When EA snapped up the NFL license, many people speculated that Visual Concepts would be using the NFL 2K engine to make an arena football game. These rumors were quickly put to rest when EA picked up the official AFL license a short time later. Arena Football, from the folks behind Madden, EA Tiburon, attempts to bring the excitement, scoring, and big hits of the AFL to the PlayStation 2, but its lack of focus and lackluster presentation leave it relegated to the bench when compared to other football titles.
Arena Football features all of the basic gameplay modes you'd expect from an EA Sports game. You can practice, play a quick game, participate in a season, and play online. The season mode is bare bones, allowing to only control the most basic aspects of your team. Since most people don't know much about AFL players, the lack of in-depth personnel management isn't a huge loss, but certainly more could have been done here. From a customization standpoint, the game has decent create-a-player and create-a-team options. Unfortunately, there are no mini-games or drills – just a basic practice mode. For some reason EA has yet to realize how much people enjoy mini-games as a practice tool, as they were left out of the Xbox 360 version of Madden as well.
There are several non-interactive tutorials that go over the rules and some of the game's unique features. Most people know that the AFL field is only 50 yards long, the goalposts are narrow with nets behind them, and the field is surrounded by walls, which are considered in play. Being somewhat unfamiliar with the AFL, I was surprised to find out just how many differences there are between the rules in NFL and the AFL. On the offensive side of the ball the rules are essentially the same, but defenses are much more restricted. There are only two linebackers, only one of whom can blitz, and they can't leave the small box behind the defensive line unless a back or TE runs a route or runs the ball. You also can't rush outside the tackles, nor is any stunting allowed. These rules take a bit of getting used to, especially since the game allows you to break the rules and penalizes you after the fact. It would make a lot more sense to simply not allow my linebacker to step out of the box, rather than have me do it on accident over and over.
Arena Football's gameplay is very similar to NFL Street's, but not quite as over the top. Rushing the ball is generally ineffective and seldom done unless you're on the goal line. Quick passes are your best bet, and since the passing mechanic is so similar to Madden's, it works well. The playbook, which focuses mostly on the passing game, is rather limited, but since there are only 25 seconds between plays, it's good to not have to search for plays.
Playing defense is pretty challenging; bordering on frustrating. Arena Football is by nature a high-scoring affair, so you're just going to have to live with giving up points. Playing defensive back and going for turnovers seems to be the best way for you to impact the game when the ball's not in your hands, even though you're not likely to catch many of the tipped balls for some reason.
Arena Football's biggest problem is its lack of identity. It isn't a sim, like Madden football, but it's not quite as over-the-top as NFL Street. It ends up somewhere in-between like Midway's dreadful NFL Blitz Pro from a couple of years ago. The game allows you to hit players after the play is over and even while they're celebrating, but you get penalized for doing so, which makes it rather pointless. The wall hits and collisions are cool, but this has been done in the NFL Street series, so it's not quite as exciting as it was a few years ago. Playing the role of a receiver is somewhat entertaining, but not as fun as it could be due to the QB not being able to get you the ball if your route isn't precise.
The only part of the game that shows any real effort on the part of EA Tiburon is the telemetry system. This allows you to pull down on the right analog stick to see the energy levels of your players, which is important since they play both offense and defense. Pushing up on the stick shows both teams, but you can only look at this for a limited amount of time. For more details, you can go to a menu that shows wear and tear on individual body parts and attributes. In theory this allows you to exploit matchups, but in reality, it's boring, and rather pointless, but at least it shows Tiburon put at least some effort into the game.
If you were expecting Arena Football to look better than Madden due to having fewer players on the field and smaller arenas, you're in for disappointment. The players look fine – perhaps marginally better than in Madden, but not noticeably better. Their animations are quite good, especially the ones that are specific to what you'd find in the AFL (like flipping over a wall).
The arenas are downright pitiful. The arenas all look the same, the crowds are atrocious, and the fireworks and spotlights during player introductions are pathetic. There are texture seams everywhere you look, particularly where the wall meets the field. Clipping issues abound when players and coaches interact with the wall as well. It's not uncommon to see someone cut right in half by the wall. Widescreen mode is not supported, nor is progressive scan.
Arena Football has perhaps the worst audio of any sports game on the PlayStation 2. The guy who does the voiceover for the tutorial video screams and yells in an effort to be extreme, but instead succeeds only in being extremely annoying. In contrast, the PA announcer sounds like he overdosed on sleeping pills when calling the results of plays. There's no tv-style commentary, which normally would be a bad thing, but after hearing the rest of the audio, perhaps we should count our blessings. The EA Trax, which consists of mostly unknown bands with lead singers that like to scream, is horrific.
Arena Football seems like a good idea on paper, but the execution of the idea is miserable. Nothing new has been brought to the table, and many modes that you normally associate with sports games are nowhere to be found. The visuals are unimpressive and the audio is downright offensive. In the end, you get the feeling that the game was put out solely because EA had the license and they were obligated to release something. If this was included as a bonus when you pre-order Madden, or even included as part of the next Madden game, it wouldn't be so bad, but to expect people to pay even $30 is wishful thinking.