Review: Madden NFL ’11 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Madden NFL ’11
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Genre: Realistic Sports
Release Date: 8/10/2010

Back in 2008, I resented Madden ’09. I resented that it wasn’t much of an improvement over years upon years of development, consistently making the same mistakes. I resented that they still hadn’t learned how to address running the ball, a crucial part of football. I resented that the only thing they’d done since Madden ’04 was buy the NFL, NFLPA and ESPN licenses with the sole intention of bullying 2K out of the market, buying them a monopoly that would have antitrust lawyers foaming at the mouth in any industry the government gives a crap about. I just simply resented the entire Madden franchise, and though there were some positives about ’09, a mediocre release was enough for me to release the hounds in what was a pretty grisly review, despite me calling it an “above average” game.

Two years later, after another mediocre release in Madden ’10, EA’s at it again, with changes afoot to the way players move that promises to open up the running game, as well as make the game feel less like a video game. I held some hope when I wrote the preview that this would finally be the year that I could get excited about a Madden release, and a couple weeks later, I finally had the game in my hands.

Good news! The on-field play, for the most part, works better than it has in years! As usual with Madden, however, the good is sprinkled in with the bad. Once again, we have a convoluted release that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend. Strangely, the group of people I can recommend the game to are different from years past.

I’ll start with the on-field play, as this is Madden ’11’s strongest area. As I detailed in the preview, one of the areas where a lot of work was put into was the way players run and interact with the field, and with other players, both with and without the ball. Just running with a player, you can notice a difference from previous versions, in how there’s noticeable feedback from the game to the player in terms of how players shift weight, and run along the field. For the most part, this removes the issue of players “skating” or sliding along the field as if we were playing one of those old school electric football games. I think EA’s finally got it this time. This is something that they’ve been working on in the past, but it has finally been refined to the point where we feel like we’re playing football instead of just playing a video game. This is combined with something they did in their NHL games: they took away the speed burst option. On the one hand, this is felt when people use the elite running backs; it’s no longer possible to just pick a sweep play and outrun/out-juke the defence. Therefore, Adrian Peterson fans will be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, it forces people to concentrate instead on picking up their blocks, waiting for holes to open up, and using smart, effective running to maximize runs. Along with fixing up blocking schemes, this makes running the ball an enjoyable experience, something that hasn’t been the case since I can remember. Furthermore, it finally allows certain plays to be run effectively that have never been legitimate options to players. Draw plays, off-tackle runs and options are finally available, or at least available without the near-guarantee that the plays will go for a loss. With the NFL’s further use of the wildcat, and the game’s implementation of those schemes, that’s a good thing, as it opens up the entire playbook. The Wildcat wouldn’t have been possible in years past. Just like in the NHL games, the lack of speed burst is the best thing to happen to Madden in years, and though it’s editable, I don’t see many people going back to it.

Another big change is the Gameflow playcalling mechanic. Whenever Gameflow is selected, the game selects a play for you, and tells you how to perform it by showing the playart and having a coach tell you what to look for. It’s been described as a new form of the Ask Madden feature, but this is your gameplan. It can be edited, either team-specific or user-specific, in options. You can decide what plays to run in just about any situation you can think of, from first and ten to long second downs to the two minute drill, and all points in between, as well as how often you want that play to run. During normal situations, it works great, even better than selecting Ask Madden has worked in the past (incidentally, Ask Madden is still available for those that want it). Not only does it do an adequate job of calling plays, but it quickens games significantly, with less time spent ditzing around in menus. Problems arise in the two minute drill, however. The computer can never really decide when to throw, when to run, and when to go for a field goal. I’ve had cases where I’ve personally burned my last time out, hit Gameflow, and had the computer line up for a long field goal, despite having enough time on the clock to get a play off and spike the ball if necessary. Since I’m out of time-outs, I either have to go for the kick or let the clock run down for a delay of game. There are no options to determine at what point you go for a field goal (ie: “do not go for a field goal if there are more than :15 remaining”). Even worse, the game does not do a good job of selecting between in-between situations on fourth down. I’ve had more than one occasion where I’ve had the game select a 50+ yard field goal for me despite the fact that I don’t have a booming place kicker; in a situation like that, especially since I usually play as the Jets, I’d rather try to pooch-punt the ball, pin them behind the 10, and let me defence do the rest. I also don’t like the lack of ability to quick-sub a player in for a down. I’m not talking about auto-subs, I’m talking about, “I’ve given to Shaone Greene for five hand-offs and it’s late, let’s bring in LT for a couple plays,” something that especially isn’t taken into account during Gameflow. For general gameplay and most of the time on defence, Gameflow works well, and definitely shortens game time. For special teams and late-half situations, dump it.

