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.
Despite these new cosmetic makeover elements, the on-field play in Madden 13 can be enormously frustrating. The commentary is appalling, stock sequences and behaviour are used for all teams, and the AI is dumbfounding.
We haven’t seen player telemetry data from EA Sports on this (our request for it was politely declined) but are willing to bet that a good proportion of gamers play Madden casually with their mates, just looking to have a bit of fun. This is the way to play, because any sports game competition against another human ‘evens the field’ a bit – you’re both liable to make great plays and stupid plays, have successes, and even make horrible mistakes.
Not so when you’re playing against the computer: sure, you’ll see the computer have its fair share of incompletions, but if you’re leading a game by too great a margin, the super computer takes over and starts marching down the field with one preternaturally astonishing play after another.
Put simply, the AI cheats in single player. Runs will go for 40 yards a piece, long passes are plucked out of the air by receivers who, milliseconds previously, were about five meters off the ball with their backs to the play, and offensive lines totally dominate your defence to allow their runners through.
Suddenly, the computer competition has more agility and spatial awareness than the Bolshoi Ballet, third down completions rocket into the 90th percentile, and the opposition becomes unstoppable. This happens very frequently indeed.
The bizarre thing is that you can change all this, almost beyond recognition, using the game’s ‘sliders’. Not a readily apparent feature to anyone besides hardened Madden fans, inside the ‘Settings’ section is an innocuous-looking group of parameters that you can manually adjust. These include the player’s performance, that of the AI, and in-game penalties. Adjust the slider for each of the many different aspects here and you can totally transform the way the game plays.
There’s an entire culture amongst seasoned players online of determining and sharing ‘slider sets’ that make the game play more realistically. And if you never make any other adjustment but this one, do it just for your own sanity – set the game speed to ‘slow’.
Frustrating AI (Artificial Intelligence) aside, the game looks and feels exactly like it did last time around. There are some subtle differences – there is an alarming overabundance of interceptions (in our first game, the opposition intercepted every time we threw a long pass for five in a row) and just plain dismal run blocking that makes you want to throw your controller through your TV, but on the whole the gaming experience is similar, with the added entertainment value of the Infinity Engine’s antics.
Commentary is still horrible. We made the point in our review of the last Madden game that the commentary was inaccurate, repetitive and so forth, but in Madden 13, despite a changing of the guard in terms of the commentary team (kicking out Gus Johnson and Chris Collinsworth in favour of Phil Simms and Jim Nance), it’s still hopelessly inaccurate.
Once you’ve played your first game, there’s a good chance you’ll be treated to comments you’ve heard before, in every single subsequent game, regardless of what’s actually happening on the field. It never feels like they’re actually watching your game. They’ll talk about a huge punt return, when you’ve actually been stopped in your tracks before taking more than three steps. You’ll hear your RB chastised despite having just made a 16 yard run, and you’ll lose count of the number of times the pair babble on about the new facemask rule.
Every year we hope for a better, more authentic NFL experience from Madden. And every year, we get a cosmetic update, gross levels of pandering to online play, and a whole slew of time-consuming, people-intensive, expensive alterations that no-one actually asked for.
Most of these involve cramming in more ‘authenticity’ via marketing deals. Hello Verizon. But these ‘improvements’ rarely make the NFL game play better on the field.
The sponsors are no doubt delighted, but when you still seem to be able to run any play with any team, with the same level of success, for example, making as basic a decision as choosing your team redundant, you’re going to upset a lot of fans who pay for the game.
But we hope for these things because some of us think NFL is one of the greatest sports, and that EA Sports is one of the most capable developers.
The biggest problem is that they have no competition. And no-one at EA seems to have heard the expression “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Or if they have, what they think is broke and what we think is broke, are two very different things.
We can appreciate that. We just can’t seem to enjoy playing Madden NFL videogames any more. Maybe monopolies aren’t so great after all.