Over the course of the last decade, sports games--with EA's Madden series chief among them--have begun to resemble a massive game of Jenga, ever-teetering on the brink of collapsing. With each passing year, the core concept of the game remains the same: play sports. But in order to incentivize the package being sold each year as new, developers have endlessly stacked new modes atop others, removed various things and replaced them with tweaked versions of those same things, and effectively turned each new game into an ever-evolving, increasingly unstable Frankenstein's monster of complicated features, new graphical/animation engines, haphazardly licensed soundtracks, and unwieldy "extra" content designed to wring "extra" money from your wallet.
All of this for games that are, by and large, becoming less and less accessible to a mass-market audience as the years pass. More complex control schemes, insane levels of statistical number-crunching, and labyrinthine interfaces that seem concocted by sports-obsessed mental patients have more or less robbed Madden of any real casual appeal. Why go online when you know you're going to get obliterated by some cast-off from the Madden Challenge who picks the Lions just because he's out to screw with you? In Madden NFL 11, it feels like EA Sports might finally have realized all of this. Make no mistake, this is still a crazy-deep game of football with more features than you'll probably ever know what to do with (and seemingly than even the developers knew what to do with), but most of the big changes and new features seem geared specifically toward making the experience of getting into Madden a simpler, more accessible experience.
The other big change on the field is the new GameFlow system. Unless you're one of the Madden hardcore (and, admittedly, there are many of you) chances are that at least at once in your Madden-playing career, you have found sifting through playbooks during the course of the game to be a slightly daunting and unpleasant task. To alleviate this, GameFlow essentially takes the necessity of calling plays out of your hands. By pressing a single button, the "coordinators" on the sidelines will call offensive and defensive schemes for you, and it's simply your job to execute. Ideally, these coordinators are taking plays from a book of your own design. Via the game's menus, you can create a whole custom playbook, with specific plays weighted for relevancy in specific situations. So, you know, on third and long, you would hopefully have a number of good pass plays at your disposal, versus 1st and goal, where you might want to send the running back in.
GameFlow is one of those ideas that probably should have come around years ago. It's a seemingly minor alteration to the formula that actually does wonders for making the pace of the game suit other players beyond the ones who thrive on endless tweaking and adjusting. That said, this is one of those features that will also probably be better next year. Despite spending a good hour or so customizing a playbook, I still found that on most teams, I ended up with a fairly pass-happy offense, even in situations where I primarily selected running plays to be the order of the day. On the flip side, I had a coordinator call a running draw play on 3rd and long at least three times for inexplicable reasons. Fortunately, if you hate this mode altogether, you can still just call plays the old fashioned way.
Things on the field generally look and feel a lot better than in years past, as well. The new animation system has its good qualities to be sure. There's some goofiness with deflected balls and awkward animations with dropped passes, but mostly the action on the field looks believable, as it should. Better than any of that, though, is the addition of Gus Johnson and Chris Collinsworth on the mics in the commentary booth. Johnson does really solid play-by-play work, and Collinsworth's delivery and demeanor is as comfortable as any I've heard in a football game in years. If there's any issue, it's just that the editing of said commentary sometimes is a little suspect. The way Johnson overemphasizes Chad Ochocinco's name every single time is a tad obnoxious, and Collinsworth sometimes finds himself rambling on about things that didn't actually happen on the field. Still, it's a big improvement over past games.
On a last note, one minor-looking change to the on-field action is actually my favorite. Audibles have been reworked, so that now, instead of using set audible plays that could be from any formation or package, the audible menu now presents you with four plays using more or less the same package you have on the field. This means that you can call audibles without being supremely obvious about what it is you're up to. It's one of those seemingly throwaway changes that actually makes the game a lot better.
In terms of game modes, Madden 11 is stuffed as full as ever, to the point where it will probably take you weeks to even realize some of these features are here. Franchise mode returns in mostly the same form you've come to know it in, and the online version of it, which debuted last year, is quite an engaging experience. It's easy enough to join up with a league full of your friends, and play games with them each week. Trades, injuries, fantasy drafts, detailed statistics, all of it's there. Of course, you can also just go online and play the standard head-to-head action against friends and curse-and-quit-happy strangers, as per usual, or you can try out the new co-op mode. This lets teams of up to three players each work together by taking control of specific squads on the field. Offensively, you can control the quarterback, all running backs, or all the wide receivers. Defensively, you've got the defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.
