Preview: Saber’s Wild Card Football blitzes and jams with arcade feels

Preview: Saber’s Wild Card Football blitzes and jams with arcade feels

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Back in the 90s, the NFL was willing to throw its license everywhere, especially towards video games. From Madden NFL to Joe Montana Football to Quarterback Club, the thought was to create as many games as possible and expand the brand. Cut to the 2000s, though, and EA suffocated the market by buying the NFL license, leading to an increasingly repetitive push towards simulation NFL games. “NO FUN LEAGUE.” That was the phrase often used to the now more serious NFL in general.

But those late 90s were magical. We got EVERYTHING. One of the games that came out of that era was NFL Blitz, a sort of gridiron spiritual successor to NBA Jam. While it started life in the arcades it didn’t have quite the same bombastic feel of the basketball predecessor — putting 14 players on a full size 3D field and trying to add fireballs didn’t quite work as well thanks to platforms that couldn’t handle all of the chaos on screen.

Since that golden era the field has been dominated by Madden, so much so that anything different is a welcomed endeavor. Saber Interactive’s just-announced Wild Card Football looks to take on that challenge. Based on Playground series, which began with the NBA Playgrounds games, WCF takes aspects of arcade and simulation and brings them together into a package that focuses on solid gameplay but embellishes chaos. During my session earlier in June, it was clear that the developers have learned a lot about what works in this style of game and have anticipated about how to bring that to football.

Because WCF has the NFLPA license and not the NFL proper, we won’t be finding any of our favorite teams — but we might just find some of our favorite players. Our session begins by creating a team, down to colors and uniform, and then selecting from a roster of current and past NFL players. That put Colin Kaepernick as our starting QB up against my hometown Lions QB Jared Goff on the opposing team, and then running backs and wide receivers and defense from across the actual pro league. The setup is 7 on 7, allowing for more space on an open field than a sim game to perform some of the wild acrobatics and earth-shaking stunts that appear during games. Players are acquired by opening booster packs of cards that can be purchased after accruing enough in-game currency, and the developers tell me that there are hundreds planned and on the way.

As our game begins, we watch our team and the computer-controlled opponent side battle back and forth up and down the field. Though there’s a stadium or two in the mix, games take place across a variety of fields and weather, including places that look like farms and industrial yards. The game does feel a little on the visually empty side, due to the generally large requirements for a football field and the minimal fans on the sidelines. And the character models are all pretty similar, too, but the focus is more on the action anyways.

And that seems pretty solid.

The playbooks are varied with runs and passes and can be customized to a fairly deep level, but this session utilizes one that’s already set up. The running aspect, especially the powerful juke mechanic, is great; as lanes open up players can run through opponents using effective pushes, or they can try and avoid them altogether with bibs and bobs and big escapes. Passing is a little less hands-on, requiring a bit more understanding of where the computer-controlled wide receivers might be, since I noticed that they tend to want to run through their routes if a pass isn’t let off at the right time. But post-catch? Hands-on with the ball? That looks like the bread-and-butter of the on-field action.

That is, of course, if players can effectively manage the wild card system. Using a “deck” of modifier cards that can be acquire through challenges and play, players can greatly enhance their team or debilitate their opponents. Our sessions shows off UFOs that capture players, invisible walls, and runners becoming giants. Knowing when to use them is as important as what they are. Goal line stands might be perfect with a wall behind us, but if we’re holding the rock then we may want to enlarge to 20x our size and truck through. The cards each cost a specific amount of power, so that we can’t throwing everything all at once and try to overwhelm the other side. It’s a bit more about balance and strategy than one might initially think, and feels slightly more purposeful than the concept of a UFO picking up a player might seem.

By the end of the game our Kaep-led team wins by a couple of touchdowns, but only after managing a lucky turnover and a late TD the other way.

There’s a lot of potential with Wild Card Football. Fans of the sport, especially those on Switch, are pining for more football game variety without going too far in one thematic direction or another. The more casual Playgrounds formula might work really well here, especially alongside the push to keep unlocking and improving our favorite players. It’s solid foundation will be put to the test when it launches on October 10th for PlayStation, Xbox, PC (Epic & Steam) and Switch.

This hands-off preview took place at an event in June in Los Angeles.