Hands-On With Wild Card Football, A Gridiron Game That Draws Inspiration From Mario Kart

In the 21st century, fans of the NFL have had minimal choices when it comes to their officially licensed football games. Ever since 2004, EA Sports' annualized Madden NFL series has been the exclusive franchise for the NFL, its teams, stadiums, and players. The result was the closure of other franchises, such as the competitive NFL 2K series, as well as the arcade-focused NFL Blitz franchise (which was later acquired by EA in 2011). The recently announced Wild Card Football from Saber Interactive, part of the Playgrounds franchise, hopes to smash through the established line to give players a fresh 7-on-7 arcade-facing take on the sport starring their favorite players.

Wild Card Football doesn't possess the NFL license, but rather the NFLPA license. This means the teams and stadiums of the National Football League aren't present, but many of its biggest stars are. I witness this firsthand as I scroll through the teams available. The in-game teams are centered around the quarterbacks, with Team Mahomes, Team Burrow, and a squad built around this game's cover star, Team Kaepernick. If you'd rather create your own team, you can enter Dream Squad mode, customize your roster, playbook, and uniforms, and advance through challenges to unlock rewards. 

The build I'm playing is an early one, and the developers explain there are plenty more players that still need to get added, but we should expect more superstars and several of the most promising rookies to be added prior to launch – hundreds in total – with more arriving via post-launch updates. At launch, names like Jalen Hurts, Justin Jefferson, T.J. Watt, Joey Bosa, Ja'Marr Chase, Aaron Donald, and more will be available. And of course, since I'm a Ravens fan, I had to ensure Lamar Jackson would be in the game at launch (the developers tell me he is).

The hook to Wild Card Football, aside from the fast-paced arcade action, is the eponymous Wild Card mechanic. Each player has a hand of cards they draw from a deck of power-up and gameplay modifier cards. The cards range from basic cards, like ones that increase your passing accuracy this down or decrease your opponent's catching skills for a play, to epic cards that summon tornados to take out anything in their path, UFOs that pick up players and move them around the field, and pinball-style bumpers that harshly repel anyone who runs into them.

You can also summon three rotating balls of electricity that immediately conjure images of the red shells in Mario Kart, or the most powerful card I saw, which grows your ballcarrier into an unstoppable giant for a short period of time – perfect for when you're at the goal line trying to punch it into the endzone.

If you're worried about players abusing those cards, you can rest easy as the system operates based on an energy economy. The more powerful the card, the more energy it costs. Positive plays for your team net you extra energy, but regardless of how well the last down went for your side of the ball, you'll still receive some energy.

In case the Wild Card system, with its tornados and UFOs, didn't tip you off, Wild Card Football lands firmly in the arcade style of gameplay. Fans of NFL Blitz will probably find a lot to like; hard hits, over-the-top celebrations, and exaggerated player proportions permeate the experience, never letting you mistake this for a simulation title. 

I enjoyed my hands-on time with Wild Card Football. Though it took me a while to get the hang of the passing game – the receivers seem to deviate from their route to run upfield as soon as the QB releases the ball – the running game feels great. Lanes open in an effective fashion, and the juke is probably the most powerful weapon players have outside of the Wild Cards. I did not fare particularly well in my first game, but I felt my skills, which are so used to Madden at this point, adjusting to the more rapid rate of play brought by Wild Card Football. Not only that, but I love how the powerups inject a new wrinkle into the sport; sports games are often criticized for a lack of innovation in the space, but this feels like a fun new twist on the game of American football.

With post-launch content plans and the exciting card-based mechanic for which the game is named, Wild Card Football has a lot of potential for those who grew up with games like NFL Blitz and NFL Street. I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the game again to see if it's able to move the chains when the game launches on PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC (on both Steam and Epic Games Store) this fall.