Usually I preface my reviews with some sort of real-life reference – especially in the case of sports games. Not this time though. The reason for this is simple: I refuse to waste your time and mine. Madden NFL 11 has successfully bridged the gap between the “casual” and “hardcore” gamers. That is no easy feat to achieve in any game, no less a sports game.
When developers take a step back, evaluate something that works but find efficiencies that can be improved and end up delivering, it stands out. Instead of asking you a question here, or attempting to deliver some doubt to keep you reading, I will simply say Madden NFL 11 has reinvented how football games work and has succeeded in almost every possible way. I will in no way question your decision to stop reading here and go purchase it. After all, it is what I would do if I were in your position.
To kick the review off, I’ll talk about the biggest feature addition this year: Game Planning. The idea behind Game Planning is to not just provide more realism to the game but, more importantly, provide a way for the digital gridiron to be more approachable. While the former still needs work, the latter is undoubtedly the feature EA Sports has been looking for.
When first hearing about this new feature, the amount of questions I raised was nigh never-ending. The biggest fear was one that has a whole lot of precedence in game design lately: changing core gameplay to make a game more accessible generally takes away from what hardcore players love. However, Game Planning provides something for gamers of all kinds to love.
When devising a game plan, you are given simple control over the plays that are chosen for you in various situations. Fortunately, the menu system is extremely intuitive and is something I found myself happily jumping in and tweaking after each game. However, for those hardcore sim players, the amount of situations that you have control over are somewhat limited – especially on the defensive side.
While the possibilities are endless on both sides of the ball, there is still a lot more control that can be provided here. For example, defensive game planning is limited to formations instead of applying any sort of situational awareness. Although, given the fact that this is a new feature, I completely understand why it is designed this way: I just hope next year’s Madden provides an advanced option for those that wish to have a lot more situations and formations to have control over. Not only that, but the ability to create your own custom plays within Game Planning is something else that it could really use.
Because of this, I found myself diving into the playbook on a majority of defensive plays as well as game deciding plays. It is in situations such as that though where having the option is crucial. In fact, it is having that option at anytime that addresses the give and take relationship when designing a more accessible Madden game.
Whether you feel the need to devise a game plan or not, GameFlow is the feature that will call the plays for you based on your game plan. If you have not created a game plan, a default one is used for you based on the tendencies of the team that you are using. And for those that have multiple game plans based on the opponent you are playing, changing the game plan is as simple as changing the settings prior to starting the game. Unfortunately, you are unable to change your game plan in the middle of the game. However, I never actually found the need for this, so it doesn’t really hinder gameplay.
The idea behind GameFlow is that it was not only unrealistic but also micro-managerial to choose a play from a huge playbook in years past. In real-life, the coach will choose a play from a game plan given the situation. So, GameFlow does just that.
Whether on offense or defense you are given the option to choose GameFlow or choose from the playbook prior to the snap. Once you come up to the line the coach will advise you on the play that is laid out in front of you. This provides an immense amount of realism and simplicity which is welcoming to any gamer. But again, the option is given to the gamer as to how they want to play the game – GameFlow or not.
To my surprise though, GameFlow is so effective and really simplifies a game that truly is complicated in real-life. The simplification provided in GameFlow hurts absolutely nothing. Sure, there are some improvements that can be made to Game Planning and GameFlow, but as it stands now, it is easily the most effective addition to the franchise.
The audible system, or strategy pad, was also visited this year. In years prior this has been mapped to the face and bumper buttons and many players would get confused or get stuck in the hot route menu. While this change takes some getting used to, it is much more efficient and intuitive. Unfortunately, the design and placement of the Xbox 360 D-pad can prove to be annoying at times. For those concerned with this change, within a month of release the original audible system will be patched into the game such that you can choose which one you would like to use.
As for core gameplay, I can happily say it is improved. Thankfully, Madden NFL 11 is graced with the same improvements to blocking as were made in NCAA Football 11. While the blocking is far from perfect, the running game is even more viable than last year – which is impressive.
Draw plays and tosses are much more effective as lineman, more often than not, properly execute their assignments. However, there are occurrences where blockers make some confusing decisions or completely blow their assignment. For example, occasionally the lineman trapping or pulling gets bumped by another player and completely forgets who he is supposed to block.
But it is the addition of locomotion that also helps in improving the running game. As is seen in NCAA Football 11, the locomotion engine provides the player with the ability to control fluid movements of the runner or defender with the right analog stick. These intuitive controls provide just the right amount of touch to how the running game works and allows you to make up for any blown assignments – something running backs do every Sunday.
