The question is asked every year and yet it seems irrelevant for a franchise with no competition: "Is this the best Madden ever?" It's a high and a low bar at the same time. Of course it should be the best Madden ever. They had a year to update and improve the last one, after all.
What longtime players of EA Sports' NFL franchise want, however, is a milestone entry. Something that says, "I remember when they put that in the game." Not a quarterback vision cone, or advanced playcalling, or Gus Johnson fulminating into the microphone, features that at the time sounded great but under a longer lens, don't pass the test of time.
Madden NFL 13 is a fundamentally better game than all of its predecessors, even if it should be surpassed by its next edition, and anything coming on the next generation of console hardware. Still, with the introduction of real-time physics—this is a contact sport after all—and an ambitious new online career mode, the game shows a sincere, admirable effort to transform itself, and to delight the football fan.
To recap, when I review a sports video game, I discuss 10 of its features in ascending order of how much enjoyment they delivered. Items closer to 10 weren't that much fun for me. Those near 1 were the real winning features in my view.
Others may have a different opinion, but here are
Ten Things You Should Know About Madden NFL 13
10. The run-blocking is still stone-age: This series, for the past four years, has made noticeable if incremental strides in its rushing game, from ballcarrier momentum to running animations to, this year, real time physics. And yet for the past decade it has annually whiffed on the most important part: the offensive line's blocking intelligence. You will have many controller-throwing moments where the tight end just flat ignores a headhunting cornerback or linebacker. Pulling guards are basically useless. Run-blocking intelligence is on one hand understandably complex to program. And on the other, it really isn't. Is your guard downfield with a ballcarrier behind him? Why isn't he shoving everyone within arm's length? Your linemen's failure to block, or to hold their block even until you reach the line of scrimmage, frequently reduces Madden to a game of down-at-first-contact, which defeats the purpose of the new real-time physics and all of the spontaneous outcomes it's supposed to deliver.
9. Diss-Kinect. See my earlier criticisms of the Kinect-enabled voice command functionality, but after playing the main game, my opinion has not changed. You're not naturally calling plays at the line of scrimmage, you're just using your voice to speak your way through menu options, which longtime players can navigate by hand much more quickly. Worse, it seems that in-game crowd noise coming over the speaker hampers Kinect's ability to recognize and deliver your commands. Yes, on the road in a hostile stadium, quarterbacks have a tough time changing the play at the line of scrimmage. The problem is Madden's Kinect suite doesn't provide much assurance your teammates heard anything you said.
8. Hold It a Second: Madden's career modes, the old Franchise and Superstar, are now merged into something called Connected Careers. On the whole this career suite is an enormous achievement but there are shortcomings in its usability for those controlling one player, from losing the opportunity to see the previous down in replay to a lack of Supersim availability to get you to the end of a blowout. This is understandably because of the need to manage a gameplay state in something involving one human player controlling an entire team and another controlling a single performer. Still, it's disappointing to get flattened for a loss, be substituted out of the game, and have no way to review the play that got you benched.
7. We In Here Talking About Practice: "Connected Careers" strives to be a sports role-playing game, and thus is heavily driven by experience points for advancement in your player or coach's career. Players use XP to improve their attributes, coaches (who control their entire team) use it to improve their players or for personnel management perks like scouting draft picks. Weekly practice is a deliberate grind mechanism to improve yourself or your team. The problem is that the XP payoffs for successfully completing practice scenarios don't seem to make much sense. In singlelplayer, you can get 1,500 experience points for an "easy win," which means taking over with a 3-point lead in the second quarter. Yet you get the same amount for a much harder task in another scenario, coming back from a 14-point deficit in the second half. Why would anyone choose the second option, except for the time involved? While the XP aspect of Connected Careers is a breakthrough for sports video games, whose career modes are more like RPGs than gamers are willing to admit, the means of acquiring XP feels imbalanced and not well thought out.
6. Meaningful miscues: This will sound odd, but when I bombed it to Detroit's Calvin Johnson, the Madden 13 cover star, all alone behind the secondary, and he made the grab but stumbled running after the throw, I smiled at the result. This is what happens in real football, after all. Outcomes are less robotlike in Madden NFL 13. There's a real chance to strip the ball from a runner or disrupt a completion with a big hit. It's not fun when it happens to you, but it doesn't come off like a glitch or a dice roll. It just feels like part of the game.
