The constant criticism that all sports games face is that, to the casual fan, they roll out the same product on a yearly basis. Slight roster tweaks and AI improvements are not going to draw every owner of Madden ’12 out to the midnight releases. Granted, they still draw a big crowd, but the push in virtual sports is innovation. Lagging behind its NCAA counterpart for years, Madden took the 2012-2013 season as an opportunity to do a massive franchise facelift, introducing two new highly touted features as well as a new pair of commentators in an attempt to mostly bolster the realism of the game while maintaining its strong core mechanics.
The “game-changing” Infinity Engine, which provides the closest thing Madden has ever had to realistic physics, was the selling point for this year’s iteration. As is always the case with a new physics engine, players still find themselves staring at their televisions as players flail inexplicably back and forth and defy the forces of gravity, but the technical issues can be tweaked. The concept is undoubtedly sound.
For someone who plays roughly 268 Madden games each year, the idea that we as gamers can escape the doldrums of repetitive plays is one of which every Madden player has dreamed, and the Infinity Engine brings that to life fairly effectively. Running backs now recognize their offensive linemen, so rushes on the inside take on a whole new dynamic. Receivers and cornerbacks do battle an entirely different way. Each play is as different as can be. So far, I’ve only lost one match due to juking a player to the point where we’re running parallel to each other, but wacky hitboxes or a very strong wind knocked my receiver to the ground on the final play of the game. Like I said, details.
The second major addition to the game comes by the new Connected Careers mode. Connected Careers is essentially a combination of Superstar mode and Franchise Mode. The setup is thus: You are a player or you are a coach. Gather with your friends and create a league, or battle the computer on your own. Yet again, it is a sound concept, but unfortunately the addition of Connected Careers comes with a subtraction. While pure Superstar is integrated with CC, the offline Franchise mode, which is Madden’s greatest offline social conduit, has been entirely and unceremoniously removed from the game. This means decade-old-traditions like mine, where I gather 8-10 friends and we play through a season as every team in the league, or the opportunity to just spend time on the couch with a fellow Madden player and battle the computer, knowing full well you’ll see each other in the playoffs, is now extinct.
While there are many Madden players who prefer online, EA’s decision to exclude offline players entirely is massively limiting and, frankly, incredibly offensive. If you like to get together with friends and play Madden, as many of us do, then this may not be the game for you.
In fact, EA believes that the Connected Careers – type – mode, which allows players to play with up to 31 other players on separate consoles, is the future for all major sports games. While Connected Careers is very solid in its execution, the design decision to entirely eliminate the offline elements and jettison every player into an environment where they are by themselves and online is narrow-minded and asinine. A large number of players, myself included, will be hard to win back when the major reason they shell out nearly $300 each fall is utterly eviscerated.
After discovering the above design decision (about ten minutes into my Madden ’13 experience), viewing the rest of the game with an open mind was relatively difficult. Yet, I find myself grudgingly admitting that the game’s core mechanics are still as good as ever. The display is markedly more realistic, and Jim Nantz and Phil Simms do an exceptional job at making their commentary feel natural (especially considering that they started from scratch with two new commentators.) Perhaps the best part of Madden ’13 is the noticable absence of Chris Collinsworth. His commentary singlehandedly could ruin anyone’s Madden experience. As the Infinity Engine’s errors decrease in frequency and quantity, Madden appears to be on the right path to reinventing itself as the best football simulator out there.
EA still has a ways to go, and absolutely needs to keep in mind the wishes of its audience and the purpose of its game – Madden is a football simulator, and sports are often best as a group activity. Therefore, forcing gamers into a solo/online – or – die type of environment is unpleasant, and keeping most of those players becomes untenable. However, at the end of Day 1 with Madden, I found myself staring at a 32-team-schedule I had created myself in a couple of hours to replicate a Madden season. When all is said and done, the core of the game is very strong. Strong enough that I can happily get through my yearly 268 Madden games.
(Version Reviewed: Xbox 360)