Vince McMahon was right about one thing during the disastrous tenure of the XFL--the American public is interested in an offseason alternative to the NFL brand of professional football. It just wasn't his brand. Not long after the XFL disappeared into the void of obsolescence, the AFL, or Arena Football League, began its rise to distinction. The AFL has been around for a long while now, but only in the last several years has it become a regular staple on television and a sport people will actually talk about without giggling. Billed as the "50-yard Indoor War," arena football takes one of America's biggest sports, shrinks the field to half the size, puts some hockey-like walls along the sidelines, and features frequent high-scoring affairs. It's an exciting game to watch, although you'd be hard pressed to know it by playing EA Sports Arena Football, the first game based on the sport since Kurt Warner's Arena Football Unleashed for the PlayStation. Using a tweaked version of EA Tiburon's Madden engine, Arena Football at the very least manages to nail down many of the intricacies of the sport. But the actual gameplay feels like too much of a nebulous gray area between arcade and simulation, and both the presentation and the features set are lacking.
Arena football is a fairly easy game to get into--once you get a feel for the rules, that is. If all you've ever played is garden-variety football, there are some key differences. For one, this is an eight-on-eight game, and most of those players play on both sides of the ball. Many of the positions are the same as in the NFL, with quarterbacks, wide receivers, linebackers, and so forth, but there are some key differences in how each position plays. Linebackers, for instance, are forced to stay within a designated defensive box, with its borders being the two outmost offensive blockers. Only one LB can blitz, and it has to come from within the box. Neither LB can drop back into pass coverage, and they can only go outside the box once the ball has been tossed, the quarterback has scrambled outside the box, or the running back takes off with the ball. That's probably the most complicated example of the differences in the rules between positions in the two leagues of football, but it's indicative of the differing philosophies between the two sports. Arena football, not unlike a game of Blitz, is very much about lots of touchdowns. That's not to say that there's no defense at all, because there certainly is. But with such a short field, less traffic on the field, and a "pass first, ask questions later" mentality, arena football is definitely an offensive game.
Generally speaking, EA Sports Arena Football is at least partially able to emulate this mentality. The majority of plays you can use are pass plays, and of the few running plays, many of them are end-around routes for receivers and offensive specialists. The straight-ahead running game only comes into play on the goal line, and the rest of the time you'll be chucking deep balls and hitting slant routes. If you want to be successful, however, ignore the "coach's pick" plays. For some reason, the coaching logic dictates that you should be rushing your oversized, generally slow running back up the middle on third-and-nine and that you should toss a deep ball with only five yards separating you and the end zone. Not to mention that the coach's pick feature tends to reuse a lot of the same plays over and over again. The Arena Football playbook isn't exactly deep, but it's a lot deeper than what this mode suggests.
The biggest problem with Arena Football, however, isn't the coaching. Mainly, it's the feel of the action. In a lot of ways, Arena Football is fairly reminiscent of Midway's NFL Blitz Pro from a few years back. As you'll recall, that was Midway's attempt to marry simulation-style artificial intelligence and mechanics with the patently crazy arcade gameplay that the Blitz series was known for. And much the same way that game didn't work, given its inability to commit to one style or another, Arena Football can't quite seem to decide what it wants to be, and suffers because of it. There are components of both sim and arcade here, and they don't mesh well. You've got the ability to deliver late hits after the play is over (very much like in Blitz), but often, you'll be penalized for doing so, so why would you even bother? The game includes a feature that lets you take control of a receiver before the ball is tossed, or while the ball is still in the air, but in both cases, it seems like the quarterback can't get the ball to you unless you run the precise route the play dictates. By the same token, the game seems to include a version of the touch-passing mechanic from Madden, where you can position the left analog stick to lead receivers, but unless you take control of the receiver and dive for it at just the right moment (and the timing is not easy), the pass always misses by a mile, and the CPU receivers will never grab these types of passes on their own.
EA Sports Arena Football has a weird attitude that seems incongruous with the friendly image the league generally seems to put forth. For instance, when was the last time you saw a defender in Arena Football run up and slam a receiver that's celebrating a just-scored touchdown or saw a defensive lineman grab a recently sacked quarterback's facemask, talk some trash, and then slam his head back into the turf? Maybe less exaggerated versions of this kind of stuff happens once in a while, but it's typically penalized. These kinds of Blitz-isms made sense in a purely arcade game, devoid of simulation pretense and the constraints of a real-life league's image, but in Arena Football, it feels tacked on.
