It should come as no surprise that tomorrow the sun will come up, and Madden NFL 11 will be on sale. Its arrival not only signals the impending end of summer, but the coming of the holiday gaming season. Both revered and reviled, perhaps more than any other game franchise in the history of the medium, Madden NFL has come a long way since its inception. The current console generation has given us both the best and worst the franchise has to offer, with last year’s effort quite possibly being the most finely tuned entry to date. This year, EA boasted some radical changes, like Gameflow, to make the game more accessible to less devoted fans they believed had been turned off by just how “real” the video game had become. Unfortunately, the major differences between Madden 10 and Madden 11 are left at that, and this year’s effort feels more stagnant than ever before.
Even as a die-hard football and Madden fan, I have to admit the game’s playcalling in previous years could be a bit arduous at times. The sheer number of plays was often overwhelming, particularly on when on a clock. Often you’d end up just picking the same few plays over and over again, whether out of necessity or comfort. If you didn’t know what you were doing, you could lose yourself in the endless squiggles demonstrating receiving patterns and blocking schemes. With Gameflow, there is no need to spend time endlessly searching for any play. Utilizing research into what plays the real life teams actually called in any given situation, Gameflow cuts down your options from hundreds to just one. I was very skeptical about how efficient and useful Gameflow would be when playing preview builds of the game earlier this year. After spending hours with the game this past week, I found Gameflow to be incredibly useful and fun to use… for the most part.
Offensively, Gameflow is excellent. Whether playing as the Colts, Jets, Eagles, or any of the thirty-two teams in the NFL, you will really feel like you’re playing with their true playcalling tendencies. In addition to cutting down the time spent playing a game by more then half, Gameflow also incorporates the aid of an assistant coach who talks you through the upcoming play. For those newcomers who don’t spend every Sunday in the fall watching the real sport, or whose lives haven’t been overtaken by fantasy football, the addition of explanation of how to properly execute a play is fantastic. Getting to see the play laid out in front of you, and then watching it transpire not only teaches you proper timing, but you’ll soon find yourself able to read defenses better. Anticipating what a defense is going to do goes a long way in executing your offensive gameplan, and with Gameflow’s help, you’ll be commanding the field in no time.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for Gameflow on the defensive side of the ball. The same research that works so well on the offensive side of the ball works against you on defense. Though formations are taken into account, the team you’re trying to stop from scoring isn’t. A Colts team using a four wide receiver set is much different from a Browns team doing the same thing, but the game doesn’t really take that into account, and that’s a shame. I understand that there’s only so much the AI can do, but when you advertise that the game is smart enough to pick the right plays for you, you had better deliver all of the time, not just half of it. Perhaps the struggles on defense are compounded by how powerful offensive players have become thanks to smarter, better blocking, running backs that are tougher to stop than ever before, and receivers that actually run the proper routes and stay in bounds.
The offense has never been as powerful and tough to stop in any Madden game as it is in Madden 11. One would think that the removal of the sprint button would hurt offensive players more than any other position, but in execution it actually forces you to be more patient and decisive. When running the ball in years past, it was all too easy to just jam on the sprint button as soon as you handed it off. Now player agility and acceleration, as well as his top speed, really comes into play. Ratings actually mean something this year, and instead of just relying on a cheat of sorts, getting out into the open field requires some finesse. Receivers will blow past overmatched defensive backs. Running backs will reach the corner faster, and if they’re in the elite class of someone like Chris Johnson or Adrian Peterson, can turn on dimes, leaving broken ankles in their wakes. For whatever reason, the defense is always a step or two behind the offense. It’s a bit frustrating for a person like me who relishes defense, but for anyone who likes high-scoring affairs, Madden 11 will present them to you in bunches.
