Video Game Review: Madden NFL 10
The graphics in Madden NFL 10 are so realistic you can even see Brett Favre’s liver spots…I kid, I kid…
With the 2009 NFL regular season right around the corner, the time has arrived for Electronic Arts to unleash Madden NFL 10 on the gaming public. It’s unquestionably the biggest sports release of the gaming calendar, and for many it is the biggest release of the year period. This year’s iteration boasts some new features, including online franchise with up to 32 human players and co-operative play, along with an increased focus on re-creating what you’ll see Sundays this fall. Those that write Madden NFL 10 off as a glorified roster update are doing themselves a disservice as the improvements make this one of the finest football games ever made.
The majority of the control scheme remains unchanged as you’ll still pass to your receivers by pressing the corresponding button appearing above their heads. However, quarterbacks have been given an improved ability to evade the rush, which comes in handy when the blitz is on. The moves are mapped to the right stick, so flicking the stick up will cause your quarterback to step up to let the rush go past you while moving it to the left or right allows you to side step oncoming defenders. Your controller also rumbles when the rush is closing in to help avoid sacks.
Once you’re running in the open field you’ll have plenty of moves at your disposal, including the spin (B), stiff arm (A), hurdle (Y) and dive (X). The right stick is where you’ll be making your highlight reel moves, though, as right, left and back juke your defenders in the same direction you press, while pushing up either makes you lower your shoulder or attempt to dodge the would-be tackler. You can also sprint (RT), but don’t fall in love with it as most of the big runs in this game are the result of reading your blocks and evading tacklers.
Defensively, things have changed for the better, specifically when it comes to rushing the passer. Instead of using the right and left bumpers to execute swim moves and spins, those are now handled with the right stick, which feels much more natural. For example, if you’re being blocked and the quarterback is rolling to your right, you can attempt to disengage by pressing right on the stick. It works great and is a nice upgrade from past years.
Madden NFL 10 also comes loaded with the usual pre-snap adjustments on both sides of the ball. As the quarterback, you can call full-fledged audibles, assign hot routes for your receivers, roll your blocking or send players in motion. On defense, you can call audibles for the entire group or specifically for each level of defense (line, linebackers and secondary). As someone who has watched and covered football as a profession for many years, I love the pre-snap chess match, and it’s something that’s done exceedingly well in this game.
This is hands down the best looking football game I’ve ever played. The lighting is amazing, particularly during night games, and the player animations are startlingly realistic. Nowhere is this more evident than with EA’s signature in-game addition for Madden NFL 10, the Pro-Tak system, which allows up to nine tacklers to wrap up a runner simultaneously. Once they lock up, players struggle to move the pile while more players become entangled, adding to the chaos. It’s really well done and you never feel like you’re watching canned animations as so many outcomes branch off from the initial lock up. In that same vein, Madden NFL 10 also introduces fumble pile-ups where you’ll do some button mashing to see who comes out with the pigskin. It’s a cool concept and a welcome addition after all those years of seemingly random recoveries.
The in-game presentation has also received a face lift, and EA deserves major credit for creating a very realistic broadcast atmosphere with additional camera angles, sideline shots, stat tickers and little things like referee conferences. One of my favourite of these little touches happened when, while driving the ball late in a 7-7 game, they showed a shot of my kicker warming up on the sidelines. It was perfectly timed and spot-on with something you’d see in an NFL broadcast. There are literally dozens of things like this that do a phenomenal job of immersing you in the experience, and I often found myself just smiling at a particular animation (like guys jumping over a tackled player after the whistle) because of how accurately it had been recreated. Plus, who doesn’t get a kick out of hearing the classic NFL Films music when you watch an instant replay.
Unfortunately, the in-game commentary doesn’t match the high standard set by the visuals. Cris Collinsworth does a decent job as the colour man, but Tom Hammond’s play-by-play work leaves a lot to be desired. The biggest problem is that the commentary lacks any emotion or feel for the situation, and while they were rare, I still encountered issues where consecutive lines would contradict each other — i.e., suggesting it’s time to go for it, then expressing surprise when I did. EA’s NHL ’09 had some of the best commentary I’ve ever heard in a sports game, so hopefully the folks at Madden can take some inspiration from that and shore up this area up in time for next year.
There’s also an added segment called “The Extra Point,” which is a studio show designed to keep you up to speed on what’s going on in the NFL during franchise mode. It does a pretty good job, but there are no in-game highlights to be seen and the audio for it is disjointed. The soundtrack offers a healthy mix of rock and hip-hop.
One of the things EA did for Madden NFL 10 was to slow things down a bit to create a more realistic pace on the field. The results are excellent, particularly in the running game as you’ll need to read blocks and find holes as they open up to take advantage rather than jamming on the sprint button and hoping for the best. The move to a slower pace also necessitated some improved blocking AI, which EA delivers as your offensive line will now at least attempt to create a nice pocket for you to pass from.
