Review: Madden NFL 10

After a short run against the Washington Redskins, the dreaded notice came up: “B. [Brandon] Jacobs is going to be evaluated by team doctors.” The New York Giants subbed in their smaller, faster running back, Ahmad Bradshaw, while I sat on the edge of my seat, wondering if Jacobs was going to be okay. After two or three plays, a graphic informed me that Jacobs had suffered a strained hip, and that I could put him back in the game — although the risk of re-injury was “medium.”

I took a chance and brought him back in. On the next play, I called an off-tackle run to the right side, figuring I’d test his hip for any adverse effects. Jacobs took the handoff from quarterback Eli Manning and ran to the right, toward the open field. A Redskins cornerback attempted to arm-tackle the big man, but Jacobs brushed off the defender and continued forward. A few yards later, two Redskins grabbed hold of him, and then another one added himself to the pile. All the while, Jacobs kept his legs churning, trying to gain a few extra yards.

The first defender lost his grasp on Jacobs; that lapse allowed the halfback to break free, and then he was off to the races. But I noticed, with a mix of amazement and concern, that Jacobs’ gait had, indeed, been affected by the strained hip. He was running like a deer that had been wounded in the leg, clutching the injured hip with his free hand while running as fast as he could down the sideline. He scored, and to celebrate, I somersaulted into the end zone. (Watch it all unfold here.)

The story that Samit just related is only possible in two places — real life, and EA Sports’ Madden NFL 10. It proves the degree of dedication of EA Tiburon, the development team, to their motto: “if you see it on Sunday, you’ll see it in Madden NFL.” How well did they succeed? Find out below, where Brad Nicholson and Samit Sarkar review Madden NFL 10 with an assist from Destructoid’s Video Director, Rey Gutierrez. (For Samit and Brad’s initial impressions, head here.)


Madden NFL 10 (PS3 [reviewed], 360 [reviewed], Wii, PS2, PSP)
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Released: August 14, 2009

Samit Sarkar (PlayStation 3 version)

Sports simulations need to offer great gameplay, to be sure, but to provide a top-notch, accurate simulacrum of a sport, I always say that a game needs to get “the little things” right. This fastidiousness is demanded by sports fans, and with Madden NFL 10, EA Tiburon delivers the goods. Hand towels for quarterbacks; team-specific colors on cleats and gloves; Super Bowl patches on jerseys; proper placement of single-digit numbers on certain teams’ helmets — these are the kinds of details that Tiburon has added this year, and while they may seem insignificant, they each bring Madden one step closer to the NFL.

Tiburon completely changed up the presentation in Madden 10. Gone are the labyrinthine menus of years past; options have been reorganized so their placement is more logical. Games themselves now feature loads of cut scenes that bring a broadcast-style look to the proceedings — for example, you might see fans buying merchandise or filing into the stadium. And the playcall screen has been streamlined so you can see the field while you’re picking a play. All seven referees can be seen on the field; they’ll collaborate on decisions (like whether or not you got a first down or crossed the plane of the end zone) and call in the chain gang. Everything has been designed to increase your immersion in the football experience.

The developers gave the on-the-field action the same boost in realism as everything else. Quarterbacks have specific throwing animations, so Ben Roethlisberger’s arm motion in the game looks like, well, his real-life throwing motion. After an “almost” play — where the last man tackled a guy to save a touchdown — the guy will pound the ground with his fist while he’s getting up, as if to say, “Damn!” But easily the most significant gameplay improvement is the new Pro-Tak animation system. It’s not just a marketing buzzword; this is a true game-changer, the most important addition to the franchise in years (perhaps since the Hit Stick and Playmaker).

Pro-Tak allows for up to nine players to be involved in a gang tackle. Players can procedurally be added to a pile, and the player being tackled still has control over what happens. In my Brandon Jacobs story, I was able to break free because Jacobs has very high “strength,” “break tackle,” and “trucking” ratings, and because I kept pushing the right analog stick forward. Just like in the NFL, a running back can keep his legs moving, and if he’s strong enough, he can move the pile to get those few extra yards for a first down. But if the pile is moving him backward, and he’s still up, the referees will blow the play dead.

