Madden NFL 11 arrives tomorrow to the marketing drumbeat of simpler, quicker and deeper. Laudable design goals, but for a game that's been a living room ritual for a quarter of a century, let's also ask, is it more fun?
Yes. Though we've heard all spring and summer about Madden's new play-calling, faster game times and richer, more exciting presentation, this year's show-stealer comes from an unexpected place - a true fundamental. You know, the kind of thing everyone always says a sports game should get right before worrying about anything else? Well this time, Madden did.
Establishing the Run: Madden NFL 11 delivers a breakthrough I have wanted across the entire lifespan of this game - a fair and truly fun running game. Blocking intelligence is improved, if more on the edges and downfield than at the interior. But the bargain is that sweeps, counters and bigger runs are more viable. Seams and running lanes are more apparent and when your off-tackle slash craps out on three yards, your own impatience is more likely to blame rather than some guard missing an assignment. The new right stick commands are supple and intuitive enough that throwing a head-fake cutback in the open field or slipping through the tackles - I got it down to a fast back-diagonal flick on the right stick that I can't explain, I can only execute - is now a natural activity rather than a trick-based exploit. Moreover, you will really feel the Locomotion physics engine in the type of running back you're controlling - Darren Sproles for San Diego runs much lighter than a guy like Brandon Jacobs on the Giants, but Jacobs can move defenders a lot more after contact. The animation, in addition to the momentum, is vastly more realistic. Last year's runners all bounced straight up and down like Tennessee walking horses. This year's leans and twists and angles are more than pretty, they're functional. It elevates the superstar runners of the NFL and enables smashmouth offenses for those conditioned to years of having no blocks, no toss sweeps, no draws, and going down at first contact. This is hands down the best running football game I've played.
Give It The Gus: New play-by-play announcer Gus Johnson is the centerpiece of a remade focus on presentation. He may not be for everyone, but he is unquestionably an improvement over last year's boothman Tom Hammond, who ran things like a Rotary Club meeting. At times, Gus will sound inexplicably enthusiastic - especially when reading ad spots. That's better than being a church deacon as you house an 80-yard bomb. I didn't get far enough into hearing the Gus-isms, mostly because I run a boring offense and didn't have any truly spectacular comebacks. But Johnson is here because he's fired up, and he gets me fired up, even if my wideout only speared an eight yard curl while I was leading 42-17.
A Presentation of the National Football League: I was halfheartedly pissed at completing a third-down pass at Invesco Field and didn't get to hear the Denver crowd serenade me with "IN-COM-PLETE." (And, it should be noted, that my receiver actually tiptoed the line to haul it in - this is a major, major improvement, vastly expanding the utility of flat, swing and sideline wheel routes.) EA Sports has sensibly traded in aspects of last year's presentation - which repackaged plays or replays you'd already seen - for features of the game you haven't heard before. The halftime show from Madden NFL 10, which everyone clicked through, is gone. The disc space instead serves components like a much more enjoyable Super Bowl mode that will likely be your preferred local multiplayer game. The pregame packaging gets a little repetitive, but when you have a recognizable quarterback rivalry or backstory, Cris Collinsworth will speak to it directly. Finally, the crowd is more organic. The teeth-gritting "sweeteners" ("What waaaaas thaaaaaat?!") are no more, and instead you have an audience that seems like it's really watching. That big third-down conversion, the crowd's not booing, it's Hoooooushing, if you're in Seattle, or Drewwwwing if you're in Jacksonville.
Marvel Team-Up: Time will tell how much Online Team Play becomes a part of the Madden culture, but it gets a solid expansion of the foundation laid last year. The game adds support for a third player on each side, and now designates control over groupings of offensive and defensive personnel (quarterback and linemen, running back, receivers/tight ends; line, linebackers and defensive backs) rather than just a single position. As a receiver, route-running is easier than it sounds, and on defense you always have the X/A assist button to get you in position. Receivers and running backs can call their own hot routes and motion themselves, so the team that communicates well will have better success, and by extension more fun. A perks system is in place to reward consistent and talented players. Cooperative online multiplayer deserves a greater stage in sports games, and Madden 11's leadership role deserves praise.
Gameflow - On Offense: Gameflow is the new playcalling engine designed to both simulate how an NFL coaching staff actually manages a game while delivering greater focus on execution. On offense it's absolutely a success and my preferred method of running a game. It is all about action, not dithering over choices whose meaning I may or may not understand. I have some quibbles with the play selection - I see too many streak routes inside the 20, and when the run isn't established, it'll still call play-action and get me hammered for a loss. That means Gameflow is more randomizing the plays off a sheet rather than reading deeper into the situation. (Play frequency and type can be adjusted in Gameplan, discussed below.) But it is much, much more than the sneering "Glorified Ask Madden," as some dismissively branded it. It acts to truly differentiate the teams, especially in multiplayer. Someone using Gameflow with the Giants will behave more like the Giants, rather than Giants personnel operating out of shotgun trips all the time. I did compare Gameflow game times against a Madden 10 game using Ask Madden in the advanced three-play window, and they were roughly similar. But what Gameflow does is deliver a game that is both faster and more authentic - or with Gameplan, more custom fit to your preference. Five minute quarters with 15-second clock runoff will probably be a bit too short, especially if you have a strong running game. But five minutes with no runoff, or longer quarter times with runoff, you'll be pleased by how much you are actually playing football rather than worrying about a play's effectiveness or appropriateness for the situation.
