Madden Is Back, Baby!
It’s time for that yearly ritual again. If you’re a sports fan, you know the one. It often starts with a pang of sadness as you realize there is more of summer behind you than ahead. You start to pay attention to the football season as it nears. No, no, not futball , or soccer as us Yankees call it, though you may have enjoyed the World Cup for what it was. No, you’re getting ready for American football. And, if you are a gamer of any sort, you’re counting down the days until EA Sports releases its yearly behemoth that is the envy of every publisher, Madden NFL.
The Madden franchise is a cash cow for EA. Ever since obtaining the exclusive rights to the NFL brand in video games Madden has become a lock to sell millions of copies every year, making the jump from merely a yearly release to an event . Not many game series can claim that, particularly games on a yearly release time table. Yet for all its pomp and circumstance, there are very real criticisms of the series.
The biggest backlash against Madden are accusations of the yearly release being not much more than a “glorified roster update.” As in, supposedly, you are paying $60 each year for updated team rosters and incidental game improvements. The funny thing about this is, while it seems this is accepted as a near universal truth and a part of the series history, a quick look at the aggregate scores of past installments shows each game in the past decade tending to average roughly 85%, not bad at all for a game that supposedly only spits out incremental changes. Either the “roster update” criticism is a myth or reviewers and consumers alike get swept up in the hype during release each year. So, where does Madden NFL 11 stand, objectively? Is it a significant improvement on the series or largely more of the same?
Let’s get down to brass tacks and state the obvious; Madden 11 is going to be like Madden 10 and all derivations before it. It’s still NFL football. Any changes or improvements will hinge on either the off-the-field aspects or tweaks to the on-the-field gameplay.
Of the new features introduced this year, the one EA is pushing the hardest is the all-new GameFlow play calling system and the corresponding reduced game times. What GameFlow basically does is select a play for you without going into the famous Madden play select screen and instead going right back to the field. According to EA, this cuts down the average time of a game from sixty minutes to roughly thirty. That may be true, as there was definitely time savings to be had, but the game didn’t seem to pass significantly faster than I remember before GameFlow. Maybe I selected my plays much faster than normal.
GameFlow plays can also be customized in playbooks for specific situations, allowing for multiple variations should you be looking for that kind of time investment. I was content to go with the default playbooks and accept what was called for me, though I could see the benefit of some adjustments. At the end of a winning game, I don’t think there are too many NFL coaches who would keep running the ball when taking a knee would suffice. Not that I minded, as padding stats was just fine with me, but it was hardly realistic play calling. For such a pushed feature, GameFlow comes across as something that would be more of a secondary enhancement instead of the prime focus of how Madden is better than ever. It’s certainly a nice option to have, and even better it’s not forced on you should you want to select your own play at any time during the game, but achieves the same result as the “Ask Madden” option from years past, with a few seconds extra time savings.
As for actual in-game changes, the big news is the removal of the sprint button, or at least it’s the big news to me. The sprint button has had a long history in the series, with a generation of gamers raised on hammering the x button every time they took control of the ball carrier. EA must have realized the redundancy of having a sprint button when that’s all anyone was going to press. They removed it and put players on auto-sprint. Now, every button press has to do with spinning, stiff arming, and juking. It’s a change that takes some getting used to (I still hold down the x button out of habit, which is the stiff arm command now) but it should go a long way to streamlining gameplay.
Graphically, Madden is looking as sharp as ever. Clipping seems to be at an all time low and player movement and momentum is more realistic than ever. For example, when taking control of a receiver running routs, making a hard change if direction isn’t the flawless movement it once was; your wideout now needs to plant a foot and change direction more deliberately. Also improved is the offensive line blocking. Running up the middle doesn’t resemble the mess it used to be a few years ago; instead actual viable holes open and your blockers seem more intent on opening a functioning gap. Even the pocket forms more naturally around the quarterback, allowing for more planting and throwing and less mad dash scrambling.
Play by play commentating duties have been picked up by CBS’s Gus Johnson, replacing Tom Hammond. While Gus does a serviceable job, he doesn’t have the same voice and familiarity that Al Michaels offered. On the other hand, Chris Collinsworth is back this year providing color commentary. Collinsworth has shot up in recent years as a highly respected NFL guru and keeping him on the broadcasting team lends the announcing an air of credibility it would lack with anyone else in the broadcast booth. Here’s hoping Collinsworth is kept around for many years to come.
The musical selection is a pleasant surprise, but your millage may vary based upon taste. There are not as many tracks as some sports titles with roughly 15 or so songs, a bit light and prone to repetitiveness. Harping on the musical selection may seem a bit trite in this instance, but when you’re pouring hours upon hours navigating menus and comparing stats between games, the music better not suck. Classic bands such as AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Ozzy Osbourne manage to keep the musical wear and tear to a minimum. If you’re going to listen to a song repeatedly, why not have it be a song that’s stood the test of time?
Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much work done this year on the Franchise or NFL Superstar modes. Franchise improvements have chiefly come to give more realistic simulation stats for players and to improve the free agent and contract signing process. NFL Superstar mode continues to pale in comparison to MLB The Show’s Road to the Show career mode, and this is coming from a football guy. Frankly, every sports game could learn from The Show’s career mode, but that’s a topic for another day.
If there’s one thing Madden does do, it’s offer a bevy of ways to experience the game online. Online modes include Madden Ultimate Team, Online Franchise, Head to Head, and the new Online Team Play. Online Team Play is the stand-out feature this year, allowing up to three players to take on the CPU or three other players in a game where each player is responsible for one unit on the squad. For example, you may be in control of the defensive line while your buddy is managing the linebackers and some stranger is handling defensive back duties. It’s a wonderful way to make each player responsible for a very specific part of the game and brings accountability. I’d just start to feel sorry for the guy on your team controlling the secondary now. The massive room for error there makes me apprehensive to ever want to be the one explaining how an accidental button press led to a 5 yard slant turning into a wide open 70 yard touchdown.
So what’s the verdict? Well, if you’re one of the Madden-head sports gamers out there, you were going to pick this one up regardless of what any review told you. The hype train is too difficult to resist. For the rest of us, particularly those of us who have been playing Madden off and on for the last 20 years, it’s a little more nuanced of a question. If you’ve been taking it easy the last couple of years like I have, this seems like a perfectly acceptable place to jump back in and experience the cumulative improvements the series has made. At the same time, if you live for online play, the new Online Team Play mode will bring many new dynamics all on its own. But if you’re the guy who has Madden 10 and typically keeps to franchise mode or playing with friends in the dorm room, you really could save yourself the money and wait for the inevitable price drop or just take a pass (no pun intended, hey-oh!) on this one, if you can stomach it. Madden NFL 11 is certainly a good game, but doesn’t offer enough changes to necessitate it a must buy to casual player.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Graphics have been a strong suit for the Madden series and this is no exception. From the players to the presentation, Madden 11 looks great. 4.3 Control
The removal of the sprint button is a much bigger deal than it sounds, but it simplifies the game while removing a fairly redundant command. Players move more fluidly and have more weight to them than ever. 3.9 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Music selection is solid, but fairly small. Chris Collinsworth is great to have in the announcers booth, but the jury is still out on Gus Johnson. He’s no Al Michaels, that’s for sure. 3.6 Play Value
This is a tricky one. If you’re not a dedicated online player and own last year’s game, the play value goes down substantially. But if you’re big into playing online or have taken a break from the series, this is as good a version as any to jump into. 4.1 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.