If I had to identify the Madden series’ biggest asset, it would be the loyalty of its fans. Each year, Electronic Arts sells a plethora (that’s a lot) of copies of the hit game to gamers around the country and around the world. Quite frankly, they could put out crappy games and still sell millions of copies (not that the fans would appreciate it). This existing dynamic does not create a lot of motivation for EA to attempt any major changes or innovations in the formula. After all, why try to fix what ain’t broken? However, each year, EA throws a couple of tweaks into the mix to keep the experience fresh, and this year is no exception. The core of the game is, as always, unchanged—and that’s not a bad thing. The few small adjustments and additions don’t add a lot, but they do just enough to warrant the investment.
The most noticeable addition this year is GameFlow. This is a system that streamlines the process of play calling, to the extent that you can now play games in an advertised “fraction of the time.” Who wants to spend an hour on a single virtual game of football? With a single button push, you can call your plays, on offense and on defense. What’s more, if you have your headset, you’ll hear the plays come in from the coach, and some tips along with them. It’s a nice touch. On offense, the game chooses plays that make sense, for the most part.
Every now and then you’ll see a questionable call—the most frequent for me being fly-routes from inside the 10-yard line. On defense, I have no quibble with the play calling, but it is frustrating that the game allows almost no time for pre-snap adjustments such as switching controlled players and adjusting positioning. I found myself having to hope that I was in the right position and on the right player, or else I was at an immediate disadvantage. One plus of the system is that it does allow you to rate plays, which will affect future frequency. I enjoyed using the GameFlow system for efficiency-of-play purposes. For the hardcore, however, it is no replacement for play selection.
One feature that is not to my liking is the new Strategy Pad. This year, all of your pre-snap adjustments are mapped to the D-Pad. If you’re anything like me, you’ve gotten the button presses to make positioning and play shift adjustments down to a science. That is all gone—now you’ll have to navigate through extra buttons to find what you want, and even once you have the system down, you’ll still be hurried to complete the shifts in the very limited amount of time before the snap. It’s cumbersome, and hopefully EA will recognize that the old system really was superior.
In terms of actual gameplay, there are several tweaks and features of note. A lot of effort has been put into the running game specifically, with the biggest change being the absence of a Turbo button. This adjustment was intended to force players to use blocks and to make the experience more realistic as a whole. When you get into space, the speed will increase, effectively going into Turbo mode. It works—and it works well. Along with this the analog sticks now controls all of your jukes, spins, and other moves. Running, as a whole, is now a much more fluid and intuitive process. It’s fun to get into, but tough to master. Along with these improvements is the tweaking of the Offensive and Defensive Lines. The AI on both sides has received a HUGE overhaul. Offensive linemen now attempt to create holes realistically, and the defense reacts accordingly. You’ll see double-teaming, shifting, and so much more that brings a new level of immersion to the running game.
One area in which the game falls short of improvement or innovation is the game mode options. You can still jump into a game, still play online against an opponent, and still practice. And other than a few small tweaks here and there, the Franchise and Be-A-Pro modes are largely unchanged from last year. However, there is one great addition that will serve as a fresh, new opportunity—Online Team-Play. In this mode, there can be up to 3 players on each team, at chosen positions. As you can imagine, this puts a premium on teamwork and communication. When done correctly, with your real-life teammates chatting and working together, this mode can be a ton of fun and very rewarding.
Visually, Madden 11 is a marginal step forward from last year’s entry. Player models are slightly improved, and the environments are more lively and action-filled. Lighting effects and animations are noticeably smoother as well. The biggest improvement lies in the cut-scenes, which are much more frequent. You’ll see quarterbacks discussing next plays with the coach, water-boys dousing the players with water, and more. It serves to add a level of immersion into the Sunday experience overall.
In the audio booth, Tom Hammond is out and Gus Johnson is in for the play-by-play duties. I have to say the change is very much for the better. Johnson has a huge array of phrases and expressions, and his dialogue is exciting and sharp. I always say that the less you notice what the commentator is saying, the better, and Johnson does well to avoid pulling you out of the experience.
Madden NFL 11 continues the strong trend of the series over the past years. Though it does not introduce a ton of change or innovation, the improvements it makes in the running game, presentation, and flow of the game are plenty to warrant a purchase by any fan of the series, or of virtual pigskin.