The last truly positive change Madden made this year is the evolution of the dual stick controls. Taking a page from NHL ’11 and even NBA 2K10, Madden put a lot of running controls to the right analogue stick. Now, instead of having to use a shoulder button to juke, it’s as easy as flicking the right stick. You can also push the stick forward to put your shoulder down and plow through, as well as other moves, all of which are pressure sensitive. Best of all, this works on the defensive side of the ball as well; if you want to swim to the left, just tap the right stick to the left. The game doesn’t do a very good job of explaining exactly what does what, but thankfully, it doesn’t have to. For the first time in a football game, moves feel natural, and when combined with the changes EA made to how players run, plant and use their momentum, it creates the first version of Madden I feel comfortable with since the Playstation One era. While these are mere evolutions on the surface, put together and put into practice, they’re an evolution in how the game plays.

Other than the changes I’ve mentioned, other things have been tweaked, and a few things have been ruined as well. The passing game feels tight, with a noticeable difference between the first and second string quarterbacks on most teams. Throwing on the run is still a little bit too accurate for my own tastes, though EA’s getting better at this. One thing I notice when playing the CPU is that they tend to get their throws off a lot when pressure is coming, even when the pressure is coming from the blind side. I think more attention needs to be paid to how awareness affects blind-side pressure, at least while playing the CPU. As I mentioned, not everything is positive, and the kicking game – more specifically, coverage on kickoffs and punts – is flat out broken. By the time whoever is receiving catches the ball, the entire coverage team has shanek their blockers, and converged. I haven’t had one kickoff that didn’t end with either myself or my opponent – human or CPU – running straight on into a nine man sea of humanity, because unless the coverage player gets pancaked, every block involves just shoving the player aside, at which point the player shakes his blocker. Punt coverage is better, but I routinely expect my blockers to pick up someone streaking in from the side just to have them not pay so much as a cursory glance to them, and splatter me without a gain. Kickoff and punt coverage MUST be patched ASAP, simple as that.

Overall, Madden is a significant change on the field. Unfortunately, there’s more to the game than what happens on the field. It’s here where Madden falls apart.

Most of the key modes in this year’s game come from previous versions of the game, from Franchise mode to Be a Superstar to Madden Moments. None of these modes saw much change, if any. I’ll start with Franchise mode, since that’s where I spend the majority of my time. In terms of simulating an NFL season, incluidng the preseason and the playoffs, Madden’s franchise mode does the job. Everything someone would expect from a long-running franchise mode is here, from managing the roster to maneuvering the NFL’s Salary Cap to the minutia of handling injuries and other coaching options that come about during an NFL season. Unfortunately, there are improvements that other games have made that have left Madden behind. One area I need to see comes from the NBA 2K series: I need to see how my salary cap numbers look for the next few years, even with the higher salary cap (they raised the cap in this year’s game to reflect the uncapped year). If I start locking guys up to long-term contracts, I need to see just what my salary numbers look like for future years, so I don’t end up hurting myself having to make cap-based cuts to stay under future salary caps. Another area that MLB: The Show does well is an explanation of the key parts of its Collective Bargaining Agreement. As I mentioned in my review of The Show, Major League Baseball has complex rules such as the Rule 5 draft, Super Twos and other CBA niggles that can become nightmares to unprepared GMs, but that game has a long, detailed and optional tutorial that explains the details of how that system works. The NFL’s CBA is a nightmare, and worse, there’s a hard salary cap involved. Without having to read the CBA – a document so involved and lawyered up that it makes readability scales scream safe-words – I wouldn’t know why taking years off of a contract makes my ’10 salary cap figure go up, among other details. I would have appreciated a tutorial for the CBA, and assuming there’s a CBA in 2011 – or even a season, as a lockout is looking likely – we’re definitely going to need a tutorial for whatever the hell’s in that monstrosity.

