Can NFL 2010 for iPhone topple Madden?

There's one arena left where NFL games can compete: mobile phones. We get hands-on with Gameloft's would-be Madden-killer.

The last Madden-rival standing: Gameloft's NFL 2010 Scott Stein/CNET

NFL game fans, we feel your pain. Ever since EA locked up video game-publishing rights to consoles and PCs, Madden has become the only game in town--a monopoly on NFL gaming that eliminates free choice and, some say, removes a competitive need for change. We played the new Madden 10 , and we happen to like it. Still, we miss the days when competitors such as NFL 2K5 actually existed.

But, in fact, one still does, and it's made by Gameloft. NFL 2010 (App Store link) hit the iPhone last week with relative quiet. Not only is it an NFL-licensed game, but it's a full-3D game with playbooks and complete league-accurate rosters. In case you're wondering how this happened, EA Sports doesn't own exclusive rights to NFL mobile games. In the mobile arena, competition still exists. Gameloft currently has a license to make NFL games as well, although only on phones and not for DS/PSP hardware.

EA is reportedly preparing an iPhone version of Madden, but for now, Gameloft's title is the only real-deal gridiron action on Apple's App Store. Of course, we were extremely curious as to how it would play, especially with no physical control pad. Read on for our impressions, and check out the gallery below.

On the iPhone 3GS, the 3D models and gameplay weren't bad. On a scale from primitive polygons to the Xbox 360, we'd place them solidly in the N64/Nintendo DS camp, perhaps slightly better. Arms and legs are blocky, but you can read player names and watch plays develop.

Playbook selection is decent, but hardly Madden-level. This isn't such a bad idea considering the simplicity of most mobile games, and it creates a quicker-fix feeling. It's slightly odd that plays can't simply be flipped and tapped directly--instead, tapping small arrow icons or "OK" buttons are required, adding an unnecessary layer to what could otherwise have been much simpler.

The same goes for the gameplay itself. A virtual analog stick and buttons pop from the bottom of the screen, much like Gameloft's other titles, Hero of Sparta and Real Soccer 2009. The analog control is almost perfect (though our fingers were prone to sliding off the control zone) but the button selection can be awkward. As a running back hits a hole, for instance, the game slows down and offers a series of special action buttons to pick before the rest of the play unfolds, such as spin, juke on running plays, deflect and intercept on defense, and so on. The after-effects are animated after you hit the button, creating an instanced minigame effect. It turns the game into more of a casual armchair quarterback affair. Other moments, like dropping back and passing, are controlled by tapping on open receivers directly to throw. This worked well, and is a better use of the iPhone/iPod Touch's innate interface capabilities.

Full-season mode is available as well as a randomized "quick play" option, giving NFL nuts both long and short-term fixes on their way to the sports bar or stadium. Quarter lengths can be 2, 5, or 8 minutes, depending on your patience, and you can set your own skill level. Easy is way too much so, but then again, it's a useful tutorial to the game's nontraditional controls. A third play option, Playoffs, is an idea even Madden could learn to adopt. Selecting your favorite team, you're immediately thrust into a playoff tree on a multigame trip to the Super Bowl. It's a great way to get the fix of Season mode without slogging through 16 games.

As a whole, it's better than current App Store throwback classics like LED Football, and while it's a close graphical match to the Nintendo DS version of Madden, it's nowhere near it in terms of gameplay realism. On the other hand, it's only $4.99, which is cheaper than nearly anything on a DS--or at a real football game, for that matter. And as far as multiplayer goes, Gameloft's app page says it's coming soon (with online support, as well) in a future update, along with a "zombies vs skeletons" mode, oddly enough.

Can Madden catch up and beat Gameloft at its own sport, or is this the start of a new series of mobile NFL game wars? Stay tuned...

 

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