In the hearts and minds of many NFL fans, there's only one name that matters when it comes to football video games: Madden. Since its meteoric rise that started in the early '90s, EA's Madden NFL football series has developed a substantial following that demands authenticity, realism, and, most importantly, a strategy-laden, fun experience. This mammoth franchise has finally arrived on the iPhone with Madden 10--and it's in fine fettle.
Madden 10 brings an impressive array of features for its initial foray onto the iPhone. For starters, all 32 licensed teams, rosters, and real-life stadiums are included, so you'll be able to play as all your favorite players and compete in gaudy stadiums like Raymond James and the $1.2 billion Cowboys Stadium. Unfortunately, there's no Franchise mode in this year's edition, but there is a Season mode complete with real schedules, stat tracking, season awards, and a huge free-agent pool.
The fundamental challenge of bringing a deep franchise like Madden to the iPhone is the touch-screen control interface. In traditional console versions of Madden, both analog sticks and all 10 buttons on the controllers are put to use throughout a game. But even though the iPhone doesn't have any buttons, EA has developed an efficient and elegant way to get around this challenge with its Action Control Time solution.
Simply put, ACT is a user-selected option that initiates a "bullet time" slowdown effect on any given play, offensively and defensively. From scenarios like trying to convert a 3rd and 10 while facing a Baltimore Ravens blitz, to a 4th and 1 to stop Adrian Peterson from getting a first down, ACT slows down the action to an epic crawl, while enabling contextual options for special moves like jukes and power tackles. The beauty of ACT is that it's optional, so experienced players can play at full speed without interruption, but it's great for Madden beginners and the fat of finger.
Offense is a lot of fun to play in Madden 10. There are more than 200 offensive plays sprinkled throughout a variety of real NFL formations, so you can get to work leveraging your usual strategies.
The running game takes some time to get used to. Controlling your ball carrier is done with a virtual joystick that resides in the bottom-left corner of the screen. Evasive moves include both a turbo boost and a spin move. Triggering ACT opens up additional moves like jukes and trucking maneuvers, too. The effectiveness of the extra moves is debatable, but the options are there to play around with. The biggest thing to get used to is the player momentum. Some may be turned off by the way players don't turn on a dime, but it adds a sense of realism to the game.
Throwing the leather around is satisfying thanks to the color-coded passing system. The red/yellow/green construct everyone knows from traffic lights makes it easy to identify which receivers are covered, somewhat open, and completely open. Nothing's for sure, though, because QBs will sometimes throw errant passes or get their passes batted down by rushing linemen.
In addition, Madden NFL has a clever "hot route" system that makes great use of the iPhone's touch screen. With the tap of a receiver pre-snap, you can draw a new route based on the coverages you're seeing pre-snap. Because of the unfortunate exclusion of audibles on either side of the ball, executing offensive hot routes is your only method to mix things up on the fly.
EA seems to have given equal thought and design consideration to controlling the defense. Once you've got a feel for player momentum, making highlight plays on defense is possible. You can switch the defender you're controlling by either tapping the designated onscreen button or touching a player directly. Triggering ACT opens up options to dive for a tackle, attempt a power tackle, or go for an interception. Unfortunately, when you're playing defense, there aren't any package previews for your computer opponent's offensive play-calling, so you'll be calling defenses without having any idea how many receivers, running backs, or tight ends are in your opponent's selected play. The kicking game in special teams borrows the excellent accelerometer-powered swing meter from the iPhone version of Tiger Woods. A fast swipe down determines your kick power, and a straight swipe up determines your accuracy. It's a great mechanic, but it's a little easy to consistently achieve maximum power and accuracy with punts and field goals.
Madden 10's interface is excellent. The team at EA used a cover flow-inspired method for selecting plays, and it works well. Depending on your comfort level with Madden, there are both novice (play types) and advanced (real formations) options for picking plays. On top of that, you can also flip the direction of your plays to take advantage of where you're positioned on the field. Unfortunately for seasoned Madden players, some advanced options you're used to didn't make it in. You'll just have to live without things like formation sub-packages, recommended plays, and aggregated recent plays. Madden 10 delivers great production values for an iPhone game. It's impressive that all the real-life stadiums are faithfully represented. The player models aren't the most detailed, but there are 22 of them flying around on each play. Since the game's performance is optimized for high-end handsets, you'll want an iPhone 3GS or second-generation iTouch to enjoy butter-smooth frame rates and fast loading times. Older hardware will have a tougher time maintaining optimal performance, but the game remains completely playable.
In terms of audio, you'll hear all the typical Maddenisms that the franchise is famous for, but the play-by-play commentary is mediocre. Tom Hammond and Chris Collinsworth assume booth duty, but their commentary doesn't come close to feeling organic, because you'll never hear them mention player names. Licensed music from a variety of rock acts is in the game, but you can play your own custom soundtracks, too--although playing your music disables sound effects.
While there's a lot to love about Madden 10, there unfortunately aren't any multiplayer modes--likely because this is EA's first attempt at bringing Madden to iDevices.
Otherwise, it's hard to believe that Madden has successfully landed on the iPhone with so much of its trademark gameplay intact. It's the iPhone's best football game--and one that's great for both casual and experienced fans.