I was really impressed with the demo for Madden NFL 13. So impressed that I went ahead and bought the game new. I am now suffering from severe buyer's remorse. The demo looked and felt really good. The AI seemed surprisingly competitive (even at the default, Veteran, difficulty). Heck, even the commentary was good!
Then I bought the actual game and had access to Instant Replays and all the teams, and I realized that this year’s Madden was just the same game as last years', but with a few extra coats of paint and polish.
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Table of Contents
Real-time physics doesn’t solve underlying problems
For years, the simulation football community (myself included) have been clamoring for EA to introduce real-time physics in its games. Well, that day is finally here, and it does improve the game in some areas.
Every player now matters
One of the key areas of improvement is that every player on the field now matters! To a degree.
In previous versions of the game, players could become locked in preset animations that would make the player(s) completely incapable of influencing the play. This most commonly occurred in catching and blocking animations. A jumping receiver may collide with another player mid-air, but not be interrupted in his catching animation at all. Similarly, a defender who is engaged with a blocker would be stuck in a cycling animation that would prevent him from interacting with the play. In this case, the runner could run right past the engaged defender – sometimes literally passing through parts of the defender’s body – and not be affected at all.
In these situations, the physical presence of the player is completely ignored, and other players would be motion shifted around them or phase right through them without any ill effects.
I am pleased to say that this is no longer the case!
A video review of the Infinity Engine that demonstrates the points being made in this review.
While players can still become locked in animations that may make them incapable of realistically reacting to the play, their physical presence is at least respected.
Now, if a defender bull rushes over a blocker and the pancake animation carries the defender right into the quarterback or running back, an actual collision will occur! Similarly, if the runner runs into a defender who is stuck in a block engagement or block-breaking animation, an actual collision will occur. For the first time since probably Madden '95 on the Sega Genesis, I am actually having fun playing as a defensive lineman because what I do in that position actually matters now!
In addition, players on the same team will now stumble and possibly fall when they run into each other, meaning that creating traffic jams at the line of scrimmage can actually have the intended effect of slowing down or knocking down the runner.
Pile-ups also occur more realistically, and you will regularly see four, five, or six players in a pile.
Having physics is meaningless if the AI is allowed to break the rules
The new physics engine does cause some issues with the AI though. Players just aren't as aware as they should be. Running backs stumble and fall too easily when they run into their offensive linemen, and I have yet to see any animations of the runner using his hand to brace himself against, or push off of, a lineman's back. Barely grazing a defensive player will usually result in the defensive player seeming to stick to the runner and drag him down, even if the defender was completely turned around. Players are all too willing to let themselves fall, don’t try to stand back up, and they usually do it pretty lifelessly. It's not nearly as bad as Backbreaker, but it is a problem.
A little ragdolling isn't a deal-breaker for me though. I could live with that.
The biggest problem with the new "Infinity Engine" is that the AI is allowed to overrule the physics whenever it wants!
This is most noticeable in catching animations, where motion shifting seems to have returned full force. Receivers will routinely pause in place mid-stride for a split second in order to line their hands up with the ball. This sort of thing was a big problem several years ago, but was mostly fixed in last year's game. Now, it has been un-fixed.
Much like Elphaba in Broadway's Wicked, players in Madden 13 can try defying gravity. And they'll succeed even more fequently than the witch herself.
Even worse though, the game has an annoying habit of turning off gravity completely in order to allow really good players to avoid being tackled. I've had several situations in which a running back or scrambling quarterback has his feet knocked out from under him, causing him to start a face plant, only to have his downward momentum suddenly stopped so that he can get a foot underneath himself and keep running. I've noticed this sort of thing happen in several games (and who knows how many times it happened without me noticing?).
This is unacceptable! The whole point in wanting real-time physics was to make sure that (a.) every player on the field matters, and (b.) each play unfolds in a consistently natural and dynamic fashion. If the AI is just going to suspend the rules of physics so that superstar players can defy gravity and make big plays, then having real-time physics is completely pointless!
