Thursday, 6 September 2012

Review: Madden NFL 13 (360)

While the venerable sports franchise, Madden NFL, has maintained its immense popularity as it heads into its nearly third decade, the recent criticism has been that the franchise hasn't innovated over the previous year’s version, giving gamers nothing more than a new roster update. Electronic Arts took some of that criticism seriously for Madden NFL 13, and has included some innovation to the gameplay engine that toughens and smartens up the artificial intelligence, improves the way players react when moving, and upgrades the game’s passing. For the Xbox 360 version, EA has also integrated the Kinect to allow for audible adjustments on both sides of the ball.

Most of the upgrades are not readily apparent. But as gamers begin playing Madden NFL 13 in whatever mode they choose, those gameplay advancements become easy to notice. First off, the defense is much smarter than before, reacting much more like a real defense, and some of the “cheating” aspects of defenders in past Maddens has been eliminated. Before, AI players on pass coverage that weren’t even looking at the ball that was heading their way would somehow make a blind pass defense, which isn’t realistic. That has been replaced with an AI that allows only AI defenders that can “see” the ball make a play. The AI’s defensive IQ has been increased, too, with disguised coverages and defensive backs that cover receivers much more intelligently.

The other most notable gameplay refinement via the Infinity engine is the player physics that affects if players keep balanced after being hit by an opposing player or get flattened. The top-shelf running backs will sometimes maintain their balance after a would-be tackler hits them, giving them a chance to keep on their feet and gain extra yardage. On defense, hitting a quarterback just as he releases the ball can put a wobble on the throw, reducing the chance that ball is going to be caught by an intended receiver.

However, the new balance aspect of the gameplay causes plenty of unintended interactions, but mostly after the ball has already been blown down. Players will bump into each other like drunken frat boys, tripping and stumbling all over other players already on the ground. But the gameplay flows much more smoothly during actual in-game action, even though most gamers will be so into selecting plays and the game’s flow that it might not be fully appreciated.

What will be more appreciated is the better passing game. The game now adjusts the ball trajectory based on not only the ball speed that the gamer selects (by the pressure hitting the pass button) by how far away the intended receiver is. Now, a bullet pass to a player 15 yards away has a different zip on it than one that is rifled at a receiver 10 yards out. It is hard to notice, but there are instances when it will stand out when a quarterback throws a pass, particularly a long-distance aerial toss. Also assisting Madden QBs is the receiver awareness, where the game will ghost an individual’s icon until they are ready to catch it. Then, the icon turns solid, indicating that the receiver is now open. And gamers better be ready to fling that pigskin, because there’s little time to actually decide on a receiver and toss it. Take too much time, and your quarterback will be lying on his back from a sack, because even when a gamer thinks they have pushed the pass button in plenty of time, they still may exasperatingly wind up in the grasp of a defensive player for negative yardage.

For the Xbox 360, Kinect use has been weaved into the Madden NFL 13 package. Using the Kinect’s audio feature, gamers can call out plays on both offense and defense. The game comes with a armband with words to use for audibles: “Hike”, “spike”, “time out”, “blitz play” are just some of the words/phrases that the Kinect recognizes that affect what’s happening on screen in the game. While it eventually works as planned, it does oftentimes take a few yells at the Kinect for the requested action to actually happen.

One new addition to Madden is the overhaul of the Franchise mode, now called Connected Careers. It is essentially the same as a franchise mode in most aspects that gamers are used to, with some RPG elements (getting bonus points to use for specific actions/goals that can increase your player or coach’s abilities).

Online gameplay has been spotty for this individual reviewer in the early days of Madden NFL 13’s release. Finding a game and connecting quickly to a fellow Xbox Live opponent is smooth. But the gameplay has been choppy and keeping connected for an entire online game has been frustratingly difficult.

With all the attention paid to the engine under the Madden hood, the presentation is just OK. The announcing of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms and the replays all are meant to make playing a game of Madden just like watching a real NFL game, and there is some quality to it, but nothing overly spectacular.

Despite that engine tune-up that does improve some of the realism through the player physics, Madden NFL 13 plays relatively the same as its close predecessors. While EA saw a need to upgrade its Madden franchise, it didn’t want to go too radically away from what has made the game so popular with Madden fanatics. The result is a good playing football game, as is expected from the franchise, but nothing dazzling, and in the case of shaky early online gameplay, somewhat underachieving at the moment. But as the only NFL game around, EA once again gives its core audience of Madden gamers what they expect: a solid NFL videogame with plenty of modes and features to entertain football fans the other six days a week their favorite NFL team isn’t playing.

- Lee Cieniawa

The Good:
‑ The new gaming engine, Infinity, tweaks the gameplay mechanics with a physics overhaul that affects the way players interact, including player balance and tackling
‑ Players are much “smarter” than before, especially on defense, where they react more naturally and use football IQ that makes it much harder for gamers to score offensively without a good gameplan

The Bad:
‑ Kinect play-calling works, but not always on the first command
‑ Some gamers may be confused initially trying to find the popular Franchise mode, which has been renamed Connected Careers
‑ The balance aspect of the Infinity engine works well during plays, but after a tackle, in-game players will be stumbling and tripping all over each other
‑ Online matches connect quickly, but have been choppy in performance

Score: 8.5 / 10