Gameflow - On Defense: This is the biggest problem with Gameflow: You have practically no idea what you're running on defense when the play is called. The coach speak is too oblique and often repetitive, and rarely, if ever, telling you explicitly that you've called cover 2, nickel, man, blitz, corner blitz, zone blitz or what. You're getting that information as your own players get into position, and these are features whose payoffs and weaknesses you'd be aware of if you were calling your own defense, however uninformed you may have been doing it. Unlike offense, where you can react to what you're given and modify it because you control when the ball is snapped, on defense this lack of information against a ticking clock of indeterminate length can be downright bewildering. There is no screen count of opposing wideouts, backs or tight ends in Gameflow's pre-snap window, though there still is if you pick from the playbook. So when when the huddle breaks, you are decidedly worse off than the opposing quarterback. Not only are you counting his men and identifying his formation, you're trying to recognize your own play - and then you get to make pre-snap adjustments, usually in about four to six seconds after the huddle animation ends. Unless you are supremely confident in your defensive acumen, have put in the time to developing a gameplan, and know its bread-and-butter plays on sight, I would suggest calling your defense from the full playbook, just for the advance intel on what your own team is doing.
The Strategy Pad: EA Sports has admitted defeat on this design component, and will patch in the old pre-snap control set by the first week of the NFL season (early September). It's been chewed over enough. As silly as the discussion has seemed, the biggest problem really is the placement of the defensive command window. Everything is now on the left. In Madden 10, offensive pre-snap adjustments had an overlay on the left side of the screen - defense was on the right. Coming into this year, the majority of informed players had an innate understanding of at least how to shift linebackers, linemen and defensive backs under the old scheme. Then they could visually confirm the more exotic commands by knowing where to look. But in Madden 11, not only are they using a new physical command structure, they're also looking at a completely different part of the screen to make sure they've done it right. And under GameFlow, they're doing this in less time, not necessarily because the opposing offense is snapping the ball faster, but because more of the pre-snap time is spent understanding their own defense. In EA Sports' defense, I can only say that the rest of Madden NFL 11 is worth toughing it out for the next few weeks to wait for the good old days to return.
Gameplan: In playcalling, this should be the fulcrum where simpler and quicker produce deeper, the three components of Madden 11's marketing mantra. It can, but it's not simple. Gameplan offers little guidance in setting up your own. You're given 18 situations and 10 play slots in each (though you may add more) and the ability to rank how often they're called, and then you're on your own. You'll be using a pen and paper to keep track of your plays - things like how many runs and passes you have in each situation (since you can only see three at a time), and even their frequency, as the game doesn't reorder your staple plays to the front of the line. My biggest disappointment with Gameplan is its lack of integration with either the Franchise mode or Practice. This is a huge disconnect, one whose technical necessity I think I understand (Franchise would have to create its own set of Gameplans and edit them from within Franchise; Practice is probably not used by the majority of players and not worth an upgrade). But if you're a tinkerer, it nonetheless forces you to leave Franchise altogether to fool with your coach's Gameplan. And without the ability to call your Gameplan in Practice mode, you lack any laboratory outside of live competition. From a design standpoint, it sort of gets things backward; if the hardcore rip on it, bitch about being babied by it and won't use it, they're the ones who have the wherewithal to not get lost in Gameplan's barebones treatment of the information. The moderate to casual fans who'll get the most out of it don't get enough of an assist in using it.
I know that's a lot of red text above this, and it doesn't include Madden NFL 11's minor aggravations like the lack of penalties, the disproportionate rate of injuries, the uncommon difficulty of executing play-action passes (unless you have really set up the defense to think run), or the suffocating punt and kickoff return coverage.
The good news is all of the negatives are either user-manageable or patch-addressable and EA Sports' history definitely - Strategy Pad being a notable example - shows a commitment to tuning this game to community preference. Granted, I am suggesting that you deactivate (when able to) a good chunk of the game's two newest single-player features - Strategy Pad and Gameflow on defense, plus the Gameflow audio after you get tired of it.
But for what you're given in presentation, in multiplayer, in richer visuals, and in all the fundamental reasons you buy a football game, Madden NFL 11 hits it on the screws and does it better than its predecessor, principally through the running game. Your quarterbacks also are more accurate. Your receivers are more athletic and even graceful on the sidelines. The kicking game has a new, easier mechanic and punting is more useful. Pass protection could use some work, but the run-blocking is substantially better and a hands-clapping joy to follow into daylight.
Madden NFL 11 is loads of fun, and that's why you play the game.
Madden NFL 11 was developed by EA Sports Tiburon and will be published by Electronic Arts for the PS3, PS2 and Xbox 360 on Aug. 10. Retails for $59.99 USD. Versions also are available for the PSP and the Wii. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played all game types in both single and multiplayer modes.
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