5. Hello, friends: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, the a-team for CBS' NFL broadcast, are the new booth team for Madden NFL 13 and they provide a warm, comfortable and responsive commentary. Yes, there's repetition, to be expected for a first year crew. I flattened Aaron Rodgers twice by the second quarter and several times over the rest of the game heard Nantz say Rodgers was coming to the line looking to avoid a third sack. But between the snap and the whistle, the call of the game action is smoothly authentic. Simms is characteristically awkward at points. The two banter, they stumble and correct themselves and chuckle about it. They don't talk over the action, which is probably their greatest real-life strength, too. When you see them in the booth, they look like they belong there. (There's a DVD on the desk behind them in one shot, even). Madden has had a difficult time giving us announcers that sound like they're watching the game they call. Nantz is not the most aggressive booth personality, but he is famously well prepared and observant, and his likeness in Madden reflects that.
4. A social butterfly: I was prepared to hate it, but the virtual Twitter feed inside the game's "Connected Careers" mode does a solid job in the realm where sports video games most often fall short—delivering a narrative of the season you are playing. Every other sports video game makes you hunt for it through a maze of menus. In Madden 13, every week you'll see a fresh set of Tweets from impersonated insiders like ESPN's Adam Schefter or the NFL Network's Ross Tucker, taking the temperature of your league, and also the college game, whose players will be entering your draft shortly. The tweets will also tip you off to other team's movements, particularly with regard to the draft and free agency. Madden's "ratings czar" Donny Moore will even show up and talk about attribute boosts for a player after a particularly big game, which he does in real life. I still think the league standings should be the first thing you see when you advance a week in the game's career modes. And they should be broken down by division, because no one looks at aggregated win-loss totals across the entire NFL or its conferences.
3. Gift-Wrapped Presentation: Madden took a step back last year, with awful commentary and a broadcast package that seemed to come from a public-access cable channel. I'm not a fan of the silent loading screen for primetime games in Madden 13, and Nantz refers to a postgame report that comes only if you dive into the stats or replays yourself (this bit of dialogue seems set up for the future). But when you begin the game with the overhead shot of the stadium it feels like you're watching a legitimate NFL broadcast, especially with the blood-pumping original soundtrack, and there's very little dead air during the action.
2. Let's Get Physical: The introduction of real-time physics is what makes Madden NFL 13 worth buying and playing over its predecessors. You'll see it when your running back makes his juke move, gets whacked on the left shoulder, and staggers up the sideline, struggling to keep his balance, tumbling into the end zone at the last minute. I've never seen that before in Madden and I wanted to high-five my cat after I did. You'll see it when your defensive lineman shoves his blocker into the runner and ends the play on the spot. You'll see it on a number of between-the-tackles runs that in past years would have ended once the linebacker got his hand on a shoulderpad. Yes, if you run directly at a defender, you're going down, unless you have a remarkable block-shedding or trucking ability. And you'll see some crazy stuff after the whistle as players extricate themselves from the pile. But real time physics are a breath of fresh air for this series not so much for the impressive, how-did-he-do-that replays they deliver, but for the fighting chance it finally gives you on an open field in a contact sport.
1. The Greatest Career Mode in Sports Video Gaming: The singleplayer career, especially as it was treated in Madden before now, has been the stepchild of video gaming, largely because it doesn't face the intellectual challenges of player development and acquisition required by franchise or dynasty modes. "Connected Careers" gives newfound legitimacy to playing solely as a quarterback, or a running back (or a linebacker or safety) by allowing you to play alongside friends controlling entire teams. If you don't care for the obsession of evaluating talent or signing free agents, if you hate playing defense even, you can still participate, as one player, in a league with up to 31 of your closest friends. When you play them, they still get to control their entire team, and you still get to do what you enjoy most. If your player or coach plateaus and you get tired of him, just retire. You'll be allowed to continue as any (unclaimed) head coach or player in the league from that point. Not only does it elevate those who prefer singleplayer careers to an equal footing, it makes it possible to plunge 20 years into the future without shackling you to the same experience year after year.
Longtime players will still recognize pet peeves in Madden, especially in poor run blocking and in gameplay that favors speed. Yes, Madden remains the only game in town, if you want to play the NFL on a video game console. Time will tell if Madden NFL 13 is a really landmark entry in the series. But it is transformative, in ways that legitimately challenge sports video gaming, not just the narrow field it solely dominates.