Arena Football REVIEW

Arena Football Review (PS2)

The word “arcade” is like Kryptonite to the “sim” or “straight-up” football gamer. For years, the sports gaming elite have looked down their noses at the over-the-top, Blitz-style games in this genre.

“That’s not football,” they say with disgust. Real football is 11-on-11. It’s a strategic war. A chess match. A ballet of violence. No 66-63 final scores. No 8-touchdown days. It’s played on a hundred yard field on a cold autumn weekend. It’s NCAA or Madden or it’s just an arcade fantasy of football!

“What about Arena Football?”

Arena Football,” they scoff, “that’s not football…and it’s certainly not Madden!”

In the interest of integrity, I won’t tell you which side of that conversation I’ve been on in the past. I will tell you, however, which side I am on now. Not only is Arena Football real football… it may be the perfect sport for gaming.

You know EA Sports and the resume of the team at Tiburon. They are the kings of the virtual gridiron. Like it or not, it’s not a debate.

So with development teams always at work on the next NCAA and Madden releases, Tiburon drafted a squad to bring “the 50-Yard Indoor War” that is Arena Football to your consoles.

Before I go any further, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give you the nickel version of “Arena Football for Dummies.”

A man named James Foster, while watching a Major League Indoor Soccer game at Madison Square Garden way back in 1981, conceived the basic concept of Arena Football. He tweaked and honed his idea for indoor football for 5 years, before staging a test game in Rockford, Illinois in front of a crowd of over 8,000. It was an undeniable success. And in June of 1987, the first season of the Arena Football League (AFL) kicked off.

The rules of Arena Football, while obviously different than the NFL, are all-in-all pretty basic. I won’t get into the full set of rules (insert link: http://cbs.sportsline.com/arenafootball/rules), but let’s at least cover the highlights. It’s 8-on-8, ironman football with players playing both ways on a 50 yard field that is 85 feet wide. No punts. On fourth down, you either go for it or try a field goal. Forward motion is allowed pre-snap. And the rebound net is live on all plays. Got the basics? Good.

If you’ve never watched Arena Football before, the first thing you’re going to notice when playing the game (as you would if you tuned in for a telecast) is that the game is about 90/10 ratio of passing to running. Running the ball is just not a major factor in Arena Football outside of short yardage. This is a sport for gunslingers, so naturally it’s a great gaming experience for those of you who try to put up 800 yards in the air on Madden. The developers got help from some real world Arena coaches to give you some very accurate playbooks. They’re not as deep as some would like, but they work.

To spice up the passing game even more, Arena Football allows you to take control of your receiver before the snap to control your own route. While letting the AI play quarterback is horrifying to many, running the route that you want to run gives you a real, open feeling that you don’t get in other games. The game, unlike it’s collegiate and NFL brother, really feels better and more natural when attempting manual catches with the receivers. While the other games sometimes feel like you just needed to get to spot and get in the right animation, Arena Football has a real fluid feel to the pitch-and-catch.

Defensively, a lot of AFL virgins are going to complain or call the game “broken” because they can’t stop anyone. Unfortunately for you, that’s really the sport, not the game. Arena Football is really a “strike first, strike hard, no mercy, Sir” type of game. It’s more Colts and Rams then Bears and Ravens to say the least. Score. Score often. Score last. Games with over 100 combined points are not rare in the real league or the game. It’s not to say that you can’t play defense. In fact, like the manual receiver control that would be so unheard of when playing Madden, controlling a DB in Arena Football is a blast. With the short field and the high scores, the defense is forced to gamble a lot. Interceptions, while not easy, make ball-hawking a fun and rewarding experience in this title.

While we’re talking defense, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the hard hitting action that draws a lot of new fans to Arena Football. This game really captures the speed, look and feel that you get watching the league. Hits are vicious at times. With the smaller field and the wall element involved, you’ll see things in this game that you’ll never see on a gridiron. In fact, the hitting and tackling animations in this game may be its greatest strength. The flow and transition in and out of animations are truly beautiful in this game. I hope the brain trust at Tiburon is sharing their mo-cap between all three football titles, because Arena Football actually takes a step beyond Madden and NCAA in this area.

