Reviewed: Februrary 22, 2006
Released: February 7, 2006
It seems like every few years we hear about yet another new football league springing up somewhere. Whether it be to challenge the monopolistic practices of the National Football League (NFL), to fill players’ summer downtime, to take the sport to the pro-wrestling extreme, or simply to squeeze a bit more money from the rabid pigskin fans worldwide – it seems like we are always getting some new football league shoved down our throats.
Most of these attempts have proved to be short-lived; most notably the eighties-era United Stated Football League (USFL) and the World Wrestling Federation spin-off league, the Xtreme Football League (XFL) – each of which lasted only a year or two before fading into obscurity. It seems that fans aren’t too keen on paying to see washed-up, out-of-shape NFL-flunkies battle it on the gridiron for teams with names like the “Showboats”, the “Maulers”, or the “Maniax”.
But, that is not to say that there have not been some successful stabs at providing an alternative to the big-name NFL. I know that I was as surprised as anyone to find out that the relatively unknown and underground Arena Football League (AFL) has been kicking around for twenty years now.
Beginning its life as the American Football League, the AFL took the general gameplay of the NFL and squeezed it all down enough to fit in hockey-sized arenas. Much like indoor soccer, the game is fast and furious, emphasizing high-scoring passes and heavy hits, and free of unnecessary annoyances like out-of-bounds lines.
I remember first hearing about the AFL when nearby Grand Rapids announced the formation team – the Rampage. That was nine years ago. And while I cannot claim to be fan – or even a follower – of the sport, there was a sense of local pride when the news reported that the Rampage won the league’s Arena Bowl back in 2001. And even though the Rampage might not be on the top of the league this season, they are still faring a bit better than the Lions – so when the editor offered EA’s Arena Football to me for review, I snatched it up.
First things first – Arena Football is not the pigskin you grew up watching on TV. With it’s 50-yard field, pass-heavy plays, eight player iron-man play rules (where players must play both offense and defense) and rules controlling the amount of pass rushing the defense can initiate, you can really think of it as grown-up version of the backyard football you used to play as a kid.
The game breaks down as follows – each team is afforded eight men, six of whom must play positions on both offense and defense. Substitutions are limited per quarter, and once a player has been substituted out, he is considered “dead” until the next quarter.
This means that stamina and fatigue end up playing a major part in the game. Send a receiver out on fly run after fly run and he begins to miss the balls and fall behind his defender. Therefore pacing becomes of the utmost importance. Thankfully, Arena Football has a Telemetry option to help you keep track of your (and your opponent’s) players’ stamina, allowing you to make play calls to protect your own, or exploit weaknesses in others.
Play calling is handled similarly to any other football game out there, except instead of categorizing by formation you can merely select “Pass,” “Run,” or “Special.” And yes, for security purposes, there is a single comprehensive list of “All Plays” to help keep you from tipping off your friends. I must say that as listed, the plays are fewer in number and a bit more difficult to delineate between passing and rushing plays, than you are used to finding in Madden.
The lineup at the scrimmage line is always the same – save for which side the tight end and receivers line up on – and all of the “Audible” and “Hot Route” options we have grown to love in the Madden series are here in full form. Passing is the name of the game, as you send receivers out into log-yardage posts and fly runs, all the while controlling just as you would expect a Madden-based game to control.
Where the game really excels is in capturing the excitement of the long distance pass, catch and run. In a game where a single pass can span the entire length of the field, you are never too far from squeaking out just one more touchdown…and neither is the opposition. So there is always the drive to try one more play, one more pass, one more Hail Mary to win the game.
The one casualty of all of this is the rushing game – which is all but nonexistent. Even the Blitz games try to give gamers somewhat of a running game compared to Arena Football. In fact, probably 8 out of 10 times, rushing with a running back will result in negative yards, and your best rushes will come from the odd QB scramble here and there.
Still, passing is the fun stuff, and they do it well with Arena Football. Too well sometimes – resulting in a handful of “money plays” which can be exploited a few too many times to artificially inflate the scores. No game should rightly force honest players to NOT pick certain plays just to keep the game realistic, and EA does use the stamina ratings to keep the system a bit in check – but it still is quite easy to exploit programming weaknesses a few too many times in the course of the game.
Defensively, the game is a bit different and here you really need to put on your kid-glasses and think about the backyard. Remember the “no rushing the passer” rules? Well, that’s kind of what you get in Arena Football.
There are three-man offensive and defensive lines, but their play is straightforward man-on-man stuff (i.e. no traps or other funny stuff). Behind the defensive line is a pair of linebackers – the Mac and the Jack. The Jack Linebacker gets his name from the “Jack in the Box” – this box being the imaginary box formed by the two outermost linemen back 5 yards from the line of scrimmage.
The Jack must remain in this box until the ball leaves the QB’s hands or he steps out of the pocket, at which time he can tackle a rusher or try to block a pass. The Mac Linebacker is the only player who can legally rush the QB, and even he must go directly through the defensive line (i.e. no going around the end). This is all designed to give the QB enough time to find an open receiver – which isn’t the easiest of tasks on the cramped playfield.
And, because of these stringent line rules, it means that there is absolutely no movement allowed on the defensive line, so all of the line changes and shifting of Madden are out the window. The result is that the game make playing defense feel even more detached from reality than it should. In fact, it begins to seem like you are not even playing defense at all, rather just delaying the time between the opponents’ touchdowns. Granted, with practice you can begin to throw some heat on the QB, but the feel of Madden’s defense has been all but lost in Arena Football.
