super Bowl is finished; something the XFL miserably failed at some 5 years ago. The 'greatest show on turf' (not to be confused by the St. Louis Rams offense when Kurt Warner was there, which carried the same clich? nickname) is perfect for the medium of gaming; it's fast paced, more brutal action is a far cry from the more sanitized NFL action, and EA Tiburon has taken this to heart and crafted a football game which might look a bit like Madden, but has the touch of classic NFL Blitz with a dash of Tecmo Super Bowl somewhere in there too for a far less demanding simulation. The best part ? you don't need to know a thing about the Arena Football League to enjoy this surprisingly entertaining addition to your Xbox library.
Arena Football is somewhat skimpy on features, which isn't a surprise for a first try, and besides the AFL itself is far less in-depth than the NFL. You get a Season mode which doubles as a 'franchise' setup, you can play online via Xbox Live, and that's about it. There's some creation methods for making your own players and teams, but it doesn't get much deeper than that. There is a nicely done AFL 101 video series that explains the very unique rules of indoor football, which even the most die-hard Madden fan should watch to wrap their heads around the game. As said previously the season mode does carry over into multiple seasons, but it's far less involving. There is no draft, as most AFL players are either NFL rejects or guys who couldn't make the pros out of college, but there's free agency for bringing in new players or signing back your own guys. Like the NFL, you play a full 16 game schedule choosing one of the 18 league teams, without any bye weeks, and make a playoff charge for the Arena Bowl which is settling into Las Vegas as a permanent home. To keep you playing, there are a bunch of Milestones for reaching certain goals in-game (like throwing no interceptions, or getting called for any penalties), which unlock old and dead AFL teams for exhibition and online contests. There's even a bit of history about these teams to educate the AFL newbie.
Aside from the basic core rules of American football, the AFL abides by a whole different arrangement. Each team gets 8 players per side, and many of them play both offense and defense, with a couple 'specialists' for each side of the ball. The clock almost never stops, only taking a break when a turnover occurs or during a kickoff, and at the '1 minute warning' during the 2nd and 4th quarters. Only one linebacker (known as the Mac LB) can blitz, while the 'Jack' linebacker has to stay behind and hope for the chance to make a play. To be honest, many of these rules are so confusing you might not as well bother learning them. The real big thing is the wall surrounding the field and how it affects play ? you can bounce off the walls and be in bounds, but you also can get smacked over the wall onto the floor ? a risk/reward for playing down-the-sidelines football. And of course, there's the whole 50 yard field thing since you can't get 100 yards into a basketball stadium. In short, while it looks like football, and smells like football...it's not exactly the same kind of football we play every fall. As such there's a learning curve unless you're a major fan of the league ? those Madden techniques probably won't work here. Though NFL purists likely will scoff at such bizarre rules, everyone else very well could find the whole thing to be a fresh experience, especially seeing how stagnant Madden has become in recent times.
Translating this sort of action to a videogame had to be a challenge but it's been pulled off well. By nature, the AFL is a pass-happy league; due to the narrow field there's not a whole lot of room to build a rushing attack, so you compensate by throwing the ball down the field a lot in the same sort of fashion you would if the game was taking place in your backyard using the 'just go deep' rule. At least EA didn't put that crazy cone vision passing system in. Though designed by AFL coaches, the playbooks are small and tend to be full of similar plays, at least on offense. Defensively there's a bit more variety but a great deal of them are simply 'pick and pray' anti-pass schemes. Playing defense in itself is quite a task, as the league isn't exactly known for that side of the ball. The result is every game turns into a shootout, unless you can force a fumble, collect an interception or two, or making defensive stops at crucial points. While that works well against a computer opponent, the game doesn't fare quite as well against humans ? call it the NFL Blitz syndrome, where 2 equally skilled players can score at will constantly and pure luck is the only deciding factor. But at the same time, the more wide-open style of play and more limited playbooks are reminiscent of the days when Tecmo Super Bowl was king.
However even though technically this is a game with less buzz and less budget than Madden there's definitely some new things that likely will appear in Madden 2007. The kicking game has been revamped from the past, using the right thumbstick a la Tiger Woods. It's a bit sensitive at first but it's actually much better than the click system of the past. In Arena Football, the goal posts are much narrower making it easier to blow an extra point, and there's no punting, though due to the size of the field you can kick a field goal from your own territory to make up for it, and if you miss the ball is live. The whole thing is a bit easy but I'm sure in time EA will toughen it up so maybe it can be as crappy as the free throw shooting system in NBA Live 06 on the 360. Also new is the Telemetry system which is just a fancy word for being able to analyze the tendencies and play success of opponents and plan strategy around it. But then this is football, not baseball so stats don't quite mean as much. Finally the best new option ? Be The Receiver. Usually when you play a football game, you get stuck as the quarterback without much else unless you switch mid-play. But in Arena Football, you can actually become the receiver and change the game by running your own routes and thus altering the playbook. I'm just glad there's no Be The Fullback, or that would be ugly.
By design, Arena Football is easy to get into whether you understand the league or not ? clearly nobody at EA is stupid enough to release an AFL game that's ultra complicated, especially since the league itself prides itself on being easier to understand. Chances are the core audience won't have ever seen the AFL on TV, and only bought it because it looked like Madden...but it certainly doesn't play like Madden. It's a bit more over-the-top to be a simulation, with some extracurricular contact and bone-crunching hits, which reminds you that indeed, this is a game. But it manages to not be too outlandish and thus presents a solid game of football within its unique setup and rules and has some new ideas that will almost certainly appear in July and August when NCAA and Madden hit our lovely next-generation consoles. It won't challenge Madden or NCAA in the quality department but as a 'b-level' sports title, which EA has been really getting into lately, Arena Football does good and at a budget price it's perfect for the sports gamer who is already depressed about the end of the NFL season. It's definitely a unique entry into the massive EA Sports catalog.
Because Arena Football takes place in a smaller stadium, with less players, and a smaller field, the graphics should top Madden, right? Well...sort of. Obviously it's based upon the Madden engine, as the player models and animations are straight out of that game. Not a real surprise. There's some new stuff like cutscenes between plays where the coach will talk to one of his players, or when an opposing player nails a guy for celebrating a touchdown excessively. The field is actually very smooth and is full of real AFL sponsors, something the AFL is infamous for, with players wearing logos on their uniforms. However things look very plain on the whole. There are no unique arenas, as every team apparently plays in the same building every night. So it all feels...generic at times. But at the same time, the game plays smoothly and the framerate is solid, which accounts for something. Just don't expect a game that pushes the aging Xbox hardware too much. The audio feels dated as well, as there's no play-by-play announcers, just a generic voice who's been heard in NCAA Football and Madden before. It gets so bad sometimes they don't even mention the name of the teams. However the lack of commentary does allow for hearing the taunts and jabs of players, which can be pretty amusing. In place of more voice is a generic set of rock tunes that don't really fit. Of course EA Trax is here in menus, featuring bands like Korn and Staind... yup, it sucks.