When Gameloft announced that it was about to publish an NFL-licensed football game for the iPhone and iPod touch, jaws dropped: didn’t Electronic Arts have exclusive, long-term NFL game development rights? Could anyone but EA really make a competent football game any more? And what would Gameloft actually be able to include in a touchscreen-limited football title? The answers are all found in NFL 2010 ($8), a good but not great first stab at delivering a full-fledged football experience for Apple’s pocket devices.
To get those questions out of the way up front, EA doesn’t hold exclusive NFL or NFL Players rights on mobile devices, which has enabled Gameloft to put out a title that contains NFL licensed teams, players, and facsimiles of the stadiums, all inside what we’d describe as a more than competent but not completely thrilling game engine. This isn’t a shallow, 16-bit-quality title with faux 3-D scaling and 2-D characters; rather, NFL 2010 includes simple 3-D character models, similarly simple 3-D stadiums with unanimated cut-out people in the stands, and a camera that’s either near ground level or elevated somewhat in the sky, dynamically rotating only when possession of the ball changes. Any number of previous titles have presented football with more excitement or detail than this one, but none of those titles are on the iPhone; what makes this game unique is that it’s truly complete—apart from the lack of any two-player mode—and on this platform.
What that means is that you’re not limited to mere kickoffs, returns, or field goal attempts; you’re given a virtual joypad on the left side of the screen and multiple buttons that can be used to change the camera, pass the ball, or perform defensive maneuvers depending on who has possession. Gameloft provides players with over 200 plays to choose from with swipe and tap gestures, control over the quarterback or receiver in offensive mode or their chosen defensive player otherwise, and the freedom to run and choose targets.
Unfortunately, NFL 2010’s pacing and AI don’t feel quite right at this stage, which we’d attribute to Gameloft’s less than enviable task of having to use changing virtual touchscreen buttons to satisfy players looking for a full-speed football game. To make a broad statement, NFL 2010 feels like it’s struggling to balance the player’s desire for speed and control flexibility with the reality that having multiple button options on-screen requires thought and a little extra time to make decisions. Consequently, Gameloft flashes icons on screen as buttons, changing them based on the situation, and you’re supposed to figure out what they represent and when to hit them. When passing, your quarterback switches from a bottom-right hike button to having to scope out different icons on the rest of the screen in realtime, then tap on one to pitch the ball in that direction, which is no easy feat when you’re being rushed or blitzed. When running, buttons appear to make your character spin, truck, or juke, so visually confusing that the game sometimes shifts into a slo-mo mode to give you a shot at dodging a tackle. At the same time, CPU characters who seemed perfectly positioned for blitzes and tackles don’t always make those plays, seemingly because the game knows that you don’t have the ability to respond to them. We felt like NFL 2010 is trying hard, but not quite hitting its targets.
What the game lacks in control and pacing, it makes up for with a few little flourishes: a TV-like butting of the helmets before a game begins, cinematics showing the players taking the field and gesturing after big plays, and simple play-by-play audio commentary. Crowd sound effects and little music samples peek in here and there, as well. All of these elements are appreciated, if not quite as polished as players would prefer; apart from differences in apparent weight, the character models are all very similar to one another, animated without any great detail, and brought in somewhat mechanical fashion back into huddles and positions after plays. There aren’t any close-ups, nor is there any half-time excitement; NFL 2010 might as well be Real Soccer, but for the changed gameplay. Similarly, the game has the rudimentary modes players would hope for, but not quite enough: there’s a playoffs only mode, a career season mode, and a quick play mode based on your choice of a favorite team, but they’re all single-player; Gameloft is promising “online, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi multiplayer” modes in an update. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect at this stage that an iPhone game will actually ship in a feature-complete fashion on day one, but to us, the absence of some sort of two-player mode in a shipping football game just feels like a dropped ball.
Ultimately, NFL 2010 for the iPhone and iPod touch is a good first effort at giving these devices a real—and licensed—football experience, and to the extent that it surpasses the low expectations some people would have had for a fully touchscreen football game, it’s worth checking out as-is. As with many Gameloft titles, however, our feeling is that many gamers will be better off waiting for improvements and possible price shifts to follow in later versions, as what’s here may be called version 1.0.3, but really needs multiplayer modes and a little more control polish before it will feel equivalent to or better than what football fans would get on other portable gaming devices. We’ll be waiting to see what EA does with Madden 2010 on the iPhone OS platform, and watching for Gameloft’s inevitable updates.
Company and Price
Company: Gameloft S.A.
Title: NFL 2010
Compatible: iPod touch 1G/2G, iPhone/3G/3GS