Though the Madden series is often derided for always staying the same, the fact is that EA Tiburon has undergone a change of philosophy in the past few years. In the days of the PS2, they catered to the hardcore players, with each year adding a new set of mechanics to master – QB Vision, the Hit Stick, Lead Block Control, and so on. In this generation, though, the developers have spent abundant time courting new players as well. Madden NFL 11 has plenty of red meat for both seasoned veterans and clumsy newbies.
Picking the right play for the right situation is one of the keys to mastering Madden but curiously enough, Madden 11 lets you automate this process entirely. A new feature called GameFlow lets you assign play-calling duties to the computer. Every team has offensive/defensive game plans, with a handful of appropriate plays for each situation (examples: First Down, Second and Long). What GameFlow does is randomly pick from that small set of plays when the situation occurs. A voice and text message from the coordinator briefly explains the play as you line up so you understand the rationale behind using the play. You can initiate GameFlow on a play-by-play basis and call your own plays whenever you want. It seems like a good way to ease into the game. A new player will learn what plays are ideal for what circumstances and once they start picking their own plays, they can lean on GameFlow when stumped.
GameFlow no doubt sounds like pampering to you experienced Madden players. However, this feature has plenty to offer veterans as well. You’re allowed to build your own game plans, creating a dynamic playbook filled with your favorites. It’s a godsend for players like me who rely on such a small percentage of the game’s plays. Overall you’ll spend less time flipping through your playbook and more time playing. Also, whenever I didn’t feel like playing defense, I just let GameFlow handle it while I messed around on my computer. I felt a bit dirty doing it but still, the A.I. was fairly competent at choosing plays. Maybe I should just let GameFlow handle the offense too so I can go grocery shopping.
The most intimidating aspect of Madden to neophytes is the control scheme. That may never change but Madden 11 at least makes the ball carrier controls a bit more intuitive. Hurtling, spin moves, and stiff arming are still performed with face buttons and movement is still controlled by the left analog stick. Now, though, the right analog stick handles all juking, trucking, and twisting away from defenders. You flick the analog stick upward to lower your shoulder and ram the defender, while moving the stick side to side allows you to dodge. It’s real-time movement rather than a pre-set animation so your wiggling actually determines the exact juke you’re making on the defender. It’s easy enough to use competently but becoming an expert will take time.
The online features from previous installment return, including the card-based Madden Ultimate Team mode that was released as downloadable content for Madden 10. In Ultimate Team, you assemble a deck of cards with NFL players, coaches, playbooks, stadiums and uniforms. You’ll battle online against other player’s patchwork teams and in doing so earn coins. You can then purchase new packs of cards via the Madden Shop or through the Auction Block. It’s also possible to buy coins by spending actual money. That, along with the sheer time investment required to mold a crappy starter team into an “ultimate” one, means this mode lends itself toward a very dedicated audience. It’s one of the few parts of the game that I would say is not for new players.
The big addition to online this year is more noob-friendl y than Ultimate Team. Online Team Play expands on the two-player, online co-op mode from last year. Now two squads of three players can face off against each other over the Internet. Each player manually controls a different offensive and defensive unit (for instance, linebackers and wide receivers) for the duration of the game. A good chunk of gamers will simply play this mode to screw around. Unless you’re controlling the quarterback or linebackers, you’re absolved of play-calling duties and you can just run around the field doing whatever you damn well please (and have lots of fun in the process). In normal 1v1 Madden games, exercising manual control over players is important (as a human can make plays that the A.I. simply can’t) so you could argue that this mode is a way for new players to develop those skills. Mostly they’re going to screw around, though, yeah.
It’s possible that more hardcore gamers will latch onto this mode as well. By making it possible to control aspects of the game that are essentially automated in single-player (like receivers running routes and blockers clearing a path), Online Team Play really opens up the game to a new level of mastery. By meeting certain milestones in games, your team can unlock permanent bonuses for future Online Team Play matches. It’s a tip-toe toward RPG progression but nothing more; the bonuses are small and few so as to keep the online play balanced. Perhaps they’re testing the waters for a deeper advancement system in later games?
Madden 11 also features a number of minor technical improvements over its predecessor. Upgraded visuals, smoothed animations and tuned A.I. are just a few examples. These changes will obviously be lost on someone who hasn’t played last year’s edition. However, even a new player will notice that the game can be very jerky at times. It’s prone to a lot of small freezes in the cutscenes (the shots of touchdown celebrations or the coaches stalking the sidelines) and longer ones in the menus. There were times when I hit pause and had to wait 5 seconds for the actual menu to pop up. I don’t know whether that’s simply due to the version I was playing (PS3) but these sorts of issues shouldn’t be happening period. Pulling up an instant replay or stat sheet shouldn’t be aggravating.
Madden NFL 11 continues EA Tiburon’s mission to appeal to both new and expert players. They didn’t just simply dumb down the game to attract new blood. Every feature for new players appeals to veterans in some way, too. These new additions, along with the usual load of annual tweaks, make Madden 11 a worthy new installment.
Platform(s): PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PSP, Wii, PS2
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: Electronic Arts