The release of Madden every August reminds American Football fans everywhere that the NFL regular season is just around the corner - it's an exciting time. While Madden has always benefited from the close association it has with the NFL, the partnership hasn't always translated into huge leaps forward for the franchise year-to-year. Is Madden NFL 11 one of those marginal upgrades, or is it the next big step forward? The answer is somewhere in between the two.
Much like NCAA slightly before it, Madden NFL 11 introduces some much needed improvements to the core mechanics on the field. These primarily come in the form of a revamped run game, better (though far from perfect) blocking, and sideline catches. Madden 11 also distinguishes itself from previous installments by implementing a streamlined play calling system, dubbed "GameFlow", which makes the experience more casual friendly by automating the playbook. Other additions include 3-on-3 online cooperative play, a card collecting "Ultimate Team" mode, and some incremental improvements to the presentation.
If there's one message the people at EA want to get across to the wider gaming / football viewing populous with this year's Madden it's the introduction of GameFlow. The automated play calling mechanic was tailored specifically with the casual audience in mind, as many have been intimidated by Madden in the past, and for good reason. It may surprise those unfamiliar with Madden to hear the series is easily one of the most complicated in gaming, furthered by the consistent lack of an effective tutorial.
GameFlow helps alleviate some of that frustration by calling plays for you. Play resembles that of an actual quarterback taking instruction from the coach before the snap. The call is relayed to the player by a virtual coach through a headset or speaker system. "Game Planning" allows players to tune GameFlow to their liking by rating a selection of plays tailored to fit a variety of common situations on the field.
Unfortunately, GameFlow isn't nearly as comprehensive as you might expect for such as highly touted addition. While it will likely satisfy casual players learning the ropes, Madden veterans will quickly see the system's limitations and revert back to traditional play calling. The limitations come in many forms - whether it be the repetitive pre-snap coaching advice, questionable calls in risky situations by the AI, or lack of access to a complete playbook in Game Planning. Madden NFL 11 lays the foundations for something potentially very useful, but GameFlow still has a long way to go.
This year's Madden features a variety of improvements to the core mechanics of running, blocking and catching, although it's still far from perfect. In terms of the run game, a new dual analogue stick control scheme has been implemented, courtesy of the revamped Locomotion engine. In keeping with EA Sports' other titles, the right stick now controls the finesse actions of the runner - i.e. dodges, speed bursts and sidesteps. The speed boost has been eliminated in favor of finesse motions, which really forces you to wait for gaps and opportunities to exploit. The main problem with this setup comes on kick returns, where returners feel incredibly slow and frequently get taken down behind the 20 yard line. Overall, the control scheme works well, giving players who master it a real edge, but casual players can still get by without using it.
That being said, improved running doesn't translate into successful plays without effective blocking. Thankfully, Madden NFL 11 features improved blocking - linemen will generally hit the first couple of blocks. Unfortunately, the improvement is marginal at best, as the unexplained missed blocks from past games still frequently occur.
Another much needed fix comes with sideline action. In previous iterations of the game, it was far too common for players to put their feet out of bounds on routine catches or to run out of bounds on side routes. Fortunately EA Tiburon have fixed this and it great to finally have this implemented.
Cooperative online matches with up to four players was introduced midway through Madden 10's lifespan. With Madden 11 that number has been expanded to six players for 3-on-3 matches. Dubbed "Online Team Play", the new feature allows three friends per team to assume some of the skilled positions on the field - QBs, RBs and WR/TEs on offense, versus D-line, LBs and D-backs on defense. Cooperation is absolutely essential to success in this mode, as voice communication is the only effective way to ensure each player is on the same page. While playing with strangers generally results in disastrous ball hogging, a coordinated team can be incredibly effective and above all fun.
In terms of presentation, Madden NFL 11 incrementally improves some areas, but stumbles in others. On the positive side, the visuals continue to progress with noticeably enhanced lighting, character models and animations. Team specific Super Bowl victory celebrations, stadium chants and player match-ups also help make Madden 11 the most realistic football experience to date. The one major exception is the commentary, which continues to struggle. The highly touted addition of Gus Johnson doesn't help the situation. What is supposed to be an enthusiastic and passionate delivery comes across as laughably rigid and scripted.
Madden NFL 11 is a solid entry in the long running football franchise. While it doesn't do anything particularly revolutionary, there are plenty of welcome enhancements, on and off the field, that make the experience worthwhile. Casual players will find Madden 11 approachable thanks to GameFlow, while veterans will appreciate the various improvements to the core mechanics, presentation and the addition of 3-on-3 online co-op.