Game Review: Madden NFL 11

August 9, 2010

While a lot of core players chide the Madden series for its yearly updates and the casual players it attracts, those who actually play it every year know that few games are as complicated or intricate. EA Sports has apparently realized this, because Madden NFL 11 is all about streamlining the experience to make it as accessible as possible. Lowering the barrier of entry is its focus, but does it come at the expense of its depth chart?

In the past, games of Madden could take well over 45 minutes to complete. In today's ADD digital age where everything is instantaneous, it's a lot to ask. EA Sports looked at rungs of game data and realized that, despite these lengthy contests, players were only using a handful of plays. The developer has made it a priority to solve both issues with its new GameFlow system.

The computer can now call all the plays for you by pressing a single button. It would be ridiculous to assume that a machine could replicate the intricacies of being an NFL coach, so you're given the chance to create a gameplan tailored to each situation. If you like to run on third and medium to keep opponents off-guard, you can set the computer's available plays to ensure that running the ball in that situation is a priority. You can even weight each play to determine how often it's called. It's an arduous process that pays dividends on down the road in the form of much shorter games. They're not quite half the time, as advertised, but even 10 or 15 minutes makes a big difference.

Even once you think you have it nailed, you'll need to play several games to make adjustments. Despite the ratings, some plays are called far too often, and the riskier ones always seem to come up when you just need a yard or two. Over time, you can get it where you want it, and you're still given the option of going to the full playbook at any time. You're also fed information on each play through your headset from the defensive or offensive coordinator, but their quips quickly become repetitive and don't offer much insight. We eventually turned the feature off.

Another big addition is ultimate team-a feature that was added to last year's game through a downloadable update earlier this year. Basically a collectible card game that imparts elements of fantasy football, you're given a starter deck of players from various teams in the league. You then use these players to take on a computer or human opponent. Win or lose you're rewarded with coins to purchase new cards that yield new players, coaches, uniforms, playbooks, and more. You can even put your unwanted cards up for bid in auctions. It's a cool addition that goes a long way towards familiarizing players with the league as a whole, and the collectible element triggers the completist gene.

Cooperative play was added to last year's game for you and a friend, but things have gone a couple steps further in Madden NFL 11 with online team play. Now up to three humans can play on each side, but the catch is that you must select a group of players to control. On offense that means quarterback, wide receivers, and running backs. You then have the ability to switch between any players in that group with the QB calling all the plays. On defense it's broken into defensive linemen, the secondary, and linebackers, who handle the defensive calls.

It's fun to coordinate with friends thanks to constant headset communication, but you'll also find that everyone thinks they're open on every single play and it can make decisions a challenge. It's a solid first step towards reaching the 11-on-11 play of FIFA, but Madden-ites will eventually tire of irresponsible teammates who only want to be involved as much as possible.

The rest of the suite includes online and offline franchise with all the trimmings, sliders to shape the game to your liking; Madden moments to take control of some of the most interesting situations in NFL history; NFL superstar to take a player from camp to the Hall of Fame; and a robust online environment that ensures you're matched up against the right competition-provided you bought the game new and have the online activation code.

Madden NFL 11 has seen a marked improvement in the modes and options available, making for a staggering amount of ways to play and interact. Designing sports games simply doesn't get much better than this.

The impact of the Pro-Tak system in last year's game was immense. Utilizing momentum, player ratings, and angle of contact, you could either squeeze out a couple extra yards or get driven back. Now that the locomotion feature from the NCAA Football franchise has been added to the mix, the running and tackling has reached new heights.

The turbo button has been turned off by default and all the special moves like jukes, spins, and stiff arms have been mapped to the right analog stick. This two-stick scheme is all you need. The computer does an incredible job of receiving controller input and spitting out realistic on-field results. It will set your running back at a brisk jog at the snap of the ball, but as soon as you see a crease and push the stick forward to explode through it, the computer turns on the juice to get you to the next level. Planting and cutting are also handled so well that once you get the hang of it, the right stick isn't even needed to break off long runs. It's just another way the game has been simplified without sacrificing depth, though running backs still overcome ridiculous odds to break free at times.

Passing is basically the same as last year. You must stay in the pocket to complete passes. If you stray outside or drop back too far, your QB goes JV and will miss wide open receivers. Couple this with computer AI that has problems picking up blitzes, and your field general is going to spend a lot of time on his back. Making matters worse, the default injury setting is far too sensitive. We recommend toning it down unless you want to finish a season with a third of your team on IR.

Everything else handles basically as it should. The pre-snap options have been mapped to the D pad, making adjustments much easier to manage, and like the design, the gameplay has clearly been molded to be much more accessible so you can concentrate on enjoying the game instead of worrying about tying your fingers in a knot. Interestingly enough, one of the most important changes is that receivers manage the sidelines much better. Which means no more out routes that take receivers off the field at critical times.

This series has made such baby steps in presentation over the years that the only real way to see a huge difference has been to pop in a version from seasons ago for comparison. Not so in Madden NFL 11. While the player faces have improved and the lighting has been tweaked, the real change is in the moments before, between, and after play. There are a lot more off-the-field moments and sideline interactions to complement the incredibly varied on-field animation. Performance issues like stuttering screen wipes grate and the mounds of post-play replays can cause you to accidentally call plays as you try to skip through them, but otherwise, Madden NFL 11 makes its graphical improvements more obvious than in past years.

We love Gus Johnson's play-by-play on Sunday mornings, but here his enthusiasm translates into sentences that sound patched together or way overblown. The crowd noise has a tendency to cut out, and some of the new team-specific chants sound like they were recorded with a room of 20 dudes, but overall, the ambient sound has reached a point where you can turn everything off but the stadium noise and be content.

With such minimal strides year after year it can be easy to tune this series out when it comes time for reviews, but Madden NFL 11 is one of the true steps forward for the franchise. Some annoying issues have finally been rectified, the presentation has received an overhaul, and the brand new GameFlow play calling requires some work, but provides a worthy payoff. Couple all this with great running and tackling and you have a product that's worth full asking price. If you haven't snatched up a copy of Madden on opening day for a while, this year's outing answers the bell.


Reviewed on Microsoft Xbox 360.

Source: EA Sports