Physics is not universally applied, anyway
Just as importantly, EA didn’t even bother to make sure that the physics is being applied to all objects on the field. I don’t really care that the characters on the sidelines don’t have any physics simulation, but I would expect the officials on the field to have some! Nope, the referees are still completely incorporeal, and all players will simply pass right through their bodies as if they weren’t there to begin with. So if you wanted to try to use the umpire to pick a defender on a slant pattern or use a side judge as an extra blocker, then too bad.
But even worse than that, the football does not seem to be tied into the game’s physics simulation!
Player's hands are like ball magnets. No matter how limply a ball-carrying arm may be flinging about in the pile, you can't dislodge it.
Players' hands are like football magnets. Impact location doesn't seem to have any effect on the frequency of fumbles. Hitting the ball squarely with your helmet doesn't make it any more likely that the runner will fumble. Even if the runner's ball-hand is flailing about limply during the chaos of a gang tackle, the ball will stay stuck to his palm as if it were bolted on. Catches and fumble recoveries also seem to be magnetic, and onside kicks still result in the ball just instantly warping right into a receivers' hands.
The ball also doesn’t bounce the way you'd expect it to. This has been a problem for fumbles and special teams play in football games forever. Punts always bounce forward and out the back of the end zone as if it were a basketball instead of a football. You never see those wobbly backwards bounces that happen so often on the high coffin-corner punts. And the ball never bounces or rolls on fumbles either, nor does it slip out of players' grasps. It just hits the ground and stops, then sticks to the hands of whoever touches it first.
Unnatural contortions like this happen fairly regularly, but mostly only in the post-play cutscenes.
Occurances of injuries are not in any way tied to the on-field action. Tillman will get up after this hit as if nothing happened.
I was also disappointed that injuries are still completely random rather than being influenced by unnatural contortions of the players' bodies. This is probably a good thing though, since those unnatural contortions occur rather regularly, especially during the post-play cutscenes.
I wasn’t expecting the physics to be perfect in the first year out of the gate. I could tolerate the lack of real-time injuries, the magnetic ball, and the occasional awkward contortions. But allowing the physics to be situationally turned off even in the contexts in which it is supposed to be working is unacceptable!
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New AI-systems are hit-or-miss
Passing game sees some improvement, but only incrementally
Besides the Infinity Engine, the other major gameplay feature of this year’s installation is the new passing mechanics. This game's passing is very similar to NCAA 13, so I'll let you read that here.
In summary: receivers and defenders must see the ball to react to it, and quarterbacks can now lead receivers in different directions (a feature that has been readded after years of absence).
Shovel pass animations are making a return to the game, along with some improved play action and throw-on-the-run animations to augment the new "read and react" pass system.
Double team pass blocking is still not allowed, and the blocking logic for draws and screens still hasn’t been improved. Sacks are frequent and sudden, since there’s very little in the way of transitional animations for breaking blocks. One second, the defender is stuck in a looping engagement animation, the next, he’s suddenly free (as if a switch has been flipped) and has a free path to the QB.
Receivers also don’t drag their feet on sideline catches. At least, my receivers don’t. The CPU receivers do it. Receivers are also still completely unaggressive when pursuing the ball in air, leading to far too many interceptions.
AI quarterbacks also have an annoying tendency to hold onto the ball too long, leading to a lot of sacks. They still also haven’t learned how to execute a screen pass, leading to even more sacks and interceptions.
Unlike NCAA, the zone coverage AI in Madden is really bad. Zones are too deep (with no option to shorten them, as you can do in NCAA), and defenders in zone rarely follow receivers beyond their immediate reach. Zone defenders will also move into their assigned zones, even if there are no receivers even on that side of the field. Certain passing routes, such as corner and curl routes, are now guaranteed money plays (assuming you don't get sacked) against most zone defenses.
Oh, and despite EA's claims to the contrary, super-linebackers and psychic defenders are still very much part of the game.
