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[Review] Madden NFL 11

First of all, I’m not much of a sports fan. I’ll occasionally play an NFL title, but for the past few years, I haven’t really enjoyed any. It has been a long time since there was a really good NFL-licensed football game. The last great one was NFL 2K5, which, at the time, sold for $20 brand new. This, compared to Madden’s $40 or $50 price tag of the same year, was considered one of the best deals in sports game history. You not only got a football game on the cheap, but you got a well-presented one at that.

After buying out the NFL license, and six year later, EA released Madden NFL 11. Does the game meet or exceed any of the milestones 2K Sports had done all those years ago? So far, the Madden games haven’t done so, but they were the only source for an NFL-branded simulation game for half a decade now. My goal here is to give you an idea of what to expect from this year’s Madden if you haven’t played it already.

To begin, if you’ve downloaded the demo, and noticed the constant framerate drop and the like, it’s not nearly as noticeable on the retail release, as that almost broke it for me. Don’t get me wrong, there are still a few drops here and there, but it’s not as bad.

With that out of the way, let me begin with the presentation. The menu is a bit complex if you’re a new-comer. You kind of have to know where to go if you want to edit the roster or get into a game. This is a problem that has plagued these games for some time, but at least they list all the new stuff under the first menu item, so if you’ve played Madden titles in the past, you can see what’s new this year (as well as trailers for other EA Sports titles).

The start of the games are your standard fare, with the commentators (with Gus Johnson being new to the game) talking about the game and the teams’ key players. They’ll show stadium shots of fans and the like getting food, etc. During the game, the commentary seems to be a lot more lively this time around (unless you’re doing a player career). And if you win the Super Bowl? There is team-specific commentary, based on past Super Bowl experiences, or lack thereof. It’s pretty neat I think, and it ends with your team dressed up and hanging at the White House, handing Obama a team jersey. It would be kind of funny if 10 seasons down the road, he’s still getting number 44 jerseys in the game :P.

As far as play selection goes, you can use GameFlow, which is a playbook based on certain situations on the field to help you choose plays quickly (though, personally, I don’t really care for it, as I feel it’s just a version of Ask Madden under a different name ). If you’re playing a season as a created player, you’ll basically have to go with the play that’s selected for you (I think quarterbacks can call an audible at least, or maybe even make the calls; I haven‘t tried a QB-based career yet).

The replays and the like are still not as lively as they are in 2K5. The presentation in that game is still, hands down, the best, as they did a better job of showing more important plays, as well as highlights from games you didn’t play during the season. They also had the live ESPN sports ticker across the bottom, which, in my opinion, should have been on Madden for ages. It really added to the immersion. I will say that EA is progressing at least (play calling and stuff can’t really be improved, as its been pretty much the same since the 90s and has always worked pretty well), but still have a lot of improving they can do on the presentation.

As for the visuals? The game is pretty crisp. Apart from the few graphical hiccups, the game looks and plays nice, but sometimes the ball seems to be magnetically attracted to a player’s hands (or the players are magnetically attracted to the ball). Not sure if that’s because the player emits Win, but I doubt it :P. I’m also not sure if it was just me, but does it seem like the time of day stays the same throughout a game? I never really looked into it, but it doesn’t seem like the shadows progress at all.

Crowds also seem to be a lot more lively, but they’re still pretty generic and often are recycled animations/models every game (I’m talking about the close-ups), but it is pretty funny watching fans of the losing team start to leave in the 4th quarter. What seems to be missing now is the actual coin toss, as it just shows your team in like a pre-game huddle while there are only graphical prompts for the coin toss.

Snow and rain effects look nice, but the jerseys seem to be washed in super bleach that cleans as they get dirty. If I miss a tackle on a rainy day, my jersey should get covered in mud and grass stains. If they really want to make a football game more realistic, stuff like that, and possibly even blood, would make for a more realistic game. And where are the cheerleaders?

As far as gameplay goes, this is where things start to look pretty good. For one, you use both analog sticks to control your feet, the lean on your body and directional-specific moves while you’re hodling the ball, its easier to pancake the defense when you’re blocking, and while on defense, it seems easier to pull off hit stick moves, as well as get through the guard easier (assuming you manipulate the right analog stick just right).

