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This year, on Tuesday August 10, there is a holiday for a small, yet dedicated faction of American citizens. The calendars say that Labor Day is the next official day off, but for NFL and sports game aficionados, the day that Madden hits the retail shelves should be a paid holiday. Timed for release in the first half of August, right around the time NFL preseason is beginning, Madden has become a digital program (as in the magazine style books they sell at the stadiums) for the NFL fan. Free agents are on the rosters of their new teams, the April’s draft class is ranked and added to the mix—even mega-busts like David Carr and JaMarcus Russell once brought hope—and fans have a simulated, virtual set of Football cards to pour over, trade, and best of all, play with.
There are a slew of reasons why Madden remains the dominant sports title from year to year. Some are tied to the gameplay, many to the popularity of the NFL, and some due to the familiarity of the Madden title (and EA’s sole ownership/monopoly on the NFLPA and NFL licenses). Yet, I’m not going to go into the details of why this is an important game or post objections to some of the behind the scenes details about the game (sorry NFL2k fans, maybe next year). If you want rants or history, there are better places to go; I’m only going to be covering the game here.
Why do most Madden fans pick up the game every year? Sure, the rosters are nice, and the graphical changes, bug fixes, and other updates are welcome, but there is a fundamental reason that makes Madden irresistible: Football is the perfect video game sport. It’s got the strategy of a turn based RPG tied with the quick paced action of a fighting game or FPS. And it’s not just EA/Tiburon’s version of the gridiron, other versions like Blitz, Tecmo, etc, the core structure of the game ports seamlessly into video games.
Football is a battle for control, producing more successful intrusions into an opponents’ territory is the only way to claim victory. You have pieces that utilize speed, others that rely on power, and yet all need to be working together to succeed. The player has to properly utilize their strengths and exploit the weaknesses of an opponent. I’m hard pressed to think of many other head-to-head competitions (even beyond video games) that are as sound or well balanced as football. The only thing I can come up with is Chess. Maybe Tennis.
In the the 30+ years of video game production, developers haven’t been able to top 11-11 American style football for a mix of gameplay, strategy, and detail; they’ve been at it since the mid 70’s and nothing has come close. I’m willing to listen to suggestions, but I’m stifled for answers.
I may be wandering into hyperbole about the beauty of football, but it is a deliberate move. The biggest change of this years Madden is that it’s more about the game of football than anything else. What we have is a distilled, faster, cleaner version of the game that is football. Head to head matches take place faster without sacrificing any of the details or shortchanging any of the element.
If one wanted to make a comparison of Madden 2011 to a car, it would be a scenario like this:
Imagine a brand new Porsche 911 (Turbo, Twin, Carerra, doesn’t matter). It’s an established car which feels pretty similar to the years before it. If one put a 2011 911 next to a 2006, the only major differences would be the technology and displays- it’s still a fast car that hasn’t changed much in 5 years.
Now say that you bought a 2011 911 and then took it to the best auto shop in town. There the mechanics add more power, replace some parts with lighter versions to decrease the weight, make the seats more comfy, and tune the steering to be more responsive. They make everything about the car better- its now faster, safer, and more fun to drive. It even gets better gas mileage.
That’s what Madden 2011 feels like compared to Madden 2010; its faster, better looking, and more fun to play.
Changes, updates, and the difference compared to previous editions:
Player Models: In my review of Madden 10, I complained that the players looked like mongoloids or hydrocephalitic renderings of the real players. It was terrible, especially since the 06 PS2 version of Peyton Manning looked considerably more like the real life Peyton than the 09 PS3 edition. They’ve been fixed and now the game looks more like the real thing than ever.
Difference: Noticeable improvement.
Player Movements: The way the players look and react in action situations has been overhauled. The carrying motions, the catch animations, and many others have been redesigned with an emphasis on realism. One of my favorite changes is that the game finally has gang and wrap tackle animations. Getting the ball carrier to the ground no longer plays out in a nightmare of collision detection where bodies stop moving because they run into another player model. You can see the football come loose as a defender strips a ball. D-lineman techniques (swims, rips, and rushes) work with a sense of realism. Every position has been remodeled and recoded to function like they do on Sundays.
