At no point during its E3 2012 keynote did Electronic Arts mention what it would be delivering when the Wii U arrived later in the year. There could be any of number of good reasons for this, but a major publisher's total silence on a new console was enough that I had to double-check with Madden NFL's general manager that, yes, a version was still being built for Wii U.
"I'm actually really excited about what the Wii U team is doing," Cam Weber said back in June. "That control device unlocks some really cool potential things that the team is working on. I'm excited about it. I think it's a dark horse."
Weber's right that the Wii U's GamePad does unlock some cool, and useful features in Madden NFL 13. But it doesn't unlock enough to make its Wii U debut much more than a plant-the-flag entry for a brand obligated to launch with new hardware.
When EA Sports' then-president Peter Moore announced Madden as a launch title during the Wii U's unveiling in 2011, of course he noted the ability to draw receiver routes at the line of scrimmage, using your finger like you would in sandlot dirt. It's the most obvious application of the touchscreen. But where Madden NFL 13 really adds value is in the defensive pre-snap adjustments.
As the opposing offence comes to the line in Madden NFL 13, the GamePad screen shows a circles-and-triangles schematic. On offence, you can touch any receiver or running back and assign him a new route. (I recommend using your finger instead of the stylus, which frequently failed to register.) You can't, however, change a running back from a passing route to a blocking assignment, that still must be done with button controls. On running plays, you can't change receivers' blocking or route instructions either.
The game still employs the new feature of receivers knowing when to look for the ball -- with their passing icons grayed out until they'd reasonably be ready for it. For custom-drawn routes it appears the receivers' icons are lit after they get five yards from the line of scrimmage, regardless of whatever complicated path you've drawn.
On defence, someone with enough muscle memory (and the Madden 10 button shortcuts enabled) can easily pull off three adjustments before a standard snap -- repositioning the secondary, dropping a blitzing linebacker into a zone, putting a cornerback in man coverage on a specific receiver. On the Xbox 360 or PS3, all of these changes would require multiple button presses, with innate knowledge of the menus. For those who prefer to call plays and move chess pieces and let the CPU play things out on defence (like me), the presnap capabilities offered by the GamePad could one day make this the preferred mode of play.
What stands in the way of this version being preferred now is the jarring framerate skip that seems to happen in every transition, from post-play cutscene to huddle and back. It definitely marks Madden NFL 13 on the Wii U as a port, regardless of whether these troubles are with the Wii U's hardware or EA's code. Frameskip in the pre-game cutscenes even seemed to put Jim Nantz and Phil Simms out of lip-synch with their audio. You'll get used to it, and if you're studying your GamePad as teams break the huddle you'll see it less. But it's still a drawback.
Playing the game on the GamePad itself seems to avoid the frameskip, though you lose whatever functionality distinguishes Madden on the Wii U and end up with something like Madden 13 on the PS Vita, although you can still play an online Connected Careers game. You just have to make the switch before you enter a game.
The Wii U version of Madden NFL 13 also lacks the "Infinity Engine" delivering real-time physics in each play. Stumbling runs and runs-after-the-catch are, like the Vita, gone from this game, but you'll still see some of the new base animations Madden NFL 13 introduced. Without the physics, though, you also see the deficiencies of the game's oblivious run blocking, and some contact after the whistle will see a receiver or runner sprinting off out of bounds, presumably because that momentum was supposed to carry into a more authentic fall or stumble. With the exception of the poor run blocking, this is largely cosmetic. Play from snap to whistle is not noticeably affected.
Where I was most disappointed is in the Wii U GamePad's uselessness during Madden's most time-consuming mode: franchise management. Drafting, scouting, trading, roster management, through all of this the GamePad's screen is dark (well, it displays a title card.) The GamePad is a secondary screen where it could be a powerful adjunct to the main screen of a game given to menu sludge. To see that the GamePad's only application is in playcalling and pre-snap adjustments tells me that Madden NFL 13's Wii U version may have gotten a dedicated team, but it wasn't very large.
All other components of the game, including online play (except for Online Team Play) and the new Connected Careers mode, are present in Madden NFL 13. For Nintendo fans or those who only have a Wii U as a high-definition console, it will be refreshing to have EA Sports' full NFL experience back in the living room. Of note, there is no Online Pass restriction for online play; if you buy Madden NFL 13 used for the Wii U, you get everything.
Yet those with another high-definition console shouldn't feel much compulsion to run out and get Madden NFL 13 on Wii U; the current Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 version will suffice, particularly as it has the real-time physics engine. While it is good to see EA Sports committed to supporting this title (its roster was updated last week, something never seen on the wretched All-Play series for Wii) it'll need to take big steps by next August to make this series on this console a full partner.
Fixing the frameskip, making greater use of the GamePad -- especially in team management menus -- and the inclusion of the physics engine are mandatory come August 2013. The absence of any of those will result in lower marks for Madden 14 on Wii U than on its older high-definition rivals.