Joystiq hands-on: EA Sports All-Play

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Joystiq hands-on: EA Sports All-Play
"All-Play" is the new brand of Wii-exclusive EA Sports titles that takes the publisher's perennial franchises and simplifies them in ways that make the games accessible to, well ... all. It's the obvious direction to take, as the changes in the Wii versions of EA Sports' games continue to distinguish themselves from the linear advances of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions. All-Play isn't groundbreaking, it just wants to fit.

All-Play succeeds in its commitment to consistency. Whatever whip Riccitiello is cracking has got the herd moving together in the right direction. We recently spent time with four of the five featured All-Play titles (sorry NCAA Football!) and can report that each has been treated with a certain level of care above the usual year-to-year tweaks EA Sports has come to be criticized by. These treatments are most definitely shaping a more casual product, which gives EA an advantage at both ends of the current-gen playing field.

Wii sports are never going to rival the on-screen brilliance capable with the technologies inherent in PS3 and Xbox, so it becomes a choice between dumbed-down port with Waggletech® or an independently developed version ... with Waggletech®. EA Sports appears committed to the latter, introducing a new brand of its old products, which build from previous versions, but are rooted in a firm commitment to light, social play.

"Predictably saturated with obnoxious mom-bait like a faux calorie counter."

Each game features a new "Party" mode, which is predictably saturated with boring minigames and obnoxious mom-bait like FIFA's faux calorie counter, but manages to produce a few gems. Madden's 5-on-5 mode strips away the pages of playbook and strategic drives in favor of backyard-brand football where you've got four downs to score and just a hand-off, short pass, long pass, or the deep ball to do so -- oh, and everyone's a bobblehead. 5-on-5 also incorporates Wii's best exclusive feature "Call Your Shots," where players can redraw their receivers' routes at the line of scrimmage. If you're playing local multiplayer the feature doubles as a taunt: This is how I'm about to own you, now try to stop me from melting your face off.

FIFA's also got a simplified "8 vs. 8" game, which is the only mode across the entire All-Play lineup we saw to get Nintendo's coveted thumbs-up for Mii usage (though we're told Miis pop up as referees elsewhere). NBA Live's 2-on-2 seems like another obvious choice for Mii cameos, but instead features the same "realistic" character models as the regular mode (now with power-ups) -- at least you can play as ... WNBA All-Stars. Tiger Woods wins our vote for most complete "social alternative" with a mode that strings together its minigames, as players compete to accumulate a point total by winning games and getting lucky in the in-between slot machine spins (you can also win tokens for the in-game "ball touch" feature, which, when activated, let's all players apply added spin -- in any direction -- to a hit ball as long as it's in the air).

The Party modes don't represent the "core" experience though, and players can choose to ignore them entirely in favor of the traditional sports simulations, with the added bonus of online play incorporated into each All-Play title. There are also various season, franchise, and tournament modes scattered throughout the lineup. While complete, if you're hooked into any decent-sized HD display, the games certainly show the age of Wii's processors, especially NBA Live, which was totally not-love at first sight. Remember jaggies? Each game is patched with high contrast, super saturated visuals, which are a throwback to EA Sports' not-so-distant, toonier days.

"You can play without ever pressing a button."

The broad social experiment has been worked into these traditional modes too, as "All-Play" is revealed as a control scheme that gives its users considerable advantages while sacrificing much of the deeper mechanics. Not only is an All-Player assisted by "smarter" AI teammates, but the so-called novice can be essentially computer-controlled. In both FIFA and NBA LIVE, we experienced the unnerving feeling of being guided by an invisible force toward our goal, only having to flick our wrist to shoot. You can literally play without ever pressing a button (if you never pass the ball). EA says All-Play levels the playing field -- "it's the first time we're seeing grandparents beat their grandchildren." But we're not convinced games were ever meant to be played like this.

With All-Play off and, in most cases, a Nunchuk attached, we were surprised by how responsive and functional the controls were across the board ... not quite gamepad-perfect, but hey. Tiger benefits most from Wii's unorthodox method, and the dev team has focused much of its efforts on improving last year's already lauded swing technology. The All-Play takeaway is that you can enjoy EA's Wii sports without actually enjoying sports. Likewise, you can enjoy playing EA Sports' Wii games without actually playing games. This is Wii at its best. In the most conventional sense.

EA Sports will ship the following games, all for $49.99, this year: NCAA Football 09 All-Play on July 15; Madden NFL 09 All-Play on August 12; Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09 All-Play on August 26; NBA Live 09 All-Play on October 7; and FIFA Soccer 09 All-Play on October 14.
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