Pass blocking however is an area that needs some serious work, specifically lineman selling the fake. Because of this, play action passes and screen plays are almost useless at times and end up in a sack far too often. In a screen play, the lineman are supposed to take a step back, sell the pass, block for one to two seconds, roll off the block, and sweep out to block for the dump pass to the halfback. Instead, every time, lineman completely ignore their defenders and sweep out to block for the halfback. Because of this, the quarterback is forced to drop back five to ten yards and get the pass off before the weak side defensive end or tackle sacks him.
Outside of improvements to blocking, there have also been significant improvements to sideline catching – they’re actually possible now. In years prior, sideline catching was almost non-existent. Far too often did players not fight to keep their feet in bounds. This year though, it is almost spot on.
As can be seen in the screenshot above, the receiver is programmed to perform a “toe drag” in order to keep his feet in bounds. Receivers in the NFL are very mindful about where they are, and this shines through in Madden as well. Keep in mind though, these changes can result in bad calls as well as unrealistic catches. So while the change is welcome, it seems to have some negative impacts as well.
The final issue, and one that was recently patched in NCAA Football 11, is the vertical jump of some of the defenders. There will be occasional plays where the linebacker or defensive lineman will be unrealistically aware, jump higher than realistically possible, and swat down the ball. This can get frustrating at times but can be overcome by better leading your receiver or putting a bit more air under the ball.
Despite the issues mentioned in core gameplay though, Madden has never felt more realistic. Thankfully, given the advancements in accessibility previously mentioned, the years that follow will be crucial in shaping these issues to core gameplay. So while I understand some of the same issues being carried over from last year, this will not fly next year.
One thing that most said won’t fly next year was commentating. Thankfully, commentating has been addressed and overall sound in the game is much improved. The newest addition to commentating, Gus Johnson, provides much more enthusiasm, but at a cost. His over-the-top enthusiasm can at times impact the realism of his audio clips being strung together. Nonetheless, the changes to commentating as well as the addition of team specific chants and fight songs provides just another touch of realism.
Some may be a bit disappointed to hear that, technically, there are no new game modes. The reason I say “technically” is because Online Team Play is an evolution – albeit drastic one – of last year’s online co-op mode. Online Team Play is a three versus three matchup where each player is responsible for playing a specific position. On the offensive side you can play the quarterback, running back, or wide receiver positions. On the defensive side you can play the defensive line, linebacker, or defensive back positions.
The collaboration and strategy that comes forth with this game mode is enormously refreshing. Playing with a group of friends is an absolute must as a lot of trust is needed between teammates. Should you be faced with the scenario where the player controlling the quarterback is calling poor plays or is not being a team player, it can be a very poor experience. So, as with most online modes, be wary of the impact that poor players and quitters can have on the game mode.
This raises one of the biggest issues with the game mode. Should someone leave the game, that position will now be filled by the CPU. So should you lose your running back, you may find yourself passing more often since crucial running plays controlled by the CPU don’t always provide the best results. It would be nice if there was some sort of pairing that could be done so that you could switch to the player with the ball. Unfortunately, there is no way to switch positions between quarterback, running back, and wide receiver – only between the position you chose.
Another issue that will hopefully be fixed soon is the noticeable lag during Online Team Play. This lag was only drastic during kicks and often resulted in missed field goals and shanked punts. However, this is somewhat forgivable for now given the fact that they have been working with the servers prior to release (the reason I was unable to play the unchanged Online Franchise mode).
All in all, Madden NFL 11 provides every gamer with something to enjoy. Those of you who cry that games like Madden are nothing more than incremental change each year, you might want to bite your lip when you find yourself wanting to say that this year. The additions of Game Planning and GameFlow provide a simple solution to a problem that no one realized was actually there. Madden NFL 11 is inventive, intuitive, competitive, collaborative, and, most importantly, a whole lot of fun. Football fans, this game is a must!
Graphics are definitely improved including impressive animations tied to locomotion. The pre-game cutscenes are definitely a nice touch, but the in-game ads can get annoying after a while.
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The addition of Game Planning and GameFlow drastically improves gameplay for longtime Madden fans and newcomers. Sideline catching finally works, run blocking is improved, and online team play can be a ton of fun when playing with friends.
The addition of Gus Johnson is a nice touch and is much improved over last year. However, his enthusiasm can be hard to string together and sounds less fluid. The addition of team specific chants and fight songs adds another touch of realism. Also, the soundtrack is the best in years.
Despite the lack of additional offline features, there is still a ton of content to enjoy. Online and offline franchise modes, Madden moments, online matches, and online team play provide a bulk of the fun. There's easily 40+ hours to enjoy here.
Madden NFL 11 provides an experience that longtime fans will love and newcomers can fall right into. It's a must-have game for any football fan.