In sport, as in business, as in life, competition can only be a good thing. Without an opponent to pit your skills and development against, how can you know if you're improving? For proof of this maxim, you need look no further than the Madden games.
Unlike a lot of its EA Sports brethren, who have to stare down rivals year-in, year-out, the Madden series trundles along unchallenged, adding a tweak here and a tuck there, but never risking too much. Because EA holds all the exclusive rights to the NFL licence, Madden's audience of NFL fans are pretty much captive. The last game that even attempted to eat into Madden's sales figures was the woeful Backbreaker, and the only thing that game had going for it was a decent physics engine.
Now Madden has one of those too, in the form of Madden NFL 13's Infinity Engine, which admittedly is a fine piece of work. Collisions feel more organic and eye-watering tackles can send players pin-wheeling in mid-air. The engine renders every barge, bang and stumble in a way that looks realistic, even if the ball sometimes feels like it's finding its way into a receiver's glove like a guided missile. It goes along way towards capturing the head-cracking feel of the real thing.
The only place the engine really falls flat is when players are removing themselves from a pile-up; it's here you'll catch brief glimpses of legs and arms bent at impossible angles or players folded in half, all of whom will leap back to their feet and jog back to the huddle. Still, the Infinity Engine is a vast improvement on the canned tackle animations of yesteryear.
Elsewhere on the pitch, Madden NFL 13 has kept what worked last year and made some necessary tweaks. Top among these is in the passing game, where you now have more control over what happens with the ball after the snap. By using the left stick you can lead receivers away from defenders and throw the ball into space. In another great move, the button icons over receivers only light up when they're looking for a pass, so there's less chance of you bouncing an aimed throw off the back of a player's helmet. The new offensive passing game is countered somewhat by the improved defence, which makes intercepting passes a lot easier.
The GameFlow play select menus are still present and correct making the game accessible to both newbies and veterans alike - although the latter camp will probably grumble that the core experience still fails to capture a lot of the subtle nuances of the game. Essentially, Madden NFL 13 may not feel like a giant leap forward in terms of its gameplay, but it's a solid American football sim and it's still a lot of fun to play.
An obligatory nod to Kinect has been shoehorned in: you can now issue voice commands to your players pre-snap, and also direct tackles and change the direction players are running in by yelling their names and then an action you want them to perform. In theory, the voice commands to call the line of scrimmage are a natural fit. In practice, however, you'll find yourself thwarted by Kinect's inability to accurately interpret your commands.
Off the pitch, Madden NFL 13's new career mode rolls the offline and online Franchise modes together with Superstar mode. Dubbed 'Connected Careers', the new mode gives you the opportunity to play as either a player or coach. You have the option of creating a player in any position and mapping your face to him, or picking an existing coach or player in the NFL.
You can also opt to select a legendary NFL player or coach, controlling the likes of Joe Montana, John Elway and Vince Lombardi. At the time of writing, however, a lot of the legends remain locked, and some of them can only be accessed if you complete certain challenges and redeem your card in the Madden Ultimate Team trading card mode.
In Connected Careers, you can play all by your lonesome offline or head online and either join or create leagues of your own in which up to 32 other participants can take part over 30 seasons. You're given a series of objectives to achieve in your career and can earn XP to spend on attributes each week by taking part in practice drills and games. The progression is pretty slow for the most part, and the investment needed to substantially upgrade players doesn't feel all that worthwhile.
It's also worth noting that if you decide to control a Superstar who isn't a high draft pick, you'll spend most of the beginning of your campaign on the bench. Only high picks, legends coming out of retirement and players currently in the NFL get slotted right into the action - where every mistake they make counts badly against them (and is also noted on the loading screen's fake Twitter feed). If your Superstar gets injured, it could be a while before the player sees the field again.
Coaching a team is more like the traditional franchise mode; you'll control both the defence and the offence on the pitch and be in charge of sorting out the team's personnel management. While this may sound breezy, it can prove a pain in the proverbial. Players who don't want to be bogged down by the details will probably find themselves delegating a lot managerial hassles to the game's AI, while core players might find the whole process sacrifices depth for a streamlined interface. Still, there are some solid ideas here, and even with its niggles, Connected Careers mode is capable of sucking hours upon hours out of your life.
Both on and off the pitch, Madden NFL 13 has some great ideas, but hardly jaw-dropping leaps forward. This goes for the game's production values, too, and the presentation is further bogged down by the constant product placement. Did you know, for example, that Verizon's latest slogan is "Verizon: Rule The Air"? No? I do - and after about an hour of Madden 13, so will you, as the commentators will shoehorn it into their play-by-play about 10 times.
Yes, there are a lot of improvements here, and yes, the game is heaps of fun to play, but the core experience doesn't feel incredibly different from last year's iteration. In comparison to the gameplay changes that are made between each update of FIFA, Madden feels like its wheels are stuck in the mud.
Then again, that's because FIFA has Pro Evo to compete with. Madden is alone on its particular battlefield, and while this is great for its publisher, it's not as positive for those players hoping for innovation and noticeable evolution. There's always next year...