The playbooks are deep and contain a healthy amount of unique sets for each club, and the suddenly en vogue Wildcat formation has been added — much to the chagrin of online players that square off against opponents that run little else. The in-game AI remains a mixed bag. The computer actually does a nice job of taking things away if you continuously run the same plays, but you’ll still see the computer veer out of bounds for no reason at times.
Once again, the two primary offline modes are Franchise and Be an NFL Superstar. The franchise mode is clearly the meat and potatoes as you guide your team through season after season, trading, drafting and signing players along the way. The traditional calendar has been removed, as has the ability to schedule practices between your games, but to me it has merely served to streamline the process and won’t be missed. The franchise hub has also been redone to give quicker access to the necessary info, which is another welcome refinement.
I also found that the trading AI has been amped up as teams are more hesitant to part with their draft choices or take on salary, though the trading block is often filled with uneven trade demands. For instance, the CPU will offer a halfback with an overall rating of 72 while asking for a quarterback with an 83-plus rating in return. Conversely, the trading block works well when trying to determine value for your own talent as you can list a player, select up to three player types or draft picks you’d accept in return, and then see which teams, if any, are interested in meeting your asking price.
Negotiating with free agents has both good (detailed list of what each player is interested in) and bad (offer $1.19 million and you’re told we’re miles apart on money, offer $1.2 million and it’s a deal). It’d be nice to see some counter offers from agents as well as a little more diversity in what you can offer — incentive-laden or back- or front-loaded contracts, for example. I’d also like to see free agents lower their demands as the signing period wears on. For instance, Graham Harrell shot down a four-year, $5 million deal to be my backup to Philip Rivers on Day One of free agency and remained unsigned on Day 29. However, he was still asking for the same money.
Superstar mode has largely been gutted and feels like more of an afterthought. You only have one practice per week, which consists of one play being run over and over again until you quit with no real benefit to doing it, and you can communicate with your agent. The game itself is fun if you’re playing a skill position, but the AI play calling can be pretty shaky at times. I often found myself asking questions like why are we running a play-action pass on third and 14 down 10 points with two minutes left?
Moving online, the most anticipated arrival is that of online franchise mode, where you and up to 31 other people can take control of a team and play full seasons against each other. It’s an excellent addition that brings a ton of replay value to the package. As with any new feature, it’s impossible to know how it’ll ultimately play out, particularly when it’s reliant on the community to support and embrace, but EA has put the tools in place and the early response has been overwhelmingly positive. Just take a look in gaming forums around the Internet and you’ll see hundreds of leagues forming. I’ve joined three online leagues myself and have enjoyed signing free agents and negotiating trades with other human owners. If you get the right mix of active owners, the possibilities are endless.
Another smart move by EA was to offer the ability to manage your online franchise from your PC or even your iPod Touch or iPhone with a free application. I’ve encountered some issues with managing my franchise from my computer, usually relating to the server being down or being unable to save my changes, though I’m inclined to chalk that up to growing pains. The interface itself is solid. The iPod app was set for release Tuesday, but as of this writing, it had not appeared in the iTunes App Store. Does anyone else smell a decline in workplace productivity on the horizon?
The other new online mode in Madden NFL 10 is co-operative play. The camera, which is focused in tight on you, takes some getting used to and can be downright wonky when switching players on defense. Co-op works best when one player is the quarterback and the other mans another skill position (receiver, tight end or running back) as you can more or less draw up plays in the dirt so to speak. Clearly, having a human controlled partner offers more chances to ad lib on the fly. It still feels like a bit of a work in progress, but it is fun as a secondary mode.
Of course, old school Madden players will find that standard head-to-head online play returns and runs as smoothly as ever. There are online lobbies to find worthy opponents and challenge them to a game with some customizable options. You can also choose a quick match and be thrown together with someone by the CPU. For those that crave a more hardcore experience, EA has rolled out Elite Status, which gives players access to private lobbies and allows for the use of the All-Madden difficulty setting online. Elite Status will set you back 400 MS Points ($5) and is part of a trend that will no doubt irk some gamers: micro transactions.
Beyond Elite Status, Madden NFL 10 also features a laundry list of downloadable accelerators through the Madden Shop tab. For instance, you can download an item that allows you to see all the real stats for the upcoming draft class at any given position at a cost of 40 MS Points ($.50). Another download guarantees your aging superstar won’t retire (80 points – $1) *cough* Brett Favre *cough*. Those that want everything can download all 20 accelerators in the Madden Max Pack for 800 MS points ($10). Of course, none of these items are necessary to play the game, and in fact they’re all unusable online.
While Madden NFL 10 has a handful of shortcomings, it’s impossible not to recognize the amazing job EA has done here recreating the NFL experience. From the outstanding graphics and upgraded presentation to the creation of online franchise mode, this year’s release is simply a must own for football fans.