More realism from Pro-Tak comes in the form of “procedural steering,” where offensive linemen can “steer” defensive linemen to the outside, thus allowing for the formation of an actual pocket for the quarterback. That’s never been in a football videogame before, and gamers are going to have to get used to not dropping back 20 yards as soon as they snap the ball. Tiburon has also implemented animation blending for the quarterback. In the past, if he was hit while throwing, he’d either get the ball off or tuck the ball as the sack animation began. In Madden 10, you’ll see plenty of lame duck throws where the ball pops into the air — maybe too many, in fact.

Another important change this year is the game speed, which Tiburon turned down (the default in the options menu is “slow”). At long last, you actually have the time to hit a hole before it closes up and scan your receivers before the rush gets to you. But Tiburon’s most pervasive change is the overhauled ratings system. The game contains more ratings than ever, like separate short, medium, and deep accuracy numbers for quarterbacks, and the dev team spread out all the ratings. There’s a palpable difference between the elite players and the middling ones; you’ll have a much tougher time taking your team to the top if your starting quarterback gets injured and you’re forced to use your 67-rated backup QB.

In other words, the ratings matter this year. Not only that, but teams will play like their real-life counterparts. The Vikings will run it down your throat with Adrian Peterson, while the Dolphins will sprinkle in the wildcat with Ronnie Brown. You’ll have to adjust your game plan for each game, just like NFL coaches do every week.

Unfortunately, a few nagging issues from past Madden games remain, and new ones have cropped up. Receivers still don’t seem to have proper sideline logic; I’ve yet to see anyone make an effort to get his feet in-bounds. Tom Hammond’s commentary is barely serviceable — and sometimes inaccurate — which is a shame, since his booth partner, Cris Collinsworth, is such a good analyst. The game also has a strange preponderance of penalties on extra points (usually holding or false starts). I once saw an opponent suffer three straight holding calls on a PAT, so a 19-yard chip shot turned into a 49-yard long shot. And though this is rare, the game’s frame rate will stutter at times.

Tiburon has also introduced major new options in the online arena. Two first-time features are online co-op and online franchise, the latter of which is something gamers have clamored for since Madden went online. Co-op is a great addition, allowing less experienced players to tag along with a Madden veteran and help out with a victory. It’d be nice if playcalling wasn’t left only to the host, though. And while online franchise doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the offline mode — for example, there’s no salary cap or CPU trade logic — just the fact that it exists and works is an achievement. Tiburon is even putting out an iPhone app for online franchise that will let you manage your franchise completely from the device.

With all of Tiburon’s tweaks and additions, Madden NFL 10 is the first entry in the franchise on current-generation consoles that I can unequivocally recommend. Yes, we say each year that “this is the best Madden yet,” but the improvements that Madden 10 offers over Madden NFL 09 are vast. In fact, aside from a new console generation, Madden 10 might provide the most significant year-over-year upgrade in the 21-year history of the series. Even gamers who have been wishing for a sequel to ESPN NFL 2K5 will be impressed, and for a football fan, buying this year’s Madden is a no-brainer.

Score: 9.5

Brad Nicholson (Xbox 360 version)

For better or worse, change represents the Madden franchise. Madden NFL 09 was an attempt to make the simulation approachable. The persistent difficulty modifier Madden IQ was introduced, as well as the mulligan option, Rewind. While these changes to the core game have been kept, the emphasis has been reduced. This Madden represents a change of direction, a complete U-turn from the casual-infused version from last year. This one is all about realism, and please, fuhgeddabout how scary that word sounds. Madden NFL 10 isn’t a snore fest. It has plenty of pop and more zing than a typical Texans vs. Raiders match-up.

I think of the realism as spice, the perfect fusion of cumin, paprika and chili powder on any respectable pork dry rub. It’s a subtle layer of taste on top of meat that has its own unique flavor. The added detail and depth don’t impede the pace or cheapen the thrills — they enhance. Ball carriers can be gang tackled. Loose balls can cause tremendous pile-ups. Pockets collapse more quickly. Receivers attempt to stay in bounds better. More low-thrown balls are tipped. And the list of stuff goes on.

