EA's Madden franchise has been something of an earner for the mega publisher, cranking in something like $4 Billion dollars in it's 22 year life. In that time, it's also done serious numbers when simply counting the platforms it's appeared on - including amazingly powerful equipment like the Apple II or incredibly popular hardware like the 3DO. So that we're seeing the 2011 edition on Apple's popular new platform is about as surprising as having to pay tax.
Converting a popular, existing franchise onto a platform with a completely different interface paradigm is a lot more complex than simply choosing a different target when compiling your code. Fortunately, EA had something of a head start with Madden for iPad, thanks to previous versions for the (ostensibly very similar) iPhone / iPod Touch platform. You can even get this version of the game, cheaper, on the iPhone / Touch - albeit without the high resolution graphics.
So what is Madden for iPad? What it's not is a complete replacement for the console experience. So you wont find the massive quantity of modes and options that you would find on your PS3 or 360, nor will you find the graphical prowess of those electricity-guzzling pixel pumpers. What you do get, however, is a quick match function, a season function, an ability to jump straight into the playoffs and enough gameplay and options to satisfy the NFL itch wherever you are or whatever your TV is currently being occupied by. There's even menu options for multiplayer and something called "vintage voltage" however both are listed as "coming soon" and are unavailable for play at the time of writing.
There's still no "how NFL works" stuff so you'd better walk into this with either a comprehensive knowledge of the game or access to Wikipedia. Fortunately the game does do a reasonable job of telling you how to use the iPad interface, with little popout tips and a number of touch-friendly enhancements (like the obvious ability to draw your own plays by dragging your finger around on the screen). Unfortunately much of the rest of the interface ignores standard touch conventions, making things like selecting teams or navigating some parts of the menus a bit confusing and unwieldy when you first encounter them.
The actual in-game presentation is very good, with the 3D figures looking quite decent against a fairly accomplished background. Animation of your little dudes is pretty basic, particularly in the cutscenes, but it's not bad and is definitely enough to get you in the mood for the snap.
Game controls are still based around the (seemingly standard, particularly for ports) virtual joystick however, unlike some other games we've reviewed recently, the joystick seems to respond quite well to your movements and, thanks to the real estate afforded by the iPad's large screen, is able to be large enough to remain visible most of the time.
Specific, context-sensitive buttons appear on the right hand side of the screen, depending on what you're doing. This tends to work quite well (as well as a button you can't feel can work) and EA leverage the "virtual" nature of the button well, adding things like colour and animation to provide you extra information when you're looking at the buttons (as you're likely to have to do).
Touch-specific controls are implemented well, with the excellent double-drag kicking mechanic being a particular highlight. They're used when appropriate and never forced for the sake of it, with traditional controls always used where touch or tilt controls might feel like a gimmick. Unfortunately, some buttons are very unresponsive for no apparent reason while other buttons appear to be unresponsive simply because the game stalls when you perform certain menu interactions, making it feel like your touch input wasn't registered.
Sound is executed well, if a little simply. There are tiny snippets of commentary, for example, firing in a pertinent fragment at the break of play. They sound great but are almost to the detriment of the experience as they remind you just how much of this side of the game is absent from the iPad version. The crowd sounds good, adding a lot to the atmosphere, with satisfying crunches, slaps and general "foley" sounds rounding out the in-game soundscape. The traditional musical accompaniment to the menus is present here too, with really cool tracks pumping you up for the game itself.
Actually playing the game is a remarkably satisfying experience. No, it's not as in-depth or as polished experience as you'd expect from the console versions but it's still, in essence, a very good NFL game. EA have managed what is actually a very difficult task - they've distilled the "big" experience into a small game which still contains the stuff that matters. It's fun to play and it scratches that itch, on the iPad's gorgeous screen, wherever you are.