Long-running franchises like Madden face a daunting task: managing to feel fresh year after year while retaining the same players who made the title successful in the first place. Since Madden is one of the few games that has found massive mainstream appeal, EA is understandably slow to make sweeping changes for fear of sacrificing its cash cow. No game is perfect, so improvements and changes must be made every year in an ongoing effort to deliver the quintessential gaming experience. The tweaks and new features in Madden NFL 11 don't quite pull off that feat, but they go a long way toward making the franchise more casual-friendly and easy to approach.
The biggest addition to this year's title is the GameFlow system, which allows all plays to be called with the press of a button. Before every snap on offense, defense and special teams, all a player needs to do is tap the A button; the game will call a play based on the personnel on the field, your team's specific strengths and weaknesses, and what formation and package the other team is showing. It's a great way to streamline the experience and really help out newer gamers who don't understand how to decode a defense or when to send a blitz to rattle the opposing quarterback.
On offense, GameFlow mostly works like a charm, though there are a few significant hiccups. Most times, the AI does a good job of knowing when to run or pass, and the called play often has a pretty fair chance at success if you read the defense correctly. Sometimes, though, things break down and you're stuck with some pretty stupid plays. A lot of runs are directed right into the heart of the defense, often at the spot where a linebacker is coming on a blitz. I also sometimes ran into some questionable red zone play-calling, where the game would select an all-streaks pass play from eight yards out or some other similarly boneheaded call. While you can always audible out of any overtly dumb call, you're restricted to the formation you're already in, so the other available options might not do much to help matters. In short, GameFlow typically works well on offense, but when it blows up, it really hurts.
The system is significantly worse on defense, where it forces players to react much more quickly to what the offense is doing. Once the play comes down, you'll have to set your defenders, pick a player to control, look over the assignments and make any pre-snap adjustments — often in a window of less than five seconds. Unfortunately, that's almost never enough time, and the only way you'll find out you had the wrong play called is when your defense gets burned for a touchdown. The AI also seems to be extremely aggressive on defense, often dialing up blitzes regardless of the situation. It's great when they work and you drop the QB for a big loss, but failing to pressure the passer will almost always result in a first down surrendered or worse. Ultimately, you're sacrificing smart game-planning for convenience, so if you choose to utilize GameFlow, you have to take the good with the bad.
Madden NFL 11 does allow players a degree of control over the playcalling in GameFlow by letting them rate plays from one to five stars, as well as set up specific packages of plays to use in certain situations, like goal line and third and long. This option is great for mid-level players who understand football and either have specific favorite plays or don't really want to get too deep into strategizing for the game. It's a nice balance between casual and hardcore, but the downside is the computer isn't totally guaranteed to call the plays you prefer, and you may still end up with a dud in a crucial situation since you left the call in the AI's hands. Hardcore players who are beginning to worry at this point should calm down, though, as you can still flip through the full 300 plays in the playbook and pick exactly the call you want in any situation. You aren't forced to use GameFlow if you don't want.
While GameFlow may be useful to some players, the new Strategy Pad is an absolute disaster. Most seasoned Madden players have memorized the button combinations to change coverage, shift linebackers or slide protection, but this year, EA has mapped it all to the d-pad. This in turn leads to extra buttons that must be pressed during the brief period before the snap, potentially ruining any important tweaks that needed to be made in a split-second period. EA has promised to return the old pre-snap controls in a patch, but in the meantime, the Strategy Pad is sure to be a source of frustration for most hardcore players.
Down on the field, a major emphasis has been placed on the running game this year, with mostly positive results. Gone is the famed turbo button, so players must wait for blocks to materialize and utilize their chosen back's natural speed and elusiveness. The removal of the turbo button also creates more freedom to map moves to the analog sticks, and the new dual-stick control makes jukes, spins and steps easier to pull off than ever. Finally, running has become an enjoyable and equal part of the game experience, and moving the ball on the ground requires more skill than simply racing the defense to the corner and then turning on the jets.
In order to create this revamped running system, EA had to beef up the offensive line's blocking AI, and for the most part, the team was successful. The big men are much smarter about who to key on and where to go to open up running lanes, but sometimes, they still can't quite figure it out. Often interior linemen will double-team someone who's already blocked instead of heading upfield to find a linebacker or safety who needs to be tied up. The breakdowns are rare, but when they do come, it'll feel like playing one of the old Maddengames all over again.
Another major shake-up in this year's title is the dumping of Tom Hammond from the broadcast booth to be replaced by Gus Johnson. The switch was much needed, as Hammond's play-by-play made most games dreadfully boring. Johnson kicks things completely in the other direction, offering extremely animated commentary and bringing tons of excitement to the table. Some gamers will undoubtedly find him grating and irritating, but I personally loved his energy and excitement. His calls on big plays and touchdowns create quite a spark, and hearing him hum the theme from the old "Batman" TV show as my wide receiver raced down the sideline on a long touchdown play brought a big smile to my face.
The catch is that since EA spent so much time working with Johnson for this year's game, there was almost no time to record new material for Chris Collinsworth, so a lot of the color commentary is rehashed from last year's game. The two styles don't really mesh all that well so hopefully next time around, EA will be able to get some more dialogue recorded between these two gents and create a television-worthy broadcast crew.
Those looking for major changes or new game modes in Madden NFL 11 will be mostly disappointed, as the Franchise and Be a Pro modes are carbon copies of last year's versions. There is one great addition, though, in the new Online Team Play, which allows up to three players to join up on the same team and take on specific roles. The mode puts a premium on teamwork, and players will likely enjoy this new version of online play much more than any of Madden's previous co-op modes. For those playing offline or in the old modes, there's not much new to the various modes of play to really drum up any significant interest.
Madden NFL 11 is easily one of the most solid efforts in recent years, and it's definitely the sort of game that nearly any football fan will be pleased with. The new GameFlow system is extremely helpful for newcomers and casual players, but it begins to unravel when truly tested. The renewed emphasis on the running game is also a nice improvement, but some hiccups here and there remind players that it was only a year ago when running in a Madden game was a recipe for disaster. All the new additions and improvements in this year's title are significant ones (with the exception of the dreadful Strategy Pad), but these new ideas also need another year or two of tweaking before they can really qualify as series staples. This is a franchise moving in the right direction; now, let's hope they can keep up the momentum for next year.
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