Sure as the sun rising every day, you can count on another edition of EA’s Madden NFL hitting shelves every August. Some will say the game is nothing more than a roster update of the game they played a year ago, while others will tout each year being the best ever. Madden’s production team spent most of the summer leading up to the game’s release hyping new features, improvements to gameplay, and the slightly sharper graphics. After spending some much needed alone time with Madden NFL 10, it’s obvious that the time put into this year’s version of the game makes it a standout, but it still falls just short of being the greatest of all time.
When you start up this year’s Madden, the first thing you’ll notice is the streamlined interface. No more clunky menus this year. All the options are laid out in a clear and concise manor, and the frustrating confusion that you’ve felt the last few years is gone. From there, you’ll probably see there aren’t a lot of differences in the single-player options. There’s the standard exhibition game in Play Now, the return of Madden Moments, a revamped Franchise, and the stale Superstar Mode. No longer will you have to take an IQ test before jumping into a game, though that option is still there, along with the now defaulted to “off” Rewinds. Both were interesting features of 09 that I’m glad return in a less prominent role, but with all the changes made to the way the game is played, the two options seem entirely unnecessary this time around. This year’s Madden Moments take some of the most memorable scenarios from the 2008 season, like Denver’s miraculous last-second two-point conversion win or Minnesota’s late December “win and you’re in” game against the Giants, and ask you to relive them in your living room. Most of them seem even tougher to complete than last year’s, but they’re great time killers for when you’re waiting for a friend to hop online. Virtually nothing has changed for Superstar Mode, making it the most disappointing of all the game’s options. It’s still frustratingly difficult to play any position other than quarterback or running back, and after seeing what EA’s own NHL series did with the premise, it’s high time Madden fans got the same treatment. Of course, if you’re like me, any time you don’t spend playing online will be devoted to the game’s Franchise mode.
The overhauled Franchise mode is the highlight of the single-player experience. Not only will you play the games your team so desperately needs to win, but you’ll also be in charge of all the off-season maneuvering many of us only get to read about during the weeks leading up to the NFL Draft. Here again, the menus have been retooled in an effort to make them easier to navigate, and more appealing to players. Keeping you up to date as the season progresses is the Extra Point, a “live” highlight show created in conjunction with the NFL Network. Taking the place of the atrocious and obnoxious Tony Bruno radio show, the Extra Point recaps the previous week’s games, highlights, and previews upcoming match-ups. In theory, it’s an excellent idea. Its execution, however, leaves much to be desired. The pieced together voiceover from Alex Flanagan harkens back to the dark ages of Pat Summerall’s commentary, and the show doesn’t offer anything you can’t find on the statistical menus. It’s completely optional to watch, and even though it’s nowhere near perfect, it’s a nice change from the droll tones of Mr. Bruno.
Once you advance to your first off-season, you’ll find that contract negotiations, free agency, and the draft have all been tweaked as well. Agents will actually fight you tooth and nail if they don’t feel you’re paying what their client is worth, particularly when dealing with high first round draft picks. It’s actually quite refreshing that the game replicates this aspect so much better this year. Negotiations in prior games in the series relied on simply paying $2-5 million more than the starting price to get a deal done. Now you may have to take a second mortgage out on your stadium just to sign that right tackle you grabbed with the tenth pick. Free agency is taken up a notch as well, as now the demands the game previously made up for players must actually be met, and occasionally exceeded. Just like the real NFL, if you’re a crap team looking to snag a big name star released from his previous contract, prepare to pay a premium. About the only thing missing from this year’s interpretation of offline Franchise is the ability to micromanage the prices of concessions, tickets, and merchandise. It’s strange that they took that part of it out, but seeing as how it didn’t really impact anything other than what options you could renovate your stadium with, I’m not all that upset.
All the game modes in the world wouldn’t mean a thing if the gameplay was terrible, but this year’s Madden not only takes some great strides on the field, it also makes the game incredibly more realistic. First and foremost, the game’s speed has been drastically reduced. What that means for those of us playing the game is that players react and respond more like they do in real life. Offensive linemen hold holes for the running back open longer. The difference between running with and without speed burst is much more noticeable, and the separation between offensive and defensive players is much closer to the real thing than it was in years past. For once, you’re able to see things unfold on the field clearly enough to read defenses, find holes to blitz through, and make coverage adjustments on the fly. There’s also a new fumble recovery mini-game that happens when a handful of players attempt to fall on a loose ball. It’s interesting in concept, but nearly awful in execution. Almost every fumble is predetermined to be won by one side before the button-mashing even begins, and isn’t really worth the effort to try and win the ball back. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the new slower gameplay is how it allows for the new animation system, Pro-Tak, to work to its fullest capabilities.
