I am someone who is a massive sports fan, especially when it comes to football, or “hand egg” for our friends across the pond. However, I’m not really big into traditional football video games as the genre has fallen on dark times since ESPN NFL 2K5. Instead, I tend to gravitate towards the more arcade-style experiences, such as the classic NBA Street and NFL Blitz, or some newer indie titles like Super Blood Hockey.
While arcade sports as a genre has not been as vibrant as it once was, there have still been a steady stream of non-indie entries in recent years, spearheaded by Saber Interactive’s NBA Playgrounds and WWE Battlegrounds series. These entries have been fun distractions for me, but, admittedly, the return of arcade-style football has been eagerly awaited. Thankfully, the wait is over with the release of Saber’s Wild Card Football, but was it a touchdown or merely a first down?
Same Face, New Place
The first thing you will notice when you boot up Wild Card Football is a familiar face. Perhaps many familiar faces, as the game kept the same exaggerated cartoony look and feel of past games from Saber, along with a licensing agreement with the NFL Players Association. This means that they are able to use every player’s name and likeness. Curiously, though, there is no agreement with the NFL Proper, meaning they do not have access to team names and logos. This means that each team, while having a mirrored roster to their NFL counterpart, are simply named after the teams’ quarterbacks and given fake logos and jerseys. This resulted in my beloved New York Jets trading in their beautiful Gotham Green threads for a pink and grey monstrosity. Thankfully, though, Aaron Rodgers’ achilles tendon is fully intact in this timeline.
Home Field Advantage
Once you step on the field, the presentation and wacky tone feel very similar to that of WWE Battlegrounds or NBA Playgrounds. You are greeted to an intro speech by Chris Bermen; however, that is short lived as there is no real commentary team once the game starts. The game plays out as 7 on 7 backyard style football on steroids. You will go through familiar motions, choosing plays that vaguely resemble real football concepts. B
ut once you snap the ball, the game makes very clear that you are not in Canton anymore. Everything moves at a breakneck speed with some hilariously exaggerated animations. Most tackles are replaced by German suplexes, and some of the jukes would make a Dark Souls veteran jealous.
While all of this is quite fun and kind of the point of the arcade sports genre, there is some unevenness to Wild Card’s core game play. For example, the passing game is extremely fun to engage with, while running the ball has some issues. The battle in the trenches between the D-Line and the O-Line feels an awful lot like the Monstars vs. a New York City turnstile, swallowing up any running back unlucky enough to take a hand-off. There is a QTE mini game that tries to combat this, rewarding a speed boost if successfully completed. However, this is somewhat counter intuitive as you should have your eyes on the O-Line opening up holes, not on QTEs showing up in the backfield.
On top of that, the game’s AI is often quite shoddy, which, in my experience, had wide receivers breaking wide open far too often or had CBs lining up against no one and just standing there until the play was over. Since you can’t control 7 players at once, it is quite important to have semi-intelligent AI control the other 6, but they let me down far too often.
Wild Card Football has more to offer than just simply arcade football action, though. As the game’s title implies, they have implemented a pseudo trading card game layer on top of the base game play. They are called “Wild Cards” and allow you to add a Mario Kart style power up to each play. During the pre-snap play collection, you will draw a few cards from a deck and choose how you wish to modify each play. The cards themselves follow common trading card tropes as they have different rarities that will determine how impactful they can be to the game. This is far and away the game’s key feature; however, like the core game play, it is also somewhat of a mixed bag.
The game’s rarest “legendary” cards lead to some incredibly fun moments, such as summoning a bunch of tar pits that your opponent will have to dodge when trying to make their next play, or turning a running back into an unstoppable monster. There are also some other rare cards that can limit your opponent’s ability to use their own cards, similar to trap cards in Yu-Gi-Oh, which can lead to some interesting strategic decisions.
On top of that, the majority of the cards you play will be common ones that simply will make players faster, slower, or stronger by a specific percentage, which is frankly not as interesting. It’s also revealed pre-snap what card your opponent is playing, which in most cases telegraphs what they are going to do. If they played a card that gives their running back 50% more speed, chances are it’s going to be a run play. There is also a mana-like system in place, so you can’t just spam cards on every down. There is a bit of strategy required to ensure the cards are as impactful as possible when played.
Like any trading card game, card acquisition plays a big role, and, thankfully, at the time of this review, there is no way to directly buy card packs. All packs are acquired through completing in-game challenges or playing exhibition or season mode games, the latter of which is more or less just playing against a select number of CPU teams in sequence. There is also the Dream Squad mode, which is the meat and potatoes of what you will be doing in Wild Card Football. Dream Squad mode is a take on the ever popular Madden Ultimate Team in which you create your own team, are given a pretty bad roster to start, and you build it up by opening packs and finding new players.
These players come from the same packs as your Wild Cards, along with cosmetic items like jerseys, team logos, and logo backgrounds. It’s worth noting that the team at Saber has gotten really creative with some of the skins, especially the legendary ones, going far beyond traditional football attire and into the realm of the likes of Fortnite.
Unfortunately, these cosmetic items have a significantly higher drop rate than the Wild Cards and Players, making progression feel a bit slow. Like the cards, the players drop at variable rarities as well. With every game you play, the players on your roster will slowly level up their attributes, and these rarities will determine how high of a level these players can achieve.
The best way to describe this is to imagine each player’s Madden rank is significantly lower than it should be, and you will have to grind a bunch of games to get that player to the performance level you would expect them to be. This means that no matter how many games you play, Zach Wilson will never be able to replace Aaron Rodgers. It also means that whoever has played more will have a very large advantage in the game. Playing quick matches just two days after launch, I’ve already come across players with a Dream Squad 20 levels above mine, leading to some pretty significant butt-whoopins on my end. Thankfully, the ranked mode operates in a league based system, resetting monthly, which should lead to more balanced games.
Half the Distance to the Goal…
Wild Card Football is an interesting attempt in the return of arcade football, although it too often feels like a half step. Player likeness is cool to see, especially in its exaggerated cartoony form. However, the teams we are all fans of are missing. The passing game is fun to engage with while the run game feels like an afterthought. Playing legendary cards leads to some extremely fun moments. However, common cards pale in comparison, feeling more like an interruption to the flow of the game than a fun mechanic. I look forward to continued improvements as Saber has publicly committed to prolonged support for Wild Card Football. But, as of right now, the experience is somewhat uneven.
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