Difference: Substantial improvement.
Blocking Assignments, Motion, and Acceleration for the Running game: O-linemen drag, scheme, zone, and help create running lanes as a group instead of just moving in one direction independently. Running backs are given different attributes based on their real life running style, opposed to being rated simply on speed, toughness, and ball carrying. Nimble, speed backs like Darren Sproles cut differently than heavy backs like Frank Gore, who play like the downhill runners they are. Cuts can be timed more effectively with agile players, “truck” moves are better with strong backs. As someone who has been burned when a fullback cut off my ROLB allowing for Adrian Peterson to break a 90 yard run, I can attest that the running game is more realistic than years before.
Difference: Considerable improvement.
Two Stick Player Movement: The sprint to run button is gone. No more on and off push button mechanic to elude tackles. Directional movement is still placed on the left analog stick, but players can now use the right thumb to angle momentum for cuts and jukes to clear precision. The controls are tuned to the actual movement on two sticks, instead of merely being a button stick combo. There have been elements in previous versions, but the lack of sprint truly puts the emphasis on motion. It’s like the comparing SNES Punch-Out to 360’s Fight Night; both work great, but it’s the version with the matching motion controls that feels more “real.”
Difference: Minor improvement.
Kicking Game: It’s short but it’s sweet, all kicks are back to a three tap system. No more using the analog stick to mimic a kicking motion. Just tap once to start, once for power, once for accuracy. It may not be realistic, but it is far more accurate. Because the kicking game not a crapshoot anymore, it’s no longer a liability for the title. You won’t have to stop the game so you can explain the convoluted motions to a friend.
Difference: Minor difference, huge improvement.
GUS JOHNSON!!!: Three exclamations and all caps? Wait until you complete your first 30+ yard touchdown bomb… you may argue three isn’t enough. Gus Johnson is the most exciting announcer in sports and he enlivens the game more than I previously considered possible. He has the ability to up the energy to do-or-die levels, no matter if it’s preseason or March Madness. Listen to one of his most famous calls, last years 87 yard deflection turned catch between the Broncos and the Bengals. The clip starts with about 20 seconds left in the game: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9Q-agrk-jc
There are 10,000+ lines of new dialogue recorded for this years game; thanks to the bevy of dialogue and the electrifying panache Gus Johnson brings to the booth, this years game will sound just as important as it feels to you.
Difference: Huge improvement. Possibly my favorite addition to the game in years.
Chris Collinsworth: Collinsworth returns to Madden virtual broadcast booth to provide in game color commentary. This is a plus, as he’s one of the best analysts working right now. Unfortunately, the first three of his “comments” the game produced I heard in last year’s edition. I know John Madden and Pat Summerall’s recordings lasted through the 90’s, but it is 2010, its not unreasonable to expect more new than recycled audio clips.
Difference: Minor disappointment.
Online Team-Play: Players can team up in teams of two or three and play head to head matches with position specific duties, both locally and online. Say you have two friends over and are getting bored of having a man sit out every round. Now, the three of you can team up and play another group of three over the ‘net. One player takes the QB, another controls the WR/TE’s, and the last plays as the RBs. On defense, players can divvy up the LBs, DBs, and D-line. If you have played in the superstar mode of years past, you’ll understand what the roles of each player is (for the non-QB’s). It’s potentially a game changer and the first step to what is an inevitability in the next 10 years, 11-11 online play.
Difference: Incomplete, but leaning to positive. The thought is solid, the gameplay is there, but Madden has always been a 1-1 game. I see more fights stemming from this than with the head to head matches. “YOU DROPPED THAT PASS! YOU WERE WIDE OPEN,” or “WHY CAN’T YOU THROW IT TO A GUY ON ‘OUR’ TEAM.” Let’s let this one sit for a month. Check out the podcast in September to see my thoughts.