For its part, Arena Football's gameplay does have its up points. For one, the hits are quite satisfying. Knocking a receiver over the wall into a nearby refreshments table or upending a running back and then spinning him around in midair is pretty hilarious the first few times you do it. After you've played a few games, however, you've basically seen all the brutal hits the game has to offer, so there's not much lasting value to them. Another interesting mechanic is the telemetry view. On the field, you can simply tap the right analog stick up to get a quick view of how fatigued both your players and the opposing players are. In theory, this should give you an idea of what matchups can be easily exploited. Save for perhaps a touch more separation than normal, though, it's rare that you'll notice much of a difference in how those matchups play out. When you're in the play-calling menu, you can get more detailed info on individual players, passing tendencies, and plays that yielded scores. Admittedly, it's unlikely that you'll use this information much while you're playing, but it's cool to have it all the same.
The defensive portion of the game isn't quite as interesting as the offensive one, although there's more to it than initially meets the eye. Prior to the snap, you can adjust matchups to press or play off of receivers, change the Mac linebacker's assignment (the Mac linebacker being the one who can blitz), and assign all defensive backs to swarm and cover one specific receiver. In general, controlling DBs in Arena Football is more fun than it is in other football games, since you tend to feel less likely to totally blow a play while you're in control of them. But conversely, playing defensive line or linebacker in this game isn't much fun, since linebackers tend to be so restricted, and defensive linemen don't have much to do except occasionally chase down a running play and otherwise just try to press the quarterback (which they do just as well when you're not controlling them directly).
Arena Football doesn't have a lot of variety to its content. There is, of course, the standard quickplay option, as well as a basic practice mode, a season mode, and Xbox Live play. The season mode is the game's answer to a franchise mode. It goes for up to 20 seasons, and you can make trades, sign free agents, and try to get your team to the Arena Bowl at the end of the season. That's all well and good, but the actual number of tasks you have to do, besides playing or simming the games, is minimal. Once a season is over, all you do is sign more free agents to replace retired or cut players, and reorder your depth charts. There's no draft to speak of (since the majority of AFL players are those that washed out of, or couldn't make it to, the NFL), so you get these influxes of new talent from out of nowhere. Also, during the season, you need to keep an eye on your injury list. The salary cap in the AFL is just over a million bucks per season, so when players go down, you have to be quick on the draw about putting them on the injured reserve, even if their season shouldn't be over, since you have to sign a replacement player to go on.
The online play is generally better, since Arena Football is a game that tends to play better as a multiplayer game. Online, you can go head-to-head against other players, play in some quick tournaments, and track stats on leaderboards, as well as detailed stats of your own AFL career. It's all pretty standard stuff for an EA Sports game, except for one sizeable hiccup we encountered during head-to-head play. As of this writing, any time you try to start a game with the San Jose Sabercats, the game crashes on the initial loading screen. Selecting other teams would always yield proper online matches, and fairly lag-free ones at that. While this appears to be the kind of issue that could be patched soon enough, it's pretty heinous that such an apparent crash bug would make it into the final retail product.
Arena Football also skimps a bit on the presentation. Graphically, it's apparent that the game is using some form of the Madden engine. The player models look like slightly less dumpy versions of the Madden models, and many of the animations look quite similar to those found in recent Madden games. Obviously, there are some AFL-specific animations too, such as the wall hits and dives, as well as some of the aforementioned big hits and tackles--all of which look pretty good. The arena environments look pretty drab, though. The crowds are dark, seemingly to hide the lack of detail displayed in them. The sideline objects seem to be haphazardly laid out, and as cool as it is that you can send a player flying into a helpless coach or some speaker equipment, it never looks quite as crazy as you'd think it ought to. There's also some occasional texture flickering on the player models, which rears its ugly head from time to time, and animations, especially in and around the walls and in the trenches between the offensive and defensive line, have a nasty tendency to glitch out and make players look like they're vibrating.
The audio, though, is where Arena Football is most seriously lacking. You'll find some solid sound effects and punishing-sounding hits on the field, but there's no commentary of any kind during the game. A lousy arena announcer fills you in on the current positioning on the field, and that's about it. Otherwise, you just get some lame soundtrack music in the background while you play. Commentary would have gone a long way to adding some authenticity to Arena Football's game.
EA Sports Arena Football isn't an altogether bad game of football, but it also feels very much like a missed opportunity. Arena Football can be quite an exhilarating sport, but this interpretation of it isn't that exciting. It gets some of the sport's complexities down pat, but it lacks the intangible qualities that make Arena Football interesting--not to mention that it fails to present itself well and that there aren't enough modes to keep you busy for very long. To its credit, Arena Football is only $30, and for some fans of the sport, simply being able to play as their favorite teams against their friends, both online and off, might be enough. But if you're looking for more than a merely serviceable representation of what the AFL is all about, EA Sports Arena Football isn't it.
Editor's note 02/16/06: A roster update has been released that corrects the San Jose Sabercats online crash problem.