The franchise mode in Madden also has a curious trade system, which I can only assume simulates how dumb certain GMs can be. Some of the trade scenarios I’ve seen are flat-out daft. There’s a trading block that you can browse and put players on, with requests for what the trader wants back. For example and just for the sake of argument, I could state that I want to trade Mark Sanchez, and that I want back a free safety with a 90+ rating, and once I put this trade on the block, other GMs give me offers based on my request. This works well enough, though it’s amazing what you can get back if you ask. I was able to trade Mark Ellis and his $10.5m cap hit for a 91 rated FS that was four years younger, six points better, and $9m cheaper. Even after I resigned him immediately to a longer deal, I saved $8m on my cap for 2010. Things get even more screwy when the computer is the one making requests. I had the Jaguars put up a fullback with a 68 rating, and request either an 85+ quarterback, an 80+ wide receiver, or an 85+ tackle. Two skill positions above 80 in exchange for a fullback that wouldn’t make my second squad, and what’s weird is that this wasn’t really that out of the norm compared to the other deals I’ve seen. Then I see some GMs giving away elite-level players with good cap numbers and asking for a ball rack in return. I could see it if players could be discontented, but they can’t. Even in previous years, players had the ability to be upset or happy and various levels in between based on playing time, contract negotiations and the like, but there’s no personality to anyone. Players can’t even hold out – hello, Darrelle Revis! – which takes away a huge amount of realism from the game and eliminates the risk of picking up a great player at a low salary who might decide he wants more money. They don’t even take negotiations personally. If you undercut a player in past versions, they would tell you to piss off, but now, they say one of two things: “No, thanks. Try again.” or “Offer accepted.” this leads to contract negotations becoming a glorified Price is Right game. “Higher… higher… lower… lower… you win!” Complex people such as NFL athletes are nothing more than warm bodies with salary caps here, which is sad considering the fact that this is a step back from the PS2 games.

It’s not until the end of your first season that financial options open up. At this point, you can make stadium improvements, or even relocate the team if you want through a process where you pick your team name, stadium, pick a new city who will be easier or harder to deal with depending on how much they want an NFL team (ie, Los Angeles will be easier than Wilmington, DE), try to secure funding, and get it approved. If it does get approved, it’s the same as creating a team from scratch. This is a nice little addition, but it’s buried; I wouldn’t have known had I not simmed ahead. Despite that, Franchise mode, as a whole, falls behind similar modes in other games.

Sadly, it gets worse. Be a Superstar mode makes a comeback, and keeping with a trend, it not only sucks, but is worse than the same mode that was in previous games. You start by creating your Superstar, but problems creep up right away in how ratings work. You start with a 65 in every rating, and 100 points to dole out to up ratings. What’s weird is that every rating is a 65, no matter how stupid or meaningless. I’m a right end, why do I have a 65 in throwing accuracy and kicking power, and why can I not reduce these stats to focus them better on things that actually matter for my position? Regardless of this, if you know the first thing about how to play your selected position (such as “I’m a wide receiver, I probably shouldn’t work on my pass blocking footwork.”), you’re going to be able to create a player that is good enough to start on about half of the NFL’s teams, and will automatically get run with your first team. As for what team you get picked for, it’s almost completely random. The first thing you’re forced to do is take an intelligence test. This test is supposed to simulate the Wonderlic, but instead comes off as a prep course for the SATs. It doesn’t matter how well you do; you get no reward (other than me being able to say, “I scored 100 on Madden ’11’s simple, multiple choice logic test, yay me.”), and when you’re drafted, you aren’t even told what round you were drafted in, what pick you went, or anything. The game simply goes, “Congratulations, you’ve been selected by _____________.” From this point, you’re able to go through “training camp,” which is nothing more than practice mode. There are no benefits for going through practice mode. If you don’t need the practice, you’re wasting time. Playing in games works OK for what it’s worth, but there are no incentives to play; you either win or you lose. There’s no way to increase your stats, nothing to play for, nothing to do except play your plays. It’s extremely barren, and once the season starts, “training camp” is replaced by “practice,” which is the exact same thing, and just as useless. Yes, it’s possible to have your agent say things to the press to increase your ego, but you wouldn’t even notice this option unless you went looking for it, and the question, “I’m a rookie in the NFL, why am I talking to anyone, let alone the press?” is never asked. This mode is completely useless, and either needs to be completely rewritten or taken behind the woodshed.

