Madden NFL Arcade Review (Xbox 360)
It’s sometimes easy to forget that video games are a business like any other -- run, not by consumers, but by corporations and shareholders.
Like many businesses outside of the video-game industry, many game companies have recently been forced to downsize their range of products to all but the safest, most essential wares.
For many sports gaming companies, the "arcade" department seems to have been the first group to receive its pink slip in these tough economic times. Fans of the genre have recently seen franchises like EA’s Street games or Midway’s classic Blitz and Jam titles either completely abandoned by the parent company or given little more than a low-risk, low-budget sequel.
But despite EA shutting down its Street brand and taking a year off to reassess its approach to the genre, EA’s relaunched arcade sports department still does not seem to have learned from the mistakes it was making earlier this generation with games like NBA Street Homecourt or NFL Tour, i.e., releasing half-baked sequels that fail to match the modes or features of their last-gen counterparts.
EA’s 3 on 3 NHL Arcade, the company’s first shot to recapture some of its past arcade glory (Mutant League Hockey, anyone?), ended up being a fun but shallow experience that wasted a great hockey engine on a game that was completely bereft of modes or features -- to the point that 3 on 3 NHL Arcade felt more like a mini-game that should have been included on the NHL 09 disc instead of a standalone downloadable game.
The nine months since 3 on 3 NHL Arcade was released does not seem to have taught EA any major lessons. I say that because Madden NFL Arcade is another feature-thin game that, at its $15 asking price, does not seem to justify its status as a full, arcade release. In reality, it’s little more than mini-game that has been lifted from the "arcade mode" included in Madden 10 for the Wii.
...Haven't I seen you before?
If 3 on 3 NHL Arcade was EA's first "toe in the water" in the current arcade sports market, Madden NFL Arcade is little more than a second hesitant dip with the other big toe.
Instead of taking the opportunity to create a unique, innovative product, developer EA Tiburon has decided to take as little risk as possible by modeling Madden NFL Arcade's style of play after a number of arcade classics.
After I fired up the game for the first time, I could almost envision how the initial boardroom meeting went down when folks from EA tried to determine how Madden NFL Arcade would play out:
We'll give them only four plays to choose from, just like Tecmo Super Bowl! Then we'll take a few pages from the NFL Blitz playbook by eliminating penalties and increasing the distance to go for a first down! But to make sure we don't alienate the hardcore Maddenites too much, the actual gameplay will be just like Madden 10, only with power-ups to spice things up like in NBA Jam!
While this formula might have sounded great in a boardroom meeting, it all comes together rather poorly once you actually pick up the controller and step onto the field in Madden NFL Arcade.
Defenses run every play from the same base formation -- you can choose either a linebacker blitz, cover 1 man, a short zone or a deep zone -- and rather than having unique plays for each team, all offensive and defensive plays in Madden NFL Arcade are pooled from a single generic playbook.
While defensive plays are limited to only four options, the offensive playbook totals about 15 plays, with only one running play and about three to four variations existing within each of the three possible pass types (short, medium or long).
But the limited offensive playbook would not be an issue in Madden NFL Arcade were it not for the fact that so many of the game’s routes either feature designed stops or are automatically broken off by the receiver after traveling 10-20 yards downfield.
Since Madden NFL Arcade requires the offense to gain large chunks of yardage at a time (the field is 60 yards in total, with teams having only four downs each possession to score a touchdown), the fact that at least a third of the available passing plays in Madden NFL Arcade involve routes that max out at around 10-20 yards is simply poor game design.
The "arcade" mode in Madden 10 Wii got around this issue by allowing players to draw their own plays/routes on the spot with the Wii remote. But the fact that no alternative has been given to Xbox 360/PS3 users during the conversion process severely limits the offensive portion of Madden NFL Arcade.
Even the few useful routes that do exist in Madden NFL Arcade's offensive playbook are hindered by the Madden engine’s archaic route-running system -- that is, receivers, even after all these years, still have no way to create separation from a defender outside of having a superior speed rating.
