Madden NFL 11 Review

Annual updates to sports video game franchises like Madden come with a non-negotiable set of baseline expectations. They of course need to include the latest rosters, with players updated to reflect their projected performance for the coming season, improve their simulation of the sport being played, and look better than ever doing it. Madden NFL 11 ticks-off those boxes with its regular efficiency.

For as much work as goes into successfully accomplishing this overhaul, these required elements get chalked up as a price of entry, rarely causing much excitement. This year, though, the Madden team took something of a gamble when they got to improving the simulation. They took out the "turbo" button that gives the player being controlled a little extra oomph in their sprint. This simple change compliments the increased emphasis on accurately representing the physical abilities of the real players, new animations that better capture the way they move on the field, and better sense of their differing mass and momentum in the action. Working together, they help this year's Madden feel more like a "natural" game of football than a video game.

As I've grown accustomed to it, I think this represents a great example of addition by subtraction in video games. Sprint had become a sort of universal "make a play" button. Trying to get around the corner on a sweep? Sprint. Out of position covering a pass? Sprint. Bearing down on the QB for a sack? Sprint. Without it, all the other elements of the game matter the way they ought to and I find myself playing a much better -- and by virtue of it, more satisfying -- game of ball. Now on a run I focus better on reading the hole and setting up blocks; and on the other side of the ball I'm much more patient and practiced in hunting down the ball carrier and applying the hit.

An unexpected drawback to these improvements is that it makes the same old Madden problems more glaring than ever. Blocking sits at the top of the list. Yes, it's gotten better but there will still be a handful of plays per game where it fundamentally breaks. Two problems continue to plague the series: linemen won't "see" second-level blitzers every so often, particularly safeties, and will literally stand idly by and watch them blow up a play. And lead blockers will be in perfect position to pick up the free linebacker on a run only to run blindly past them. Play-action also continues to be a sucker-play more often than not with the defense all over the quarterback by the time he comes out of his fake handoff due to blockers not picking up their assignments.

Another contribution to the increased emphasis on the action comes from the new "GameFlow" play call system. Essentially a virtual offensive and defensive coordinator, when used it calls the plays based on situation, tendencies, play book, and game plan. Initially I completely disliked being removed from the thinking part of the game. Then I started customizing my game plan and the system began to grow on me. I found myself making adjustments based on what happened in games, like removing plays that weren't clicking and increasing the emphasis on those that were, just as I imagine real offensive coordinators would.

Now, using game flow feels like I'm running my own game plan. I come up to the line intent on execution, reading the defense and thinking about what will and won't work. On defense, though, it's less successful. The generalities used in setting up the situations leave too many vulnerabilities to be exploited, such as being caught in a base defense facing a multiple wide receiver set. Not knowing the personnel on the field coming out of the huddle makes it difficult to spot these mismatches in the limited pre-snap time. On the plus side, using GameFlow is a per-play decision, so it's easy to step in on a critical down and take the reins.

This flexibility comes in handy online against the unpredictability real people bring to the game. Not that a good game plan won't match up but when there's a big time, game-defining moment, I want to make that call. It also works out well in the new online team play mode for going back to plays your teammates run well. And obvious as it may be, hitting big plays working together with your friends brings a new sort of satisfaction to Madden. I can see myself playing a lot more online team play, especially ganging up to stomp on the computer.

No surprise; as an NFL fan I know I'll be playing a lot more Madden this season, period. It does surprise me some, though, that in a sport known for its high production values on TV broadcasts that Madden continues to be so inconsistent in presentation. The addition of energetic play-by-play man Gus Johnson yields only mixed results. His enthusiasm sounds wooden as often as not, and then absurdly over the top on sponsor messages. It also baffles me that no halftime show remains a better choice than what the team can do with the ESPN license. Then again, after seeing the barest of minimum stat recaps in "the Extra Point" weekly wrap-up show in franchise mode, maybe that's for the best.

Like the past few years, Madden NFL 11 shows the refinement from another year of development and promise for the future, but still plenty of room for improvement. On the strength of the more natural game of football it plays, and addition of GameFlow and online team play, though, this should be counted among the series' up years.

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