The Madden Shop—Online Scouting, Coins, Online Pass, Play Boosts and Franchise Accelerators: Let me preface my biggest rant here with a note that Madden 2011 has more in-game advertisements than I thought possible. Old Spice, Verizon and others are in game even more than before. Making Madden every year isn’t cheap, I get it. But why do we have to be pandered to in game (ostensibly to cut down on cost) when the game has items for purchase? It feels like the gamer is paying three times, once for the game, a second time with the ads, and if you want to keep a player on your franchise from retiring, you’ll have to pay for that too.
Worst of all, if you buy a copy of the game second hand, you’ll have to pony up $10 for an online play code. New games come with a code, but they are one time use only. This bothers me because players who use money to get advantages (scouting reports or play boosts) create an uneven playing field. These games are already a $60 investment; it seems unfair that skill isn’t the only factor. EA isn’t Zynga and Madden isn’t Farmville or Mafia Wars. Leave the pay for bonuses to free to download games.
There are also scouting reports available for purchase (via coins) this year. If you are playing a match against a player and desire a little extra info on what type of defense they play, or their run/pass ratio, you can spend Madden coins to get a dossier that is as current as their last game. Also in are the play boosts, which are short term attribute bonuses which can be used in matches. Call me old fashioned, I just don’t like it when the Yankees spend more than everyone else in the MLB, and I don’t like it when people with disposable income for Madden are given better toys. Even without the monetary issue, I’m of a school of thought to keep the playing field level. I don’t know if the game needs scouting reports, because what’s the next step? Will EA offer game tapes of our opponents matches, forcing the top Madden players to watch hours of footage? Somewhere, the line should be drawn.
Difference: Continued disappointment. This was already in place last year, and with the extra ads and coins, it only seems to be getting more ingrained to the experience. You don’t have to pay for AFL Jerseys or Online Franchise mode like last year, but only partially correcting an injustice doesn’t deserve praise.
Game Presentation: This is the biggie. Remember my Porsche analogy? Game presentation is where Madden 2011 feels like the superfast, lighter, quicker and better version of a car you thought you knew. EA’s motto/marketing line this year is “Simpler. Quicker. Deeper.” That’s not a stretch or exaggeration to marketing copy move units.
• GameFlow: The first thing you’ll notice when you play the game is the change in the play calling option. Before the playbook comes up, you are given a menu choice: GameFlow or Open Playbook. Open playbook is exactly what it seems, no confusion. GameFlow is an AI program designed to work and feel like a Defensive/ Offensive coordinator. In the old days of Knute Rockne, there used to be one head coach who ran everything; these days, most college or NFL teams have at least 10 assistants or coaches to support the Head Coach. Head Coaches rarely even call the plays anymore in the NFL or NCAA; the coordinators are the people who run the schemes. In gameplay terms, what GameFlow does is take the old “Ask Madden” feature and expand it to a full-fledged AI powered coordinator. On offense, GameFlow tries to open up the passing game by using screens and off tackle run; it senses when an opponent secondary is weak enough to allow deep passes. For defense, it knows when to stack the line against a bruising RB or to blitz extra men against a rookie QB or suspect O-line. This would all be moot if GameFlow didn’t work; but the thing-I call it that because I’m worried about it using my tactics against me beyond Madden- knows what to do. You can set your tendencies before, during, and in-between games so that the system suggests the plays you like. I use it about 70% and then audible out if I don’t like the play, but most of the time the suggestions are close to what I would have run or a valuable second opinion. GameFlow is smarter and it cuts anywhere from 10 to 30% of the play time off by avoiding having to go to a submenu every play.