To be fair, virtually all of the flaws that are in the regular version of Madden exist in Madden NFL Arcade, it’s just that the speed issue is by far the biggest one now that there are half as many players on the field (5 vs. 5 as opposed to 11 vs. 11), and thus, there are fewer bodies to run into.
Of course, Madden has always been a series where speed has seemed like it is, at times, the only attribute on the field that matters. However, with Madden NFL Arcade's exaggerated turning speed, which allows old-school, turn-on-a-dime player movement, the result is a game that is dominated by the speed attribute more so than any other entry in the series since the 16-bit days.
Not surprisingly, scrambling quarterbacks like Vince Young and Donovan McNabb give their teams a huge competitive advantage. Being able to run around linebackers and defensive linemen with your signal caller, allows the offense simplify its game plan to a basic read play that involves hitting the running back in the flat if the linebacker decides to chase the quarterback, or leaking out to the other side of the field for a 20-yard scamper if the linebacker decides to go off and cover the flat pattern.
Speaking of the flats, they remain just as broken in Madden NFL Arcade as they are in Madden 10. The AI still seems befuddled by simple "wheel" and "in" routes coming out of the backfield, to the point that they result in an easy 10-plus yards every time if not covered manually.
Just like in Madden 10, flat passes to speedy running backs like Brian Westbrook are a dominate online strategy.
Madden NFL Arcade's defensive AI is not any better at pursuing scrambling quarterbacks either. The game’s fastest scramblers (Young and McNabb) can often get 15-plus yards up the field before any AI player in the secondary bothers to react.
Players who try blitzing the quarterback out of his scrambling pattern will get burned just as easily, if not worse, as they watch the AI linebacker take the same blitz angle every play (around the lineman’s right side) instead of intelligently pursuing the quarterback and taking the quickest path to the ball.
Other gameplay flaws carry over from Madden NFL Arcade's big brother, but suffice to say, if you did not enjoy the on-the-field antics of Madden 10, you will not enjoy the gameplay in this arcade version either.
Features and Options
The fatal flaw in EA's last arcade title, 3 on 3 NHL Arcade, was the game's limited selection of options and features. Nevertheless, the creators of Madden NFL Arcade have not only kept the bare-bones feature set from 3 on 3 NHL Arcade, they have also decided to raise the asking price from $10 to $15.
That extra $5 certainly did not go towards improving the save system, as veterans of 3 on 3 NHL Arcade will immediately notice that EA still has not figured out a way to save a user's preferred control setting.
This gaffe leads to plenty of occasions where teams will accidentally start up a game with the wrong control scheme -- then are left with no way to change it once the game starts. And that would even be fine if the default "arcade" controls did not feel incredibly cumbersome to use and did not leave the player at a competitive disadvantage (several key commands are missing from the default controls).
Thankfully, Madden NFL Arcade does retain 3 on 3 NHL Arcade's system for handing out random power-ups over the course of the game (this time, awarded once every down). But while many of the power-ups find interesting ways to alter the field of play, a few of them do so in ways that stack the deck too heavily in one team's favor.
The "entourage" power-up, for example, is a cool feature that puts extra linemen on the field for a single down, but its affect on the game is so powerful that it typically yields an automatic rushing touchdown for the offense or an automatic sack/incompletion for the defense.
Alternatively, the "turbo" power-up, instead of speeding up a single player, actually speeds up the entire game to the point that players become frustratingly difficult to control -- so much so that turbo, for the first time in arcade sports history, actually becomes a power-up that gives the defense the advantage, not the offense.
But the game changer that takes the award for "worst power-up in the history of arcade sports games" has to be the ill-conceived "flip" power-up, which once activated, switches the scoreboard so that the team that was ahead 23-0 is now behind 0-23. For a game that heavily favors the offense, going from a two-score lead to a two-score deficit is basically handing a victory to losing teams that happen to luck into the "flip" power-up.
In short, while it’s nice that the developers give you the option to turn off the power-ups entirely, it’s a shame that they did not allow you to turn off individual power-ups like in the Super Smash Bros. series.
