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Rather than the confusing and unworkably small swirl of helmet and grass that the knowledge of its existence conjured up in my mind, Madden NFL 10 on the iPod Touch/iPhone is, in reality, a well conceived and nicely implemented game. Not only does it more than cope with the limitations of the platform, partly by building on the Wii version's intuitive controls and clever design, but it also sports one feature that could revolutionize the franchise. I have a sneaky suspicion that Madden NFL 10 might just hold the key to succeeding where NFL Europa and the London Monarchs have failed, and pave the way for American football (gaming) to be as popular in the rest of the world as it is on home soil.
I'll be honest, when I first heard that Madden NFL 10 was coming to the App Store, I was fairly bemused. How would this most complex and crowded of sports work on an iPod? How would a game that, at least in my experience, has always busily filled (and needed) every available inch of screen space, translate onto a 3.5" format? How would a player ever be able to follow, let alone dictate, what was going on?
The truth is, even after having fallen in love with the sport at the age of 8, compulsively sought out whatever coverage has been available and sat bleary-eyed through many a Super Bowl, I've never really felt like an insider when it comes to American football. It is a highly tactical sport, where the in-game input of the coach is easily as important as that of the players, and, perhaps because of having grown up on a diet of mere highlights, it's this side of the game that I've just never really got. The sports I grew up playing and watching live have nothing of the stop-start, 'set play' mentality which underpins American football, and as such the whole 300-page-play-book thing just leaves me cold.
When activated, [Action Control Time] slows down the action and gives you the time to actually look around and find the best passing opportunity or defensive weakness.
The knock-on effect has been that although I've played and (at least at first) enjoyed several Madden NFL games, I've never felt I've got the best out of them. Unfamiliar with the majority of the technical jargon that oozes from the many play customisation screens, and never really sure how selecting different options could really increase my chances of success against a computer opponent, the games have always felt unbalanced to me and I have usually just ended up relying on the same half-dozen plays in order to ensure I get enough action to make all the effort worthwhile. Usually, after not that long, I get frustrated at the low ratio of in-play time to setup time, and give up.
One thing that has made a difference for me in the last few years is the way the Wii controls have allowed for genuinely quick and easy editing of set plays, and that was something I was hoping would play as significant a part in the iPod Touch/iPhone version. What I just wasn't convinced about was how my overriding experience of Madden games - frustration from having worked very hard trying to get the bewildering tactical bits right and construct a successful play, just to have things erupt momentarily on the screen, then disappear back into huddles and endless 'choose your play' boxes, without really knowing what happened - was going to be any different.
Cue 'Action Control Time'. When activated, this feature (which as far as I know is an innovation for the iPhone/Pod platform) slows down the action and gives you the time to actually look around and find the best passing opportunity or defensive weakness to rush towards and allows you to properly control the actions of receivers, from shaking markers to juking passed would-be tacklers. Of course you don't have to use it, you just press a button as and when you want to, but for me, this one, simple, seeming diminutive feature opens up the whole experience.
In-play control in Madden NFL 10 has not only made playing the game more enjoyable, it's also started to demystify the play-book and illustrate the power and importance of good tactical awareness.
The game as a whole is far from perfect - the graphics aren't that special, a few of the animations are a bit stilted and some of the frame rates can be a little slow at times (on my 2G Touch) - but, for me, the added potential for in-play control in Madden NFL 10 has not only made playing the game more enjoyable, it's also started to demystify the play-book and illustrate the power and importance of good tactical awareness.
Despite my on-going reticence regarding virtual joysticks/pads, happily (and crucially), the control mechanic is smooth, intuitive and robust enough to not only work the basics, but also support the increased post-snap involvement that Action Control Time allows. The system for choosing a pass is a typically nice example of the simple, elegant scheme, with open receivers having green, and less open ones red, circles above their heads, which you then simply tap to attempt a pass. Likewise, pre-snap, the excellent Hot Routes play editor, which allows you to trace out new paths for your runners by drawing on the screen, really maximises the touch-screen potential, pleasingly benefiting from and expanding on the groundwork laid down on the Wii. With a nod to the wisdom of 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it', the kicking mechanic is a straight up copy of the swing from Tiger Woods, and it fits and works just as well here as it does there.
There is also no shortage of depth to speak of, with EA offering iPhone/Pod users the full quota of teams, players, stadia and stats, which is all made possible by their (somewhat controversial) exclusive deal with the NFL. The opportunity that such detail affords to properly and realistically immerse yourself in a season goes a long (if not all the) way towards making up for the (current) lack of any multiplayer mode.
In Madden NFL 10, EA have potentially found a way to revolutionise the appeal of the franchise for a non-American football literate audience.
In Madden NFL 10, EA have potentially found a way to revolutionise the appeal of the franchise for a non-American football literate audience. It's not often you can improve a sports game by slowing it down, but that is exactly what has been achieved here. Hardcore fans and Madden purists will no doubt fair well without utilising Action Time Control, but I'm sure I won't be the only person to feel that both being able to learn how to read the game better by slowing the pace and watching how things play out and having the opportunity to extend and fine-tune plays unlocks a whole aspect of American football gaming to which I've never before had access.
It's probably disingenuous to say that Madden NFL 10 on the iPhone/Pod is the best Madden game I've played on any format, but put it this way, I won't be surprised if some of the advances it's introduced prove so popular that they become staples of the wider franchise.
With so many different perspectives it can be hard to know where to start - a little like walking into a crowded pub. Sorry about that.
But so far we've not found a way to streamline our review output - there's basically too much of it. So, rather than dilute things for newcomers we have decided to live with the hubbub while helping new readers find the columnists they will enjoy.
Our columnists each focus on a particular perspective and fall into one of the following types of gamers: