Madden NFL 11 Hands-on With the Final Game

With its August 10 release date only days away, an early copy of Madden NFL 11 arrived on my desk right before this past weekend. Already pumped for the season from the training camp buzz, I couldn't wait to get in and see how my Cowboys fare this time around. While the review must wait until next Monday, after getting in quite a few games I can start putting together an answer to the annual, "so what's new this year?" question.

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While not a game-changer on the field, the most glaring change comes from the move to bring Gus Johnson into the booth to do the play-by-play next to Cris Collinsworth's color commentary. Calling games on Sundays for CBS, Johnson brings tons of energy to the broadcast and that's definitely what EA hoped would translate to Madden. But a big part of Johnson's style comes from its spontaneity and his genuine reaction to the events as they're happening in front of him. You can't script that, and you definitely can't stitch it together believably. It all comes off as laughably artificial at best and gratingly obnoxious at worst, particularly the absurdly over-sold emphasis on cuts to sponsored breaks.

Of a little more consequence to the action out on the field is the option to use the new "gameflow" play calling system. Turn it on, and the AI calls a play to run which then comes through the headset simulating how a real player would hear the signal coming in from the sideline in his helmet. I used it exclusively for all the games I played over the weekend and came away with mixed impressions.

Letting the virtual coach call plays undeniably has the intended effect of making it easy to get into the flow of the game. It also puts the focus squarely on executing on each down. Flaws in the system, though, undermined its ability to keep in the moment. For starters, while I get that EA aims to simplify the game, not giving me the basic formation or personnel on the field for the play called dumbs-down the game too much. It's nice that the coach explains the key to the play to me but I can't imagine Romo coming up to the line not knowing who he has out there with him and what his options are before making his first read. And like Johnson's commentary, the over-acted voice work makes the coaches sound like someone's bad imitation of a West Texas High School coach.

Arguably the biggest change in Madden 11 took place in the running game with the removal of the sprint button. Even having played a few demo games I remained pretty skeptical of running much in practice without having a boost. I stand corrected. Granted, the Cowboys have a pretty talented backfield tandem but running the ball felt like it fit the way it ought to into the pro game. Barber showed power to carry a defensive back, not just go down on contact; and Jones had the speed to get around the corner when the edge was there. Not having the boost to rely on also forced me to pay more attention to setting up runs and I feel like I'm getting better running the ball as a result.

Other changes continue to improve the polish of the game on the field. The most noticeable is the ever-growing number of animations. For instance I saw receivers shift their shoulders to gain position over a cornerback on a slant route, and linebackers come to a running back that's been stood up and try to rip the ball out. But at the same time, some longtime issues remain. Inconsistent blocking remains at the top of the offender's list. It has improved, but I still watched in frustration as guys blithely ignored defenders who proceeded to completely blow up a play. And as always seems to be the case with EA Sports football games, NCAA and Madden, I don't seem to be able to play a game that doesn't have some crazy dramatic moment.

Those issues haven't put me off before and this year isn't any different. Right now I'm thinking about getting back to playing, working on my go-to plays for situations, and looking forward to trying out online play, particularly team play. There's a lot of football still to be played before I bang out the review.