Madden NFL ’11 launched this week, and you know what that means: another season of visual improvements, updated rosters, and bullet-pointed lists containing all the nifty features that the series’ fans eat up like the pellets in Pac-Man.
Sure, NFL football is one of the most popular topics in American culture, but being a Madden fan isn’t always so easy. A large part of the hardcore gaming crowd wants you to believe otherwise, but the last few versions have proven to me that the series is more than a “$60 roster update”. These days, playing Madden around hardcore gamers is like eating a juicy steak in front of an annoying, self-righteous vegan; sometimes you’ll even get the exaggerated gagging noises that sound like a dying cat.
Madden often gets a bad rep because gamers automatically notice the visual improvements or recycled commentary clips before they try to identify any of the new gameplay mechanics. If the pursuit of victory in the face of doubt and diversity was the inspiration behind Madden ’11 (personified by cover star Drew Brees of the Saints) then it is clear that EA Sports deserves a chance to celebrate “victory”. Coming from a Colts fan, that’s like swallowing a pineapple.
The mantra for Madden ’11 is “Simpler, Quicker, Deeper”. All three of these ideas come into play when you consider the changes in the game’s formula. First, the new “GameFlow” play-calling system greatly simplifies the playbook interface for inexperienced players and shortens the length of each contest significantly. Sound clips from offensive and defensive coordinators break down and explain the various strategic aspects of each play, which is automatically chosen, based on the current on-field situation. This system functions as an effective tutorial for inexperienced players and football fans who want to learn more about the subtle nuances of a 4-3 defense, but advanced players will most likely turn off the new feature before the end of their first game.
Moving forward (no pun intended), the new “Locomotion” running engine that worked so well in NCAA Football ’11 has been successfully ported to Madden. The players on the field accelerate automatically, gaining momentum realistically, with no need for a sprint button. EA Sports also split the runner controls between upper & lower body movement on both analog sticks. This was a great idea; skilled players can eventually make tight cuts and slip through zones without needing to make any wild right-stick moves.
The resulting effect is an experience that feels more intuitive and complete than any football game to date; finally, the nitty-gritty running plays are just as exciting to execute as the big-bomb passes. Never before has each possession in Madden felt so much like it could lead to another memorable, glorious “football moment” for the ages. The tricks at your disposal clearly favor the running game, but quarterbacks in Madden ’11 also benefit from agile receivers. The Locomotion engine has a large effect on acceleration and momentum, so you’ll notice star receivers making huge cuts that leave defenders frozen on the line. Best of all, routes to the sidelines or the back of the end zone are finally effective now that your receivers drag their feet or stop to catch the ball without running out of bounds.
The visual appearance of Madden ’11 will disappoint the crazy perfectionists out there who are expecting a lifelike presentation, but it still shows some improvement since last year. Player models look very accurate, particularly with the signature styles that were added last season. Remember, “accurate” and “exact” are not the same: although the body sizes have been scaled to be more accurate, their celebratory animations can still be awkward and unrealistic.
Combined with the Locomotion engine, the animations are smoother and more realistic than before, but it is still easy to separate the “canned” ones from the unique ones. Spectacular catch plays are specifically guilty of this; seeing Reggie Wayne stretch out for a one-armed grab is always a treat, but before long, you realize that the “one-armed-Reggie-catch” animation only occurs when he’s about to be downed immediately. Similarly, slipping through the lines and shrugging off a big back is exciting, but once you see the “runner-tipping-too-far” animation, you realize that he will be eating dirt regardless of what you’re trying to do with the controller.
Realistic commentary is hit-or-miss in every Madden game, but this year’s version finds a better balance with the addition of ESPN’s Gus Johnson for play-by-play. His clips are so eccentric and excitable that they negate Chris Collinsworth’s constant negativity, particularly whenever he uses the Old Spice quotes – “Thanks for smellin’ great, man!” Instant replays and other broadcast-stlye effects have been overhauled, but the game has trouble transitioning between them smoothly. Accidentally pressing the “A” button too many times to skip the stats or highlights may result in GameFlow selecting your play. If it’s the wrong play, your only options are burning a time-out or calling a sloppy audible and hoping your team could re-group. Another instance of the game’s stuttering problem can be seen during the CPU’s snap count: just as the ball is hiked, the animation will chug slightly. This allows you to easily predict when the ball will be hiked. Finally, in each game I played, the two-minute warnings would awkwardly interrupt the result of the final play. Highlight videos and stat graphs would fill the screen before I knew if I had converted or lost yardage.
Madden ’11 gives you a lot of options to play with, such as Franchise, Online Franchise, Madden Moments, Superstar Mode, and the new “Ultimate Team” card game, but most of these features are in a state of disrepair compared to Franchise mode. Frequent injuries plague Franchises (don’t even bother drafting Bob Sanders), and paying any form of money for Ultimate Team cards is absurd. As a side-note, I would have liked to see Madden Arcade included as a bonus; perhaps Madden ’12 could feature an updated version of the XBLA/PSN spin-off?
Next season, instead of adding another cleverly-named feature that throws off the balance of the game. EA Sports needs to tighten up the A.I. and build on the existing mechanics: the Madden series just needs to be smarter. I don’t complain when Gus Johnson confuses the name of the punt returner, which happens frequently. I don’t complain when GameFlow tells me to run it on 3rd-and-6, knowing that I’ll have to audible and call a short pass play. I just don’t want to see situations where the A.I. decides to throw away the game and give up simply because I’ve sacked the quarterback or picked off a bad pass. Eventually the A.I. seems to tuck its tail between its legs, instead of fighting back. The frequency of injuries is absurd in Franchise mode; be sure to turn down the setting if you want to keep Bob Sanders on the field for more than two plays.
If you have been avoiding the Madden series for a couple of years, Madden ’11 gives you every reason to give it another shot. Most of the flaws mentioned in this review are nagging issues that casual fans won’t even notice in a quick game against a friend. Hardcore Madden fans will notice that the series is still short of perfection, but this year, the franchise made its way to Super Bowl Sunday.