Wideout intelligence has gotten a huge upgrade, and it couldn’t be more welcome. For years, receivers in the game would run routes out of bounds, or even worse, catch the ball on the sideline, and make no effort to keep their feet from stepping out. Madden 11’s receivers haven’t just gotten smarter; they’ve gotten brain transplants. Not only will you see a major difference in the way routes are run, but you’ll frequently see players make sure their feet are in-bounds before attempting to make the catch. Blocking is also impressively better than any single given year of the franchise’s existence. There are now actual holes for you to hit, and linemen will move to the second tier correctly. This allows you as a runner to break much larger runs with more consistency. That said, you still have to be patient, and let your teammates engage the defense. If you can do that, you’ll be able to force the ball down your opponent’s throat at your leisure.
All of your favorite and standard game modes return once again, with the Ultimate Team and AFC add-ons from last year’s title shipping on the disc with Madden 11. AFL and Ultimate Team were pretty fun to play last year, but I’m glad they’re part of the package this year as I don’t think I would repurchase them again if I had to. The only real new mode is Super Bowl XLV, where you can play an exhibition game with all the presentation trimmings of the virtual Super Bowl broadcast. Online modes also remain largely unchanged, save for the retooling of the game’s co-operative play. You can now play three-on-three co-op, with each person responsible for a different part of the team. When starting up, you’re given the choice to play as the QB, RBs, or WRs on offense, and the DL, LBs, or DBs on defense. You can also choose “Any” and be given a random draw on any snap. You’re locked into those positions for the entirety of the game, and are the person solely responsible for the act of running routes, blocking, or covering your man. It’s fun to play when you’re working together with your teammates, but too often, people end up screwing around, and not following their assignments. Now, I’m not asking you to follow the playbook exactly, but you can’t expect to win without working together.
While Madden NFL 10 was no slouch in the presentation department, the developers at Tiburon managed to make adjustments across the board that result in an even better looking game. A lot of the improvements come on the players themselves, and aren’t all that noticeable when the game is moving at full speed. However, if you slow the game down a bit, you’ll see much better facial modeling, attention to uniform details like more varied facemasks, and even better looking stadiums. New animations flow seamlessly thanks to a tweaked Pro Tak system and better locomotion. Say what you will about Gus Johnson, but the man is infinitely more exciting than Tom Hammond ever was. Though the next time I hear him tell me to “smell like a man, man” I may punch my television. Part of the game’s improved television broadcast apparently means an unheard of amount of in-game advertising. No longer just limited to the billboards or a pop-up, now virtually everything that happens on the field is sponsored by someone. It’s a little much at times, but the stadium specific chants more than make up for it. There are few things that get me more pumped up during a game than hearing “E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!” after a great defensive stop, and now that nuances like that have been added to the audio mix, you’ll be more engrossed than ever before.
Though one half of the game has seen a lot of improvements, not enough has been done to differentiate this year’s version from last year’s. The improved intelligence is nice, but it’s still way too tough to get any kind of pressure on the quarterback. Pro Tak tweaks do make a difference visually via more branched animations, but there isn’t much different about the engine from a gameplay standpoint. The broadcast presentation also has a few hiccups. Whether it’s flashing to the two-minute warning stat window before the referee’s whistle blows, or the long pauses between calling for a challenge and actually seeing your coach throw the red flag, you’ll see more than your share of visual distractions during a game. I know a lot of people are complaining about the new Strategy Pad, but it works just fine, and actually does add pre-snap strategy into the mix.
This year’s version of Madden doesn’t take a huge stride forward, but it does take a few steps in the right direction. If Gameflow can be improved, and the defense is given the same level of attention offense received this year, Madden NFL 12 could be amazing. But we’re talking about Madden 11 right now, and though it’s a perfectly fine game that I’m enjoying tremendously, all the changes the developer has made don’t elevate the game beyond last year’s effort much. Gameflow does indeed add a level of accessibility that’s been missing for the past few years, but the other changes really do feel incremental, and have me wondering if too much time was spent on making the game easier to understand. A large percentage of consumers will be buying this game without a second thought, but for those of you who haven’t tried a Madden game in a few years, this is a great time to get back into the fold.