One of my unspoken pet peeves of the Madden series, and something people would probably chastise me for bringing up, is the over-complication of the most recent releases. You can only take a football series so far before you have to start adding new modes, different ways to play and gimmicks.
I would say the last few years have had some solid content with gimmicks inside to boost the value.
This year's Madden has gone a different route. It's pulled away from throwing gimmicks (QB vision) and fillers into the title, and scaled everything back to make a more sensible title with strong modes intact. On top of the redesign of the game, the Madden dev team has added some sensible goodies to make it all work, look and play a bit better.
Without further delay, let's break this year's title down.
When I reviewed NCAA Football 13 this year, I noted how that series and Madden were drawing closer and closer together. Years ago, they would have been night and day, but as of late the two titles have been like identical brothers arguing about who's better at football. I bring this all up because some of the same improvements made in NCAA Football 13 have reared their head in Madden (could it be because they're both made by EA Tiburon? Nah). The first is the new and improved QB animation.
The QB animation was laughable at best in previous Maddens when it came to dropping back. I can't tell you how many times my play-action pass in previous Madden titles ended up with my poor QB tasting the turf. There's a bit more diversity in the animation in this year's Madden, which means that every time my QB drops back to do a PA or rolls out of the pocket, or even does a five-step drop to pass it, I have a chance of actually completing the play. That helped a lot when it came to selecting my offensive play in the game, as it did in NCAA Football 13. The more plays, the better success rate equals out to better experience. Of course, just because Madden NFL 13 has 20 new dropback doesn't mean that you're going to completely have some Peyton Manning offensive juggernaut machine. That's not the case at all.
As in life, good cannot live without evil, and the good folks at EA Sports made sure that the improved animation also came with improved complication. If you rollout and throw on the run then your QB's accuracy drops significantly, as does his power. If you decide to throw the ball off the back of your foot then you'll find a floater that can be easily picked off by stingy defenses. The animation has gotten more diverse, but it also has become more sensitive to rules of the real game that have been ignored in past. Is this good or bad? I think it's a solid, non-gimmicky improvement that brings the game closer to the real deal, and how can you argue with that? You simply can't. These are the improvements that the series has needed to move forward in a positive direction.
Getting back to the play-action pass, you can now abort them in mid-play by pressing R2, which is new and a huge blessing. For example, when you're playing as the Browns (yes, there are people who like the Browns) and you see Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens heading towards Colt McCoy like a hungry lion about to pounce on a gazelle, it's good for McCoy to have the option to break off from his PA pass give him a chance to run for his life (or throw it away). In the past, like I mentioned previously, this type of play would end up with Colt McCoy reliving his Texas Longhorn days in some wicked fantasy involving a talking football and Longhorn cheerleaders while they're actually peeling his broken body from the ground, as Ray Lewis yells, "Play with the bull and you'll get the horns!!!" The ability to break formation when the play-action pass isn't working is such a blessing, and it saves the gamer frustration.
Speaking of frustration, I'm split on the AI.
From a football standpoint, the CPU AI is extremely intelligent. It reads defenses, offenses and does its best to stump/stop you. Gone are the days where you would run the same play over and over and over again with success. Stay on something too long and you've got yourself a useless play because the defense/offense knows what is coming. Also gone are the miraculous plays by the CPU to disrupt a play if they're not expecting it. For example, if you float a ball to a receiver and the defensive player has their back to the play, they won't be able to recognize it, thus they won't stop it. It was always frustrating for a defensive back to suddenly gain a burst of flight and knock down a ball that clearly was a catch when the DB wasn't even looking for it. Correcting this issue provides a significant improvement from previous Madden titles.
Having said that, the AI gets a boost of 'luck' when they're down by a large amount of points. While it's nothing new to games like NBA JAM, Madden always provided a way to take down an opponent who clearly is out of their league (like the Browns to any other team). Will Johnson, one of our editors, and I witnessed Arizona making a miraculous, unstoppable comeback against Michael Vick and the Eagles. It was a beatdown for the Cards until the end of the third quarter. At that point their defense couldn't be broken, their offense couldn't be stopped and they kept scoring. Ultimately, they didn't win the game, but the fact the computer purposely kept it close was sort of disheartening. I want to win by 65 if I deserve to win by 65, I don't want to even the score for any reason (even when I'm losing).
The actual mechanics of the game are done well by the AI, but the 'boost of luck' the game provides a losing team brings that down a few notches from perfect.
While we're on the topic of mechanics, let's discuss the 'INFINITY ENGINE'.
The IE is incredible, but also out of control at times. Let me explain a bit before you write nasty comments below this review.
The Infinity Engine really does improve the presentation of the game dramatically. The players move correctly as real players should move. The contact between players is certainly far more accurate than previous Madden games. When your player grabs someone they really do wrap themselves around them. When the players hit, they hit hard. You will wince at some of the hits. It looks fantastic when playing at full speed.
Also, the player interaction is pretty cool. You'll find players jawing at each other, players helping other players up and players being nasty with small shoves. Basically, you get the real NFL thanks to the Infinity Engine.
