Review: Madden NFL 13 (Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3)

There’s quite a debate in the games community on whether you should even bother reviewing the slew of annually-updated sports video games at all. The rationale is that, since most sports games change from year to year about as much as Hollywood romantic comedies change their plot devices, they don’t really merit a new review each time.

That’s usually true, and usually no more so than with EA’s long-standing series Madden NFL. But this year, Madden has undergone quite a transformation.

Now toting a number 13 at the end of the title, this year’s game may be unlucky for some, but not for those who love playing NFL online. (Mostly) benefitting from a complete overhaul, Madden NFL 13 has emerged with more than just the usual roster alterations and a fresh coat of paint.

Kicking off, there has been a total reorganisation of the game’s front end, resulting in a little initial confusion on how to even start what last year’s game would have termed a ‘franchise’ – i.e. playing a single team throughout a season. Asking gamers to now choose to step into the shoes of either a single player or a coach in ‘Connected Careers’ mode, (this last one is what you need to champion a team), the idea is to present a far more integrated approach to the various ways in which you can play Madden.

Player animation is the next biggest change. Previously, the realism of players’ movements depended on a very, very large list of pre-recorded animations, hoping to cover all the possible ways a football player can move. This year, Madden NFL 13 has implemented what it optimistically calls the ‘Infinity Engine’.

Based on actual physics, the Infinity Engine is supposed to be able to cope with all and any kind of possible movement a player can make, and accurately represent that on screen.

What actually happens is far more entertaining than that. Collisions are the major beneficiary of the new system, looking so brutal that you can almost feel the crunching bones as your ball carrier gets hit seven ways from Sunday.

But the ‘Infinity Engine’ is also capable of infinite hilarity, creating absurd animations that cover the gamut from bizarre hits or abrupt falls to players tumbling over after the play is dead with no-one even close to them, players collapsing in a heap after a run ending up in a mess that looks like a new entry in the Kama Sutra, and suddenly-accelerating players shooting across the field like they’ve been blasted out of a catapult.

It just looks weird but, despite happening almost every play, it’s not enough to ruin the game.

The new ‘Connected Careers’ mode is primarily aimed at online Madden players, allowing them to join leagues or make their own, supporting up to 32 players. There’s a Madden ‘Gridiron Club’, which provides ‘Madden Moment’ challenges, along with updated rosters, on-demand videos and rewards for having played previous Madden titles, as well as awards for performance in NFL 13.

You get free roster updates throughout the year, your team can wear all the correct current and throwback uniforms that the real NFL teams will wear this year, and you can even customise and play in gear you design yourself. On the spanky, bloated ‘front end’, there are even ‘real life’ Twitter personalities commenting on your performance.

Roster updates are probably the best part of all that, but equally interesting is ‘Madden Moments Live’ mode, which will be free for the entire 2012-13 season, starting with the ‘Best of 2011’ where you can replay, relive and try to replicate the finest moments of last year’s games, such as controlling the Packers in the last minute of a tied game and taking them to victory. The ‘moments’ are ranked by difficulty, so you can start light and work your way up to the tougher challenges.

These elements help with realism and are all great, but none of them mean a thing if the on-field play is lacking. And sadly it is.

The Madden series hasn’t had any competition for quite a few years now, and it shows.