Preview: Madden ’11

At a recent event out in NYC, I was able to try out, among other games, a nearly complete copy of Madden ’11. Since that time, the demo has been released to the public, which I’ve also gotten some time with. With the game’s release a week away, I do have to say that where it counts – on the field – looks promising.

The first change I noted was the addition of a new playcalling scheme. Ever since the very first John Madden Football, there has been a three-box playcalling scheme, or something similar. This year, EA introduces GameFLOW, which simulates playcalling as if the coordinator was calling plays. In execution, it works pretty well. In the demo, you’re pushed to create a gameplay that gives plays you want to prioritize by situation. For example, you can say that you want to run an offtackle counter more often on short third down situations, or go for more deep posts on long yardage situations. The same thing applies for defence as well, and in both instances, you have the coordinator piping instructions to you through a headset, if you have it equipped (though be wary, the lines repeat VERY often). In practise, it works pretty well against the AI, with the knowledge that players can back out anytime they want and call a play from their playbook for a specific situation. However, despite EA’s self-congratulatory blog entries about how X percentage of players are using the GameFLOW playcalling, I’d like to see what those numbers are going to be in competitive online play. I don’t see people relying on this system online unless they’re specifically relying on money plays. Still, for single player, it’s a nice addition, and it’s easy enough to audible or hot-route out of it.

Speaking of hot routes, EA made a change to how post-huddle adjustments are called, by assigning them to the digital pad, which is now called the Strategy Pad. By using the pad, you can have players hot route, change blocking assignments, send people in motion, and on defence, determine coverages, linebacker shifts and the like. People are flipping out about this so much that EA has had to backtrack a bit and say they’ll patch in the old option, but once I learned it, I was much happier with the new system. It prevents people from screwing up, and uses real estate that, frankly, wasn’t being used in the past. If people give themselves a chance and learn the new system, I think they’ll like it more, but then again, this is coming from someone that refuses to let go of his Pro Evolution controls in FIFA.

When it comes to actually getting the job done on the field, the running game is what got the biggest boost. Players now have a feeling of actual weight to them, as evidenced when you shift your weight or try a juke move. The “on rails” feeling is gone, and it feels like you’re actually trying to control 200lb. plus athletes now instead of arcade games. Juke moves are done with the right analogue stick, and though there are a few commands from the face buttons while running, you only really need the right stick. On defence, jukes are realistic, so there’s no more issues with people constantly doing jukes up the field; if you take the angle, you’ll make the tackle unless you’re dealing with a superstar. Best of all, blockers do their jobs and actually block now. This is something Tiburon’s been working on for awhile now, but they finally got it right. Samit Sakar brought up a good point: certain plays that never used to work before – especially draw plays – work routinely now, both in the demo and the full version I played.

With that said, there are still problems. There’s no physics engine to be found. It’s funny that EA is making such a big deal out of there being a physics engine in the NHL and new NBA games, but if there’s one game that desperately needs a physics engine, it’s this one. Players still “suck in” on tackles and blocks, and even worse, gang tackling is still a mess. When I played at the EA event, I had one time where an opposing receiver was wrapped up from behind after a catch. I switched off to the safety, and went in to throw a hit, figuring that would bring him down. Not only did I bounce off the hit – like they had a force field – but the receiver then broke that tackle, and got a few more yards after the catch. The problem still persists in the demo, so I’m sure it won’t be fixed by the 10th. Also, defensive backs still have a horrible time in actually intercepting passes. There are times when quarterbacks – both my own and others – are hit as they throw, and lob a ball right to a defensive player, which they of course have bounce off their hands. It makes no sense to me how an NFL player – even a linebacker – could be so poor at catching such easy balls that even I could pick off. This needs to be fixed with a patch, ASAP.

Much in the vein of the online team modes found in NHL and FIFA, there’s a similar mode in this year’s Madden. Online players are split up among skill positions on offence (there’s no such designator on defence), and are able to play as just that skill. They can also choose to be any player, but if they do that, they won’t be able to gain skill bonuses based on their performance. These skill bonuses affect your statistics, and are shown in player lobbies and on your profile. For example, if you complete a high percentage of passes as a quarterback, you will have an award that gives you a boost in accuracy, as well as a trophy that shows that you’re a good quarterback. In terms of playing the game, I had a good experience at the event playing with other journalists, but it should be noted that we were all on the up-and-up; we knew what we were doing, and didn’t screw around. I don’t have faith in finding so many honest people online once the game’s released, if my experiences with FIFA are any indication.

Other than that, the game’s modes didn’t get much of a boost. Franchise mode seems static from years past, and I was able to get time with Superstar Mode, which I can confirm sucks. EA really needs to put some work into these modes.

With that said, if it’s a matter of finite time, I’m happy that the work went to where it did: making the Madden franchise balanced in all forms while actually playing the game. For the first time in too long, I enjoy running the ball now, and I don’t win my games with money plays so much as effectively executing my plays. For the first time in awhile, I’m actually excited to try Madden when it comes out on Aug. 10th.



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