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Review: Madden NFL Arcade

6:00 PM on 12.21.2009 // Samit Sarkar

In the current economic climate, with studios suffering layoffs every other day, many publishers have stated a preference for sticking with established IPs that are almost guaranteed to sell well. Simulation sports games launch on an annual basis, but as EA found with 3 on 3 NHL Arcade earlier this year, a downloadable PlayStation Network/Xbox Live Arcade game is a relatively low-risk way to bring in some revenue between those yearly releases.

The success of 3 on 3 NHL Arcade paved the way for the November release of Madden NFL Arcade, a powerup-infused, penalty-free, pick-up-and-play version of videogame football that is easily likened to EA’s last-gen NFL Street series (although it’s less “street” than it is “cartoony”). It seems like arcade football developers have been forever trying to recreate the magic of Midway’s classic NFL Blitz games. Hit the jump to find out whether Madden NFL Arcade succeeds.

1

Madden NFL Arcade (PlayStation Network [reviewed], Xbox Live Arcade)
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Released: November 24, 2009 (PSN) / November 25, 2009 (XBLA)
MSRP: $14.99 (PSN) / 1200 Microsoft Points (XBLA)

I enjoyed my first few games of Madden NFL Arcade. But the more time I spent with it, the more I noticed an increasing number of flaws that accumulated to lower my opinion of the overall experience. The five-on-five action bears the hallmark of a traditional arcade game: even if you’re losing badly, you never feel like you’re out of the game because things can turn around so quickly. That’s helped greatly by the powerups, called “Game Changers.” There are 12 in all, and their use involves a good amount of strategy, which gives the game some much-needed depth.

Game Changers are doled out randomly to both teams before each play, though you often won’t get one. I suggest that you spend some time looking through the game’s help section and familiarizing yourself with the Game Changers and their corresponding icons, because all you’ll see during a game is an icon; if you don’t know what the little graphic means, you’ll just have to hit L1 to activate the powerup and see what happens. I really wish EA Tiburon had included the name along with the icon -- it would’ve made things so much easier.

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Of course, some Game Changers are much more useful than others, and one -- Entourage -- is by far the most powerful, especially on defense. Entourage adds players to your team to give you a full (five-man) offensive or (four-man) defensive line. As you might imagine, four D-linemen versus one O-lineman pretty much guarantees a sack, and even if you don’t get to the QB, you force him to rush his throw, which often leads to an interception. (The game engine was clearly designed for 5-on-5 play: the frame rate takes a hit when Entourage is engaged, and it’s particularly choppy if both teams use Entourage at once.)

But Tiburon made a genius design decision with the Dud. Occasionally, you’ll try to use a Game Changer and be rewarded with nothing but a buzzer, which means that the powerup has “failed,” so to speak. There’s nothing as satisfying as the look of despair on your buddy’s face when a Dud ruins his day after he was all set to stop your scoring drive. The core gameplay, which comes from Madden NFL 10 -- a rock-solid foundation -- has been streamlined effectively. You’ve only got four downs to get to the end zone, and just like NFL Blitz, there’s no kicking of any kind: you can’t attempt field goals, and if you score a touchdown, you can either take an automatic extra point or go for two. On offense, you can pick a running play, or one of three pass plays (short, medium, or deep); on defense, you can blitz your linebacker, or choose short, medium, or deep coverage.

There’s an unfortunate exploit on offense: because the only defensive play in which the linebacker will cover the running back is Medium Cover, your halfback will often be wide open. Brandon Jacobs is already a beast of a rusher, but in Madden Arcade, he’s Larry effing Fitzgerald. On defense, this problem relegated me to sticking with Medium Cover, and Medium Cover only, unless I wanted to blitz. And as an experienced Madden player, I wish the offensive playcalling was more granular. When you pick, say, Medium Pass, you randomly get one of two or three different plays, and one of them is much less effective than the others. I understand the desire to simplify things for an arcade game, but at least you knew exactly what you were getting when you chose plays in NFL Blitz.

3

Much of the satisfaction comes from the strategy in using Game Changers. You can activate them either immediately before the snap, or at any time during a play. Some, like Flying Blind, are much more entertaining (and effective) when they’re sprung on your opponent in the middle of a play. Since you can see the powerups that both players have available to them before plays are selected, even the threat of a Game Changer can work to a team’s advantage. For example, if my opponent has Entourage on defense, I’m certainly not going to call a run; instead, I’ll probably go with a short pass so I can get rid of the ball quickly. My opponent has thrown me off my game by severely limiting my playcalling. It’s this kind of inner chess match that brings skill into the fold: yes, getting Game Changers is a matter of luck, but knowing when to use them makes all the difference.

Thankfully, Madden Arcade offers full Madden NFL 10-style instant replay, which 3 on 3 NHL Arcade somehow omitted. (Unlike the full retail EA Sports games, though, you can’t save replays or upload them to the Web.) But where NHL Arcade succeeded was its charm, which came mostly in the form of the game’s hilariously over-the-top announcer and sound effects. Madden Arcade has none of that; music plays during games. And to add insult to injury, the game doesn’t support custom soundtracks on PS3.

There are a few other minor issues. The game offers two control setups, “Standard” (similar to Madden NFL 10 controls) and “Arcade” (simplified), but it doesn’t save your choice, and the default is Arcade. It would also be nice if the sixty-yard-long field had yard line numbers on it so I knew exactly where I was, because the game doesn’t give you any summary (graphical, textual, or auditory) of the current drive or even the previous play. Again, I guess these things don’t matter so much in the framework of an arcade experience, but as a longtime simulation fan, I couldn’t help but crave them.

4

Ultimately, though, most of my reservations with Madden NFL Arcade stem from its $15 price point. Fundamentally, the game offers a similar amount of content to 3 on 3 NHL Arcade (playing the computer, playing a friend, playing online), but it costs 50% more, and the most logical assumption I’m left with is that EA figured they could charge an extra five bucks just because the hallowed Madden name is attached to this product. Madden Arcade isn’t bad, but I would’ve had a much easier time recommending it if it were priced at $10.

Score: 6.5 -- Alright (6s may be slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy them a bit, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.)

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Samit Sarkar,
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