Pro-Tak is easily the most impressive new feature to the franchise. For the first time in series history, nearly every animation is branching. Gone are the canned animations of yesteryear in favor of a more fluid, eye-catching system where players move and react to contact much more like they would in a real game. There’s a bountiful amount of new collision animations, and even though I’ve been playing pretty much non-stop for days, I continue to see new ones appear just about every game. Pro-Tak also allows for up to eight other players to gang tackle the man with the ball, or to help push the pile forward. The first time you see a huge pile-up, you’ll swear you were watching the real thing. Alternately, the first time you see a running back break out of a giant mess of defensive players, you’ll remember you’re playing a video game. It doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, it’s quite maddening. I don’t lose my temper very much when playing video games, but when something like DeAngelo Williams breaking out of a pile consisting of seven of my defensive players occurs, I tend to start getting heated. One and two man tackles still happen too, though they tend not to happen as much as they used to. The amount of tacklers is a bit unbalanced, but not something that detracts from the overall feel of the game.
The new mechanic also influences the way your offensive and defensive line play. Finally, after years of complaints and misfires, EA has addressed the pathetic intelligence of the offensive lines. No longer will you have to drop back fifteen to twenty yards every passing play in order to create enough time to throw the ball. Your line will actually protect you much better this year, but don’t expect to have all the time in the world to pass. Like the real NFL, your pocket will last upwards of 4-5 seconds before you either have to chuck the ball, or start scambling. That’s not to say the defense won’t be able to get to you sooner, but you will have time more to read and react than ever before. Returning for the first time in a few years are pre-snap offensive line audibles. By simply tapping the top left button, you’ll be able to adjust the way in which your o-line blocks. To counter-act the improved blocking, defensive linemen have had all their moves mapped to the right analog stick. Both finesse and power moves are as simple as flicking the stick in the direction you want to bypass the other player with. I never used to play on the defensive line, but with the new controls, I actually feel like I’m in control of the pressure I’m creating, and enjoy playing as a defensive end more than I ever have before.
Complimenting Pro-Tak are a slew of other new animations and AI upgrades ranging from noticeable immediately to “so minor, even longtime Madden fans will have a hard time noticing.” There are now signature styles for most of the NFL quarterbacks. If you’ve ever wanted to create a player that limply threw sidearm picks like David Carr, now’s your chance. Honestly, it’s a nice new feature, but you’ll have a difficult time noticing if you continually use the same team over and over again. Most of the time it’s not even that obvious, just little touches like the different ways Manning or Roethlisberger call for the snap in the shotgun formation, but the small things like this really immerse the player into the experience. In addition to more competent intelligence from defensive backs, there’s also much improved head tracking. Injured players who are able to play through the pain will often run with a gait or with a limp arm depending on the physical problem they’re having.
The last major overhaul to the in-game experience is the rating system. Not happy with the wealth of individual ratings in last year’s game, EA got even more nitpicky with the details. The developers even took more care to differentiate truly elite players from average and mediocre ones. Players previously rated in the mid-80s should now be expected to fall to the high-70s. Absolute studs like Larry Fitzgerald, Adrian Peterson, and Ed Reed truly stand out above players like Davone Bess, Correll Buckhalter, and Michael Boulware. Quarterbacks get most of the attention under the statistical microscope this year, which can be seen as both a benefit and a small annoyance. Instead of one rating for accuracy, QBs are now ranked in short, medium, and deep passing categories. Works in progress like Jamarcus Russell and Brady Quinn suddenly become worse, and thus less appealing to use, while quality signal callers like Tom Brady, either Manning, and Donovan McNabb become that much more valuable when playing to win. With all the work to the ratings system, it’s hard to believe that receivers still run routes out of bounds, and don’t give enough effort to stay in bounds when they make a catch. Hopefully now that the offensive line issues have been addressed, Tiburon can move the bad boundary line detection to the top of the list. Despite that, I’m glad EA got a bit stingier with their ratings this year, and despite TJ Houshmandzadeh’s complaining, the game is better for the stricter qualifications.
