Madden simultaneously encapsulates both everything that is great with our industry as well as it’s darker under belly. On the one hand, the Madden franchise virtually defines blockbuster, with only a handful of titles that can compare on an annual sales basis. But at the same time, every year fans decry the lack of evolution with the series. The phrase “I hope I’m not just buying another roster update!” being a common refrain at the time of purchase. It seems like every year EA tries to pat us on the shoulder in a fatherly way, admonishing our lack of faith and assuring us that this year all of last year’s problems would be fixed... and while sometimes issues are addressed, fans almost universally agree it’s never enough. EA has promised a lot of changes to Madden 13 this year both on the field and off, but does the game finally live up to the hype?
The new physics engine, dubbed the “Infinity Engine,” actually does as advertised. It makes the game look more like real football: fluid and organic, not cookie cutter animations repeated ad infinitum. At first you won’t necessarily notice the difference, but the more you play, the more you realize that no two plays have been the same. The sheer variety is impressive. Sure, there are some graphical hitches here and there, but overall, I think it enhances the experience if you’re looking for it... but as with most things like this, you will only notice the difference if something doesn’t look right! Running into your own lineman on a draw play causes all the problems of running into the backside of a three hundred pound plus man brings. Conversely, the same hard trucking running back had one play where he broke three tackles, was hit in the middle of a spin move, and actually pushed himself up one-handed before recovering and running for the touchdown. It was magic!
Total Control Passing is another change. Like the Infinity Engine, the revamped passing mechanic is one of those things that it’s difficult to tell what has changed until that “Eureka!” moment when it all comes together. Comparing it to Madden 12 is probably the easiest way to understand. In last year’s version, pushing up on the analog stick when passing to a particular player would lead the receiver but not change the arc of the throw. But with Madden 13, making the same motion seems to have a noticeable effect on the trajectory of the throw. So leading receivers on cross field routes isn’t much different, but putting a higher arc on a pass downfield to a speedster makes it harder for defenders to magically swat it away! It’s all about throwing the ball into space, where the receiver will be, not where he is.
Keep in mind that the changes to the passing game are mirrored on defense, as corners and safeties are much more likely to play smarter and punish rushed throws. On both sides of the ball, player awareness has been heightened, and players actually have to look for the ball to make a play on it. While that may seem obvious, it’s actually new to Madden 13, and it does make a difference.
The all-new “Connected Careers” mode is a great idea... although part of me wonders about its execution. Essentially, you garner experience across all game modes, whether you are playing online, offline, franchise, or superstar. The goal is to reach the Hall of Fame as either a player or a coach. It adds a wonderfully addictive RPG element to the proceedings, complete with XP bonuses and character sheets. Player progression now feels natural, as you have to pay attention to balancing strengths and weaknesses not just for individual players, but also to how that translates to the larger team dynamic as well. It’s surprisingly fun, something I could see working for other sports games as well.
However, this revolutionary mode isn’t without some issues. The menu system is a convoluted mess at times; it certainly takes some getting used to. But for some truly peculiar reason, EA pushed Connected Careers at the expense of the classic “Franchise” mode. It all depends on whom you ask, but for me, my Madden experience has always revolved around the Franchise mode. I love to create my own virtual “Simon” (6’3”, now with hair!), put him on my favorite team and lead him to glory... and I can still do that, but only in “Superstar” mode.
In the new fangled “Connected Careers” pseudo-franchise mode, you can only play as a coach with set rosters. You can’t even edit players (that I could find), so I couldn’t cheat and change someone’s name to my own. The exclusion of what is a big draw to a lot of die-hard Madden fans feels like a slap in the face, but at the same time, seems like something a patch could fix. EA is notoriously bad about stuff like this, so I’m not holding my breath.
Graphically, Madden 13 has undergone a bit of a makeover. You’ll notice right from the outset that the presentation is better than it’s ever been. The inclusion of motion blur makes a surprisingly large difference to replays, making it look more “TV-like,” organic and ultimately, more realistic. In fact, there are a lot more little broadcast-style touches that make the experience more like watching a game on Sunday afternoon than ever before. This is bolstered by the commentary of Phil Simms and Jim Nance who, for the most part, keep things interesting and not too repetitive.
The Xbox 360 version of Madden 13 supports Kinect functionality, so the option is there if you want to use it. Personally, I didn’t find it particularly necessary, but it is fun to pretend you’re Peyton Manning! Unfortunately, like other games that try to take advantage of the Kinect’s voice recognition, the sensor can get confused. It goes beyond just annunciating clearly and speaking loudly; if there is any background noise whatsoever (including the game itself), then your commands seem to only get through occasionally if at all. The only way I could get it to really work as advertised was to turn the volume way down on the TV just to remove that variable. But in doing so, it removes the inherent realism of trying to audible over the crowd!
Because “Connected Careers” translates to online play, creating your own unique league with your friends now has even more longevity. Online set up, even just for random one-on-one encounters, is pretty easy. I also didn’t notice much lag or other issues that have plagued previous versions of the series.
So how to answer the initial question, does Madden 13 live up to the hype this year? The short answer is yes, but the long answer is still no. EA made some noticeable improvements to not only the gameplay, but also revamping some of the key modes of the series. “Connected Careers” is intriguing and addictive, and the Infinity Engine becomes more and more appreciated the more you play. Time will tell if hardcore fans end up appreciating their efforts. But Madden 13 loses points with me because of the “Franchise” mode debacle. The fact that you can’t have both a created player yet still coach the entire team bothers me to no end. Overall, it’s a better game (probably the best it’s ever been), but the experience still isn’t what it should be. The foundation has been laid, so here’s hoping next year will rectify these issues... but, as you are probably all too aware, we’ve said that before.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Madden NFL 13 provided by Electronic Arts.