EA Sports set a new bar with Madden NFL 10. New visuals mixed with good commentary mixed with other essentials put last year's Madden ahead of the pack. Now what can they do for an encore?
Where do I begin?
While it certainly would be easy to start with visuals and presentation, and even some online goodies, there is one particular element of Madden NFL 11 that deserves to be mentioned above all other things.
The biggest push this year at E3 from the developers of Madden NFL 11 was the new 'GameFlow' system. Many people compare it to 'Ask Madden', but that's not entirely fair. Madden suggests plays for you without rhyme or reason; consider it a 'hint' if you will. GameFlow is more complicated than that, as you do get suggestions from the pseudo-coach on the field, but the coach actually gives you somewhat of an explanation when they're asking you to run a particular play. For example, if it's third and long and you hit the 'GameFlow' option it will probably tell you that the quarterback is probably going to step back and throw the ball, so you have to get in his face as quickly as possible. It will probably suggest you running a blitz and also suggest you staying on your route. GameFlow basically gives you information and helps teach you what to look for or anticipate for when you're running up on particular game situations. By the third or fourth game in Madden I was calling up a Cover 3 defense, but calling an audible at the last minute to blitz the quarterback because the situation called for it; In other words, GameFlow will make you a better player without you knowing it.
So here are a few other things about GameFlow that are interesting. Harking back to the Sega Dreamcast days when the VMU (Visual Memory Unit) helped to hide all your plays in NFL 2K, GameFlow provides you with a secretive sense of security when you're playing one-on-one against another player. Needing a headset to sport for this option, you can choose GameFlow and have the coach speak directly in your ear, so that your opponent doesn't know what's happening. You'll get advice, you'll feel like you're really on the field listening to a mastermind of the game (unless you're a Browns' fan; then you're screwed -- just kidding.... sorta). Regardless, GameFlow's ability to play through your headset makes it invaluable when you need help reading a particular defense or offense.
Another effect of GameFlow is that it also speeds up the game. When you choose GameFlow it keeps things rolling. So instead of playing a game for 45 minutes to an hour, you get about a 30-minute game at tops. This means you can play more games and means you can keep the season going pretty darn quickly.
Now, is GameFlow useful against human players? It's debatable. I think that GameFlow works best when you're playing against the computer, but it does have its uses when you're going head-to-head against a real player. I thin that the after effect of using GameFlow in Franchise mode is that you'll want to use it all the time, which is something you don't want to do. I found myself getting burned repeatedly when using it online and actually heckled by Cris Collinsworth for not changing my defensive scheme that GameFlow called up for me (oh, don't get me started, Collinsowrth!). Don't get me wrong, there were times where I was just absolutely baffled by the offense and needed GameFlow to help sort that out, or at least point me in the right direction. Never use it too much when you're playing friends or online (or online friends); it will burn you more often then not.
Enough about GameFlow, let's talk about sorting out plays.
'Game Planning' is a huge part of this year's push in Madden NFL 11. You no longer have to go through dozens and dozens of plays to figure out what you want to do. Game Planning actually allows you to take your team's playbook and pick and choose what you want to run in particular games. For example, if I wanted to limit my run plays and focus more on my passing then I could go in and chop up my playbook and put something together to fit those needs. I wouldn't want too many run plays against the New York Jets (they had the number one run defense last year), so I would take out the majority of my run plays and put in more passing situations. It's nice and easy and it's incredibly useful. I know some of you are wondering how many game plans you can create and the answer is as many as you want.
I found Game Planning to be as useful as GameFlow; sometimes even more useful.
Shifting gears just slightly, let's talk about actual game controls.
As we were on EA's private booth tour this year at E3 one of the Madden developers was praising how great the locomotion system was on this year's version. The locomotion engine was completely replaced in Madden NFL 11 and more emphasis was put on using the analog sticks more. I'm sure that there are some Madden fans out there that have worn down their controller's buttons using the sprint button, but no more! EA decided to save you $40-60 in replacing your controller by putting most of the focus on the dual stick control. So when you're pressing up to catch some speed or twisting away from a tackle, you won't need to press any buttons to perform these things. For gamers who love their running game you'll especially benefit from this adjustment. The focus on the analog sticks allows for a natural motion that will break a running back away from a would be tackler. It's so much better, but the Madden veterans out there are still going to instinctively press buttons to perform such tasks; I know I'm still kicking that habit.
Changing it up a bit, but still sticking with play mechanics, the A.I. in Madden NFL 11 has improved dramatically, especially with run plays. One of the budding elements of Madden NFL 10 was how much the running game had improved. Continuing the tradition, Madden NFL 11 is vastly improved over last year's running game. While it certainly is a bit more balance (no more 300 yard games for Jamal Lewis -- at all), the blocking during a running situation is more like the NFL and less like a video game. The computer players actually hit their assignments nearly every time (not all the time otherwise it would be a flaw) and help to create holes for your running backs. You can actually see holes open up thanks to these blocks, and sometimes the holes aren't where the play had schemed they would be. Regardless, the computer players are finally dependable when it comes to trusting them with assignments.