Running game is broken
Apparently, in order to balance out the "improvements" in the passing game, EA decided they needed to break the running game.
Just like in NCAA 13, the run blocking play art no longer shows the individual blocking assignments of each player. Probably because they don’t do their jobs. Linemen routinely let defenders run right around them without even touching the defender, they take horrible angles that let defenders through unblocked, they go after safeties and corners while ignoring blitzing linebackers, or they run around in circles and don’t block anybody. It all comes down to a lack of dynamic awareness. Each player sticks to his assignment, regardless of what happens on the field. If a lineman keys in on a safety, he will chase that safety to the exclusion of all else, letting blitzing linebackers run right in front of his face without doing anything to slow him down. And to add insult to injury, safeties are usually fast and agile enough to just run away from blockers anyway. And if more than one blocker keys on the same defender, then they will end up getting in each others' way.
Between 12 [LEFT] and 13 [RIGHT], the run blocking play art no longer shows individual blockers' assignments. Probably because EA is trying to hide the fact that the run blocking logic is broken beyond repair.
This horrible blocking AI makes the running game almost impossible (for both you and the CPU team). Sometimes, the AI will compensate for this by making defenders take horrible angles or miss tackles, leading to big gains. In essence, a team in Madden 13 will likely have either 0.5 yards per carry or 9 yards per carry, with there rarely being anything in between.
It doesn't help that players still start, stop, and change direction way too easily. It isn't as bad as in previous games, but there still isn't enough penalty for "wasted motion", and defenders never "break down" to line up with the runner (they just run towards the runner at full steam). This leads to too many big plays up the middle, while at the same time, screens and other plays aren't as effective because defenders don't have to "break down" to make a tackle, so stopping and cutting or waiting for a block to develop is a completely ineffective strategy.
I've tried several combinations of slider settings and difficulty levels, and I just can't find a setting that works. Even the settings provided by Operation Sports don't give me enough of a competitive challenge to make the game fun.
Special teams still broken, too. Go figure
And – go figure – there still hasn't been any significant effort on special teams. I already mentioned how the lack of proper ball physics hurts punts and onside kicks, but there are other problems too.
Return blocking is still horrible. Kickoff blockers fail to create any sort of wedge or wall, leaving no seams for the returner to break through. Punt blockers often get overrun completely by the coverage men, leaving the returner with no room to run and usually forcing a fair catch.
Suction blocking is also in full effect on special teams plays, meaning that you can't try to overwhelm the offensive line by putting multiple defenders in a particular gap. They'll all just be shifted into blocking animations with adjacent blockers. So blocking a field goal or punt is still practically impossible.
And on the interface side, the play call screen doesn't bother to show you wind speed or direction when selecting a field goal or punt, and you still can't audible into Max Protect punt (not that it matters, since blocking kicks is impossible anyways).
They did, however, switch back to using the right stick to control the kick meter, so that's good, I guess.
Also, EA seems to have forgotten that the NFL changed the rules several years ago so that the field goal block team can no longer line any player up directly in front of the center. The field goal block formation in Madden 13 still has a nose guard (in violation of NFL rules). Get with the program, EA!
Catch-up logic makes the game feel too "arcade"
The inclusion of physics had exposed another problem with the underlying game engine that I had never really addressed before: the built-in catch-up logic. It's really bad at the All-Pro level. I can usually see a "momentum swing" coming from a mile away.
I complained about this in my NCAA 13 review as well.
It’s really hard for me to think of any game that has catch-up logic as being "simulation". This is not "simulation". This is "arcade". It's like the difference between Mario Kart, and Gran Turismo. Mario Kart will try to keep the race even by slowing down the player(s) in the lead and speeding up the player(s) who are behind. It is an arcade game. It is designed to allow every player to feel competitive, have fun, and come back for more. Playing an endurance race in Gran Turismo, on the other hand, will often result in cars being lapped repeatedly (including, potentially, your car). That is simulation. A game like Gran Turismo doesn't try to fine-tune the results. It doesn't try to make every race close. It doesn't have to. It is designed around a solid driving simulation, so that the race can be allowed to unfold organically, and whatever happens, happens.