A form of the Madden Ultimate Team mode comes back, and this time, it’s free with the game… sort of. Long story short, Ultimate Team is like a trading card game that you actually play out on the field. When you start off, the game gives you a selection of random low-level players, a low-level coach (I got Raheem Morris. Yay me.), and the logo and uniforms of a random, likely crappy team (I got the Rams. Just shoot me in the head.). From this point, you can either play against other peoples’ Ultimate Teams, or play against the CPU, who is going to come at you with a full NFL team. The ultimate prize is coins, which you can use to buy more cards, either in packs or via an auction with other players. You get more coins for playing against players than you do against the CPU, but even then, you have to play a *lot* to be able to buy decent packs. EA makes up for this… by having coins be purchaseable online. For anyone who wants to get an Ultimate pack of cards, it costs $7 (560 Microsoft Points), whereas it could take game after game after game to get that kind of money normally.

In fact, let’s take some time to talk about the DLC in this game, or more broadly, the way every ounce of Madden has been monetized. I mean, *EVERY OUNCE*. One poke into the Madden Shop shows something I was afraid of when I wrote the preview: everything has a price, and to play competently online, you need to pay that price. It’s not even hidden anymore like it was with the Tiger Woods games for all these years. By putting a price on things like scouting reports for opponents, as well as boosts for your Online Team Play teams, EA is making a very clear point: if you want to excel online, you will pay a monetary price to do so. It’s like Madden has become one of those Korean MMOs, only instead of being free to play, you have to pay $60 to even get in the door, and everything you spend money on is obsolete a year later and must be repurchased. It’s not just online play; franchise mode is rife with “accelerators” that allow for things like instantaneous injury recovery, keeping a star player from retiring, better scouts and even game-day ratings boosts are purchaseable with Microsoft Points. Anytime there’s a point where you can use one – which is almost every screen in franchise mode – an option pops up reminding you that an accelerator is available, and that a quick hit of the Y button will bring you there. You know, just in case you might want Peyton Manning back from that torn ACL. Hint. Hint. Everywhere you look, the game has the stink of product placement. It used to be no big deal to have segments sponsored by advertisers, because that’s just like the real NFL. I do have problems with making up player ratings just to shove a sponsor in there, like how there’s a swagger rating for players now… but it’s not just swagger, it’s Old Spice Swaggarâ„¢, the logo of which stands out next to more boring ratings like throwing accuracy and juke moves. Even the news ticker at the bottom of the screen (sponsored by NFL.com!), which used to show scores either from real games or franchise games, only says (as of this writing) which preorder bonuses you get from whichever big chain you choose to preorder EA Sports MMA from. The whole purpose of the news bar is to advertise other EA brands, and there’s no option to change that. Even past games would let you bring in NFL news, or news from other sports. It almost feels like there’s an internal war going on between the amazing people that develop this game, and the insidious shitbags that are in marketing, and the developers – who really are spectacular – are losing.

What’s sad is that if you take out the purchaseable boosts and scouting reports, Madden’s online performance is great. Online Team Play (OTP) supports three on three play, and players have an option between picking a particular type of player on each side of the ball, or being able to select anyone. There are pros and cons to both, because if you select any, you’re not able to alter pre-snap commands such as line shifts or audibles, nor will you be able to gain boosts from your gameplay, whereas if you choose to be the halfback, you can gain boosts and lobby trophies that not only help your players in-game, but show other players in lobbies where your skills are. It’s a great system, and when put in practice with people that have good chemistry, provides an extremely satisfying experience, though it should be noted that a headset is virtually mandatory to get anything out of playing with others. Even when losing, the people I tried this mode with were great, and had a blast. Standard online play works well, whether during regular head to head matches or during online franchises, the latter of which are recommended for people that know each other, because entering a random franchise can be frustrating if a few people don’t play nice. My experiences online were mostly lag-free, only stuttering a few times and never for a significant amount of time. The only problem is the kicking game. Due to the fact that it’s on a timing bar, kicking field goals and pooch punts can be affected due to the slight lag between button presses and when the game registers the press. This is especially notable on higher difficulty settings, though it’s never game breaking.

