One block: That's all I needed to realize that Madden NFL '10 is unlike any of its predecessors.
I was using the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, whose most glamorous stars are quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and safety Troy Polamalu, he of the flowing mane of black hair. Arguably the most respected player is receiver Hines Ward, known as one of the nastiest (some would say dirtiest) players in the league, a guy who could not only run and catch, but also have no problem flooring anyone from an opposing corner to a defensive end if needed.
It was a 2nd and 6 against the San Diego Chargers. I wanted to test the Chargers' perimeter D with the run, so I called a toss — knowing that Shawne Merriman, their force-of-evil linebacker, was on the side I was approaching. I'm in a two-back set with Ward and Santonio Holmes on the weak side, bunched close to the line. I snapped the ball, tossed it to Willie Parker and immediately looked for room.
That's when I saw it. Instead of aimlessly whiffing on the block or putting up an unrealistic hands-up confrontation with a guy about 60 pounds heavier, I see Ward go low and upend Merriman with a clean but unfriendly shoulder block to the thighs. This cleared the way for Parker, and I was able to get eight yards instead of two or three. It was the kind of block that would have had Madden himself drawing it up on the screen.
Lots of coaches, football or otherwise, will preach the philosophy that if you master the little things, the bigger stuff will take care of itself. That's Madden '10 in a nutshell, and the result is a game that starts to actually feel like professional football, wrinkles and all. It's the experience that many contemporary console owners and die-hard football fans have been seeking ever since the 360 and PS3 came out.
Most of these little things involve the game's overall package of visuals and animations. The title makes it a point to trumpet the arrival of details such as the chain gangs and hand towels that move, but the bigger feat is how there are a host of animations and frames dedicated to capturing the nuances of football. There's a sense of controlled chaos with this sport, the sum of individual battles affecting the outcome or movement of any given play. EA calls this package the "Pro-Tak" system, and it's probably the most significant advancement the series has made in a few years.
Older incarnations of Madden usually featured big guys running over small guys, small guys running past big guys, and every physical confrontation turning into a one-on-one battle. There was never a sense of the in-trench, pad-popping fury that happens whenever the ballcarrier is surrounded by human traffic. The Pro-Tak system emphasizes the concept of actually battling for the proverbial six inches in front of your face. The most obvious examples are in the commercials, with eight or nine defenders stacking up a ballcarrier and working to bring him down. There are a host of other elements, though, such as assisted tackles, a ball carrier spinning out of our arm grabs to gain extra yardage, a tailback falling or stumbling forward to stretch for the first down.
The best examples of the system in action come with the running game, a science that has eluded this franchise for years. From guys running around and hopefully slamming into someone to the ever-popular "suction blocking" to guys randomly falling down, running the ball had been either very cartoonish-looking or just not fun to do. That's changed this year.
Perhaps taking a visual cue from how 2K's All-Pro Football handled the ground game, the run-blocking in Madden '10 has never been better. It's also never been harder. In past games, holes and running alleys were clear to see and stayed open for as long as you needed them to, almost like the holes in Tecmo Bowl. This time, you'll get a first-hand lesson on what it feels like to "leave yards on the field," as the blocking flows more naturally. It puts a lot of pressure on you as the ball carrier to not only find room to run, but also to act upon it as soon as possible. Otherwise, you'll get a two-yard gain as opposed to an eight-yard one. This makes longer runs rare and extremely rewarding. It also drives home the point that running the football is an exercise in patience, so that you'll learn to be happy with not tearing off 15-yard runs every play. Another thing to keep in mind is the often-overlooked ability to direct the blocking assignments of your offensive line, which can be done with a simple pull of the left trigger and a flip of the left thumbstick in one of four directions. Centers have to do this all the time before the snap, and trust me, it helps. All you have to do is get used to reading defensive fronts.
The passing game opens itself to a world of its own animations, the most notable being man-to-man bump-and-run coverage on the outside. The days of a cornerback simply running alongside a receiver are gone. Now you have one-on-one duels at the line of scrimmage, hand-to-hand fighting that can send a receiver stumbling out of his route or the timing of a slant route to be ruined. This can either force you as the QB to hold onto the ball longer (a Big Ben special) or look somewhere else. In other words, the game gives you more worries as a quarterback. The concept of pocket presence has also been retooled, as the right thumbstick functions as the "avoidance" stick, allowing you to shift your quarterback's position in the pocket to avoid the rush. One nifty thing to check out is a perfect play-action pass, where you can see a safety who bites hard on the fake almost trip over himself trying to sprint back to his coverage assignment.
A subtle but major change is the slower game speed. It's meant to reflect the pace of actual football, and it has a twofold effect on the player. On one hand, slower speed means more time to read coverages or make plays, but the players also move slower, including quarterbacks who take an extra split-second to plant their feet and throw. It took me a couple of games to get used to the new speed, but the growing pains were well worth all the stuff that's been packed into the game.
I've enjoyed a lot of the team-specific offensive plays and concepts in this year's batch of playbooks. Teams with big-time running games like Minnesota (Adrian Peterson) and Atlanta (Michael Turner) have a host of zone-blocking, power and cutback plays that find creative ways to clear space. The Steelers feature various "shake" route plays designed to free up Ward and Holmes in the middle of the field. The Patriots and Tom Brady have a host of spread plays.
Of course, the most obvious addition is the Wildcat formation, best used by the Miami Dolphins but able to be utilized in some fashion by every team in the league. It's a nice offensive curveball, but since defense is much more aware this year, it's not something you'll want to try and use too often.
All that said, there are still some things that'll require some offseason work. Controlling the players isn't as instantaneous and responsive as I'd like, mainly because there are so many animations the game has to take into account. It was the same issue that sometimes plagued All-Pro Football — so while you'll read the right hole at the right time, you might get caught in a cutback animation or something else that will slow you down. This also happens inexplicably with jukes in the open field — anyone who's seen Peterson explode for a long run knows that a lot of his cuts come at full speed. He slows down for no one.
I'm also not a big fan of the commentary. Cris Collinsworth is a mostly great listen, but Tom Hammond brings the vanilla in droves for a second straight year. The tracking for Collinsworth's lines isn't perfect, though — one example has Collinsworth expounding about a receiver being held to one catch, and how it's amazing that it would happen to such a dominant player. That's fine, but he does this with every receiver, whether it's Larry Fitzgerald or the fourth wideout on the Bengals. It's strange.
Another thing I can do without is "The Extra Point," the halftime/franchise highlight show hosted by Fran Charles and Alex Flanigan of the NFL Network. It would be one thing if it showed highlights from other games or perhaps some game analysis — but it's essentially a glitzier way of just showing more numbers with Flanigan's voice wafting over them. In essence, it's a glorious box score, and it's something I can get by looking at the stats on my own.
In terms of online goodies, there are co-op play (though against the computer) and online franchises. The franchises feature Web pages that allow you to do everything from propose trades and ogle more numbers (think online dynasties in NCAA Football '10, except with pro applications). For the truly dedicated, there's an iPhone application that enables you to run your franchise or league while mobile. Sadly, you can only play co-op versus the computer. It's a step in the right direction, but not something that would make me spend money on the game.
For all of the things that Madden NFL '10 does right, it's certainly not the perfect experience. It's easily the finest incarnation of the series since the arrival of the 360 and PS3, and it signals the first true statement as to how the future of the series is going to be. It looks quite promising.
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