When you’re done messing around offline, it’s time to see if your game stacks up against the millions of others who also embarked on this yearly ritual. EA’s more user-friendly menus show up once more, and make traversing the online multiplayer extremely easy. Your record and statistics are easy to find, as they’re just a button press away. Ranked matches are easy to join, and the lag this year is negligible. Playing with or against friends is as easy as going to the Friends tab, and inviting the person you want to play to a game. There are three game types available: Ranked, Unranked, and Unranked Co-op. Ranked limits you to playing by EA’s standard settings; Unranked allows you to tune the game however you want; and Co-op allows you and a friend to play online together against a computer team. You can’t play co-operatively against another person, or against another set of players, which is pretty lame. Did they think that people wouldn’t want to play against one another, or was it just too hard to try and fit in this year? Should you decide to try your hand at the Co-op mode, you’ll be severely disappointed. The camera they use is the one from Superstar mode, so it’s fixed prominently behind the player you’re currently controlling at all times. That’s all well and good when you’re the quarterback or the running back, but playing any other position is a struggle, particularly on defense. Even the offline co-op doesn’t handcuff you to that terrible camera, so it’s especially baffling why it has to be that way online. I was hoping for the co-op to be mildly enjoyable, but it’s probably the game mode you’ll spend the least time with.
Madden 10’s strongest online feature is the all-new Online Franchise. You and up to thirty-one of your friends can set up a league with the potential to last for ten seasons. Should you not be able to fill the league, the computer will run the other teams. Don’t worry, there’s an option to turn off trades with the computer so nobody cheeses their way to a super-team. The franchise follows the seventeen-week season, with the league only able to move one once all games are played, or the commissioner advances to the next week. It’s a huge improvement over last year’s feeble effort, and should provide endless hours of enjoyment from the live fantasy draft to the day your team hoists the Super Bowl trophy. The only downside to Online Franchise is for those who don’t buy the game new. Another case of EA continuing their abuse of micro-transactions, the Online Franchise is a piece of DLC that must be purchased if you grab a copy second hand. While I understand the reasoning, it doesn’t make much sense. Online Franchise is a feature that fans have been asking about for years, and the year it finally makes it into the game, it’s not something people automatically get. With all the other ridiculous DLC the game offers, ranging from Elite status (where you get VIP lobbies, and an extra difficulty setting) to keeping players from retiring for one more year to Expert Scouts (which reveal all ratings for players in the entry draft), it’s probably the worst example of a company taking advantage of micro-transactions on a console so far. I hope that it’s a trend that doesn’t follow into the rest of EA’s sports franchises.
I’ve already given much praise to the new animations implemented in this year’s game, but I should also compliment the developers for somehow finding a way to improve the graphics during the on field action. Player models look better, with more noticeable differences in large linemen and skinny wideouts. In previous years, you were never really able to feel the difference in the size and weight of players, but Madden 10 does a nice job creating a difference in mass when controlling players, and differences can actually be felt when you switch off from a defensive tackle to a corner back. It’s not quite perfect, but it’s far better than it has been in years past. There’s an insane amount of detail on players this year, ranging from hand towels tucked into their belts, to improved textures on uniforms, and even more authentic detailing on helmets. Adding a full compliment of referees and the line crew helps amplify the publisher’s motto, “If it’s in the game, it’s in the game.” Sadly, the most interesting new part of the game’s presentation, the in-game cut scenes, are pretty terrible. Whether it’s the texture pop in while your quarterback is on the phone, or the slight drop in frame rate when the referees call for a yardage measurement, each scene that Tiburon tried to replicate ends up feeling flat and uninspired. It’s truly a shame because it’s clear that the developer wanted to give players a true sense of what it was like to be down on the turf during a game. Instead, gamers are left with laughable movies that are actually pretty annoying due to the frequency of which they occur. The less I say about Chris Collinsworth and Tom Hammond’s copy and paste performance from Madden 09’s commentary the better.
I’ve been playing Madden NFL 10 for hours on end, and it’s clear that this year’s version has improved quite a bit over prior incarnations. The game does so much right, it’s hard to find fault with it… at first. The longer you play, the more apparent it is that some of the same issues that have plagued the series for the last few years still haven’t been addressed. Luckily, the plethora of new additions makes the nagging issues less offensive. It just misses being the football messiah many Maddenites are claiming it to be, but Tiburon has found a way to take their successful formula to the next level, creating a football experience that’s not only incredibly satisfying now, but has me looking forward to where they go from here.