With the NFL Draft officially kicking off the countdown to the 2012/2013 football season, gamers everywhere can start prepping for the late summer arrival of Madden NFL 13. EA Sports laid out a room full of demo stations in a studio situated above New York City's Times Square shortly before a recent fan event that saw Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson narrowly beat out Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton in the vote for the next game's cover athlete.
I should tell you right up front that I come at Madden 13 as a casual fan. I love football, both real life and virtual, and I put in time on the new Madden games every year. It's more of a party game for me though, the sort of thing that gets broken out when friends are physically around -- not just online -- to play with.
In saying all that, I'm just trying to let you know that if you're looking for a feature-by-feature breakdown of what's new, this isn't it. Rather, I'm here to share my more general impressions of how the game is shaping up so far, how it looks, and how it feels.
I settled in for the demo behind the controls with my hometown team, the New York Giants, facing off against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Visually, it all looks roughly the same. The packed stadium teems with a undulating mass of cheering fans, with individuals coming in to focus as the camera pulls closer. The two teams trot out onto the field and the camera cuts around to various angles, showing players celebrating and getting pumped in their uncannily lifelike way. It feels like you're sitting down for some Monday Night Football action, same as it ever was.
At one point, newcomer announcers Phil Simms and Jim Nantz from the CBS Sports team pop up for some on-camera commentary. The lifelike virtual representations of the two sportscasters most definitely dips into Uncanny Valley territory, but in an admittedly cool way. You're creeped out and worried that Nantz is going to step out of the TV and consume your soul while you also marvel at how much a minor passive element like this can add to the overall experience.
There's plenty that's new on the game side as well. The most immediately apparent improvement is with the animations. As fans have come to expect with each passing year, the range of player animations is truly impressive. The way these guys move on the field is shockingly lifelike, and at a glance it certainly seems like a step past last year's outing.
The changes here become most apparent once I take control of Giants QB Eli Manning for the first time. I was advised going into the demo that the work done on improving quarterback drop-back animations has actual gameplay applications. In short, most of the more casual players will generally hold down on the left stick when the ball is snapped in an effort to immediately move the QB away from the apparent danger zone near the line of scrimmage.
The thing is, real football does not work like this. Your offensive linemen have one job: form a shell around the QB. If you hike the ball while keeping your finger off the left analog stick, the QB will automatically drop back into the proper position.
Sticking to the chosen play's established pattern offers a number of benefits. For one, your teammates will more effectively block sack attempts by the opposing team. More importantly, you won't lose the throwing accuracy that you normally would from dropping back too far. It's a difference I can absolutely feel as I play. I let Manning slip back and take his proper place, and the star QB found his marks just like you'd expect him to.
The improved animations also bring about the chance for some of the more insane happenings that tend to characterize real life football. At one point, one of my defensive linemen manages to tip a short pass from Jay Cutler. The ball launches into the air, clearly on its way to falling far short of the intended receiver. Instead of just letting the ball fall, the receiver rushed forward and slid down on his knees to scoop the ball out of the air mere inches from hitting the turf. It was one of those cool "football moments" that EA's Madden games are so good at delivering.
A quick added note on that defensive tip. Last year's Madden (among many others before it) was criticized for its "psychic defenders," linemen who knew where the ball was at all times, regardless of what sightlines would suggest they could actually know about. That's all changed in Madden 13.
The tipped ball was knocked away by a defender who was facing Cutler when the ball went out. At other parts of the game, defenders that could have stopped a rush didn't respond at all because of other players blocking their line of sight. While this is hardly definitive proof that the virtual ESP is gone, it's certainly encouraging.
The line of sight stuff extends to receivers as well. They'll do their job and watch the QB, but you need to watch them as well. If the play you've called requires that a certain route be run, throwing too early could just bonk the ball off the receiver's body, as I learned the hard way. Helpfully, the game clues you in on when one of your receivers isn't catch-ready by dimming out the button prompt for that target.
I got less of a feel for the new Total Control Passing feature, which adds more flexibility to the QB's contribution to a passing play. If you push the left stick in one direction or another as you press the button to throw, you can essentially throw a leading pass out toward your receiver. In theory, you can use this feature to help your intended target get ahead of the coverage. I didn't really get a feel for it during my hands-on, but the potential, at least, of this added flexibility is welcome.
Overall, Madden NFL 13 really doesn't seem to be changing things up too much. One could argue that the entire game engine could use a ground-up reboot, but that's probably going to wait until the new consoles arrive. Chances are, you're already either sold on or skipping Madden, and you're not even reading this if you're the latter. EA Sports probably still has a bit more to reveal, but the nuts and bolts of on the field play are present, accounted for, and feeling fine.