EA's football games, on the other hand, cannot do that. The AI feels this annoying compulsion to put its hands in every aspect of the on-field action in order to manipulate the game into unfolding the way that the designers expect it to. It tries to make every game feel close and competitive, and make sure that big players get their big plays on a regular basis. It tries to trick the user into thinking that every game is "competitive" by dumbing down a team's players to make sure they don't run away with the game.
The Madden layman may not realize this is happening, but if you've been playing the game for years and have been looking very closely at how the games unfold, then it's hard not to notice. Eventually, you start to learn how the scripts work, and you can anticipate when dropped passes, missed tackles, interceptions, and big plays will happen. It is frustrating!
Try setting the game to full 15-minute quarters, and you will see how alarmingly frequently big plays and turnovers will happen. The game's AI is designed to condense a full game's worth of stats into 20 or 30 minutes of regulation. Thanks a lot, online players.
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Updated career mode is rough around the edges, but may soon set a standard for sports games
EA has ditched the traditional "Franchise" mode that has existed in Madden since 1999. It has been repackaged into a similar, but more RPG-ish new mode called "Connected Careers". This mode combines the old Franchise Mode with the Superstar Mode, and throws in a lot of real and simulated social network features.
You can chose to play as a coach (which is the equivalent of playing Franchise Mode) or as a player (which is equivalent to Superstar Mode). For the first time, the GameFace feature is now available in Madden, allowing users to generate a 3-D model of their face for use in the game by uploading a photo of themselves on the internet. This feature has been in EA's soccer games for a few years now, and adds a nice personal touch! It's not perfect (I couldn't give my avatar glasses), but the results are generally pretty good.
Using EA's GameFace feature. you can literally see yourself in your favorite team's uniform or coach's polo!
If importing yourself doesn't appeal to you, you can also chose from a current player or coach, create a new one from scratch, or even select from a list of Hall of Famers.
You and your players can now gain experience from playing in games and participating in weekly practices. In addition, you and every player on the team have a set of three goals to acccomplish each week, as well as a set of season and career milestones. Completing these goals will earn additional experience for the specific player. This experience can be spent to directly upgrade a player's skills, including being able to add a few "intangible" attributes such as making the player "clutch" or "consistent". I kind of preferred a player’s skill progression being based on on-field performance, but the new system isn’t really bad and has a lot of depth and nuance. Improving your players' skills requires a lot of experience, so don’t expect to be able to turn your third string back into Walter Payton after one break-out game.
This new goal and experience mechanic has the potential to be a really fun and interesting feature, but (no surprise) it is poorly implemented in its first season out the gates. First of all, the game doesn't do a very good job of presenting this information. There's a checklist for these goals in the Career Mode game menus, but there's no checklist for the game goals during the actual games, so if you forget what your goals are for the current game, you have to quit the game to see them (and no in-game save, either). Just one of many examples of the sloppy design that has become EA Sports and Tiburon's trademark over the past seven years. The goals are also randomly-generated, and you have no control over what they are, because apparently, coaches don't have any say in what a team's week-to-week goals are...
Practice doesn’t make perfect
The aforementioned practice mode isn't anything special either. There are a handful of scenarios to chose from, but they all boil down to just playing out a game that starts under specific conditions (such as being down by 10 points in the second half). There are no player or position-specific drills, and the whole thing just lacks overall depth.
You don't get to maintain your scout team, so you don't get the satisfaction of elevating a successful scout player onto your regular roster and seeing him become a star. The scout team is just a bunch of nameless, generic players. Furthermore, the practice mode seems to have its difficulty defaulted to All-Madden and cannot be changed, so these scenarios are very hard. It makes these scout players seem like they are all-stars.