The point is that these touches sit on top of an already solid engine. They flesh out the experience and make this year’s offering not only one of the sharpest on-field football games, but the best so far. If you were able to fake out your mother with Madden NFL 07, give her a taste of this one. This is the closest that an NFL football videogame has gotten to an NFL football game.

Scribble the realism in as a result of the new procedural animations. Players can slip tackles, push through blockers, and evade with realistic fluidity. And if there are too many players near the ball, well, the carrier is going nowhere. The right stick is the catalyst to this new system. For example, you can use the right analog stick to steer the big boys in the trenches around or through offensive players post-snap. Not only is it more fluid, but it’s a more intelligent method of getting to the ball handler than the aged mashing the shoulder buttons and hoping for a snappy victory route. It’s the inverse for the running back. Bruisers can run through a crowd, struggle for that extra yard and realistically evade grabbing hands with a slight flick of the stick.

As for the passing game, I’ve noticed that wide receivers run their routes more predictably, even if they are jammed at the line. Deep defenders don’t get as silly post-snap anymore either — they’ll stick with the play, eliminating the consistently annoying deep ball threat on every snap from last year. While you can still bomb it and get lucky, the rough and tumble world of the line makes it harder to pull off the miracle throws and immaculate receptions. Pockets collapse in a short time like they really do, and more importantly, QB accuracy takes a dive once outside the safety of their offensive line. No more insane bullet passes from 40 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

On a defensive note, DB AI has been toned down. The guys in back no longer possess a third eye. While they’ll still slap down sloppily thrown passes, their awareness is cued on the receiver they’re covering, not where the ball is. Deep passes still have a tendency to draw a crowd, but I’ve yet to have a classic Madden game where I throw one touchdown and six interceptions.

If I do throw six INTs, it’s because I’m using a garbage QB, and we all know there’s plenty of them in the league. This game reflects that. The rankings system has been overhauled. Bad players have bad rankings and the mediocre to good ones don’t have outstanding stats, either. This is across the board — most proven players are where they should be for once. I still have a hard time swallowing that Mark Sanchez’s 78, but future roster updates should smack him down if he plays like the rookie that he will be this year.

I’ve spent the majority of my time fiddling with Franchise mode. It has all of the features from last year with a few additions. At the end of every season you get the opportunity to do major Front Office stuff like renovating stadiums or even moving your team to a brand new location. Also, at the end of the season, player stats will rise and decrease due to a variety factors that I’m in the dark about. One of the coolest things I’ve noticed is the addition of special cut-scenes for big victories in the playoffs, most notably the Super Bowl. You’ll get to see the MVP and the coach lift the Lombardi trophy amidst a shower of confetti. It’s a much-needed touch, but also a janky one. Most cut-scenes in the game — QB on the phone, Lombardi-raising, fans celebrating or evacuating the stadium, etc., — are full of visual anomalies and all-around awkwardness. The concepts are fine, but the execution is poor.

On the presentation side, I think the little NFL Network halftime show, as well as the weekly update, is too flat and robotic. It’s much easier on the ears to simply read about who won what game and performed what feats in the leagues.

The online stuff works — both the exhibition and the online franchise stuff. I’m no fan of Madden online. Players can still relentlessly fiddle with routes and shoot whatever gaps they desire in zone coverages, as well as “game” man-on-man stuff. I just don’t have the patience to play against the Madden elite, so I haven’t explored the mode as much as I have everything else.

You won’t do yourself wrong if you buy this year’s title, especially if you’re down for the single-player experience. The improvements — the tackling, the animations, the authenticity in general — work together to make this one of the best football titles ever created. There’s no reason not to own this thing if you’re looking for a videogame that recreates the NFL experience in a fun, immersive, and competitive way.

Score: 9

Overall Score: 9.25 — Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won’t cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)

Destructoid Staff