• Playbook reorganization: More than likely, your team’s playbook from the year before is going to be intact. However, the menu system has undergone a bit of a design overhaul. A player can still sort through the formations like the year before, but in 2011, you can also choose in a more streamlined fashion. Instead of spending 10 seconds looking through Singleback formation to find your favorite screen play only to realize it’s under I-form, you can choose Pass plays, then scroll down through categories like “Deep, short, screen, PA, etc.” Hardcore purists will claim it dumbs down the system. That’s bull because in the NFL, players spend weeks in training camp learning play names and formation. By the time kickoff comes, they have spent hundreds of hours on memorizing the playbook. When it comes to lining up a WR screen, it’s as easy for Joe Thomas of the Browns to know where to be as it is for you or me to spell “Dog.” That said, even with the simpler calls, we Madden gamers will still manage to botch a play now and then. This doesn’t punish the hardcore by removing the learning curve; it removes a level of translation that was outdated and unrealistic. I love it, even if the old school guy in me objects on a fundamental level
• New Audible system: After the play lines up at the line of scrimmage, the audible calls come up via a submenu, not through combination of button inputs. Instead of pressing Y/Triangle, Up, then X to switch to a run, there is now an onscreen bar with play types (run, pass, short pass, etc) to choose from. Best of all, these are all plays from the formation; you won’t have lose precious seconds switching from a singleback to shotgun so you can fix a bad play call. If you see the coverage is favorable to a run, it can be switched (or faked) at the line, Peyton Manning style, no need to change out formations or motion a player. This is not as big of a time saver as GameFlow, but the gamesmanship and strategy has been increased considerably.
• Revamped assignments menu/Strategy Pad: In Madden 10, if I noticed the wide receivers were all stacked on the right and my CB’s were playing in a zone, I had to press the O button to bring up the DB menu, then quickly read the options, press the X button to man align, and then readjust. This year, I have to press the D-Pad and then select the CB menu D-pad direction, then press the man align D-Pad direction. It’s the same number of button actions, but by having it limited to one area makes a difference, especially over time. It may not seem like much, but having it all organized on the D-Pad is simplified and sensible in ways Madden has never been. It’s less gamey, which is a huge plus.
• Cycling through players: It’s handled by two buttons now. You can use one button to cycle right, another to cycle left. No more pressing X 11 times to get back to the LB you wanted to control on defense. Why it took this long is beyond me.
Difference: Massive improvement. The game plays faster and more sensibly than ever before. It’s a new version of Madden, not just a minor upgrade.
Closing thoughts: I am such a fan of the NFL that it had gotten to the point where I had linked my feelings for Madden in with my love of the sport. Madden 2010 looked and played like the NFL enough that I had come to accept it as a quality translation. I was bothered by little things, but I took them as necessary evils because I enjoyed having a NFL video game. Madden 2011 shows what a video game adaptation of a sport can be. It’s fun, there is tons of depth and strategy, and it allows a player to appreciate the nuances in the real world equivalent. EA/Tiburon decided to revamp the game in multiple facets and they succeeded in virtually every step. The game is faster, deeper, and more fun.
The biggest and most legitimate gripe is why it took so long for a great version of the game to come out on this generation of consoles. One could argue that EA got complacent without competition and toned down their innovation because they no longer had to fight for market share. It’s a valid point, because the small differences between Madden 2008, 2009, and 2010 are minuscule compared to the alterations from 2010 to 2011. I would grade higher if not for the sentiment that this revamp should have happened in 2008 not 2010. Sure, we get a great product this year, but that also means we as consumers were arguably forced into subpar products for the three years prior.
Even with all of my gripes about pricing, why it took so long to make a significant change and a few other issues, this is a great title. I’ll even go further and say that Madden 2011 is the best, most complete football video game ever produced. If you haven’t bought Madden in a while, this is the year to buy a new copy (and I must reiterate and emphasize new, because you’ll have to pay for online access with a used copy). If you are on the fence about buying this year’s edition, even if you bought Madden 2010, the value one will get from the game is worth than worth the sticker price.
David is currently the host of playeraffnity.com’s weekly gaming podcast, Digital High. You can follow him @ineverlovedyou3 on twitter. Be sure to check out the podcast here on the website or via iTunes. Try to find him on XBL, he’s Radio Free Dave.