With EA and Madden locking up simulation football for generations to come, football fans are growing increasingly hungry for a new alternative. Where can people get a good football video game fix? Alternatives are out there, and the number is growing. The latest comes from the folks at Saber Interactive, which doesn't have the official NFL blessing, but they do have the NFL Player's Association license. The result is Wild Card Football, the latest in the Playgrounds Sports series, which doesn't offer a lot of ways to play, but stands out as a perfectly competent arcade football title.
Wild Card Football isn't a total re-creation of the sport that Americans are intimately familiar with every Sunday. Rather than packing full teams into stadiums, users are fielding teams of seven onto makeshift fields on the streets. Even without official NFL stadiums, Saber does a fine job in making each city's field stand out, whether it be Chicago's mud-packed terrain or Seattle's oceanfront background. Saber makes the best of what is has available and the in-game presentation is far better than what I could have expected. It also embraces some ideas that it wouldn't be able to with the NFL license, like harder hits, a lot of celebrations, an overall more violent (albeit cartoonishly so) aesthetic.
Once the first whistle blows, it's time to dive into the game itself. Quarters only last two minutes, which is enough time to squeeze in some solid arcade-style football. Running backs can smash it up the middle, taking down defenders with stiff arms and making them look silly with jukes in any direction. There's a "blink-and-you'll-miss-it" button sequence that can be pressed during each handoff, which can give the offensive player either a quick boost or a cool dodge maneuver. It's hard to knock over a running back when he's literally flipping over a defender.
The passing game is strong, but in my experience, it seems to favor the defense slightly more. The quarterback can opt to throw a lob or a bullet pass, though more often than not, I saw my receivers deviating from their routes. The defenders, on the other, get a generous window to either bat down the pass or attempt an interception. I wasn't exactly Zach Wilson throwing into triple coverage on offense, but I will say that I felt a lot more comfortable on the other side of the ball.
However, while Wild Card Football is a decent gridiron romp on its own, where it stands out is with the use of the titular Wild Cards. Players are given a deck of Wild Cards that shuffle throughout the game, each with a varying cost depending on its effect. Some can offer immediate stat boosts, others affect the plays that the opposing team can choose, and there's a whole subsection of wacky video game powers. While I was able to get far simply by giving speed boosts to my receivers or strength boosts to my defense, I have a soft spot for the more outlandish Wild Cards, like one that turns the ball carrier into a massive goliath and another one that chucks dozens of tar pits around the field to slow the offense.
The main issue here is that there's no option for audibles, so if an opposing player uses a Wild Card that doesn't favor you, you just have to grit your teeth and bear it. Even instituting a limited number of audibles could have improved the mental mind games exponentially. The potential for some back-and-forth chess matches is there, but in its current form, Wild Card Football doesn't capitalize on it.
While it's possible to play locally and online against friends in exhibitions or try to run a full season as a solo player, Wild Card Football's standout mode is Dream Squad. This allows players to create a mish-mash of big-time players on both sides of the ball, but they only start with a few select names. The Dream Squad roster gets filled out over time as players earn the dreaded loot box.
Yes, Wild Card Football utilizes loot boxes. However, it's not as bad as it sounds. The game doesn't have microtransactions, so all loot boxes are earned through natural gameplay. This means that players will earn them by leveling up their profiles, completing daily challenges, finishing Dream Squad tours, or participating in other activities. There's no exploitative nickel-and-diming happening with the loot boxes.
No, the main issue with the loot boxes is that they give a slow sense of progression where one isn't really needed. It's one thing to have players unlock cosmetic items, but the plodding progression pace for unlocking players, leveling up those players, and even unlocking Wild Cards can be discouraging if somebody goes into the game just wanting to play against friends. It somewhat diminishes the experience for anybody coming in fresh.
Pick up and play
Wild Card Football doesn't offer a lot in terms of game modes, but it makes up for that with a strong foundation. The fundamentals of a strong arcade football game are in place, and sessions are short enough for some fun get-togethers with friends either locally or online. I would hope that gaming can find other ways to incorporate progression than the loot box system, but the manner in which it's used could have been so much worse.
Look at Wild Card Football as a late-round NFL draft pick that dramatically overachieves on the field. People likely didn't expect much from it, but what they have now is a pleasant surprise.
This review is based on a PlayStation code provided by the publisher. Wild Card Football is available starting today on PC, PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Switch for $39.99 USD. The game is rated E.
Wild Card Football
- Strong presentation
- Good arcade football fundamentals
- Ample customization options
- Wild Card system can be a lot of fun
- Loot boxes do not run on microtransactions
- Loot box progression feels dated
- Limited game modes
- No audibles