EA’s Madden NFL series has been a staple of the gaming landscape for twenty years. For the entire duration of that time it has been growing in a way more substantial than merely an updating of the rosters. EA have been adding features and depth to the game year-on-year to the point where if you wanted to enjoy the latest Madden game, you probably had to have played the previous games.
Madden NFL became the epitome of a franchise serving its fans. It became baffling to newcomers, requiring so much inside knowledge of how the franchise works and how the game is played that it was increasingly difficult to find a way in each year. For fans that had played the previous games each year it was just a granular evolution of features and intricacies. For newcomers it was a frustratingly sharp learning curve and a seemingly impenetrable selection of play-diagrams and strategy calls.
With the latest iteration of the American Football game EA Tiburon have done more than just update rosters, polish the visuals and add some more play options. They’ve made it accessible again and it’s a triumph.
Let’s get some of the technical stuff out of the way early. Visual presentation is as accomplished as we’ve come to expect from EA’s yearly sports titles, with player models looking good and character likenesses all seeming to be close. The front-end menu systems are intuitive and slick, as ever. Sound design consists of the usual grunts, crashes and crumpling meat-on-metal sounds that you would expect. It’s all good enough and doesn’t break your immersion in the game.
The commentary is generally good but there are occasions when a little more variation wouldn’t go amiss and there are a number of instances when the lines are stilted or the volume changes, reminding you that the lines are cut together in an editing suite rather than delivered naturally.
Controls are simple enough with running plays controllable via both analogue sticks (left for direction, right for jinks and spins) or the left stick plus face buttons. Throwing plays require a simple tap of the button which corresponds to each runner and there are buttons for diving, stripping the ball or changing defensive runners. For newcomers they will take a game or two to get used to but after a short while they are completely natural.
The real innovation in Madden 11 – and I’m tempted to call it the genius of Madden 11 – is in the new GameFlow system. This is where EA Tiburon have taken all of the complexity, all of the masses of information in the latest Madden playbook and distilled it down to a welcoming, easily approachable package.
Some might say that the problem with Madden games of recent years has been that they don’t let you play the game as much as they made you call the game. They made things less about running plays and more about knowing what plays you had to call in each situation. You can still do all that if you wish. If you’re an American Football aficionado you can switch off GameFlow and get engrossed in the huge Madden playbook.
For the rest of us, though, GameFlow is the way back to the simplicity and fun of the early Madden games. It works by taking the situation you find yourself in as the offensive team (say third and long) and automatically selecting your next play from a catalogue of plays that your team actually would have used in that situation during the ’09 season. When you’re the defensive team it lines you up in response to the offensive plays made by your opposition in any given situation.
GameFlow makes us into players again and allows us to leave the coaching to the head coach. It is even delivered, if you have the facility, via your headset so it sounds just like the helmet communication you would get from the head coach during a game. You still make some key choices via a quick pop-up menu in certain situations. For example, you might decide to kick for a field goal on a fourth down or you could go for it and try to run a play to get your first down.
If you disagree with a play that’s been called you can pull up your audibles via a face button and select from one of the other common plays for that situation. If, for example your coach wants you to run through the middle of the line of scrimmage but when you line up the defensive team has packed that area then just pull up your audibles and select the run option to go around the outside.
If you want a little more control over your playbook but still want the streamlined experience that GameFlow gives you during games then you can edit your team’s game plan (via the GamePlanning mode) to let the game know which plays you prefer to run and to tailor your strategy to your opponent. You can even take these tailored GameFlow playbooks online.
The game’s new locomotion system tracks a player’s momentum in order to make collisions and deflections more realistic. Occasionally it can look slightly odd because the animations don’t quite match up to the motion but the end result is that the player goes where you would naturally expect him to go after a collision. This is made all the more important by the improvements to the blocking AI which will, for the most part, make intelligent blocks and move through the line to pick up second level defenders. This gives you a greater chance of breaking through a defence and running long.
The passing game is a little more difficult to get to grips with. It’s about timing and careful observation of how a play develops. Even when a passing play is executed flawlessly you might fail to complete on it or you might be called out of bounds on a pass up the sidelines (often these decisions were plainly and infuriatingly incorrect, even when reviewed and upheld). Passing usually provides a higher reward for the increased risk, though, with huge gains possible when everything falls into place.
An EA Sports game wouldn’t be the same without the plethora of game modes to choose from. Franchise mode is back, as is the Ultimate Team card trading game which has previously appeared as DLC. The Superstar mode also makes an unaltered return allowing you to take one player from the draft to the Super Bowl. The online game modes worked well for me, with minimal lag (usually only when the ball is high in the air) making the experience a smooth one.
Special mention should be given to the new online cooperative game mode, Online TeamPlay, which allows each player (up to three on each team) to take control of a certain aspect of the team’s line-up (offensive and defensive). So one of you might be in charge of the quarter back and another of you might control the wide receivers. This makes for headset-shouting gameplay at its best as each player choreographs with the others to make a successful play.
- The usual slick EA presentation.
- Gameplay as deep or as accessible as you want it.
- Masses of options to tailor the game to just how you like it.
- Occasional bad calls on the sidelines.
- Commentary is sometimes a bit obviously edited.
With a franchise that has been running for so long and has so many dedicated, knowledgeable fans it is a risk to make big changes. EA Tiburon took that risk with this year’s Madden and it has paid off in spades. This game is as deep and complex or as accessible and simple as you want it to be. The new features make the game playable by a much wider audience but all the tools are there for those of you who want to tune your experience and take minute control over your team. There are a few minor issues but nothing that even comes close to spoiling the overall experience.