They don't stop at offense, though. The A.I. on the defense is very much improved, as well. Say you run a blitz and miss the running back completely (you, the user) the defense run by the computer will pick up on the miss and adjust. They'll run after the player until they can't anymore. Not very much improved, right? Wrong. Should you miss your tackle and should the computer player pick up on it, if the computer player makes it to the offensive player and starts a tackle more players will come join the foray. This year's Madden actually features A.I. that helps you bring down your opponent. If one guy hits the player then another player will come in and help finish them. I've seen a pile of guys bring down a single running back before; it's absolutely beautiful.
So, you can see how much EA Sports has been working on improving the gameplay of a title that already had great gameplay. It's impressive what they've subtracted and what they've added.
Now, let's talk about presentation.
If you are at all familiar with the jump from Madden NFL 09 to Madden NFL 10 then you understand how impressive the visuals were between the two games. To even think about improvement from Madden NFL 10 to Madden NFL 11 is tough to do, but there was improvement. The stadiums are a bit more detailed this year, as is the environment that surrounds them. You get a lot more activity from the crowd, a lot more visually 'real' elements from the weather (seeing it rain is pretty) and you just get a bit more detailed when it comes to character models. Something that should especially be mentioned is the actual 'contact' between players. Again, harking back to last year's Madden, the contact between players during a tackle or even during blocking was really good. Occasionally you would get the graphical break-up or a hand would mysteriously find its way through another player's body. In Madden NFL 11 all of that has been cleaned up and improved. For example, when I was abusing Ben Roethlisberger on the field, like the sports media has been this past year, Shaun Rogers would shoulder tackle him to the ground pretty hard. When the replay of this wonderful event came on shortly after it occurred, you could see in detail that Rogers dipped his shoulder, wrapped up Big Ben and rammed him into the turf without one graphic break-up. Expect this type of visual joy in nearly ever aspect of the game.
Other presentation elements that have improved are the player chants before a game to get psyched. Most players will enjoy this element; I know it was particularly fun watching Ray Lewis come out and do his dance to get going (you can see that in the recently released Madden commercials as well). Some other neat presentation elements include authentic stadium audio. For example, when the Bucs score you'll get the pirate ship canon going off or when the Vikings score you'll get the giant Viking horn in the background. All of this has improved the presentation for the game.
A huge improvement, one that I still am enjoying, is the soundtrack to the game. In past years with Madden, I always dreaded the music that accompanied it. It always seemed to be new bands mixed with some popular songs. This time around you get some great music from bands like Guns'n'Roses, AC/DC, KISS and other rock bands. If I could own a soundtrack from any game that isn't named DJ Hero, this would be on my shelf right now. This is the first Madden soundtrack I've actually enjoyed.
Finally, one of the bigger improvements was the replacing of Tom Hammonds in the audio booth. Instead of Hammonds, who according to one developer didn't like the experience too much, you get the over excitement that only Gus Johnson can produce. Mostly known for NCAA Basketball games, Johnson brings a fresh, exciting take with the seemingly always-negative Cris Collinsworth. He brings the shouting, the unique commentary and the powerfully played words that seemed absent from Madden NFL 10. So when you are up 60-12 on your opponent, Johnson won't stop the fun train for a breather; he'll just keep going.
All right, we're nearing the end of the review (stay with me!) let's talk about longevity. While there is no doubt that longevity of a Madden game is typically long enough for the football season to end, the addition of GameFlow allows players to feel like they can move on and explore more things that Madden NFL 11 has to offer. For me, trudging through a season was a tedious process, but because the gameplay is sped up and everything kicks on all cylinders in this department, it allows me to do more offline and online. So, for example, Franchise Mode allows me to have a more hands-on experience with managing my team. I get to mess more with free agency and trades and drafting. Having that extra time to devote to more complicated decision making off the field adds much needed value to the experience.
The online experience for Madden NFL 11 also extends the life of the game. One of the newer features, which I haven't tried yet (but will) is the ability for online team play. You can have an online game with three of your friends playing with you. That's an enormous improvement for this year's Madden and something that will certainly interest quite a few friends (or it could end friendships). I hope to dig into that today, if I can find enough knuckleheads to play. Another cool feature for the online portion of Madden NFL 11 is the ability to earn 'coins'. As you play online for ranked and unranked games you earn coins that you can put towards team boosts, scouting reports (seems kind of shady) and other things to help you improve and love the online experience. Having a reward for doing something is great, especially if it drives you to do better; this is exactly what coins will do for you.