If you can sit up straight and squirm in your seat at the same time, I did when I got the news Madden NFL's creators revealed they were going to go for it this year, with their "Infinity Engine" offering real-time physics. It is a long overdue feature, something seen even in a striver title like Backbreaker two years ago. But the potential for embarrassing glitches in the YouTube age—just ask FIFA 12—seemed an order of magnitude greater for something as heavily scrutinized as Madden.
After playing an advanced build of Madden NFL 13 for an hour on the E3 show floor, I'm cautiously relieved. Yes, I still saw a lot of silly stuff. But it was mostly in the dead-ball aftermath between plays. And all of it is something that is being tuned or should be by the game's release.
Live-ball collisions themselves, even ordinary ones, had a pop and dynamism that hasn't been felt in Madden for a very long time. Knowshon Moreno getting folded up like a beach chair behind the line of scrimmage was especially gratifying to see. (I was playing as the Detroit Lions against the Denver Broncos.) But there were still a few head-scratchers. Jahvid Best, the Lions' running back, stumbled to the ground in a sitting posture, swinging his left leg back from underneath his body for what appeared to be no reason. The Ford Field carpet appeared to offer ice-rink traction as he went face first to the ground on another play, leg kicking up in front of him. And you're likely to see some comical interactions as players extricate themselves from the pile.
Roy Harvey, the game's executive producer, acknowledged a lot of the glitches and visual disparities, adding that the game was in its alpha state and aggressively tuning to reduce these kinds of mishaps. Post-play pileup deconstruction is especially vexing, he said, but Madden's programmers are working on how to get players to separate themselves orderly, without the ball carrier raising up and shedding six guys off of him who have yet to move. In another play, I saw two linemen meet and turn their heads sideways at the collision; one of them maintained that pose even as his blocker released, suggesting there's some "stick" that needs to be addressed in the interactions.
Still, the addition of runtime physics delivers a long overdue variety to this full-contact sport, and open up the running game by giving your runner a chance to stumble, recover, and legitimately fight for extra yards. My first play was an end-around run to Calvin Johnson—this type of slow-to-develop play has been a total loss in Madden for years. He was still fast enough to run through the right shoulder of a cornerback who had overrun the play, contact that normally would have stopped Megatron in the backfield. He spun slightly and stumbled instead, regained his balance, and turned it into an effective 7-yard-play.
It was one example in which defender AI appeared to have some meaningfulness behind its players' choices. In another, the Broncos' Elvis Dumervil crashed too hard to the right (his left) as Jahvid Best took the handoff and and went outside before cutting back for an enormous gain into the middle of the field. In past Maddens, there's no way I would have left a player like Dumervil unguarded, because of defenders' means to change direction so quickly and hunt the ballcarrier. This type of play suggests they have to see the ball and live with their decisions.
There still are some rough moments. Megatron leaped high to spear a pass one-handed in an animation I hadn't seen before. Yet as he was going to the ground, the ball clipped from the palm of his hand to the back of his wrist, maintaining possession the entire time. Though a gameplay designer on the floor assured me tuning would remove that kind of visual glitch, it still suggested to me that once a one-handed catch is made, the ability to maintain possession will be driven by a player's two-handed catch (or spectacular catch) rating, not the physics of the given situation.
In fairness, I also saw Johnson leap for a two-handed grab as a cornerback crashed into his torso, jarring the ball free after what appeared to be a clean catch. The same designer told me that pass defenders could strip the ball from a player's hands under the physics model, but it didn't appear to be what was going on here.
Where I noticed the physics most was in playing defensive line, which should improve the enjoyment of this task for those who don't play defense well (like me). Ndamukong Suh of the Detroit Lions has always been a wrecking ball and would win most matchups, even in Madden 12, but I repeatedly flattened double-teams with the lineman moves on the right stick. I relished shoving two Bronco linemen to the ground and still having time to pressure Peyton Manning. He might have been a little too powerful, now that I think of it.
On offense, I didn't pull off anything spectacular, but looking for holes in the line seemed to be more productive than in the past. Screen passes, with the new, varied drop back animations and release times, are viable. Pass release times plus the new AI enforcing a field of view on the defenders means play-action fakes are no longer a total loss on the playbook, too.
Other areas of the game show an enjoyable level of polish. The pre-game broadcast sequences are very professional and evocative of an actual telecast. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms have a good stretch of on-camera time before kickoff, matched to broad dialogue about the upcoming game before transitioning to more specific commentary off-camera.
Still, the banter and atmospheric setup is much richer than what was provided by Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth, who didn't record audio together and whose booth work was at its best only in describing the most recent play. Introducing the game at Ford Field, Nantz mentioned something completely off-topic—North Carolina winning the NCAA men's basketball championship here in 2009, and it blended with the rest of his setup to sound Sunday quality. I know it's cool to shit all over anyone behind a mike in sports broadcasting, but I enjoyed Nantz before his video game work, and in Madden, he's more natural than he is in Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13.
Madden has to clean up its physics before it's just as ready for primetime, but the build I saw shows a game that is in the stages of managing and tuning that as opposed to addressing larger structural problems. Even with the acknowledged visual glitches this was a game that played in a different and more enjoyable way than its predecessor.
We may see some silly aftermath when the play is blown dead, but between the whistles, Madden NFL 13 is finally moving the ball.