Then there are moments where players interact with each other in the wrong way. Once in awhile you'll have multiple players tackle a RB. It's nice to see CPU players band together to bring Ray Rice to the ground and let him know who owns the field (not the Browns). Once the play is over and the game moves to the cutscenes as it's loading the next series, you'll find players running into the pile on Ray Rice and falling onto him. And then more people accidentally fall onto the pile. Then poor Ray Rice can't get up because the Infinity Engine is reacting to the pile of players. Sure the game resets at the beginning of the next series, but it's almost comical to watch. It's like the Internet video where the soccer player somehow ends up in the ground with his legs and head sticking out, while he's running. It's not quite as goofy, but at times it's fun to watch the accidental interaction between players on the field.
With that said, when the Infinity Engine isn't doing weird things on the field, it really does produce a new and beautiful football experience like no other Madden. I'm sure in the near future they will perfect a few things to avoid accidental contact/reaction.
Other changes in presentation can be found with the commentators. The revolving door of personalities since Madden left the game years ago has been pretty impressive. We've heard the likes of Tom Hammond (super nice guy), Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. This year we get the wonderfully professional commentary of Jim Nantz and the very outspoken Phil Simms. On top of their very smooth, nearly perfect commentary during the games, we're also treated to animated renders of their actual selves. I give EA Tiburon props for trying to do something new and different, as it's fun to see these fake commentators in action. In any case, I do like Nantz and Simms. They do a great job in this year's Madden game.
As for other improvements in presentation, you get things like better lighting (makes the stadium so much better, and makes it feel like a lazy Sunday (no Red Vines or Mr. Pibb, though), a rowdier crowd (sometimes they get disappointed) and just a more detailed field. I do wish that some day they would spend more than a month making the crowds (not an accurate timeframe), as the crowds continue to be stiff and lifeless. I give Tiburon credit for trying to mix the crowd clones up a bit, but the crowd still looks way too uniform when standing and cheering. I just would like to see a crowd move around like a crowd actually does in a NFL stadium. I mean, if you have the on field almost perfect, how about action in the stands? I want to see a fat guy spill a beer on a family in front of him, while he's dancing topless in the middle of winter freezing his nipples off. Is that too much to ask? That actually might be too much to ask. Please don't write that down, Tiburon.
Kidding aside, the presentation in Madden NFL 13 is very much improved over previous years, but the Infinity Engine still needs some tweaking to make it even better.
Okay, shifting gears a bit, let's discuss a new mode. The first and foremost important mode you'll dig into is the Connected Careers. The instructions for this mode describe it as a mix between superstar and franchise modes of the past Madden titles. That's more than a fair comparison, but in reality you get just what I just typed; superstar and franchise modes. The superstar mode resides in the Connected Careers of a player. You can take control of a certain position on any of the NFL teams and grow/cultivate your player into a superstar. It's essentially the same mode as the Road to Glory in NCAA Football 13, and there's nothing wrong with that. You get to experience the career of a player You get to go through practice, preseason and a regular season. You have the option to simulate or manually play the on field action that directly relates to the player. For example, if you choose Colt McCoy as your player, you'll see all the hardships and failures he goes through in a Browns' season, not the rest of the team. In between his hardships and failures, you get updates on his progress. On a side note, during my experience with Colt McCoy, he was brought down to second string… as it was happening in real life. Eery, huh? Maybe I should run a simulator on the Browns' season to see what happens and save myself heartbreak.
I digress, on the flip side of the Connected Careers coin, you can also choose to be a coach. Now, as I understood it from EA, if you're looking for the traditional franchise mode that you're use to then this is it. You have to choose a coach and make coaching decisions, but outside of that you're playing the typical franchise mode that you're used to playing. I almost had a heart attack when I couldn't' find franchise mode originally (I like playing seasons), but it rests firmly in this mode. Anyway, much like the player portion of this mode, your coaching decisions affect the outcome of the season and if you're going to keep your job or not. I like it and it's just as fun as being a player, if not more.
One point of interest for both of these parts of the Connected Careers is the RPG elements of it. That's right, role-playing game elements. You're given tasks and goals to complete, which equal out to a certain amount of XP. This XP can be used to improve certain elements of your career. So, you can improve catching, passing, etc. It's a neat getup, though to be honest it wasn't as intriguing as playing a season (at least not for me). I can understand the draw to it, though. I think gamers will connect with it (no pun intended).
Other interesting points to Connected Careers is the ability to retire a player in your online league (your league members can use him if you retire him), having the ability to compare legacy scores with other players and having your player or coach inducted to the Hall of Fame. Any time you can challenge other players to compete against each other (even in greatness) then it's a fun time.
So, with all this said, how did Madden NFL 13 do overall? I think it does a good job this year. The cutting back of gimmicks, the combination of modes and the limited options makes this game better. I know that's crazy to read and say, but admit to yourselves that less is more with this series. Focusing on smaller amounts of options and modes really did pay off for EA Tiburon. Connected Careers drives this Madden game and makes it well worth your time and trouble. Although it borrows from NCAA Football 13 on a lot of aspects, it still translates to fun at the end of the day. This game will make you want to keep playing, to get better and to experience new challenges. Any game that offers up an experience like that is damn good and worth your pretty penny.
Having said that, there are still improvements EA Tiburon needs to make for Madden NFL 14. They need to look at the Infinity Engine and work out the bugs. They need to get rid of that 'boost of luck' for a losing team. Doing both of those things will bring this game closer to perfection.