Forget what you know about Madden, because Madden is changing, big time. Madden NFL 11 is being heralded by Electronic Arts as the most important overhaul of Madden football ever.
Could that actually be true? Last year’s version was good, with its slowing down of play on the field and its rugby-like Pro-Tak tackling technology. But a lot of writers thought it was kind of, well, the same old, same old. Change was in the wind, though. Even last year before Madden NFL 10 was released, Tiburon developers were whispering -- off the record -- “Wait ‘til next year.”
Next year is now. At the event for this year’s EA Sports lineup in New York City, Tiburon Art Director Mike Young proudly demoed the 22nd version of the franchise on the Xbox 360, which sports New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees as the cover athlete. The watchwords for the game that is 80 percent finished are “simpler, quicker, deeper.”
The first thing I noticed about Madden NFL 11 was that it took me inside the game of football in a way that no other Madden has since the classic 2005 game, when the Hitstick combined with the Playmaker tool for a football nerd’s game nirvana. As the game begins, you’ll see the quarterback stoically leading your team off the bus and into an imposing stadium. And, yeah, they’re dressed in suits. “It’s the first time ever in any game that an NFL player has worn a suit,” adds Young. But they have their game faces on.
That cut-scene leads into wide angle, pre-game view where you ogle a stadium that’s not full of fans but, as you watch, will be filled by game time. Showing a stadium in various stages of attendance is just a tweak. It’s also further evidence that EA is serious about revamping the game to make it more like the genuine event.
But it’s the gameplay that’s really changed. First, you’re asked to don a headset, almost as if you’re playing Modern Warfare 2. It’s unsettling and weird, at first. But then you get it. You’re the quarterback and what’s coming through the headset is similar to what comes through the helmet of, say, Jets phenom Mark Sanchez. The offensive coordinator is suggesting a play given the situation on the field.
He’s not only suggesting a play; he’s briefly explaining why he’s calling the play. And that clarity is something that’s always been lacking in Madden. You’ll also see the same words pop up at the bottom of your TV screen with keywords highlighted in yellow. After you hear the play called, you might hear the play-by-play announcers offering up color commentary. The whole experience has moments that are so immersive and so different, it’s evocative of movies like Any Given Sunday.
With the new features GameFlow and GamePlan, you can select the plays the coaches will call during the game. What’s extra helpful about this new strategizing is that the plays come with ratings above them. If there are five stars above the play, it’s one that your team actually uses constantly when it hits the field in real life. You can use that play, or choose your own from over 300 included. You can also add or subtract your own number of stars to, say, Splitbacks Tight End Cross, to increase or decrease the number of times it’s used during a game. When you get that headset on during a game, these are the plays that will be suggested to you, right in your ear. You can still think outside the box and call audibles, however.
Since the plays are ready for you, the quarters indeed move, so quickly that what was once a 60-minute game will now take as little as 20 minutes. And you’ll be calling the same amount of plays. The reason? “You see people tugged in so many different directions today -- some are even texting while playing the game. We wanted to make a game faster, but without sacrificing the depth Madden is known for,” says Young.
Along those lines, you no longer have to play the full Franchise Mode to get to the Super Bowl. It’s now just a click away on the game’s main menu. Some core players may protest this change. But Young says many people don’t have the time to play through a full season. “They just want to be in the Super Bowl against a friend and play.”
One modification that’s kind of sad (but understandable) is the fact that John Madden’s voice is no longer present. Madden’s suggested plays are there in Ask Madden. But nowhere is that signature folksy banter. Yet there’s an irony here. “Actually,” said Young, “Madden is more involved now that he’s retired from broadcasting. He invited members of the team to his game room to watch a game. He’s very involved in the Madden playbooks and makes sure we follow the trends so the game remains authentic. For instance, he feels the shotgun will be important this year.” So a fair amount of shotgun situations are added to the offense in this year’s game, which, like the NFL, is rife with passing plays.
Returning from Madden’s days of yore is an old school meter for kicking off and for kicking field goals. Actually, if you’ve become used to the stick method of kicking in Madden NFL 10, it’ll throw you off the first time you use it. But it’s so intuitive, you’ll probably get used to it by the second time you try it.
Locomotion, which was first introduced in the FIFA franchise a few months ago, is supposed to give running an especially life-like feel. You nudge the left stick to move forward and the right stick to move the upper body to lean, spin, squirm and fight your way forward. As a back, you’ll feel the excitement of locomotion once you break through the first wave of defense and explode into the open field.
Unfortunately, EA would not yet speak about what’s in store for the game’s online multiplayer features. When pressed, Young would not confirm that the Super Bowl mode will be part of the online experience. Yet he did not deny it, either. The game will also include last year’s downloadable content, Madden Ultimate Team and the AFL Legacy Pack.
While it still needs polish, the fresh ideas in the game seem to signal a huge step forward for the long-standing football franchise. The big question is, can Madden NFL 11 appeal equally to both core gamers who use every feature and to casual gamers who just want to indulge in a quick game? Stay tuned.