Perhaps the most unique element to the game of Arena Football is that most of the players play both ways by rule. Bringing that into the title was likely a daunting task for the developers. However, they score huge points with the execution by adding a telemetry system to the game. The system can be used either right on the field or while you’re in the play calling screen. Embracing the analog sticks like has become sports gaming chic over the last 18 months, and here, you can check the fatigue of your players right on the field. The better they feel, the more likely they are to make that big play or, more importantly, not botch it. When you’re in the play-calling screen, the telemetry system deals with scoring and passing. Checking the passing telemetry can give you an idea of where the offense has found success during the game in hopes of either continuing to exploit or to shut it down on "D". The scoring information is less helpful, but it will tell you where the opponent scored from in previous series, so a smart defensive mind might be able to predict when - and from where - they’ll take their shots at the end zone. You can also check fatigue from the play-calling telemetry system; only you get a fuller and more detailed look. Each player’s body is displayed and shaded in green and red for effectiveness. In other words, if you have a FB with red hands, you may want to keep the pill away from him as his likelihood of putting it on the carpet is drastically increased.

While some purists may view the telemetry system as over the top and “too arcade-like” for football, it really fits in this title and rounds out the on-the-field experience quite well.

EA also added a new kicking system to the analog stick phenomenon. Like the newer golf meters and the new batting system in the MVP NCAA series, kicking in Arena Football is all stick now. The power meter is controlled when pulling back (down) on the stick, and thrusting forward to kick. The direction of which the kick travels is determined by how straight you can move the stick (keep in mind that wind is not a factor in Arenaball). While I’m not a huge fan of the change, it was nice to have something new in that department. And, it’s likely a glimpse of what we’ll see in the next two releases from Tiburon.

The available modes out of the box in Arena Football are about on par with what you would expect from a first-year release. Your standard Exhibition and Practice modes are there, as well an accurate but slightly thin Season Mode. You’ll find your standard fare with things like Free Agency, but the off-season does not have the same allure that you’ll find in other football titles. Because the dynamics of the business side of the AFL are very different than the NFL, a unique owner mode for Arena Football would be a welcomed addition in future releases. Or, perhaps more interesting would be something like Madden’s Superstar Mode. Remember, a lot of Arena Football players have “real jobs” too. A sim engine in the off-season to find the next Kurt Warner at the grocery store or perhaps full-blown tryouts would be a nice addition.

The online modes are there and comes out exactly like you’d expect from EA in this generation. This is probably, all in all, a better online experience because the “cheese factor” is minimized due to the nature of the gameplay. Throwing 40 times a game on Madden is considered “cheesy.” Throwing 40 times in an Arena game is considered conservative.

For all that is solid in this first year release, I do have two complaints.

The first is rather minor, but it’s the environment that sold to your ears in Arena Football. However, the sounds in this game are poor at best. An Arena Football game is almost a party. That doesn’t come across well on this title. Give me some music. Pump me up. This is a fast-paced game. Make me feel that. With the notable exception of some pretty vicious sounding hits, the audio was a huge letdown.

The other issue, and this is far more significant, is that, at times, the developers didn’t appear to know whether they wanted to make Blitz or Madden. The AFL is a legitimate professional league. It’s not some fly-by-night XFL product. It has a fan base. There’s big business involved. The game has a history. Yet, while the game was true to that and honored it at times, the decision to include smack talking, late hits, and defenders slamming people to the ground during TD celebrations is really an insult to the fans. The league has fought too hard to be thought of as legitimate to go down that road. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t blame EA or Tiburon, because someone at the AFL clearly approved this being in the game. But it was an unfortunate and unnecessary addition.

EA Sports owns yet another football franchise and exclusive license. Arena Football, the sport, has been surprising football skeptics for two decades. I think the game is going to do the same for skeptical console owners. This is a good first effort with a price point that makes it a safe risk for the skeptics. This franchise has legs and could be a welcome spring football fix for year’s to come.

Arena Football Score
out of 10