NFL Football 2006 Hands-on

It looks like THQ Wireless is upping the ante big-time for the next iteration of its mobile football franchise.

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The new NFL season is still months away, but the big mobile sports game companies have been toiling madly on the next chapter of their football franchises since the beginning of this year. In the case of THQ Wireless' NFL Football series, this amount of trouble is warranted, because last year's NFL Football 2005 wasn't as good as it should have been, especially when compared to Jamdat's superlative game. THQ Wireless and developer Magellan knew that they had to make a true quantum leap to catch up to the quality level of the competition--and, judging from the early build of NFL Football 2006 we've tested, they absolutely have. By the time it comes out, this football sim may rate as one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in mobile gaming's brief history.

Like last year's offering, NFL Football 2006 will be a full-fledged, console-style simulation, complete with 11 real NFL players on each side, each of which will be individually rated in six categories based on their statistics from the 2004-2005 season. Other mobile football games have cut down on the number of players on the field at one time and simplified the rule book in an effort to keep things manageable, but NFL Football 2006 won't be one of them. Indeed, we couldn't believe it when our opponent was slapped with a 15-yard clipping penalty on one play during our test run. In addition to esoteric rules like this one, you're also going to have to deal with field boundaries, delay-of-game penalties, and many of the other guidelines that collectively make football one of the most complicated sports in the world.

Although NFL Football 2006's extremely realistic parameters seem like they might make casual play impossible, this didn't seem to be the case at all when we tried our hand at the game using an LG VX7000. In fact, the game's play and styling were somewhat reminiscent of EA's Madden '94, which parlayed its easy controls and high level of detail into video game immortality. The game will feature multiple formations on both offense and defense--like the I-form, the shotgun, the 4-3, and the linebacker-heavy "bear"--and each formation will have 10 component plays. THQ Wireless and Magellan seem to be emulating Jamdat NFL 2005's style of selecting and running plays, and that qualifies as an informed decision. Each play will be illustrated with clear X-and-O diagrams, and you will be able to manage all of the on-field action using three buttons and the nav pad. During pass plays, you pick a receiver by pressing his corresponding button when he gets open; rushing and defense are taken care of with simple directional action and a single key for tackling. We were impressed by the fluidity of the gameplay; the play experience matched that of football games on the Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo.

At the same time, NFL Football 2006 is going to set a lot of new standards for mobile sports games in terms of functionality. For instance, you will be able to create up to 10 of your own plays and store them in your own playbook--a feature that's old hat on console but pretty amazing for a mobile game. In addition, the game will automatically update all of your team rosters over the course of the season using the cell network--so you'll never be out of date on those blockbuster trades. This will probably become important in season mode, where you will be able to play through an official NFL season, complete with NFL-perfect playoffs and culminating in the Super Bowl. Finally, the game will come with a two-player pass-and-play mode, where you and a buddy take turns to see how far you can run up the score on a computer opponent. If THQ Wireless can manage to squeeze defensive play selection into this mode, so you can make the computer blitz your buddy when opportune, it'll be revolutionary.

We were very, very impressed with the preview build of NFL Football 2006, which is looking great a full three months before its scheduled release in August. Jamdat and Sorrent had better have their own game plans at the ready, because it's quite clear that THQ Wireless is planning to march down the field with this one--and it appears to have a great chance of succeeding. Check back often for updates on this game's progress and the full review.

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