This review was originally published 09/14/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes.
It’s that time of year again. It’s time for the annual release of EA’s powerhouse licensed NFL game, Madden. This year’s release promises to completely redefine the way people play football games by bringing the playbooks of hundreds of plays down to one pre-selected play based on a Gameplan. It’s the way NFL coaches really do it, and once you stop and think about it, the idea really is brilliant. But a good game needs more than just good ideas. The ideas need to work. And Gameplanning just simply doesn’t.
I’ve always played the Madden games for the strategy and coaching elements. So when I first heard that the game would now be picking my plays for me, I was skeptical and afraid. But after hearing the arguments, and thinking about it a little bit, the change actually did make sense and even had me excited.
The Madden developers were claiming that gamers would be able to Gameplan for their upcoming opponent by setting up which plays to run in any given situation -- exactly how real NFL coaches do it. The system also had the potential to make full-length, 15-minute-quarter games more playable and practical, since the combination of the Accelerated Clock and GameFlow means that all the time spent between plays is now simulated. A default-length game of 7-minute quarters takes half an hour. And a full-length 15-minute-quarter game can be completed in less than an hour. An in-game save would have also helped make full-length games more practical for those of us who still may not have a full hour to devote for one continuous game. But too bad, we didn’t get that.
The big problem with GameFlow, though, is that the game is still pseudo-randomly picking plays from a short list that you’ve pre-selected (or which the game has pre-generated). And you have no idea what that play is going to be until after you’ve committed to running it, since the game asks you -- before showing you the play -- if you would like to use GameFlow (the Gameplanned play selected by the AI) or open the full playbook. Your players then line up, the play art is shown on the field, and the "coach" explains how the play is supposed to be run. It takes a lot of the strategy out of the game, and adds a lot of randomness, making every play feel a little bit more like a gamble and less like a well-thought-out choice.
If the game would show you the play it selected before you’ve chosen to use it, or just given you the option to select from your short list of Gameplanned plays for the given situation, the system would probably feel a lot more useful. Gameplanning may work fine for casual players or people who don’t know football, as such players won’t have to worry about sifting through hundreds of plays that they don’t understand, and the action never stops. But for those of us who are long-time Madden players, or who know the game of football, the removal of all decision-making is a bit of a slap in the face.
The sins of GameFlow
Other issues make GameFlow seem like it simply wasn’t very well thought-out. Offensive Gameplans are fairly well designed, with every major situation represented. Defensive Gameplans are a bit sparser, and are almost entirely based on the opponent’s personnel package rather than situation. Basing your defense on the opponent’s offense IS what most coaches do, but there are some times when you really need to override that defensive scheme. For example, if you are losing the game by 2 possessions in the fourth quarter, you need to start playing a more aggressive defense to try and force your opponent to make a mistake. There is no Gameplan situation for that. So if all your Gameplanned defensive plays are conservative plays, you’re stuck with them. Alternatively, if you are sitting on a comfortable 35-7 lead in the fourth, and want to sit back and play a bit more conservatively on defense, there is no situation for that either.
Further compounding this issue is the fact that Gameplans CANNOT BE EDITED IN-GAME! Not even at half-time. So if your Gameplan is failing miserably, you can’t even change it to adjust to the circumstances of the current game. And speaking of "personnel Packages," if you use GameFlow, you will have no opportunities to use any of the fancy Package substitution options that had been added to the game in the past few years, and the complete lack of any Formation Subs (hooray for starters getting hurt during Special Teams plays in preseason!) means you’re Depth Chart is the only place you have for making personnel changes in-game.
The "Game Planning" feature is a complete disaster; devoid of any actual football strategy.
When the GameFlow system asks you if you want to kick a field goal on fourth down, it also doesn’t bother to show you the wind direction or distance of the kick, which are both incredibly useful pieces of information to have at your disposal when deciding whether to send your kicker onto the field. Additionally, despite there being a "Run out the Clock" situation on offense, I have yet to see it be implemented in a game. I was winning one game 35-0 (I was playing against Detroit, after all), and despite the fact that all my "Run out the Clock" Gameplan plays were run plays, the game still somehow managed to pick pass plays for me on a consistent basis.
