Now that Super Bowl XL is over, jittery pigskin fans can look to the Arena Football League to act as methadone to that sweet, sweet heroin we call the NFL. Although the AFL doesn’t have the cachet of its bigger brother, it now has a video game. EA Sports (who else?) deserves credit for making Arena Football its own entity and not trying to cram Madden into the AFL framework like so much sausage casing. The final product doesn’t offer the depth of Madden or the ludicrousness of Blitz but instead forges its own identity somewhere in the middle.
If you caught only snippets of that Arizona Rattlers/Grand Rapids Rampage game on television, you may not appreciate how different Arena Football is from the sport you’re used to. The big-picture variations — 50-yard field, seven men to a side, and hockey-style boards encasing the playing area — certainly affect the way the game is played, but it’s the little things that set the AFL apart. Its “real men” play both offense and defense, and only one substitution is allowed per half. (Toggling the right analog stick at the line of scrimmage will allow you to note your players’ fatigue level and choose your substitution accordingly. It’s an intuitive, useful feature, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it incorporated in the next Madden.)
Some of the differences are a little nitpickier. AFL defenses have two linebackers, the Mac and the Jack, and the Mac is allowed to rush the passer but the Jack has to stay back in the defensive “box,” which is like a mirror image of the QB’s pocket. I might have gotten some of that wrong, but there’s no way you’d be able to tell. You can always relax on defense and simply let the computer run the play for you, though there’s not much fun in that.
Not that your play calls will be significantly different from the “coach’s suggestions.” Play selection is limited to a handful of running and passing plays and a comparable number of defensive schemes. With so few players per side, strategy seems to be less important than running as many plays as possible. The narrow field encourages a vertical offensive game; the ground attack is all but useless. Fortunately, the passing game encourages tackling into the sideboards.
Although the game is missing the allure of marquee stars (go Byron Douzart!), it has attitude in spades. Besides the bone-jarring tackles (you can even knock over a coach if you’re lucky), there’s no shortage of trash talk. Even if “Yo’ mama” jokes went out with the 20th century, it’s a nice touch to see players jawing at each other between plays. More entertaining still is listening to a coach howl on the sidelines after his team gives up a crucial score. All that’s missing are cutaways to Video Jon Bon Jovi in the Philadelphia Soul owner’s box. One thing struck me as a little odd. In Madden, it’s not uncommon for a moderately skilled player to hit 50 points or more in a game on the default difficulty level. In Arena Football, I struggled to reach 40. This in a game whose real-life totals often resemble those of college basketball. But one thing hasn’t changed from Madden: in the first game I played against the computer, I lost by a point when my opponent scored in the final minute of play. Damn you, EA Sports! Damn you!