In all honesty, I haven’t had this much fun playing a football game since 2K5, and that’s saying a lot. Past Maddens, I would play the game for a week, and then never touch it again. On that one, I actually played two entire seasons and plan to go onto the next with my 7 foot, 400lb running back :P. It just sucks that it takes so long to get your player’s stats up, even if you were offensive rookie of the year, had multiple Player of the Game wins, Player of the Year, etc. like my guy did (and I was on the Bears, with a QB that threw about 2 interceptions a game).

Speaking of turnovers, when you fumble the ball, you go into a fumble recovery button mash where you have to press the buttons shown in order to get the gauge on your side, but this is only possible if there are enough guys surrounding the ball. If it’s obvious which side got the ball, you won’t get into that mini-game. It’s pointless, but at least it gives you a chance to recover the ball, whether you were the one to drop it or not.

The sidelines still need a lot of work, as none of the NPCs on the side react to you barreling through. Some of them will have pre-canned animations, which causes some clipping with the players/officials. I’d like to see the players react by helping downed players up, or referees and officials move out of the way to avoid being hit (instead of your player just passing through them). If they do get in contact with the players, they should react accordingly.

Playing an exhibition game, with the commentary, is a nice experience and the gameplay on that is actually a lot more fun than before, thanks to the aforementioned dual-analog control, and the overall ease of play (it’s more or less newcomer friendly, as long as you have a general idea of the actual NFL games themselves). I could go so far as to say that it’s nearly as fun as NFL 2K5 was.

One of the new modes this year is Team Play. This allows for players to basically call the shots of their squads, giving them commands, etc to react to different situations on the field. This mode, I think, is definitely more geared toward the big-time Madden players. For those folks, there also the Ultimate Team mode, which is basically like a fantasy football league.

Since I’m not into that, I, personally, didn’t really care for it, but the concept itself is pretty good. Madden and NFL fans might love playing it. You get points and stuff in-game that you can use to basically upgrade your team with better players, extend contracts, etc. You can then play against the computer or play online, to earn more points or one-up your friends. It’s pretty in-depth, but it wasn’t for me.

The player career (I believe it’s called ‘Be an NFL Star’ or something) is missing things like movie shoots and the like are gone (which were more or less filler anyway). You can still tell your agent to tell fans what you’re going to do this week (such as guarantee a win), though, but as it stands, events on the calendar are simply training camp, practice, and the games themselves (plus draft and contract signings). Probably in an effort to get you through the season faster.

Now onto some of my biggest issues with the game. As I mentioned earlier, there is a small bit of framerate drop. No big deal, doesn’t last but maybe a few seconds. My biggest issue is that the game doesn’t seem to have an auto-save feature, and I think that that is an essential with this title. Why? Sometimes the game, after completing a football game, will, essentially, lock up on the loading screen to go back to the menu. This has been an issued with the Madden games for a long time now. What makes it worse is that, since there is no auto-save feature, and unless you save after every game anyway, if you played about 6 games in a season straight, you just lost all that time and effort you put into it to go that far. It happened to me probably five or six times.

A few other things include the fact that some replays, which should be shippable, are impossible to pass because the game seems to get confused on your button presses and just lets it play out. If you’re rushing through the game, it’s a pretty big annoyance. In fact, skipping replays and stat cards and the like seems to be the most irritating part of the whole game. Reaction time for button presses or navigation shouldn’t take as long as it does. They say that, thanks to GameFlow, the games can be completed in half the time. Well, if they fixed the responsiveness of navigation and skipped replays, you could probably cut that half in half.

Despite these flaws, the game still plays pretty good. It may not be NFL 2K5 good, but its getting there. If they can get rid of the bugs that have plagued the series for a while, and added better visual effects and reactions (plus a complete overhaul of the presentation, 2K5 style), then that would be the ultimate Madden experience. Until then, it is nice to, at least, see Madden improving the way it did this year, and I hope they can do the same for next year’s game (I’m still waiting for Madden to look like the original next-gen trailer).

Also, a heads up, GameStop will be hosting an online Battle of the Gridiron II tournament on September 12th. There was an in-store tournament this past weekend, but, unfortunately, I couldn’t inform you guys since I didn’t have this review done until now. You can get more info on the tournament here.

[review pros=”Easy to pick up and play
Much improved over previous iterations
Better presentation and commentary
” cons=”Many bugs still haunt franchise
Control response on menus and navigation are clunky
Jerseys still don’t accumulate dirt, etc
” score=70]

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of Madden NFL 11 provided by EA.