Football is a team sport. Alas, that goes counterpoint to a lot of the superstar worship and smack-talking that gritty sports video games are made of. To satisfy the casual fan, EA has launched a surprise on Xbox 360 and PS3 owners with Madden NFL Arcade. A five-on-five football game, it borrows heavily from previous arcade football games like NFL Blitz and EA's own dearly departed NFL Street (and less remembered NFL Tour), while offering a few new wrinkles. It's also a download-only title, available through Xbox Live Arcade and PSN for a price of $15 (or 1,200 Microsoft points, which are always hard to do conversion rates for).
The game's not coming to the Wii, most likely because Nintendo's version of Madden 10 already incorporates an easier play mode that embodies a lot of what this new Madden game is about. And what, exactly, is this game about? From what we experienced, that would be man-on-man competition, quick scoring, and random fun.
We approached NFL Arcade from a serious Madden-playing angle, and needless to say, this game doesn't employ much strategy. Players select long-, medium-, or short-pass plays or runs and basic defensive packages, then face off in quick, hit-happy plays. With only five teammates, there's basically no offensive line, so the aesthetic is schoolyard chuck-around, not first-down making. In fact, one clever twist is that each possession is simply a four-down challenge to either score a touchdown or turn the ball over trying.
There's no play clock at all, and in our sampled game mode, the first to 30 won. Game settings can alter the points goal up to 48 and down to a handful of points, and the number of downs, length of the field and starting position can be toyed with, but the clockless format is a constant. We actually liked it at first, since it focused on scoring drives and points rather than artificially accelerated quarters. However, especially in games versus the computer, games can end up lasting forever if no points are scored on drives, prompting a tired gamer to give up a play just to end the experience already.
Another maddening (forgive the pun) addition is a randomized slot machine for each team that brought up certain power-ups, called game changers, on various plays. Whether you receive something or nothing is completely beyond your control, and some of the effects (instant fumbling, slow-motion, or a flipping of scores between you and your opponent) are insane and devastating. Perhaps too much so for my taste, since they almost completely eliminated any real strategy or skill from the showdown. On the other hand, they're purely meant for fun, and can be turned off if you're more of a game purist. In subsequent games with the final version, we got used to the power-ups and grew to like them, especially since they can be saved and activated at appropriate times, or countered with other game-changers.
All NFL teams are included, and the models for the NFL players are less cartoonish than Blitz and Street games of the past, while still being more stylized and over-the-top than standard Madden. On the other hand, rosters can't be edited or retooled (although roster updates are downloaded during online play).
We lost our Jets-Texans match-up, but we're looking forward to the rematch. We do appreciate the price point--this game's a more affordable pickup than full-priced disc-based games that preceded it, and we welcome this move for future "extreme" arcade sports titles. It may seem like double-dipping for EA, but it's a smart way to reach those who are intimidated by Madden's intricacies, as well as a quick fix for NFL addicts who can't be bothered for a full four-quarter ordeal. On the other hand, the term "arcade" never fit a game better- this is a simple package, but a great game to whip out on a lazy Thanksgiving afternoon or quiet holiday morning during the thick of winter football.