Platform: iOS, Android
Developer: DeNA Studios Canada
Release Date: September 11, 2013
No one does mobile card games like the folks at DeNA, and with the 2013 NFL campaign entering Week 2, ’tis the season for a free-to-play pro football game in the same vein. “NFL Matchups Live” is that game, and while it makes good use of its NFL and NFLPA licenses and has one interesting twist that capitalizes on the ‘Live’ in its name, it’s ultimately less polished and less satisfying than some of the company’s other recent offerings.
As you might expect, the object of “NFL Matchups Live” is to build the best team possible out of cards of real NFL players of various rarities. You start with a full offense and defense made up of relatively weak cards from your favorite team, along with one player who is a little better than the others. Mine was Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, and you may insert your own joke here.
Cards come in five rarities—Common, Uncommon, Rare, Star and Super Star—and the game is forthcoming about the fact that five-star cards can only be had by spending money on premium currency. There are multiple ways to obtain other cards, though the game isn’t very clear about this early on.
A lot of lesser cards will come into your possession through the primary gameplay mode, which is called National Tour. This mode has you traveling the U.S. to play every NFL team… but not until you complete four stages of training and drills first. The former consists of a passing drill that requires you to tap on an open receiver at the correct moment and is fun enough until you’ve done it 100 times, while the latter literally does nothing except flash pictures of three players on the screen. If real life practice was this easy, no one would even go on Allen Iverson-esque rants about it or miss it due to “injury.”
Both the training and the actual games draw from a pool called Tour Energy, which refills over time, when you level up, or with an investment of real money in various refill items. This leads to a tendency seen in a lot of card games, where you can accomplish a lot when you first start playing but are forced to slow down as you progress. Unless you pay, of course.
There’s plenty to do when your Tour Energy is low as long as you can figure it all out. Players can be trained by sacrificing lesser cards to power them up in time-honored card battle game tradition. Two-star cards and above can also be evolved by combining two of the same card, which has a cool visual impact as the new card will feature multiple action shots of the same player.
You can also trade cards with other players and pick up more cards by opening random packs. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds thanks to an overly complicated system of currencies, with vouchers for some packs, contracts for others, and still more contracts for packs that can only be used during the current weekly event. This, too, is pretty typical of the mobile card game genre, but considering that this game is likely to attract a different audience, it can’t be assumed everyone will understand it. If ever a game was crying out for a more in-depth tutorial, “NFL Matchups Live” is it.
Hardcore football fans may also be turned off by the overly simplified simulated games where every play racks up yards in multiples of 10. Yet there’s a surprising level of depth to the strategy, as you can change formations at halftime and examine specific matchups to see how best to arrange your players. You can also decide to spend more energy in either half to give a boost to your entire team, essentially gambling a precious resource on the ability to make a comeback, which does keep things interesting.
Perhaps the most interesting part is DeNA’s canny way of working fantasy football into the mix. Players at the QB, RB, WR, TE, and K positions can receive boosts or decreases to their primary stats based on how they did in real life the previous week. In the case of Peyton Manning’s seven-TD outburst in Week 1, this can lead to some really nice bonuses. But it’s still not sufficient to make up the gap between rarities except in really extreme cases, so players who pay more or play all the time will still have the upper hand, fantasy boosts or not.
It’s also not enough to elevate the entire game above the general feeling of confusion and lack of visual flair. The NFL players and logos look sharp, but everything else is cluttered and generic, and there isn’t even a tablet-optimized version like sister games “G.I. Joe Battleground” or “Transformers: Legends.” “NFL Matchups Live” scores points for its timeliness and fantasy football hook, but it could use some more time in training camp for nearly everything else.
+ Works fantasy football and a little strategy into a football card game
+ Nice use of NFL and NFLPA licenses on player cards
– Lots of aspects overly complicated, under-explained, or both
– Lacks the overall visual polish of other DeNA games