For years Madden has been building features, gameplay modes and control mechanics for the hardcore football fans of the world. It was trying to emulate even the smallest details of NFL football and EA Sports enjoyed lots of success with its endeavors. But in recent years many newcomers were turned off by the complexities that Madden brought to the table. With that in mind EA created Madden NFL 11, an iteration of the series that is built more with the mainstream fan in mind, while still not losing any of the hardcore-focused accoutrements that have made their way into the package in past years.
My biggest concern I have with Madden each and every year is the gameplay. Is it really going to feel and look like the NFL that I know and love? Well, this year's game comes as close as ever to bringing you every spin move and sternum-rupturing tackle that you see on Sundays. Little touches like deemphasizing the suction of the hit stick so that landing big hits actually feels special are great. As is the dual analog stick control scheme which allows you to perform all the jukes, spin moves and stutter steps you could ask for. It also gives players the ability to pivot their upper-body to guard the ball from incoming tacklers. It all looks cool and works well on the field.
While using the right analog stick for more than simple juking is great, the biggest departure for this year's Madden in terms of control is the elimination of turbo (on default settings). At first, it's weird, yes. But before long you'll forget what using a turbo button felt like. Now your player just adjusts his speed accordingly. Rarely did I find myself outrunning my blockers as the AI was usually sharp enough to make its own changes in speed.
Another great addition in this year's gameplay is the ability for your AI teammates to actually land successful blocks and hold them long enough for you to utilize them if you can read the defense correctly. You might notice this working almost too well in conjunction with the new right analog control scheme. I had no problems breaking off multiple 300+ yard games on the ground in route to a 15-1 season on the All-Pro difficulty that used to give me trouble in past Madden games.
On the defensive side of the ball, EA Sports tried to turn all of the hot routing and assignment changing functionality you're used to into something called the Strategy Pad, but the results are a bit frustrating. You navigate through options with the D-Pad, adding one extra button press to access the aforementioned functions. Anyone playing against a fast-paced offense is going to be a bit handcuffed to make their adjustments in time before the snap.
All-in-all the core gameplay on the field is great and looks fantastic in motion. The players have a nice level of polish and they move with the elegance and power you'd expect from top NFL talent. There are still moments when it's clear that you're playing a videogame, but mentioning them in a negative light would feel almost nitpicky. The replay system has also been re-crafted to better articulate all of the cool animations on the field. Now if only I could save a replay and share it with my friends (or put it on YouTube), then I'd be truly happy. The fact that so much cool stuff happens is great, but I really want to be able to show non-Madden players what I'm yelling about without having to call someone over to my desk or record something on my cell phone.
For all of the cool gameplay features that have been developed for this year's game, the most debated will likely be a huge departure for the series called GameFlow. It's an automated play calling feature that shortens a typical gameplay experience to about 30 minutes (where it used be closer to an hour) by theoretically cutting the amount plays from more than 300 to one. I think if you're someone who's new to Madden or if the complexities of figuring out formation types was too much for you in the past, you're going to enjoy the bulk of what GameFlow does for you. On the flipside, if you're a hardcore football fan like me who really knows their X's and O's, chances are you aren't going to use the feature all that much. The AI makes some bone-headed play calls that, while they won't be noticed by casual players looking for a quick game, will likely be lamented by hardcore veterans of the series.
Combating the flaws in your team's default play selections is a feature called Gameplanning which lets you assign up to 20 plays to different situations on both offense and defense and then weight them by preference (sort of like how iTunes lets you rate songs). Oddly enough I still found that the artificial intelligence would make a few strange decisions, like picking the deep pass play All Streaks while my team was on the 15 yard line despite it being nowhere in my red zone gameplan. It's these sorts of missteps that will drive football fanatics up the wall, even if they don't happen all that often.
So while GameFlow and gameplanning bring both good and bad to the table, I can happily say that Online Team Play is one of the best gameplay modes to make it into a Madden game in a long time. It allows for up to six players (three on one team, three on another or any permutation therein) to link up online and compete against each other or against the CPU. One person assumes the role of the quarterback, another plays the running backs and the third mans the receivers (one player can also decide to roam to any vacant position) with a similar combination being used on defense. The mode does the unthinkable and actually makes playing on a team with your buddies fun. It's unabashed couch play at its finest and lends itself very nicely to smack talking friends on your team.
The only negative I can say is that the boosts that are in Online Team Play should have been kept to a simple experience point leveling system. Boosts give veteran players significant attribute boosts which can really ruin the gameplay in my experience. Thankfully a player with a boost looks different than players without a boost in the lobby system, so you can steer clear of them if needed.
Online Team Play is a wonderfully fun and addictive casual mode, but it seems to have come at the expense of any innovations to the two franchise modes (online and offline) and the Be An NFL Superstar Mode. Being a lover of Franchise Mode, it really hurts me to have to suffer through the same exact package that was in last year's game. Especially since that was a barebones offering to begin with.
EA Sports did take the time to beef up a few of the presentation elements that were missing from last year's game. Gus Johnson has replaced Tom Hammond in the commentator's booth and provides easily the best voice I've ever heard in a Madden game. His intensity brings a lot to the experience, even if the technology running under the hood leaves something to be desired. His speech is still too fragmented, which is probably a symptom of this being his first year on the job. I'm sure they'll expand and give him different ways to describe the same event so you don't get an identical piece of dialogue on every long run. This is certainly an impressive start to Gus's tenure in Madden, I just want more of his awesome intensity.
The other big addition in the way of presentation elements is new Super Bowl celebrations that do a great job of delivering the weight of the event. Winning the biggest game in football no longer feels like any other Sunday. Now Gus delivers team-specific commentary to let you know that what you just accomplished is something special. Oh, and Obama makes an appearance. How cool is that?