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.
There are a few twists thrown in: contracts have to be managed so you don't lose your hard-earned cards, and only 55 player cards can in your possession at one time. From playing through it for several hours, this is nothing more than a distraction for someone disenchanted by the lack of updates to the Franchise Mode.
Franchise Mode has been the most neglected part of the Madden series in recent versions, and this year is no different. There are just five notable changes, and other than the addition of a new Rookie Draft Class, most of them fine-tune what should have been fixed years ago: better simulation stats, more reasonable contract values, increased salary cap amounts, and more logical free agent decisions.
If EA Sports feels like it can pass off a significant portion of its game as new with a simple cut-and-paste job, then forgive us for cutting and pasting from last year's review as well: "There is a lot to Madden that remains unchanged and, well, bad."
Which is not to say that the actual experience of playing videogame football is bad in Madden NFL 11. It is actually very, very good - even though the proliferation of in-game advertisements is starting to get annoying. The control scheme has been simplified (the right analogue stick controls things like shielding the ball and spin moves) with the new Locomotion smoothing out player movement while adjusting the speed of the game, eliminating the need for a turbo button.
More on Madden NFL 2011
This, in turn, has allowed the running game to make some much-needed strides (sorry), like improved run-blocking, block-assigning and nuances like the manner in which ball-carriers fall to the ground, reach for first downs, and celebrate mid-air.
And, yes, you wont have to worry about Tom Hammond calling your every move because he's been replaced by the more dynamic and energetic Gus Johnson. If you can get past the fact that some of the play calls are quite delayed (it takes him five to 10 seconds to acknowledge that you just scored a touchdown), he is one of the best commentators we've heard in a sports game this decade.
The Online Franchise mode has not really changed all that much, but a new web management site implemented by EA is pretty nifty and allows you to read through mock news stories of league games and view selected images from recent games automatically compiled for you.
Madden NFL 11 plays a good game of football. Unfortunately, about 80 per cent of the game has not been given any attention, and the question is whether or not this version is worth it for those who need their Madden fix - especially when it essentially amounts to paying a yearly subscription fee.
Only those adamant about having the latest game in their collection will feel compelled to pick this one up. Others can probably bench this version and wait another development cycle, hoping that some of the more neglected parts of the franchise will finally be given the ball.
7 / 10