EA Sports has come to perfect the 12-month development cycle with titles like NHL and the FIFA series, but of all of its properties, none is as derided by gamers as Madden. Visit a forum for the American football series and you'd think Electronic Arts had mismanaged an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
A lot of that hate stems from the NFL's exclusive contract with the publisher, essentially closing out all competitors. While there have been a few recent notable, but failed, attempts in Backbreaker and the Blitz series, Madden is still king at the registers and NFL football purists are left at the mercy of whatever EA has decided to address in its yearly offering.
Will they beef up the online play? Is Franchise Mode finally going to get a facelift? Will the emotionless commentating of Tom Hammond please stop?
Madden NFL 11s tagline is: "Simpler. Quicker. Deeper." Simpler because of the introduction of GameFlow, which is EA's answer to casual fans who don't want to spend time flipping through dozens of plays at the line of scrimmage. Quicker because a 60-minute game can now be played in about 30 minutes. (Ironically, since the turbo button has now vanished.) Deeper because of a few notable feature additions, like three-on-three Online Team Play (OTP) and a card-collector's wet dream: Madden NFL Ultimate Team.
GameFlow, which automates the play-picking process to some extent, is the most hit-or-miss proposition since the invention of the coin toss - especially when you're on the defensive side of the ball and the opposition is passing. When I used it, It seemed that the play chosen by GameFlow was the absolute worst defence possible for the play the CPU or even human opponents picked, and one opponent was able to waltz his way down the field pulling off the same passing play every single time. The promise of adaptive play is tenuous at best. GameFlow is simpler, but it's avoidable.
To its credit, it did indeed cut down game time quite a bit. The first half of a game against a human opponent with GameFlow weighed in at about 13 minutes; the second half, with a more carefully drawn-out game plan, was about 18 minutes. Quicker indeed.
Which brings us to "Deeper". Unfortunately, Madden NFL 11 does not have a killer app to attract new players, but it does have several pretty good changes and additions, like the new three-on-three Online Team Play. Its similar to OTP in NHL 10, allowing you and up to five friends or opponents to take control of a corps of players over the course of a game.
For example, on offence, one person will control the quarterback (and only the quarterback), another the running backs, and the other the wide receivers. On defence, you can choose either to manage the defensive line, linebackers, or the defensive backs and corners. It's a pretty interesting feature if you can muster adequate competition. The only problem I came across is that when one player exits or is disconnected, the whole game shuts down - especially frustrating if well into a tight game.
Continuing with the theme of copy-and-pasting features from other franchises, Madden NFL 11 also includes Ultimate Team mode, which made its debut two years ago in FIFA 09. You are given a starter pack of virtual player cards, and, as you might expect, they are of Grade D players. This becomes your new team and it is your job to play these horrible players in the hope of accruing in-game coins that can be used to buy additional packs of cards that have less horrible players. In the spirit of capitalism, EA gives you the opportunity to buy your way to the top with real money as well.