Reviewing American football games is a science unto itself, one almost as deeply strategic and piecemeal as the software. While many will suggest that Madden has not changed a great deal over the years - and they'd be wrong - even those who buy it annually will suggest the game still lacks the 'feel' of the NFL. It's rather strange to say it, then, but after around 30 hours in each instalment since 2005, Madden 10 is the first that feels like you're playing football. It's more than the introduction of gang-tackling - several linemen bundling onto each other semi-convincingly - or the ability to run an online dynasty, or the "new and improved" (read: repetitive and awkward) Extra Point game show. It's that EA has put some effort into making the game play like the sport NFL fans the world over watch on Sundays.
The first notable change is the speed. If you've played Madden enough to really compare the game to the real thing, you'll know that it never matched the chaos and energy of the gridiron. Madden 10 can be cranked up to 'fastest' and reaches speeds that will demand the best of you, matching the helter-skelter mania of true NFL. This, combined with animation that for once resembles actual football, makes games and replays realistic. It's a dramatic improvement.
Online franchises are also a great deal of fun. As with any online experience, it's based on finding a dedicated crew to take part, but once you do, it's rather enjoyable. It's like a more active version of an online fantasy football league (especially if you use the fantasy draft), and it's good fun to annoy somebody by pipping them to the post on a trade and on the field. It's contingent on the activity of your competitors - if they're not as into it as you, you'll find yourself in a position to dominate them or, if necessary, have the commissioner skip them for a lack of activity - but this isn't such a bad point. I just heartily advise you to find people you know to play with.
All the same, there is a lot to Madden that remains unchanged and, well, bad. Commentary is my biggest bugbear. In every football circle I frequent - from those who have watched the game for 50 years, to those who only watch college and occasionally follow their home team - Chris Collinsworth is known as an uninventive and turgid commentator, and he's not helped here by irksome and recycled commentary. To use a bad commentator when you're trying to salvage a series' image and then not even bother to upgrade him with something better than "[insert name] is just one of the best wideouts I've ever seen" is ridiculous.
Tom Hammond is equally bad, but his voice is less grating. If EA talked to people who watched football (take umbrage at this statement if you will, but on the East Coast it's a pretty common sentiment), I'm confident they'd say to get rid of Collinsworth. The rationale for including him may be that he's taken over from Madden in the Sunday Night Football slot, but in comparison to Damon Bruce's commentary in The Bigs 2 - genuinely funny, informative and unobtrusive - it's lazy. It's the same with the Extra Point show with Erin Matthews, who stutters out the statistics from every game like a 1950s robot.
There are some statistical mysteries to the game, too, which affect both the normal game and franchises. In a few years of attempting (successfully!) to resuscitate the flailing Detroit Lions, I saw remarkable increases in players' stats that were being used most actively. This may seem a strange complaint, but my offensive linemen (who had done a good a job at stopping my quarterback from getting pasted onto the turf) saw a pittance of upgrades in comparison to my receivers and tight ends. Apparently, Brandon Pettigrew (a tight end) was six points better (in Madden 10's rather conservative grading system) after a 10-touchdown season, in comparison to the one-to-two point gains on my O-line.
Furthermore, Calvin Johnson became a 97-point receiver at the end of the first season - in comparison to many great receivers who have been downgraded to high-80s in the restructure of Madden's statistics. While he did well, he is not going to become nearly as good as Larry Fitzgerald - who, by the way, is not a 99-point receiver, EA - in one good year. Stop giving mouth service to your cover athletes in the hope that it'll stave off the Madden curse!
Finally, there are two strange quirks about Madden 10. First and foremost is the choice of menu music. While usually an afterthought of nu-metal and sub-par hip hop, this Madden's choice is a bizarre mix of decade-old rock and slash metal. Since when did anybody on this planet want to hear the entirety of Judas Priest's Painkiller, in all its screechy glory, during the NFL draft? The microtransaction money-grubbing is also irritating. Charging over 100 Microsoft Points for a five per cent, one-game increase in stats, or to heal one player, is ludicrous. This is yet more effort that could have been put into fixing little mistakes in the game that have existed for five years. Like, say, players running through the stands during celebrations.
It's all doubly shameful because the raw, bare-bones football experience that you should be spending most of your time playing is excellent. It looks better than it ever has, and the elements of presentation, from pop-ups that update you on your statistics (the last play's completed yards) to the pre-game practice sessions, add that oomph to the experience that it's needed for the last few iterations. Animations feel more fluid, tackles feel more brutal, and the experience is more like a game of football rather than manoeuvring marionettes over a green field.
EA should take a page out of FIFA's book here: focus on the game. Every iteration - pre-alpha onwards - sit down and play a full game, 15-minute quarters. If it feels 'right', then you're on the right path. If players are running through the sidelines when they celebrate, you should fix that. If Chris Collinsworth says the same thing about two separate players, you should fix that. If the depth-of-field focuses in and out randomly, you should fix that too. If you get the urge to plug in somebody who works on the ESPN or Monday Night Football staff, suppress it, and keep tweaking the game until it looks, plays, and feels like a real game of football. It may not look as good on the back of the box, but it'll look better on Metacritic, I promise, and help you make more of what's already a good game.
8 / 10