GameFlow also falls apart from the perspective of Clock Management. This isn’t really the fault of the GameFlow system, rather it is a problem with the Accelerated Clock, as the Accelerated Clock disables itself within 2 minutes of the end of a half. This is an absolutely stupid decision by the developers, as it makes two-minute drills way too easy. Now that the user doesn’t even have to waste valuable seconds filtering through the playbook, but can just hit one button to use the GameFlow play and have their players lined up within 2 or 3 seconds. This makes running the No Huddle completely useless. Inside of Two Minutes is the time of the game where simulating the time it takes to Huddle is MOST APPROPRIATE! Just like in this year’s NCAA 11 (but for slightly different reasons), running the No Huddle actually consumes MORE TIME than huddling up. It’s a horrible representation of how football is played.
GameFlow’s final sin is that it is completely absent from the game’s Franchise Mode. Nowhere in the Franchise Mode menus will you find any options for viewing or setting Gameplans. There are no scouting reports of opposing teams for you to use to help construct your Gameplan, and there is no practice mode in which to evaluate your Gameplan. If you want to modify your Gameplan before the next Franchise game, you have to exit Franchise Mode, find your team’s Gameplan in the main menu, edit it there, save it, then re-load Franchise, start the game, and select that Gameplan. And yes, that does mean that the general Gameplan for that team is overwritten. Which means if you want to go back to using the old Gameplan, you’ll have to reset it yourself later. Joy! That was sarcasm…
The fact that this new feature is completely ignored by the game’s most commonly-played Game Mode, is just one more argument to support that GameFlow is nothing more than a gimmick, rather than a genuine, game-changing feature. But it is still a good idea, and I commend EA for trying something bold. I do hope that GameFlow is improved and included in next year’s version of Madden. After all, if you don’t like it, you can still always disable it.
Some much-awaited improvements
If you do disable GameFlow, which many people probably will, you will find that Madden 11 has virtually the same feature set as Madden 10. The AFL Legacy mode that was DLC last year, is (kindly) included in this version of the game, and Madden Moments and Superstar also return. Madden Moments are a bit weird though, in that they are based on real events from last season, but use this year’s updated roster. They are also a pain in that they don’t let you restart the "Moment" from the pause menu, so if you screw up, you either have to wait until the time expires or exit out to the Main Menu and reload the "Moment" from scratch.
The Franchise mode is identical to last year’s version, with the sole exception of the new playoff overtime rules having been implemented. So players still do not improve by playing in Preseason (making Preseason games worthless to play), and you still have to import an NCAA draft class at the beginning of the season in order to use them for in-season scouting (should you chose to use that feature), meaning you MUST complete a full season of NCAA ahead of Madden if you want to import your graduating seniors. And lastly, Online modes are back from last year, including the Ultimate Team, card-based game. Sadly though, your team from last year is not importable to this year’s Ultimate Team mode, which, to me, completely defeats the purpose of having a customizable card game mode.
Fortunately, even without GameFlow, this year’s Madden is not completely without change, as the gameplay has been tweaked significantly since last year.
The locomotion system from NCAA Football 11 was carried over into this year's Madden.
The same Locomotion system that was implemented in NCAA 11 is also present in Madden, and it does a fine job of better simulating player acceleration and agility on top of raw speed. Having quick receivers and running backs is now just as valuable as having guys with high top speed, if not more so. Leading receivers who have breakaway acceleration is more comfortable and useful than ever, and QBs now do a much better job of putting the ball over a receiver’s shoulder so he doesn’t have to stop, and can catch the ball in full sprint.
Receivers also finally make sideline catches and try to turn up field, rather than just running straight out-of-bounds, as they’ve done in years past. EA has been saying they’ve fixed this for at least the past two years, but this year, it finally happened. I don’t know if I should be thankful to EA for finally fixing it, or if I should be angry that it took so long, despite their insistence that they were addressing it for the past two years. The irritating "piggy back" animation that mimicked David Tyree’s famous Superbowl catch occurs much less frequently now, and DBs will not just wrap around a receiver and tackle him as he jumps up for the catch.
The running game is also improved in several ways. Running backs accelerate and cut much more naturally, and offensive linemen finally do a better job at run blocking. You can actually see which specific defenders each of your linemen is supposed to block prior to the play, and the linemen will actually create holes for your backs now, and your backs will finally be able to hit them. Sprinting is now handled automatically by the game, so you no longer have to mash the trigger button when in the clear, nor do you ever have to worry about hitting it too early and missing an opportunity to cut.
