Simpler, simpler, simpler.
The light glistened off the tightly wrapped plastic case, reflecting into my eye like a holy object. My fingers worked the edges and corners until plastic fell to the floor. Security tape was torn off and the case was opened with the eager caution of a starving young boy looking for a golden ticket in a candy bar. I believe I heard a chorus of angels ring out in the distance. Before me, on a simple, round disc, the image of Drew Brees, locked in firing position, with one word, one acronym, and one number etched below: Madden NFL 11.
[image1]Each year’s Madden always has buzz attached. Promises are made to the faithful, promises of hope and change, promises that your complaints have been heard. Promises that this year’s title will be the end-all Madden that you have waited for. Sure, everyone knows that Madden will be beautiful to look at, and the casual gamer will be in awe of the television-style presentation, the detail on player faces, and the realism of the stadiums and fans. But what about substance? In Madden 11, EA Sports promises an experience that is “Simpler, Quicker, Deeper.” We shall see...
Madden 11 immediately delivers on the first promise with its new play-calling system GameFlow. GameFlow picks the plays for you, based on down and distance, playbook, and the coach’s real-life tendencies. As the play is called and your team lines up, another new feature queues up, CoachSpeak. (Apparently, EA Sports is also in the business of creating new words). The “coach” describes the play and how it should be executed, with a hint or two about the opposing team’s intentions. The audio is played through the speakers or through your headset for that "coach-in-your-helmet, I’m an NFL player" experience. When you get completely irritated by this and you turn off the CoachSpeak audio, remember to turn off the text too, or else you get a paragraph in your face while the play is set up.
In conjunction with GameFlow, there is an option to game plan the types of plays you want called based on the down and distance. (What, no new word for that? GamePlannery?). Now, here is where it gets confusing. The attraction of GameFlow is that the thinking about strategy is taken out of your hands, leaving you to just execute the play called. In other words, it is simpler than conventional play calling. So why create an option that adds depth to play calling in a system designed to make the play-calling process simple? Complexity for simplicity is counter-intuitive.
This is the central problem with Madden 11: The new simpler experience. Yes, not everyone who plays Madden is a hardcore, OCD-ridden football fiend who demands control over every aspect, but the ones who care are. The whole GameFlow system seems to be designed for little kids, girls, and those who think that football is played with some sort of round, black-and-white ball. Of course, turning off every option that has to with GameFlow, CoachSpeak, and any other made-up word is how to play Madden the way he intended. One commendable new option, though, is time runoff which allows you to set 15-minute quarters and still play a full game in about half an hour.
[image2]Once the new gimmicks are turned off and the game is played in good ol', conventional style, the true improvements become noticeable. Madden 11 is absolutely breathtaking… again. Players' skin and shadows, the crowd, even the grass are in higher resolution. Sunlight reflects off glass while scoreboards and ribbon boards show replays like a real game on TV. Like cheerleaders on the sideline, Madden 11 looks so good it makes you forget about any lack of substance.
Not that Madden 11 relies on just looks. The entire locomotion engine has changed: NO TURBO. (Nope, no new word for that, either.) This is very tricky to get used to if you've played prior Madden titles, but it adds so much to the realism of the game that you question why they had turbo in the first place. Instead of boosts, you must reply on the natural skill set of the player you control. That, added to the new specific locomotion sets for the type of ball carrier you control (Agile vs. Bruiser), makes for a deeper experience in the running game.
With no turbo, agility, and acceleration, momentum has a much larger impact on controlling a player. When flying at full speed towards, say, a punt-returner and then overshoot and run past him, it is going to take a second to decelerate, turn around, and get back up to speed. Ambient behaviors like pushing the pile or placing a hand on the back of blockers are very impressive. Movement is smooth and ultra-realistic.
As fun as it is just to watch the game, the replay value of Madden is found in the Online play. Since 2002, the online community has mushroomed into a giant, unstoppable force of football fans all to eager to shut you down and let you know how awesome they are in doing it. If you are into the team aspect of football, Madden 11 allows up to three players on one side. Instead of controlling any player, you are responsible for a single unit (QBs, RBs, and WRs on offense; DL, LBs, and DBs on defense). Quarterbacks and Linebackers are responsible for all the in-game decisions, like play calling, timeouts, and injuries. Upgrades can be purchased, like boosts to speed or accuracy.
[image3]You may also scout your opponents' tendencies per down and distance. While scouting an opponent is essential to football, Madden 11 fails to allow you to scout 4th-down tendencies. This is huge, considering how many online games have hinged on whether or not the defense calls for special teams or defense on 4th down. That needs to be addressed.
Highly touted this year is the addition of Gus Johnson to the broadcast booth. The idea is to add excitement to the presentation, but now there's too much excitement. No one should get so worked up over a punt formation: "They’re bringing everybody!“ And Chris Collinsworth? Shut up. No one cares. It just makes me long for the Madden-isms of days past, or maybe I just like to concentrate on what I'm doing. Either way, it does not take long before the commentary is turned off.
Also, where are the formation subs? You can make formation subs while calling the play, but there's just not enough time on defense to make the appropriate adjustments before the offense lines up. Formation subs were a coaching option in Madden in the past, so why was it taken away? This is yet another option added and then taken away for no apparent reason.
The new strategy pad is another example. It takes the pre-snap adjustments and attempts to cram them all on the direction pad. This accidentally leads to the wrong adjustments more than once, which begs the question as to why it was changed when there was nothing wrong with it?
Madden 11 is beautiful to look at. The realistic physics add much to the gameplay, and destroying some 12-year old in Iowa by 50 points never get sold. But the trend of making Madden "simpler" is troubling. Madden rose to prominence due to the loyalty of hardcore football gamers. Now that there is no “NFL Gameday” or rival title, Madden developers do not have to worry about improving the game's depth for long-time fans, but rather focus on making it easier for the casual gamer to pick up. This will hurt Madden in the long run, but until there is competition in the football genre, it is the default champion.