The general consensus is that, of all sports games, it’s the Madden series that has suffered most from sticking to an annual release cycle. Innovation in terms of game modes, gameplay, presentation and physics have been lacking. In particular, the past few years have seen a virtual halt to any significant progression.
By contrast, the likes of EA Sports’ NHL and Fifa series, and 2K Sport’s NBA 2K, have progressed enormously over the same period. Madden has been left behind, way behind. It needs to catch up.
It seems as though EA agree, and Madden has more changes, to more parts of the game, than any game in the series so far released on the current generation of hardware. If I’m being cruel I’d say the wall of new features is a panicked reaction from the publisher to the negative feedback the series has been receiving recently. If I’m being kind I’d say it’s a new dawn for the series, ushered on by a development team keen to test themselves.
The reality likely rests somewhere between the cruel and kind.
Upon turning on Madden NFL 13 for the first time, everything feels new. Menus are flamboyant to the point of gratuity, a clear attempt to mimic the pomp and razzmatazz the US television networks apply to the sport, while new game modes and constant reminders about new features appear with reassuring (if slightly intrusive) regularity.
The biggest addition is that of Connected Careers, a mode with RPG-lite features that sets you against other players and the best way yet to play Madden. Playing as either a single player (kinda boring) or a coach controlling the team on game day and the back office management (trades, contracts, scouting) the goal is to beat the other players in your league on the road to the NFL Hall of Fame.
As you progress you’ll earn XP which can be traded in for better stats (as an individual player) or for improved scouting options and team upgrades (as a coach). The levelling up system does genuinely provide added incentive to perform as well as possible in every game and prevents a losing season feeling like a wasted one. You may have lost, but hitting certain objectives can still lead to your team getting better and, therefore, better placed for next season.
While revamped career and online modes are nice, the changes that are going to keep you interested over the long haul have been made on the pitch. The biggest and most obvious improvement comes with the collision detection and how it’s used to determine successful tackles, catches, blocks and what happens in scrambles during fumbles, punt blocks and the like.
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Put simply, the collision and animation upgrades from Madden 12 to Madden 13 are enormous – the biggest and most impactful the series has seen since the launch of current generation hardware. It changes the way the game looks and plays enormously. Much like in the Fifa series, the new physics engine claims to take into account players’ weight, height, momentum and possible bone/muscle rotation in a bid to recreate the most realistic interactions possible.
The result is a game that feels more diverse and lifelike, the canned animations replaced by something altogether less predictable and more exciting. It’s a system that Fifa has been using for a couple of years, begging the question of why it’s taken Madden so long to get around to using it.
Perhaps if it had been in use for the past few years the kinks would have been ironed out by now because, while it’s a major improvement to what came before, it doesn’t always work as intended. Players sometimes fall to the floor as though hit by a truck at the slightest touch from a teammate at the end of a play, on a few occasions I’ve noticed a defender’s arm literally pass through that of the receiver as they both jump to grab the ball and ankles seem to bend to impossible angles when one player walks over another on the floor.
When it works (and it usually does) it’s wonderful, but there’s nothing like a Chris Snee tumbling to the floor after brushing by Victor Cruz to disrupt a sense of realism. It’s more Chad Ochocinco than Calvin Johnson, you never quite know what you’re going to get. Still, you’d rather have Chad than Danny Amendola. Sorry Amendola.
A lot of work has also gone into making the game more accessible to newcomers of the franchise, or the sport in general. Play calling options have been streamlined and bundled with a simple AI system that selects the play it thinks is right for the situation based on whether you want to go for a run or pass on offense, or play cautiously or aggressively on defence.
Veterans will skip straight to the full play book, but the simple options are a neat way to learn a sport with so many rules and nuances that it makes the mathematics of space flight look like a toddler’s colour-by-numbers book.
I played with a friend whose only knowledge of the NFL was that Dan Marino was famous before appearing in Ace Ventura, and he was able to put up a decent challenge and get to grips with the rules by using the auto play calling feature. Sure, he played as the Patriots and threw six interceptions with Brady, but at least he knew what ‘turnover on downs’ meant by the end of the game.
Not all of Madden NFL 13’s new elements work, but it’s still the biggest leap the series has taken for a very long time and provides a decent look at where the series is going to go in the future. More polish would have been nice, but the fact that Madden actually seems to be going somewhere is a massive step forward.