More realistic but still flawed
Gameplay changes aren’t all good though, and there are some backwards steps in certain areas of gameplay. Adjustments at the line of scrimmage, such as hot routes, motions, shifts and so on are now handled by the "Strategy Pad," which required you to press a directional button to bring up a menu of what type of change you want to make, then what specific sub-change you want to make. The system is supposed to streamline pre-play adjustments by moving them all to the D-pad, but all it really does is add another button press or two to perform the same adjustments that could be made much quicker and easier last year. The fact that CPU QBs snap the ball immediately after lining up doesn’t help matters, since you have even less time on defense to make adjustments and more buttons to press. QBs snapping the ball too early was also a problem with Madden 09, which EA had to change in a patch due to requests from the players. You’d think EA would have learned their lesson, but no.
The kicking meter has also been changed to something similar to the PS1/PS2 era of kick meters, where you set a power and accuracy meter. The old kick meter from last year’s game was, in my opinion, much easier to use and much more intuitive than the current system. I don’t know why EA changed this, and I wish they would have given us the option to use the old kick meter.
The kicking meter has been reverted to a PS2-era style because apparently, you're dumb and couldn't figure out how the [superior] current-gen version was supposed to work.
Since Madden is still using the same game engine that it’s been using since the days of the PlayStation 2, many of the same gameplay issues do still crop up. Players still "ghost" through each other or get shifted in place to make the motion-captured animations work, sometimes resulting in very awkward replays. The football sometimes still bounces off of thin air, but this seems to be occurring much less frequently than it used to. Despite the improved blocking, linemen will still sometimes run around in circles or turn around and go after a defender who is already completely out of the play, leaving you to get your teeth knocked in by the defense.
Pass blocking could also use a bit more work, as they sometimes miss blitzing defenders completely and leave your QB open to a sack. And despite the new Locomotion system, the spin move still seems to be completely useless, as the running back will often just start the spin, get halfway through it, then stop, and be "sucked" into a tackle by a defender. It looks very awkward and unrealistic, and can be very frustrating. I also had some problems in which I would use the right stick to try to spin, and the player would complete the spin move, but then suddenly spin back the other direction, right back into the waiting defenders. This might just be a stick sensitivity issue though, and it’s something that I might get used to with time and practice.
Overall, though, on-the-field gameplay does seem much more realistic and fun than last year’s game. Player movement is much more realistic (aside from the afore-mentioned spin move), and positioning is more important than it used to be due to the new emphasis on acceleration. Linebackers are no longer able to keep up in man coverage with speedy wide receivers, and overpursuit is much harder to recover from.
Presentation has also seen some changes. Visually, the game is a bit clearer and crisper than last year. Player helmets look ridiculously too shiny and reflective though.
Commentary now consists of Gus Johnson and Chris Collinsworth, and so far, I haven’t been impressed with it. Collinsworth has some new pre-game breakdowns that he does where he compares the two team’s matchups. It’s context-sensitive, and sounds very authentic, but he usually just talks about the quarterback matchup, even if there are much more interesting matchups or subplots to talk about, so the pre-game commentary gets rather repetitive.
NCAA 11’s commentary suffered from the loss of Lee Corso, and it’s funny that Madden’s commentary also sounds like they are missing a commentator. Sure Gus Johnson is a little more emotional and energetic than Tom Hammond, but that emotion is totally misapplied. He blows simple plays way out of proportion, and sometimes goes a whole play or two without saying anything. And Collinsworth hardly says a word in some games either.
There are also some audio overlap issues when "CoachTalk" is being used through the TV’s speakers rather than a headset, as the CoachTalk sometimes cuts off the commentary or vice versa. Some nice, authentic touches have been added though. For example, I was very excited to hear the fans at Soldier Field chanting the Chicago Bears fight song "Bear Down, Chicago Bears" after scoring touchdowns.
After last year’s Madden seemed to be a huge step up from Madden 09, I am very disappointed in this year’s game. There are some very welcome gameplay upgrades, but the complete lack of improvements to the game’s feature set, and the failed execution of the GameFlow mode really means that this game is NOT worth the full price if you already own last year’s Madden. The improvements feel more like they should have been included in a patch or $10 or $15 expansion pack, rather than requiring a full, $60 retail package.
I’m pleased that the dev team put as much effort as they did to try to improve the game’s core gameplay, but the complete lack of attention to any of the game’s features or modes makes me really wish they had just waited until next year and given themselves time to fully implement a well-though-out feature set to go along with the on-field enhancements. It’s not as simple as being just the same game with updated rosters, but it’s also just not worth the full price tag.