As usual, Madden looks great. Stadium details are in full bloom, and the more impressive stadiums such as Cowboys Stadium look amazing. If you look closely, there’s a bit of texture blending on surfaces such as helmets, but this is minor. Most impressive is the look of the crowd. Depending on the type of game, the team, the location, and other factors such as how well the team is doing and whether or not a team has announced an intention to move, the crowd can either be half full or completely sold out, a feature I’ve only seen accurately implimented in MLB ’10 The Show. There is a notable difference between the quality of the cutscenes and the quality of the on-field models, but this is easily forgiveable once it’s realized that the guys at Tiburon were able to fit in 22 players, the entire officiating crew, a full stadium complete with any applicable TV screens, a fluid crowd, and the entirety of cameras, players, cheerleaders and everything else you would see on an NFL sideline. While the sideline and crowd models are static, just getting all of this in without a performance drop is very impressive.

EA also killed it in terms of presentation for the most part. For the first time since the Pat Summerall era, they found a play-by-play commentator worthy of the franchise. When Ian Cummings said that replacing Tom Hammond was the team’s #1 priority coming into this year, you know something’s wrong, and they fixed the problem by bringing in Gus Johnson, who did commentary on 2010 March Madness and is known for his over the top reactions, such as to the Brandon Stokley touchdown from last year. Johnson is a big improvement over Hammond in terms of keeping people involved in the game, though his commentary isn’t as deep as Hammonds’s was. Most fans won’t care about that; people that like Gus Johnson will like him in this game, as he gets excited about big plays, and even has a few one liners for big plays, like “GONE! Get that man a new contract! Touchdown, Gang Green!”. However, they didn’t get the most out of Gus this year, probably because they didn’t have enough time to record enough lines to make the commentary feel life-like. There will be times when he’ll say things like “Sanchez, to the right… TO THE ENDZONE!!!… knocked down, incomplete”. It’s jarring, because it feels like a video game the way it is. As it stands, there’s a ways to go before the booth of Johnson and Chris Collinsworth (who was a better fit with Hammonds) matches the booths in games like MLB The Show and NBA 2K, though Johnson appeals to the standard Madden fan: people who want excitement in their commentary and are sick of people like Joe Buck. There’s also The Extra Point, a show between weeks in franchise mode that has Fran Charles and Alex Flanagan from the NFL Network in full motion video. Though it’s not perfect – you can easily tell when the actual commentary starts about games, because it’s extremely stilted – it’s a very well done show. The only negative about the presentation is the soundtrack, which is easily the worst I’ve heard in an EA Sports game, specifically because they phoned it in. Instead of bringing in modern, up and coming acts like years past, all they did was load up on stadium hits like ACDC’s Thunderstruck, KISS’s I Want To Rock And Roll All Night, and Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train, among others, in addition to the NFL Films music that they’ve had for awhile. There’s not one new song on this soundtrack, and what’s worse is that they’re heavily edited. Ever try to listen to a completely G-rated version of Guns ‘n Roses’s Welcome to the Jungle, where even words like “sexy” are edited out? There’s no point to it. I don’t understand why games put songs like this in the game if they feel they’re going to have to butcher them – NBA 2K10 did this, too – especially if they’re readily acceptable songs like this that are still being played on radio stations. What happened to the days when EA used to put stuff like Ladykillers into their NCAA games? The soundtrack is awful, and I ended up shutting off half of the big name songs, partly because I’ve heard them constantly since I was a child and partly because the censoring was too much.

The Scores
Modes: Below Average
Graphics: Great
Sound: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Great
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Decent
Originality: Worthless
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Unparalleled
Miscellaneous: Awful
FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME


Short Attention Span Summary

How much you get out of Madden NFL ’11 depends on what you want out of it. If you only care about the play on the field, play a lot online, or haven’t bought Madden in a few years, this is an outstanding purchase. The gameplay is as good as it’s been in years, online mode is great, and there’s a lot to do, no matter what your preference is.

If you’re one of those people that only cares about franchise mode, wait one more year. EA’s focus was on the on-field product this year, and it shows in both how good that is, and how bad franchise and the other modes are. It’s almost a given that these modes are going to get a total re-write next year, so if that’s what you’re waiting for, either save that $60 for next year or pick up NCAA Football ’11.

Either way, anyone that spends their money on Madden NFL ’11 will very likely not regret their purchase. I can’t remember the last time I could honestly say that.

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