Review: Electronic Arts Madden NFL 10
While there have been a number of notable game releases for the iPhone and iPod touch, it's not every day that a perennial best-seller such as Electronic Arts' Madden NFL debuts on the platform. Madden NFL 10 is the first appearance of the vaunted football game on the iPhone and iPod touch, and while it might not live up to the lofty expectations of die-hard fans expecting a spot-on recreation of the franchise's latest console releases, it is undeniably Madden, which is good enough to make it the best American football game yet released for the platform.
It’s worth noting early on that apart from the challenges unique to reconstructing a famous game for a touchscreen interface, Madden NFL 10 on the iPhone and iPod touch faces another hurdle its console cousins do not: competition. While EA holds an exclusivity agreement through 2012 for the NFL gaming rights on consoles and handheld gaming devices, competitors are able to release NFL titles for cell phones and personal media players; this is why Gameloft was able to beat EA to the App Store with its NFL 2010 title. While this review will focus on Madden, we will be comparing the two games from time to time when it helps to illustrate areas in which Madden shines, or falls flat.
Madden NFL offers players a 3D football experience, with relatively simple 3D player models that best those found in Gameloft’s title, modest 3D stadium recreations—notably, every stadium that we expected to find in the game has been there, unlike NFL 2010, which used a generic stadium under some circumstances—and a camera that stays behind the offense, moving up and back during passing plays. Celebration animations follow big plays, and although the player animation at times leaves something to be desired, it never looks overly fake, or unlike what one might find on a real football field.
In testing on an iPhone 3G, we saw limited—but noticeable—frame rate slow downs from time to time, and although it never affected gameplay itself, we didn’t see the same problem playing NFL 2010 on the same device. That said, Madden looks and feels more realistic than Gameloft’s football sim, and in many ways this might be attributable to the simple fact that in building NFL 2010, Gameloft undoubtedly looked to past Madden titles for ideas and inspiration, resulting in an experience that feels like it’s trying to be the old Madden, while the game EA is offering feels like the next evolution of the genuine article.
That same feeling permeates the game’s menus, from a presentation that uses players’ favorite teams to add color to the background, to the play selection screens that offer more plays than the competition while also using a more intuitive selection screen, letting players filter their options by play type or by formation. The commentary is also an improvement over NFL 2010, featuring audio snippets from John Madden, NBC Sunday Night Football announcer Cris Collinsworth, and Tom Hammond. While the voices can be repetitive at times, they’re rarely used inappropriately, and help add to the feeling of realism, as do home team-specific cheers from the non-animated crowd.
As noted above, the touchscreens of the iPhone and iPod touch present unique challenges and opportunities for developers of fast-paced action games such as Madden, and EA has done a good, if not great job with the controls. Like NFL 2010, Madden uses an on-screen joystick to control the currently selected player, with context-sensitive on-screen buttons on the opposite side. Options to sprint, spin, power ahead, or juke will appear when running the ball, while similarly appropriate buttons appear when receiving, defending, and passing. Players simply tap on a receiver to pass the ball, and each has a red, yellow, or green surrounding circle to indicate how well covered he is.
Madden makes some noteworthy improvements on its competitor’s control scheme, however. Before running a pass play, players can tap a hot route button, then select a receiver and literally draw a new route for that player on the field using a finger—a brilliant implementation of a feature that is often key to advanced players. Other improvements include an “Action Control Time” button that resembles a stop-watch and allows players to temporarily slow down the speed of the game—a way more sensible approach than the automatic slowdowns we saw in NFL 2010—and a simple kicking system that is simply worlds better than Gameloft’s, using a down-and-up flicking motion similar to that seen in EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour.
Madden offers fewer game modes than NFL 2010, with Quick Game or Season options, but features more in-depth roster control, including the ability to make trades, sign, and release players during the season; a multi-player mode is promised in a future update. As for Madden’s other weaknesses, there aren’t many to speak of. Besides those occasional but not deal-breaking frame rate slowdowns, the touchscreen controls can at times be challenging, even to players well-adjusted to the concept of on-screen joysticks. We also wish there was a way to audible prior to the ball being snapped, but this is a minor complaint, as the lack of such an option makes picking the right play or defense the first time all the more important.
Overall, Madden NFL 10 is an impressive first act for one of EA’s most celebrated sports franchises, besting its competition in a multitude of ways and successfully translating the look, feel, and gameplay of the console version to Apple’s portable devices. Our only other issue with the game is its pricing, which currently sits at $10, despite the fact that the game features in-game advertising for DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket package. If its main competitor, Gameloft’s NFL 2010, was still priced at $8, the extra two dollars for Madden would be a no-brainer, but Gameloft has lowered its pricing to just $3, leaving a sizable $7 gap between titles. The decision as to whether to buy Madden comes down to whether you think the improvements in gameplay, controls, and authenticity are worth the extra expenditure. We believe that they are, but value-conscious users may want to take a look at NFL 2010 anyway.