In a gaming landscape that has grown increasingly splintered, EA Sports’ Madden NFL franchise remains one of the select few names that not only attracts a massive annual audience, but can rightly be called a mainstream cultural touchstone. Yet Madden’s die-hard following -- the people who line up to grab the game at midnight on launch day, year after year -- has been shrinking.
Madden NFL 11 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], Wii, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 2, iOS)
You’re free to wade into the entirety of your playbook, as in years past. And with the game on the line, you’ll likely want to do so. But in most situations, I found GameFlow to be a far better option than choosing a play myself, mainly because it’s such a time-saver. (I’d estimate that GameFlow shaved a good 15–20 minutes off of the time it took me to complete a game.) It streamlines your experience by giving you quick access to common choices in situations that come up often. For example, failing to convert on third down will bring up a menu where punting, faking a punt, going for it, and opening up your full playbook are each just one button press away. The only downside to GameFlow is that it doesn’t let you choose your personnel -- you need to go into the playbook in order to make quick substitutions.
Madden 11 also brings significant gameplay improvements that are frustratingly close to brilliance. A new locomotion system, right-stick controls for ball carrier moves such as spins and jukes, and real blocking AI combine to make running the ball more productive and fun than ever. In the play art, you’ll be able to see whom your blockers will attempt to block, and for the first time ever, blockers will actually make way for you by pushing past the line of scrimmage and picking up the second level of defenders. Until this year, I didn’t bother with outside runs (sweeps/tosses) or draw plays, because they were guaranteed to lose yardage. At long last, they work like they’re supposed to -- for the most part.
After spending a few hours with Madden 11, I was over the moon with Gus Johnson and his emphatic calls. But upon further review (and much more playtime), I’m less enthralled with the commentary. He easily trumps Tom “Check for a Pulse” Hammond, but the problem with employing Johnson’s bold style of commentating is that it’s nearly impossible to string recorded segments together and keep it sounding believable. Tiburon made a valiant effort -- and I expect that with an additional year behind the mic to record more varied lines (and volumes), the commentary will be much better -- but too often, I heard a sequence like, “UP TOP... [unexcited] and he brings it down for a 32-yard gain.” While CoachSpeak is a great idea, especially for newbies (since a coach tells you what to look for in a play), the novelty wore off quickly for me, and I soon disabled it.
Dancing on the fine line of making an eminently accessible game that’s still deep enough for the hardcore fanbase is a tightrope-balancing act that often sinks lesser developers. But EA Tiburon has demonstrated that they’re clearly up to the challenge. As a longtime Madden player, I was worried that this year’s major changes would alienate me, but I’ve managed to get some of the muscle memory for the Strategy Pad down pat -- even in spite of the Xbox 360’s terrible D-pad. Madden NFL 11 may not suck me in for the long haul like the Be A Pro modes in other EA Sports titles, but damn, do I enjoy playing this game.
THE VERDICT - Madden NFL 11
Reviewed by Samit Sarkar
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