Instead of offering a traditional season mode or a challenge ladder (similar to the one included in Midway arcade games like NBA Jam and NFL Blitz), offline play in Madden NFL Arcade is limited to meaningless exhibition games between two of the NFL’s 32 teams.
However, if gamers want to see who made their favorite team’s roster or check out any of the player ratings in Madden NFL Arcade, they will notice that both options are conspicuously absent. Football fans who love to keep up with their player or team stats will also be disappointed to find out that Madden NFL Arcade features no stat-tracking whatsoever beyond the basic score overlay on the heads-up display.
A lack of modes and features stymies EA's second attempt to re-enter the arcade sports market.
While it is nice that the co-op system from NHL 3 on 3 Arcade was carried over to Madden Arcade, which allows a maximum of four players per console and as many as two players per side to play together, it’s a shame that the co-op options are still limited to local participants only. There is still no way to team up with online friends unless they are sitting next to you on your couch.
In addition, ranked 1 vs. 1 matches do not offer much of a thrill because most players stick to the game’s two dominant teams (Tennessee and Philadelphia) and choose to run the same quarterback scramble drill all game long.
Even the gamers who happen to be huge fans of constant passes to the flats and quarterback roll outs to the sideline will discover that Madden NFL Arcade's ranking system will not track their wins/losses properly -- a user can quit out of a game at anytime, and the user who stayed in the game will not receive credit for the victory.
Like Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell, Madden NFL Arcade is a game that has all the tools needed to become a star but simply lacks the work ethic to capitalize on its potential.
Instead of crafting an arcade football game that lives up to the standards set by classic franchises like Tecmo Super Bowl, NFL Blitz or NFL Street, Madden NFL Arcade does little to distinguish itself from the "arcade mode" that came standard with the Wii version of Madden 10 -- apart from scrapping the Wii's in-game "create a play" feature and leaving Xbox 360/PS3 owners with a 15-play playbook where only two or three of those plays are actually useful.
The developers could have taken an addictive mini-game and turned it into full-fledged product, but instead it seems like -- perhaps at least in part due to time constraints -- they decided to hack out a cheap port, slap on a $15 price tag and hope that the "Madden" and "NFL" brands will be enough sell a half-baked game to an unsuspecting market.
For all but the most die-hard followers of those two brands, Madden NFL Arcade is game that should have about as much staying power as JaMarcus Russell's quarterbacking career.
Arcade football fans would be better served dusting off the classics that Madden NFL Arcade tries (and fails) to imitate, especially considering the fact that all of them could be had for the same $15 price that EA is asking for this stripped-down mini-game.
On The Field: As the name suggests, Madden NFL Arcade plays almost identically to Madden 10, only with some added power-ups and a few rules changes. In typical Madden fashion, speed is the only attribute that matters and flat passes/scrambling quarterbacks rule what little there is of the in-game strategy.
Graphics: Madden NFL Arcade looks like a Wii game with some added shading and smoothing effects -- no surprise there considering the game originates from the "arcade" mini-game included in Madden 10 for the Wii.
Sound Design: Tecmo Super Bowl has a legendary soundtrack. NFL Blitz has the famous Midway announcer. Madden NFL Arcade has neither.
Entertainment Value: Online games are meaningless without penalties for quitters. Offline play can be good fun in local co-op mode, but beyond that, you won’t get much value out of Madden NFL Arcade's limited feature set.
Learning Curve: The simplified, "arcade" control scheme only shows how unresponsive and delayed Madden's animation set is since most of the moves trigger a half-second after pressing one of the face buttons. If you want to play Madden NFL Arcade with any success, you need to be familiar with the "standard" Madden controls, which must be reselected each time you boot up the game.
Online: The people you play will of course be despicable, and they will abuse the speedy quarterbacks and flat routes at every turn. In addition, there are no penalties for exiting a game while it's still in progress. Basically, playing head-to-head against friends is the only safe way to play.
Score: 5.5 (Slightly Above Average)