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.
Perhaps the most significant factor in Madden’s flagging sales is that the series has tended to become only more complex. By 2009, playing the game competently required more than a knowledge of the sport of football; players also needed to have an awareness of the franchise’s characteristic quirks, nigh-arcane controls, and often-confusing interface. Basically, they needed to know the history of the Madden games in order to succeed at the current one. Of course, veteran Madden players liked things that way; when you know the ins and outs of a game, you can exploit your opponent’s ignorance of them.
Madden NFL 11 embodies the essence of that casual/hardcore struggle. Its developers, in an effort to bridge the gap between those polar-opposite demographics by designing a game with a larger potential audience than ever before, have enacted sweeping reforms to long-standing systems. Have those changes turned out for the better, or for the worse? Hit the jump to find out.
[Editor’s note: The servers for Online Franchise were down every time I checked, so I did not touch upon that particular game mode in this review. -Samit]
Madden NFL 11 (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [reviewed], Wii, PlayStation Portable, PlayStation 2, iOS)
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
To be released: August 10, 2010
MSRP: $59.99 (PS3, 360) / $49.99 (Wii, PS2) / $39.99 (PSP) / $12.99 (iPad) / $7.99 (iPhone)
Here’s a valuable lesson in innovation: just because somebody hasn’t yet come up with a better way of doing something doesn’t necessarily mean that no better way exists. That concept is at the heart of GameFlow, the new method of calling plays in Madden NFL 11. Instead of scrolling through a playbook filled with hundreds of options, you can press one button and have the game select a play on your behalf. Considering that playcalling in football videogames has hardly changed in two decades, GameFlow is a drastic departure from the norm — and it’s magnificent.
For the Madden enthusiasts whining that GameFlow is merely the old “Ask Madden” feature in disguise, and that “real” Madden players pick their own plays, consider this: GameFlow brings Madden closer to the NFL than ever. Real head coaches and coordinators don’t frantically flip through a binder full of plays on every down; instead, their playbooks are split up by situation and tailored to their opponent. GameFlow takes care of half of that equation for you with its situation-based playcalling. In a particular situation on offense — say, 2nd-and-long — GameFlow will choose from a selection of plays that your team actually tended to run on 2nd-and-long during the 2009 NFL season. (On defense, GameFlow picks plays based on the formation in which your opponent is lined up.)
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.
Yet GameFlow shines for one major reason that’s easily overlooked: it frees you up to focus on playing a good game as opposed to worrying about calling one, too. Instead of wasting precious play-clock seconds finding the perfect play, you can concern yourself with reading the defense — like a real quarterback — and making the appropriate pre-snap adjustments (for which you’ll have more time). Will you occasionally have to audible out of GameFlow’s selection? Yes. But even then, it’s intelligent. Let’s say GameFlow chose an outside run, and you decide you’d be better served running up the gut. The “run” option under your audibles will be an inside run, and voilà — your play is saved.
If you’re not digging what GameFlow’s dishing out, you have the power to shape its choices, thanks to the companion Gameplanning mode. You can go in and set up offensive and defensive gameplans, culling the playbooks yourself and providing GameFlow with your own situational selections from which to choose. And with the iTunes-style five-star weighting system, you can tell GameFlow which plays you prefer. This is the hardcore side of GameFlow; Madden veterans can modify their gameplans according to their opponent, and they can also use them online. The setup is a clear sign to me that Tiburon didn’t take this radical redesign lightly; they thought it through, and while this adjective is overused in game reviews, I truly believe that this is a game-changing new paradigm for playcalling.
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.
You’ll still see some clueless blockers from time to time, unfortunately — your fullback will occasionally break past the line and then waffle instead of choosing someone to block, cutting a potential big gainer short. It’s a good thing that rushing is as effective as passing this year, since you will need to establish the heck out of the run if you want to even attempt play-action passes. If you don’t gain some ground on the ground first, you’re just asking for a sack and a seven-yard loss with play-action. And while it’s satisfying to finally see some sideline-catching AI in place, I’ve been burned on a few occasions by officials who need to get their eyes checked — either my receiver was definitely in-bounds, or my opponent’s receiver was clearly out, when it was called differently on the field (and upheld upon review!). Another passing-game problem is that receivers still slide to the ball sometimes, like they’re on jet-fueled skates.
On the defensive side, I lost count of the number of times that I drilled a quarterback and expected to bring him down for a sack, only to see him get rid of the ball at the very last nanosecond. I’ve broken off a few long punt returns, but coverage on kickoff returns is still garbage (I’ve literally never made it past the 25-yard line). When a penalty occurs, you’ll see a replay of the infraction occurring, which is a great addition. But there’s an odd bug with flags on the receiving team of a punt, where the referee will say the phrase “repeat 4th down,” even though that’s not correct — the receiving team keeps the ball, only it’s moved back. Ultimately, though, most of the issues I’ve mentioned are minor (and will hopefully be addressed by patches). This is the best-playing Madden I’ve ever seen, and it’s a big step up from last year.
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.
Sadly, the game’s major offline modes, Franchise and Superstar remain essentially identical to previous incarnations; according to Tiburon, there simply wasn’t time to tinker with them, and the development team will start from scratch next year. It’s certainly disappointing, but the developers did manage to revamp last year’s bare-bones online co-op mode, and this year’s version — which has been rebranded as Online Team Play, now up to 3-on-3 — is a blast, as long as you’re playing with friends.
I didn’t find enough added depth in Franchise and Superstar to keep me coming back. But Team Play, with its strategically different squads (QB/RB/WR/any on offense; LB/DL/DB/any on defense) and accomplishments (throw for 5 TDs and 300 yards; get 2% boosts to awareness, short accuracy, and medium accuracy), offers a variety of experiences. There’s nothing like yelling at your buddy to get open, and then finding him in the end zone for six. It’s a great mode for novice and pro Madden players alike. Online games are generally free of lag, except for the kicking game, which is always an adventure.
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.
Score: 9.5 — 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.)