The practice mode is also incredibly frustrating. I hate it! It almost single-handedly ruins the game's career mode for me. I don't play the game as often as I probably would simply because I don't want to have to put up with this assinine (sic) practice mode, and I frequently turn the game off after being frustrated in this mode. I guess I could just ignore it, but then I'd lose my chance at gaining valuable experience for my coach and players.
You still can't scout your opponent to learn their playbook or tendencies, nor do you get to adjust your playbook or gameplan based on an upcoming opponent or practice against their specific plays. So there is still no week-to-week strategy or preparation in the career at all.
Speaking of playbooks, you cannot use custom playbooks in Connected Careers! I was very disappointed to discover this after spending four hours custom-tailoring an offensive and defensive playbook. Waste of time!
Hello scouting, good bye draft classes
There's also a new in-season college scouting mechanic that allows you to accumulate "scouting point" each week to spend on unlocking a particular college player's stats and play style. The individual stats vary in cost, and sometimes you only get a vague range instead of specific value. The new mechanic is a pretty solid improvement over previous years' scouting mechanics.
However, the presence of this new scouting mechanic means that the ability to import your draft class from NCAA 13 has been removed completely. Exporting draft classes has been a staple of EA's football games since about 2003, and it is very sad to see it just disappear this year.
Pre-season substitution logic is still horrible, and now, the game won't even let you switch teams to manually change the opponent's depth chart.
Speaking of rookies, pre-season substitution logic is still hokey. The AI automatically subs out the top player at each position at the end of the second quarter, but then doesn’t adjust the depth charts at all for the rest of the game. Third and fourth string players never get subbed in. And since you don't mark starters as being "starters" at a given position, they can still be substituted into other positions and risk injury. It is not uncommon to see a starting running back be subbed in as a third or fourth wide receiver, or to see your starting middle linebacker playing kickoff coverage. The punter and kicker also switch positions, and neither one can do the other's job properly. This leads to pre-season punts having an average distance of only 20 or 30 yards.
And EA won't even let the player edit the CPU team's depth chart or switch teams during a game! Heck, you don't even have access to difficulty sliders during a game!
You still don't have any control over special teams depth charts, and formation subs are still completely missing.
And the problems with pre-season substitution logic just get worse as the pre-season moves along and teams start cutting players. Speaking of cut players, many of them will be deleted from the game completely after they are released by a team. So if you cut your fourth string running back in the pre-season, then suffer and injury to one of your other backs, you cannot simply re-sign the guy you cut. He may have been deleted from the game entirely.
No matter how many interceptions Mark Sanchez throws, the Jets will never give Tim Tebow the start as long as Sanchez is healthy simply because he's a higher rated player.
And while we’re on the topic of substitutions, bad or mediocre CPU teams still don't make any efforts to adjust their rosters to find a more competitive play style. So no matter how many interceptions Mark Sanchez throws in a given game or season, you will never see the Jets give Tim Tebow the starting job. The only way that will happen is if the starter gets injured, but he will just get his job back as soon as he's healthy again. No matter how amazing of a breakout game a back-up may have, he will never get the start as long as the current starter is healthy.
It would be nice to have some limited control over my career mode so that I can make it line up a bit more with the actual NFL, but this year's Madden actually takes control away from the player. You can no longer simulate individual games between CPU-controlled teams or even manually play such games! So if you wanted to macro-manage the course of the season to mimic the actual NFL season (such as re-loading and re-simulating games until the correct teams win and individual players earn realistic stats, or trying to cause/prevent major injuries on CPU teams), then you are SoL this year.
Oh, and is EA every going to fix the "Pre-existing injuries" option in the career mode? This has been in the game for as long as I can remember; and for as long as I can remember, it has not worked!
So overall, the Connected Careers mode is still a shallow experience on the user-end that does a poor job of simulating the NFL.
