We seem to reach the same conclusion regarding every annual update of the Madden franchise. That conclusion being that this is the finest game the series has thrown at us so far but, the changes are few and far between. So, it’ll come as very little surprise when I tell you that this is most definitely the finest game the series has thrown at us so far but, the changes are few and far between.
This consistent reality of incremental improvements and additions each year is not limited to the Madden franchise; it is something which takes place throughout the entirety of the sports genre. Let’s be honest, without either ripping out the whole game and starting over or changing the rules of the sport your emulating, it’s difficult to come up with a title that plays much differently from the previous instalment. Of course, changing the rules is not an option for obvious reasons; these are supposed to be sports simulators. Ripping out the entire game and starting over would be an option if the yearly release circle was abandoned – resulting in a significant revenue drop for all involved – which effectively removes that as a viable option too.
The easiest to make changes to the experience is by 1) slightly altering the way you interact with the game or by 2) evolving or altering the way in which the core gameplay is utilised. Madden NFL 11’s big new feature is the ‘GameFlow’ system and is a bit of mix between options 1) and 2). GameFlow aims to take away the numerous menu screens involved in selecting your play prior to each down, by giving the game itself control over your choices; simply hit the button and a play is automatically selected, your team moving into formation ready to put the A.I’s plan into action.
As far as the decision making of the GameFlow system goes it’s all fairly impressive, chosen plays are usually viable options given your situation and seem to be specific to your team. For example, the A.I. favours putting the formidable passing attack of the New Orleans Saints to good use wherever possible and, conversely, when playing with the New York Giants, it rightly believes that handing the ball off to the muscle bound powerhouse Brandon Jacobs is the way to get the job done. Apologies if you don’t have an in-depth knowledge of American Football teams and/or jargon but, without reprinting a thousand page rule book, there’s not really any other way to describe the onscreen action.
In short, GameFlow works. It works especially well as a learning tool for players new to the sport that may not yet have a full understanding of the rules and nuances at play. For seasoned veterans it significantly speeds up the action, allowing you to get through more games per hour/day/week but takes away the fun, chess-like decision making involved in pitting your wits against the opposition. If you’re looking to play a quick game before work or before nipping down the pub then GameFlow is a great option to have in your back pocket but, in order to get the most out of the game, experienced players should usually opt to abandon the system.
Aside from GameFlow, the rest of the alterations to this year’s game are fairly predictable and straightforward. The controls have been simplified slightly with the right-stick now controlling all of your player’s juke and spin moves. Manual sprinting has also been removed and replaced with a contextual awareness system that causes the player to sprint only when he has enough space, forcing you to concentrate more on hitting the right holes and following your blockers. While at first it seems like you’ve lost a limb by not being able to turn on the gas as and when you like, it actually improves the experience once you get used to it and provides a more realistic and satisfying edge to the gameplay.
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Player animations have been given an extra ounce of energy and realism, particularly when it comes to struggling for that extra yard or stretching to make the end zone. Ball carriers visually exert themselves and attack defenders much more impressively than before, invariably resulting in spikes of excitement on your part as you begin to realise that the seemingly impossible has become the merely improbable as you watch your player force himself to the end zone with reckless abandon.
On the other side of the visual coin the sideline and crowd animations, a long-running bugbear for the series, are still awful and arguably the worst they’ve ever been. In certain stadiums (the Jets’/Giants’ new Meadowlands stadium, for example) it looks as though the place is only holding one-tenth of its total capacity, completely destroying any sense of scale or realism when playing within its walls. The problem has been going on long enough that you thought somewhere at EA Tiburon would have noticed and put it right by now. Sort it out please.
New to the online component is the 3v3 co-op mode in which you can team up with a couple of friends and take on an opposing trio. Each player in the team selects a group of players to control (linebackers, wide receivers, defensive lineman, quarter back etc) and performs everything associated with their involvement in the game, including positioning, tackling, running routes and what have you.
At first this is a new and fun way to explore different aspects of the game, and working together as an effective unit is an initially satisfying experience. However, the novelty soon wears thin and you very quickly long to have complete control back in your hands. Controlling individual units simply doesn’t create a full enough experience to warrant playing for any significant amount of time. In fact, the act of playing any position other than quarterback soon becomes downright boring.
It’s also worth mentioning that, in a bid to curb second hand sales, you must redeem a code printed on the back of the manual in order to access the online features – in much the way as UFC: Undisputed 2010. Those who plan on picking up a second hand copy will have to purchase a code online before having access to head to head games against their friends.
Elsewhere everything is fairly much as it was last year. ‘Madden Moments’ – in which you try to recreate or improve upon dramatic situations from last season’s games – returns as does ‘Franchise Mode’ (both on and offline), ‘Be A Superstar’ and the bizarre inability of defenders to catch balls that land right in their hands. The card collecting mode, ‘Ultimate Team’, also makes a comeback, although this time as a standard component rather than a paid for, downloadable extra. Disappointingly it has not seen any changes that elevate it above the lacklustre addition it was last year.
As I said at the top of the review, Madden NFL 11 is largely the same game as last year with a few bells and whistles attached to liven it up a little. It’s still worth purchasing if you’re a fan of the series as the gameplay, visuals and realism are all still excellent. It’s just a shame that there aren’t any new game modes or truly innovative features to get worked up and excited about. Still, it’s Madden and we love it no matter what. The problem is that EA Sports knows that’s how we think about it.

Paul Younger
Founder and Editor of PC Invasion. Founder of the world's first gaming cafe and Veteran PC gamer of over 22 years.

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