The really cool thing about this mode is that it takes the pressure off players who are more interested in simply executing plays versus strategizing them. Only quarterbacks and linebackers worry about calling plays, so if you prefer to just handle the running game and worry about sacking the quarterback, then you can do that. As with all Madden online modes, this is a mode best played with friends and trusted colleagues, as random encounters are likely to result in a lot of rage-quitting and ridiculous behavior on the field. But if you do get a good group of players together, it can lead to some pretty exciting action on the field, too.
Of course, make sure you have a new copy of the game if you plan to do any of this. Otherwise, if you do plan to pick up a used copy on the cheap, be prepared to pony up 10 bucks to get online. EA has included a serial number with every new copy of Madden. In order to sign onto the online servers, you'll need to enter that one-time-use code. If you buy a used copy, you'll either need to pray that code was never used, or spend some Internet dollars in order to get yourself a new one. It's kind of messed up, but again, it really only affects those that troll the used bins. I'm just not a huge fan of any barriers to entry on games you buy, especially when it's a barrier to easily the most exciting portion of the entire game.
Less exciting, and frankly rather superfluous, are the remainder of the game's modes. Superstar mode returns, and is every bit the clunky, hollow, unimaginative experience that I remember from three years ago. The Madden Moments feature, which lets you replay big-time plays and huge comebacks from last season, is a marginal distraction that is hobbled by the fact that it includes no "restart" option anywhere in the menu. Screw up that fourth down conversion with no timeouts left, and you'll sit there each and every time as the computer takes a knee for over a minute and a half. That sucks.
Ultimate Team, which made its debut last year via a patch, has returned on-disc in Madden 11. This is the mode where you effectively play football via trading cards. You start with a pack of player cards filled with scrubs, play matches online or against the computer, and earn coins to buy new packs of cards, in the hopes of landing a Peyton Manning or Adrian Petersen. It's kind of a nifty idea, though the way it's set up isn't altogether compelling. Playing a bunch of games with a 50-something-rated team against even players of similar skill level usually results in a great deal of folly. Those players suck for a reason, so playing a bunch of frustrating football in the hopes of your team eventually becoming less frustrating is not the most exciting prospect in the world. Then again, you could always just bypass all the bad football-playing and simply buy coins, using real money, via the Madden shop. You can buy up to $50 worth at a time! Or, you know, you could just not bother with this mode.
That coin-purchasing system is really just the tip of the iceberg in a game that feels loaded to the point of adver-sploding with marketing opportunities straight from the bowels of Hell. I'm not just talking about the usual spate of in-game advertising inherent to all sports games. I'm not just talking about the abundance of EA- and NFL-related advertising that pops straight in on the "what's new" menu when you first boot up the game. I'm not just talking about the daily scroll bar that explains ample opportunities for pre-ordering other EA games at various retailers. I'm not just talking about the lazily cobbled-together soundtrack that features a wide variety of heavily edited songs from heavily marketable and wildly incompatible bands. I'm not just talking about the slightly spine-cringing practice of selling sponsorships on Xbox 360 achievements. I'm talking about all of these things, at once, thrown in your face like some kind of marketing hurricane from which none of your senses are ever safe, so long as that disc is in your console. We've gone from that simple realm of lousy but harmless in-game ads to being blasted, AA12 shotgun-style by marketers in games we've already paid $60 for. Does it affect the overall gameplay experience? Not a whole lot, but that doesn't make the presence of this stuff any less disgusting.
What it boils down to with Madden NFL 11, as it generally does with every iteration of this game that comes out, is whether or not the pieces that have been reshuffled and restacked atop this year's title make it worth a new purchase. Straight up, my perspective on this is a bit skewed, since this is my first Madden in multiple years. I don't feel quite the fatigue I did from years past when I was playing the game year in and year out, and with that in mind, I actually plan to continue playing Madden 11 beyond the scope of this review. I'm going to keep playing my online franchise, I'm going to play co-op games with my friends, I'm going to keep messing around with my beloved Patriots franchise, and along the way, I'll probably keep using GameFlow in the process. For newcomers, it's easy to say that this is the most accessible new entry in the series in a good, long time, but that really is only in comparison to previous installments. This is otherwise still every bit the complex, over-stuffed, top-heavy game of football that EA has been producing since this console generation gained its bearings. That is either a thing you want, or a thing you don't. Madden 11 won't change any minds yet, but at the very least, it's a big step in the right direction.