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A new style
Madden 13 does have a new style to its presentation and menus. The Careers mode has a virtual Twitter feed and news widget, and the menus are mostly easy and comfortable to navigate. It feels like a bit of a waste of time to have to specifically navigate to the news page though. Probably would have been better to just include the Twitter and news as a constant widget that is docked on the side of the screen and is controlled with the right analog stick.
There's also an annoying glitch in the various stat screens that scrolls all the way to the left whenever you sort by a given column. So if you are comparing your players' stamina rating (which is at the far right of the stat list), and you sort by stamina, the game will scroll all the way back to the far left, forcing you to have to scroll back to the stat you were looking at.
In game presentation is modeled more after a CBS telecast, and the whole game has a soundtrack more in-line with NCAA. In fact, it sounds completely ripped off from NCAA. Phil Simms and Jim Nantz are a stellar improvement over Collinsworth and Johnson in last year's game. Their commentary has a much more conversational feel to it, and they sound great in the early parts of the game when they are introducing the various players and discussing the teams' different schemes.
Oh, just kiss already!
The commentary does start to get sparse and repetitive as the game goes on, however, since there isn’t much small talk recorded beyond the early-game introductions. They rarely, if ever, discuss momentum swings or events from earlier in the game, and so they get stuck in boring play-by-play without much interesting to say.
The commentators also make an exceptionally big deal about pre-play defensive line shifts. Since I run a 4-3 Over style defense, I am shifting on almost every play. So I have to keep hearing "Oh look at that, the d-line is shifting. They must expect a run to the left/right" over and over again.
There is another very annoying in-game glitch that causes the score ticker to disappear sometimes between plays, so that I can't see the down, distance, or time remaining when in the play call screen. This has been happening alarmingly frequently in both Madden and NCAA for at least a year now. Very inconvenient…
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A whole console generation, wasted
EA has finally given consumers an attempt at a truly "next generation" football game. It took them the entire console generation to do, but it's finally here. Even if Madden 13 had turned out to be the best football game every, I just can't help but feel like this is the Madden game that we should have gotten at the launch of the Xbox 360 or PS3. Or at least within a year or two of launch. It's the game we should've gotten in 2008 or 2009.
This entire console generation has been squandered on novelty features and gimmicks, and re-introducing features from the previous generation that were cut during the transfer to this generation. Weapons, MaddenIQ, Rewind, PRO-TAK, Locomotion, and so on have all come and gone in this generation, and none of them has had a lasting impact on the franchise. Physics should have been in the game a long time ago. It should have been there from the start. This generation should have been spent picking up where 2K5's VIP profiling system left off: tracking the behavior of the players and AIs so the AI can adapt to the player's actual tendencies and adjust its strategies accordingly. It should have been spent making the AI smarter instead of just leaning on the crutch of cheating and manipulating the flow of the game. It should have been spent adding depth and realism to the on-field action and front-office management instead of dumbing down the career mode for online gamers. But no. This whole generation was spent just adding and removing gimmicks and making the game prettier.
In the end, the only features that were added into the game during this entire console generation that are worth retaining are the physics engine, expanded pre-season rosters, and player tendencies. All of which still need overhauls. Everything else was just fluff. Although I really wish that Rewind had been retained, as being able to undo the bullshit plays that happen on a regular basis in this game would bee a huge boon and might actually make the game playable.
Madden 13 is just one more disappointment in a long line of disappointing football games from EA.
Every year, EA gives us what feels like a "half-finished" (or "half-assed") set of football games. But instead of taking the year in between to fix, refine, and improve the features that are already there, they just shove more half-finished features into the increasingly-bloated Madden code base (i.e. "Pre-existing injuries") and sometimes break things that did work.
Maybe we just have to wait until the PS4 and Xbox 720 (hopefully featuring a completely new code base built from scratch) before we see any real advancement in football gaming. Or maybe we'll never see it so long as EA has the exclusive rights and nobody else bothers to compete. 2K Sports, Natural Motion, Microsoft, Sony: please, for the love of Hallas, come back to the football gaming marketplace! You're our only hope...
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