In a stunning upset over Madden NFL 13, Michael Fahey of the Atlanta Kotaku attempts to carry a football analogy too far and fumbles the ball. Then he explodes. And then there was a Frankenreview.
It's that time of year again. The time that I get swept up in the wave of Madden NFL fever, rush out to the store to buy the latest copy, bring it home, play four or five games, and then trade it in for a game I have more business playing. It's not that I don't like the games; it's quite the opposite, really. I recognise that there is something here I should be playing. I also recognise that the portion of my brain that's supposed to be dedicated to sports got overwritten at some point during my teenage years, likely by the lyrics to the Billy Idol version of "Mony Mony", complete with the vulgar fan-made refrain.
So it's times like these that I truly appreciate working with the best sports video game guy in the business, Owen Good. I'm swinging for the stands with this Madden NFL 13 Frankenreview in his honour.
I lamented about last year's Madden instalment that it was merely "fine," that it did enough things to be a new game compared with its predecessor, but that was about it. I decried the lack of interesting new ideas behind it. I can safely say that none of these criticisms can be lobbed in the direction of Madden NFL 13. Whereas Madden NFL 12 felt lackadaisical and directionless, Madden NFL 13 paints a very clear vision of where the series is headed from here.
Where Madden NFL 13 ultimately stumbles, sadly, is in its execution. There are new ideas here, great ones even. But those ideas don't translate especially well into this year's game, coming off as either half-baked, or simply not reasonable by modern console standards. This is a game that tries to do a lot of things with a lot of different modes, gameplay concepts, and engines, many of which haven't really seen any significant overhauls in years. As a result, Madden NFL 13 often feels more like a beta version of a much better game to come, than a fully fleshed-out title in its own right.
Teaming Gus Johnson, the most enthusiastic play-by-play man in the business, with Cris Collinsworth, a no-nonsense analyst, seemed like a dream pairing. But the stilted chatter in Madden NFL 12 forced people to scramble for the mute button. Thankfully, these commentators have been escorted from the premises in Madden NFL 13, replaced by CBS's number one duo, Phil Simms and Jim Nance. Their presence is less invasive, often letting the rhythm of the game speak for itself, but this has its downside. Automated replays, long a thorn in Madden's side, are once again clumsily implemented. The commentators often clam up, and disjointed cuts make it tricky to see what happened, ruining much of the broadcast charm the game attempts to evoke.
First and foremost, the animation system is a huge step in the right direction. Essentially advertised as the future of football animation, the Infinity Engine comes through for the most part, delivering the most diverse visual representation of the NFL to date. Jaw-dropping runs, high-wire circus catches, and punishing hits are a critical part of the Sunday stage, and Madden NFL 13 delivers them in spades. And while Tiburon definitely could've used some time to clean up the post-play hilarity that results from this real-time behemoth, you'll lose count of the number of times you witness amazing.
The AI received a similar rewrite to handle all that horsepower, and it succeeds in most instances. Receiver-to-DB interactions are much improved, linebackers are a lot less shady, the line play is often as organic as in NaturalMotion's Backbreaker, and the way the AI makes use of this new movement model brings about much-needed additions like blown coverage, overpursuit, and second-effort yardage.
EA Tiburon also overhauled scouting and free agency, with the former vastly improved from last year. I like being able to choose which attributes and traits to scout, and with the scouting upgrade (a must-buy) the draft actually functions. The entire draft process is fun because of the little surprises that pop up during scouting and Trey Wingo's draft-day audio profiles on draftees. Maybe a potential draft pick goes back to college or drops due to character concerns. Stories like these and many more (in one playthrough, Kurt Warner came out of retirement) surface in a news hub that's augmented by media tweets, and they add a texture to each season which has been missing in past franchise modes.
As much as I like Connected Careers, some things are missing or unnecessarily frustrating. The lack of an overarching calendar makes it hard to know how many scouting periods are left before the draft and how many times you can bid on players in free agency. Furthermore, you can't see all of a player's info when you try to sign or trade them, and other useful info is needlessly buried (although there is a SNAFU in the Team Needs screen that lets you see the actual overall ratings for some potential draft picks). Restricted free agents, variable contract structures, practice squads, and other franchise features are still absent. For some reason EA even removed the Combine and pro days.
From the moment you hit start, Madden NFL 13 is a different beast. Rather than get dropped into mountains of disconnected menus, you're put directed to one hub screen that shows you how many players are online at that moment, gives you one-click access to your communities, and leaves your careers at your fingertips. There are different modes to Madden, but they all stem from the same place; Madden's identity crisis is over. The pop music and rappers are gone and in their place is an instrumental score driving home that this is the NFL and it's time to play football.
Luckily, playing football in Madden NFL is a blast. Every time I put down the controller, I want to pick it back up and head out on the field. Madden NFL 13 is challenging this year with receiver icons that change depending on if the player is looking for the ball and defenses that aren't afraid to call me on my lack of a running game — but I'm all about the struggle. I'm fighting for each and every yard I gain or keep from an opponent, and I'm relishing actually having to think on the field.
Madden Ultimate Team has vastly improved in not only its appeal but the fact that it can draw in and hook newcomers. One of the biggest reasons that MUT works so well this year is it does a much better job In providing the opportunities to build up your team, obtain new cards, and accrue a good amount of coins. All of this is achieved by providing players of previous EA Sports games MUT rewards as well as having seven one-time play scenarios which reward a respectable amount of coins and a couple of cards. These are stepping stones that previous years have been missing and are a very welcome addition.
Longtime players will still recognise pet peeves in Madden, especially in poor run blocking and in gameplay that favours speed. Yes, Madden remains the only game in town, if you want to play the NFL on a video game console. Time will tell if Madden NFL 13 is a really landmark entry in the series. But it is transformative, in ways that legitimately challenge sports video gaming, not just the narrow field it solely dominates.