Madden NFL 10 Review: Slow and Steady Wins the GameS

Madden football is always like a new girlfriend. You spend about four dates wondering where this is going, and then maybe something happens that makes you want to spend all your time with her.

Madden NFL 10 turns up the charm this year with its subtlety, hoping you'll take some time with its gameplay, and get hooked on a rich football experience by seeing all it has to offer a little more slowly. It's a zag where most sports games zig, against the 21st year of a nearly impossible assignment - selling a game as completely new, when it'll largely be accused of being a roster update. Is Madden NFL 10 its own game?

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The Total Event: This is the most deluxe presentation of football — pregame, in-game, gameday and midweek in franchise mode — ever put into a game. I fell hard for this game when — I swear I heard it — I salted away a playoff win with an interception and my rumbling, foot-stomping crowd started chanting "SAN DIEGO ... SUPER CHARGERS!!!" I might have been hallucinating, I don't know. I don't care. There's so much polish on this game's aesthetic I'd believe it. From the pre-game fan sequences, to the National Anthem Air Force flyovers, to "Happy Holidays" on your scoreboard graphic for a Dec. 25 game, to Chad Pennington's disastrous mullet and Philip Rivers' chicken-wing delivery, you're watching the NFL while you play it.

Final Countdown: It's hard to market the expiration of time, but it's where Madden NFL 10 wins above all previous versions. Like its chew-clock cousin in NCAA 10, Madden goes one better, running the play clock down to 15, 20 or 25 seconds for both teams when this is engaged. This allows for longer quarters and more realistic game progression, without taking forever to complete or cartooning the stat book. For the hell of it I did 15 minute quarters in a late season game and came up with one of the most satisfying single-game experiences I've ever had - in about an hour and 10 minutes. And my stats looked sim-perfect, blending in the expected failure of certain drives with the spectacular success of others. Better players should accomplish this in less time, and clock run-off is not recommended for quarter lengths less than seven minutes, as one side can be on offense for an entire quarter, and make a 14-0 game into a blowout.

Take Your Time, Do it Right: This year Madden backed down the pacing, to help you make better choices both during a play and before it. The players' speeds are more to scale, allowing you to see running lanes and blocks and adjust to them appropriately. The game speed is adjustable; its default is "slow," but don't consider that a negative. Gamers accustomed to previous Maddens will probably spam the controls the first six times they play this. Just calm down, pay attention to what the field is giving you, and rely mainly on your left stick rather than your special moves to weave through traffic.

Mega-TAK: The ballyhooed PRO-TAK engine has its ups and downs, but it is a net positive. Once you get accustomed to it, you become fearless running between the tackles. That's because your runner is no longer down-by-contact, as the series' previous tackle animations would have it. You can move a gang-tackle, or at least feel like you are, by still moving the sticks or whaling on the stiff-arm or spin buttons to get out of a jam. The downside, this is still a first-contact game, and once you get tagged, you're in PRO-TAK, more likely fighting for feet and direction and not extra yards.

Extra Points: Early on, I bypassed the halftime and midweek highlight shows. But later, as I became more invested in my team's performance in Franchise mode, I sought them out. Madden NFL 10 offers you two highlight packages, both staffed by and co-branded with the NFL Network. Mid-season, Fran Charles and Alex Flanagan run through what happened and what's going to happen in the league. The narration is generic and the dialogue tree is obvious, especially for halftime, which seems to fixate on comparing the number of plays you ran. But in the playoffs, the sense of the unified story of the season comes down on you. And I started caring about who won the other games, in a vicarious fan way. This is not a perfect approximation of a broadcast show by any stretch. But it's light years better than the schlocky, canned Tony Bruno radio of Madden 05.

