Another Year… Another Cover
April 26, 2010 – If you haven’t heard the news (especially all you Saints fans out there), it’s best to break it early: Drew Brees is the official coverboy for Madden NFL 11. Don’t be worried, Brees isn’t. And even besides the potential risk of catastrophic injury to one of the league’s most underrated QB’s, EA is definitely betting big on its Madden NFL 11’s fall release. We had a chance to play a few snaps at EA’s Fall Kickoff Event and we walked away impressed. In more ways than one, this isn’t the old trusty-dusty Madden formula, and that’s the way you’ll like it.
Before the first coin flip, the EA representative made it clear that EA went to great lengths to deliver something new and exciting to fans of the series, most of whom have been with the franchise for years. It’s music to the ears of skeptics like me who’ve complained for years that the death of competition among developers and publishers due to blanket licenses made for a weaker game. Let’s face it; gamers have essentially been paying for the same game for years. Competition breeds innovation and so EA had its work cut-out when I got my skeptical thumbs on their controllers. Simpler. Quicker. Deeper. Three words to combat years of valid criticism and I walked away almost converted.
Many aspects of presentation (from menus to replays) have been upgraded, and gameplay has been overhauled with a brand new locomotion system and the all-new GameFlow feature, along with the redesigned gameplans, that are going to make for much faster and deeper matchups. Execution is the word this year; EA has focused on offering the tightest, most unique, and customizable Madden experience in the history of the franchise. They’ve come a long way from the early days of the hit-stick. This year, EA is putting control in the hands of the Monday morning quarterbacks everywhere.
The new locomotion system is (unsurprisingly) the same as this year’s NCAA installment. It’s still a good looking addition to the gameplay. It seems like the logical progression of the truck and juke stick from years past, but the locomotion stick is much more versatile. Allowing players to make almost any move they’re creative enough to come up with is cool enough, but watching players realistically interact based on speed, direction, size, point of contact, and a handful of other factors is where the system shines. After enough frustrating fourth down goal line stops, it’s endlessly satisfying to watch your runner fight for the extra yard or reach for that first down. That’s not to say that you will always get the first down-I didn’t-but the results won’t seem quite as unfair when a running back at full speed hits the gap only to be laid out by a flat-footed linebacker. This year, finally, Madden is a game of inches.
Gameplans have received a lot of attention as well. In the past, players could start with their favorite offensive or defensive playbook (or a handful of generic ones) and alter plays, select new ones, or even create their own play to save and add it to their custom playbook. Madden 11 allows players to start from zero. A single play can be selected and you can build an entire playbook around it. Plays can still be removed and added, but a new rating system (a star system like ranking songs in a music player) allows you to easily prioritize your go-to plays and alter your tendencies based on what works. It’s a simple change that makes for a much more accessible interface for players intimidated by the idea of running from their own playbook (as an added jump-off point, all NFL playbooks will have their plays ranked by the real-life tendency of that team).
On the other side of the coin, gamers who fancy themselves tacticians can select their plays based on situations. Would you call a short curl pass route for 3rd and inches, or run it up the gut with your jumbo back set? You can set play preferences for a lot of different situations and then use EA’s new GameFlow feature to call your plays with a simple ‘A’ button press (plays can still be called the typical way by pressing the ‘X’ button instead). Think ‘Ask Madden’. On the field, GameFlow translates your playbook settings (or the teams default playbook settings) into a single situation-based play. Between GameFlow and the new playbook features, I’m told the time it takes to play a game of Madden goes from about an hour to 20 minutes. It’s an example of how EA has managed to strip down one of their most complex in-game features but still allow a very deep and adaptable system for those gamers who want it.
Gamers with headsets will be treated to another bit of innovation when using the GameFlow feature. GameFlow picks are accompanied by a voice that tells you tidbits about how to successfully run the play or confuse the defense. It’s a cool feature that is initially pretty welcome, as it puts you in the shoes of an NFL quarterback. That may not be a good thing-the feature can be distracting and many gamers will probably find it difficult to process all the information on screen, and read defense settings; EA is stepping lightly as it blurs the lines between real world and simulation and the feature is still being tested. And no, there weren’t real NFL coaches delivering lines-though I imagine the thought has crossed the team’s mind at some point.
Presentation has been overhauled as well. Onscreen information has been reduced to a few collapsible menus before the snap. Replays between the whistle and the snap now repeat until the next plays are called. The kicking meter has gone back to the three button press method with a new meter that offers more feedback to help correct your form. Crucial moments (going for it on fourth down, kicking the field goal to tie up the game rather than looking for the touchdown, etc.) now trigger coaching decisions giving newbie’s a cleverly disguised way to learn the ins and outs of the game.
There wasn’t much comment available on game modes and online play. A new AFL mode allows you to play old AFL matchups (complete with real player names!) in optional sepia tone. It seems kind of gimmicky, but it’s a nice edition for NFL history buffs. Finally, EA is including a few additions from past DLC releases; Madden Ultimate Team and SuperBowl 45 will be featured in Madden 11.
Madden 11 is a totally different game in some ways; EA has been busy this year. It looks good (with visuals predictably on par with NCAA Football 11), it feels more real and, despite a stripped down interface, seems to offer a much deeper experience than games past. That’s not to say this game is totally complete. The build we played had some crashes and a few other early glitches, but it was reportedly very close to what we’ll see in the fall. When it goes from the shelves to your shopping carts, this will be the most daring departure from business as usual at the Madden factory in years.