It's nice when the annual iteration of Madden feels less like a retread and more like a refined, fresh experience. While the core game might not seem unchanged to non-players, I think that the fan base will appreciate some of the changes in Madden NFL 13.
First and foremost is the inclusion of EA's Infinity Engine. It's the most talked-about feature in this iteration of Madden, and for good reason. While the other current-generation titles have looked pretty good, the animations, player collisions and overall feel of the gridiron game have always felt a little … off. The Infinity Engine looks to correct that by applying a more realistic physics model and allowing players numerous ways to interact with the character models on the field.
For instance, previous versions of Madden featured canned animations for character tackles. With the Infinity Engine, characters have actual weight to them, so you'll rarely see the same collision or tackle play out the same way twice. When a character hits another character, there's an impact that feels as if the athlete actually put his weight into the hit. However, if the character is a little off in the tackle or merely brushes against the other player, there's a good chance it won't result in a successful tackle, as it had in prior years. You might throw the other player off balance, and he may even stumble a bit, but it won't result in an automatic hit.
On the flip side, while playing offense, the rushing game turns into a more interesting affair — especially when rushing up the middle, which was generally a hit-or-miss fiasco that required your offensive line to provide a nice, open spot. Now you have the potential to rush toward oncoming defenders with the possibility of coming out upright, provided you can shrug off the resistance and maintain balance, which is relegated to the right thumbstick. It makes for a more interesting and varied experience than previous Madden entries, and the Infinity Engine is a welcome addition.
Since this is the first year of its use, it's not without issues. I expect YouTube to be filled with clips involving some of the wonky collisions that plague post-play results. When you're viewing animations under a microscope via the replay system, there are often hilarious results. Some of this comes from players getting up in odd ways or having their limbs bent back in clearly uncomfortable situations. Some of it comes from a slightly robotic look in the running and catching animations that aren't clear when playing but become more pronounced during replays. I'm willing to look past these issues in light of the engine's benefits, and I hope that upcoming versions will improve.
Beyond the major benefits of a new engine, there's a variety of other changes in Madden '13. Gone are the on- and offline Dynasty modes, which are replaced by a cohesive Connected Careers mode that is also available on- and offline. Connected Careers allows you to manipulate and drive the career of a player, created or real, or a coach for any given team. As a player, you'll come up from the draft and try to create your spot in the limelight, smash records and drive home victories for your team. As the coach, you'll do the same but with more hands-on control for rosters, including the ability to scout players throughout the season, deal with contract negotiations, and potentially switch teams for better contracts. There's even a hefty, commentary-filled draft that allows you to deal with other teams, trade up for their picks and fulfill your own draft picks.
Connected Careers mode also involves an experience system. You earn points by playing in games, fulfilling certain career goals and participating in practice drills. These drills are pretty expansive, providing you with a variety of challenges, but the earned points don't always match the challenge. There are easy, medium and hard challenges in practice, but the experience points doled out by the system seem almost random, with some hard challenges yielding far less experience than tasks of a medium difficulty. Part of this seems to be tied into the time commitment of each, with some taking two minutes of the last quarter while others involve an entire game, but a little more consistency would've been nice.
The things you can purchase with experience — such as personal character stat improvements for players or increased chances in contract negotiations for coaches — are on the pricey side. Stat increases are particularly expensive, considering an increase only provides one stat point. It'll take multiple games and practice sessions to make a miniscule advance, so it doesn't seem worth it from a reward perspective.
Aside from Connected Careers, you also have an online versus mode, which allows for lobbies, ranked, unranked and player-run communities you can join. Ranked matches have certain restrictions, like six-minute quarters on All-Pro difficulty only, but matching up with other players has been a breeze. EA's personal servers are another matter altogether, but it is prior to the official launch, so hopefully, that inconsistency will get ironed out.
Unranked matches and lobbies go hand in hand and allow for more customization, such as control over AI difficulty, the length of each quarter, stadiums sliders, weather effects, etc. This is basic exhibition mode stuff that you'd see in just about any sports title. Communities also are self-explanatory, allowing you to create a space for you and your friends to play while tracking stats, wins and losses.
Online play has felt pretty smooth, and while I've run into the occasional lag spike, it's been quite solid. I've played prior to the early three-day access that EA rolled out for Season Pass subscribers, which saw about 60 players online at once, and I've also checked in this morning, when there were about 6,000 users online. Either way, the connection was pretty good, but that's subject to change after the floodgates really open. Based on the time I've spent online with the game thus far, I don't expect any real problems.
Finally, the last substantial mode is Ultimate Madden Team, which returns this year. Ultimate Madden Team is one of my favorite aspects of the series, and I still enjoy it this year. Essentially, this mode allows you to create a team from a limited selection of players from a virtual trading card pack. These players are culled from the current season or from past seasons, featuring all-time greats like Joe Montana, Emmitt Smith, etc. Once you open your card pack and build your first team, you'll participate in one-on-one games against the CPU and other players, and victories can net you credits to spend on new packs of cards, which can potentially contain cards of extremely rare players for your team. You can also unlock new coaches, team colors, playbooks and stadiums.
I realize that a lot of folks will appreciate a more traditional fantasy football approach to creating a team, but I really love the randomness of Ultimate Madden. It's almost like playing an RPG with random loot drops.
For Kinect owners, there's a little incentive to plug in the peripheral, as there are some enhanced voice controls for pre-snap options. Prior to the snap on both offense and defense, you can call a timeout, call out audibles, hike the ball, set hot routes, reposition your offensive and defensive line, and even skip play selection. With the Kinect enabled, you can call out most of these functions via voice command, and it works pretty well.
I attempted to use the function in a variety of settings, with background noise provided both by the TV and other devices as well as in a quieter environment with noise muted. Either way, the Kinect did an exceptional job of picking up the commands, and the game also helpfully displays voice commands whenever they're available.
If you're wondering about picking up another iteration of the Madden franchise, it's safe to say that Madden NFL 13 is the best the series has seen in a few years. The new physics engine is a step above what we've seen thus far, and it adds an element of realism. The cohesive approach to Connected Careers feels like a better direction than the Dynasty mode, and the online functionality works really well. Ultimate Madden Team is sort of like the cherry on top. Madden NFL 13 is worth picking up since it'll appeal to longtime fans as well as the intermittent football aficionados.
More articles about Madden NFL 13