Hands-on with Madden NFL Mobile, freemium football's comeback player of the year

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The Madden franchise has been a football juggernaut for a quarter of a century on consoles, but EA Sports has failed to hit that same kind of stride on mobile, bouncing between free and paid models in search of elusive success. Last year's Madden NFL 25 was the low point, stacking so many punitive freemium elements atop each other that it largely killed any desire to actually play the game. It just wasn't worth the hassle—but there wasn't anything better with the NFL license on mobile.

Madden NFL Mobile, released Tuesday for iOS and Android to coincide with the console launch of Madden NFL 15, offers EA a fresh opportunity to get touchscreen football right, even as it continues to pursue a free-to-play approach. Last fall's FIFA 14 showed that the company can learn from its missteps and release a free mobile sports game that doesn't waste players' time, and Madden NFL Mobile thankfully follows its lead in many respects. While similar in spots to last year's game, Madden no longer feels simply like a business plan under the guise of a game.

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Yeah, it sure does look like a miniaturized version of Madden. (Also, Manziel on the Bears? Dark days, indeed.)

Once again, the new Madden builds its core experience around the Ultimate Team mode, wherein you'll mix and match player cards to construct a squad. You'll start with enough cards to have a decent team—one or two stars, maybe, but mostly lesser-known players. Naturally, you'll want to improve the group over time, which means buying card packs and bidding on individual cards in live auctions. Unsurprisingly, you can spend real money to get the in-game coins and cash needed to purchase such things very quickly.

If there's a specific trend at play in Madden NFL Mobile, it's that everything feels very streamlined and accessible, even more so than last year. On the field, it means that things like audibles and substitutions are unavailable. You'll pick a play, snap the ball, and then either run it or throw it; defense likewise proves as complex as selecting your play, attempting to run down the QB or ball carrier, and timing your swipes to try and snag interceptions. It's a very simple take on what can be a complex sport, but still solidly fun and a good fit for mobile. Easy in, easy out. 

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Up close, the game loses its sleek sheen. In fact, it doesn't even look like the players have faces. Luckily, the game rarely zooms in.

The home screen serves as a hub for varying events and always points you towards something to do, whether it's playing a season game against the computer, taking part in a quick-hit challenge, or jumping into simulated head-to-head battles against other online players. The "online" match-ups essentially find you playing your offensive downs in a six-round showdown, with the computer simulating the other player on defense. It's asynchronous multiplayer with a stand-in opponent—weird in concept, but it makes sense in action.

The overall experience lacks the depth of the console games—and we wish it followed FIFA's example by letting you pay a few bucks for traditional, fully featured Madden play modes—but what's here feels really solid on mobile and makes a lot of sense for the platform.

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Finding a huge opening and breaking away for a touchdown? This happens a ton against A.I. teams.

Even better, it doesn't have that crushing freemium feel that effectively ruined last year's game. You'll never pay earned currency to use individual plays, and the energy meter is very generous, at least in the early games I played. Granted, you still start out with a relatively slim selection of plays to choose from, but more come simply by completing events and games and advancing your player level. As long as you don't intend to play for hours in a single sitting, you should find plenty of free play within. 

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Quick-hit events populate the map screen and earn you coins and potentially also cards.

That said, the gameplay itself needs refinement, and some issues linger from last year. Interceptions against the computer are laughably common when swiping as prompted—I regularly netted four-to-five per game, and that's with one-minute quarters. It's also way too easy to break away from the computer for an epic run, and the A.I. doesn't put much effort into clock management. It's too easy to walk (well, run) all over the computer opponents, which could hurt the long-term appeal here.

But compared to last year's major issues, these seem like minor, fixable things. For the first time in more than a year—since Madden NFL 13 Social was pulled—there's an enjoyable, officially licensed football game for mobile devices, and it's free. That's well worth celebrating.

This story, "Hands-on with Madden NFL Mobile, freemium football's comeback player of the year" was originally published by TechHive.

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