And what this all boils down to is that the only real beef I have with the gameplay is in the nature of Arena Football itself. The game is so fast and furious, it seems like half the time you really don’t even know what is happening in the pile of flesh that is swarming about the ball.
Midway’s Blitz let you dish out big hits (even as a ball handler) that sent bodies flying out of the jampile at least giving you some idea of where the ball was traveling. On the other hand, Arena Football often degrades into a jampile of people with little or no idea of where the ball handler is, or even what is going on. This means that you simply must go long on passes, which means money plays are the name of the game.
But this pass-heavy gameplay does highlight the best aspects of Arena Football; the “Be the Receiver” mode. Taking a cue from EA Big’s successful NBA Street series, which allowed gamers to take the reins of leaping alley-oopers “Be the Oop”, Arena Football allows gamers to take on the role of a receiver – either before or after the snap – and run the routes, call for the pass, and make some seriously cool catches.
The best part of the mode is that the player is allowed to branch off (within reason, mind you) from the predetermined route and set his or her own course for the end zone. You will still have to try to keep in the sight of the QB – or he will blindly launch the ball into oblivion – but when all the elements add up to make a perfect none-on-one situation and that perfect sprinting catch, you just may find yourself doing a little celebratory dance in the living room. And yes, if you can’t seem to find an opening, you can send the ball to the other AI-controlled receivers just as easily.
Graphically, Arena Football is one of the best-looking EA Sports games to come to the Xbox, and I am being absolutely serious. Now, most Xbox fans would know that that is not really saying a whole lot, given EA’s history of developing for the PS2 and then simply porting the PS2-quality visuals over to the Xbox.
On the contrary, Arena Football really does look like it really was made with the Xbox in mind. As so, it features some of the best modeling and shading yet seen in an EA Sports game. Granted, there are fewer players and a ton less “peripheral” objects to be rendered at once than you find in FIFA or Madden, but the game really looks leaps and bounds over the washed-out visuals we have come to expect from EA, and nearly approaches the splendor of the ill-fated Sega/2K pigskin titles.
The players are well proportioned and move quite realistically overall; whether scrambling for the ball, diving for catches, or being smashed over the boards, they look like a million bucks. And little nuances like covering the ball, high stepping over defenders, and one-handed tackles are nice touches to add a bit of realism.
There are still a few snags here and there – most noticeably with players running in place against – or even worse, warping through – the boards in an attempt to complete their pre-set route line. And the darkened arena with it faceless crowd, while quite ominous hidden in the dark-blue hue, are a bit of a let-down once you realize that the stadiums are not all that true to their real-life counterparts. In face, just one week ago I attended a hockey game in the Rampage’s Van Andel Arena, and it looked almost nothing like the house that EA bills as “Rampage Arena” in the game.
Still, all in all the visuals are crisp and clear and are some of the best in the EA lineup, and there not all that much to disappoint.
The overall sound quality is probably the Arena Football’s greatest technical letdown. Lacking any true play-by-play or color commentary, the game seems quite dull when compared to EA’s other sports offerings. Add the fact that the crowd sounds like a tacked-on field recording that never really follows the ebb and flow of the game – well, Arena Football can sometimes come across as rather soulless when compared to other EA games.
Thankfully, the on-the-field sounds are quite realistic, with tons of crunching, crashing, and board-splitting action. And while the games lacks commentary, it does feature that perfect “Arena Announcer” guy voice that gives the game a realistic touch, and is much better than dealing with the pseudo-humorous yet uber-irritating announcers of the Midway sports franchises.
Arena Football hit the streets at EA’s new budget price of $30, and for fans of the league it will be worth every penny. The game might lack the deep Dynasty modes of the larger EA franchises, but the Quickplay, Season, Training and Situation modes will be enough to keep any Arena Football fan frothing at the mouth. Add in the Xbox Live play – for which EA has made some significant strides since the Xbox 360 launch – and the game is a no-brainer for the AFL folk.
As for the rest of us, the game is definitely worth the price of admission, but with the array of awesome football titles already available (the Sega NFL2k games from past years, Midway’s Blitz games, and naturally EA’s own Madden series), one might be hard pressed to make the change to a whole new rule set and game structure. Still, Arena Football is definitely worth at least a look.
Arena Football is a technically solid game overall, and its only major stumbling point is simply its subject matter. Arena Football – the sport – may be perfectly designed to emphasize high scoring and high action in real life, but on the gaming consoles it comes across as cramped and chaotic, yet strangely regimented.
Bottom line, there is little or no running game to speak of, and after the novelty of running the standard “money” passing plays over and over wears off, gamers will quickly long for the depth of EA’s own NFL franchise. And as for the restrictions on defense, they may be all fine and dandy for the real life arenas, but gamers are sure to feel a bit detached from the defensive play when most of the players are locked into specific boxes, unable to rush the QB or block a field goal. Heck, even Midway’s Blitz series at least gives you some room to move in its over-the-top action.
Still, technically speaking, Arena Football is a solid offering at only $30, and fans of the sport should be very happy with their purchase. But for anyone new to the sport, they may be better served trying before buying to see if learning a bunch of new rules is more trouble than it is worth.