Still your father’s Madden
Like a nice juicy pot roast, Madden NFL 10 can’t be criticized for being predictable. The Madden series is the comfort food of the video game industry. It’s satisfying, utterly predictable, and always around when you need it. The sauce might change over time, but it’s still the same meat and potatoes it’s always been—and will probably always be.
[image1]The core play mechanics on the field have remained fundamentally the same since the early 1990s with very few substantial changes. In an industry driven by innovation and renovation, Madden is the one of the few exceptions to the rule. Over the years, the vast majority of changes to the game have been graphical improvements and deeper management options, but the gameplay has been so consistent that Dad could pick up a controller and jump in on the action without missing a step.
In Madden NFL 10, the series’ increased attention to management comes to a head with the advent of Online Franchise mode. This is by far the biggest substantial addition to this year’s Madden, allowing you and 31 of your friends to simulate full league play for as many as ten seasons. For fantasy-heads, this is a dream come true. Where last year’s Online League mode was disappointingly anemic, this year’s Online Franchise mode allows you to do pretty much anything you can do in offline Franchise mode—but with the added benefit of shit-talking.
However, finding 32 guys who can commit to multiple games and seasons isn’t easy, let alone finding 32 girlfriends and wives willing to sacrifice a pretend Sunday in addition to the real one. You can fill out the teams with computer players, and pending games can be advanced if necessary, but those are both unhappy alternatives to playing with a fully manned league. The drawback is that Online Franchise is only available with new copies of the game. People renting the game or purchasing the game used will have to purchase the mode separately as DLC. This makes finding a full league all the more difficult.
Madden 10’s other major innovation is its ballyhooed “Pro-Tak” procedural physics modeling. On the whole, this new system means that tackle and block animations look far less canned, and group tackles now supposedly take into account the various attributes of the players in the fray. One impressive consequence is that quarterbacks now feel much more pressure from the defense, and utilizing the pocket has become a vital skill. Ultimately, plays feel more unique, and the intensity level has been ramped up considerably with the added pressure on the QB.
[image2]Despite these welcome changes, many long-standing faults with the series remain. Running commentary is god-awful. Not only are the commentators often wrong, but they frequently speak on top of one another. Worse still, the robotic-sounding insertions of team names are unforgivable in this day and age. With so many other technological improvements to the series over the years, it’s incredible that EA Tiburon is still using an audio technology that sounds like a Speak and Spell.
The A.I. is also in need of substantial work. One moment a defending linebacker will stand dumbly as a running back sails past him. Another moment, an A.I. teammate on offense will completely shirk his expected duties to run far away and block some totally harmless player. Receivers run blindly out of bounds on their pass routes, and corners seem to read passes a little too well. None of this is new to a seasoned Madden player, but that doesn’t change the fact that the A.I. is long overdue for a complete retooling. Because so much of your team’s success rides on your A.I. teammates, many of your most fundamental (let alone pivotal) plays come down to pure chance.
While tackling looks and feels great, player movement otherwise looks and feels stiff and jittery. Controls are responsive, but at the expense of fluid, natural-looking movement. The game also feels a bit sluggish overall. The decreased speed makes plays feel artificially more desperate, like a nightmare where you try in vain to run from a pack of much faster wild dogs. As with the A.I., this isn’t anything that longtime fans aren’t already used to, but those who’ve been away from the series for a while will notice.
[image3]This year’s most promising—and most disappointing—feature is online co-op play. Being able to play with another person on the same team is great, but for some reason EA’s decided to give the mode some strange camera positions. Perhaps they find it more personal? More dramatic? Impossible to say. Regardless, it means that online co-op can be more annoying than it’s worth. But this year’s annoying feature could very well be next year’s brilliant addition.
The usual feature set is otherwise intact: you’ll find standard one-on-one online and offline play, offline franchise mode, superstar mode (following a single player through his career), and Madden moments (playing out famous situations from football history). Much like Fight Night Round 4, Madden 10’s menu navigation has been cleaned up and simplified. Everything is easy to find and easy to get to.
Series loyalists will undoubtedly love Madden NFL 10. It’s a testament to the talent at EA Tiburon that the game’s basics are as fun now as they’ve ever been. The Online Franchise mode is something that Madden fans have been craving for years, and the introduction of procedural tackling animation gives individual plays a more dynamic, intense, and unpredictable flavor. But Madden 10’s improvements also highlight just how rusty the A.I. has gotten over the years. Spit and polish have taken the series far over the last two decades, but this is the first sign that maybe a more substantial revision is due.