Multiplayer Co-Op: This was hard to evaluate pre-release, with so few players online. But cooperative multiplayer, new to this version, will do far more for the Madden community than last year's inclusive-AI system ever did. And it's not because you can play with friends, although that is key. It's because with complete strangers, instead of them being total douches to you as you struggle and fail to keep up, you can just co-opt their talent and ride to victory. It was nice, for once, hearing a guy with a Ph.D in Madden bellow, "YEAH SHAWTY!! GOIN' TO THE HOUSE SHAWTY!!!!!"—and know it was because I audibled to the correct run that sprung him, and not some insult pointing out I can't keep up on defense. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that you can switch command of play calls or quarterbacking, so whomever hosts the multiplayer co-op is in charge of both. This led to some tension between me and aforesaid Mr. Shawty on defense, because I can't call that worth a damn. But you'll work it out over the headset, as he can still see the play choices you're cycling through.

Sliders: Just a quick note, the AI sliders have, thankfully, returned in this year's version. You can choose from five pre-set difficulties, a difficulty based on your Madden IQ (introduced last year), and then, if you're still seeing too much or not enough of a challenge, you can bias penalties and CPU gameplay however you see fit. This is a good thing, because ...

Hated
Hold the Line: Your offensive line still does few favors. Madden veterans know and can compensate for this, and will definitely exploit the extra split-seconds of decision time the slower interface gives them. For novices and casuals who expect to see plays unfold in Madden the way they do on TV, they're still going to be frustrated by line play less unified than and less able to hold its blocks against what the defense is bringing. The Madden NFL 10 ethos is, if you see it on Sunday, you'll see it in Madden. Well, I see shotgun draws. I see wide receiver reverses and screen passes on Sunday. And you'd still be a fool to call any of these plays in this game, because they still rely on a blocking AI that this does not have. It's not just the defense's preternatural speed into your backfield. You will, as in every preceding year of Madden, go back in instant replay and find makeable blocks your line failed to pick up or your men downfield ran away from, and scream curses. This is a delicate balance, as you can still win without these plays. In fact, their high failure rate probably helps keep the score close. But Madden 10 still feels like certain aspects of an offense, no matter how primed the defense is to fall for them, are unavailable to you.

Fight for the Fumble: Fortunately, this mini-game may be disabled in your game settings. Do so. Basically, if there's a loose ball and two opponents fall on it simultaneously, you're in a button-spamming contest to grab it. I never once won one of these. Frustrating and completely unnecessary.

DLC Avarice: Madden is not a community that needs much incentive to engage in douchebag alpha male display behavior. I don't know whether to applaud EA for monetizing that inclination or condemn them for encouraging it. But you can actually buy "Elite Status," which gives you "exclusive VIP lobbies, leaderboards, and play the all new Elite Gametype" — all tuned for the "hardcore." And this is just the beginning. In the middle of an offline game you can purchase stat boosters; the middle of a season you can buy cheats that massage your players' attributes for a single game, or deliver benefits to your franchise through the season. If this applies to Online Franchise mode, you're paying to get a leg up on your pals, your co-workers, your friends-of-a-friend, without earning it. Update: The accelerators are singleplayer only. It's much more pernicious than the old unlockable cheats, but I acknowledge that it's here and not going away.

It's tempting, every year, to say the sports title you are reviewing is the best one yet in the series. Of course. It has the latest rosters. It has the latest uniforms and stadia and realism that forms the essential nature of a sports game. But Madden NFL 10 earns the title, with a tone shift away from superstar performance and to a complete team effort. With two players on the game's cover as opposed to one, I don't feel like this year's Madden is telling me "Be this guy or else." And the online franchises, and cooperative online multiplayer, will do more for the Madden friend culture than last year's gimmicky AI system.

Yet although there is a noticeable improvement in the opportunity for players of all skill levels to run and return the ball, none of Madden 10's innovations are game changers. Getting the offensive line to behave both in unison and dynamically, and respond with discipline to a nearly infinite set of scenarios, remains T.J. Beale's treasure for this franchise. When someone finally cracks that code, they will reap a fortune. That will be the game changer Madden fans are looking for. Madden NFL 10 is not it. But it, more than any version on the current console generation, justifies the brand's must-own reputation.

Madden NFL 10 was developed by EA Tiburon and published by Electronic Arts for PS2, PS3, PSP, Xbox 360 and Wii. Releases Aug. 14. Retails for $59.99. Tested on Xbox 360. Played entire season in franchise mode and tested all single- and multiplayer modes save Online Franchise, which is unavailable until Aug. 14.

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