The trick to keeping an annual franchise alive is to never stop trying new things. That can be a risky proposition, of course, as messing with a successful formula is essentially toying with the emotions of diehard fans. The fans know what they like, and the developers are basically forced to give them what they don’t know they want yet, while still keeping the franchise true to itself. The alternative is to leave the series alone and let it stagnate. Activision faces this problem annually faces with Call of Duty, but they have addresses it by using multiple developers. Sports games, however, don’t have that luxury, and no game is under the gun year in and out much as EA Sports’ Madden series.
Which brings us back to this review of Madden NFL 13.
The Madden franchise is one of the best selling and culturally significant video game franchises ever made. Productivity plummets nationwide when the latest edition drops, and everyone from stars to politicians have been known to go a few quarters. But you already know that. The question is, is this year’s revamp significant, or just another short yardage gain for the series?
Infinity Engine for the Win
Madden 13 will be the first version of the game to adopt the new Infinity Engine, which changes the physics of the game slightly, but that slight change has a significant impact on the way the game moves.
The new engine introduces several notable changes to the movement on the field, but none more so than the introduction of momentum. There was always a touch momentum at work in the previous games, but it was always minor. Momentum while tackling was never a big deal, but hitting someone and having the defender’s body morph into the receiver was odd looking, and made some of the catches look arbitrary, since the animation was not always reliable. The new physics make up for that, sometimes too much so.
When a player smashes into another, his momentum will carry the hit player in whatever direction momentum dictates. This makes the receiving more realistic than before, and when a receiver is hit, you know it. The downside manifests in some more unrealistic quirks: Occasionally, when an offensive player is running with the ball and hit but not tackled, he can spring off the defender like they are made of rubber. It’s almost like the defender is being helpful and giving the runner a nice little push. This can happen in the blink of an eye, and players that escape a tackle move faster than humanly possible for a split second. This doesn’t happen too often, but it happens often enough that the engine definitely needs some fine tuning. Overall though, the new engine is big step forward and the emphasis on momentum, along with the new tackling animations, are a significant advancement.
Minor tweaks for major depth
Pass trajectories debuted in NCAA Football 13, but they appear more finely tuned in Madden 13. When you are controlling the QB, you now have several more options on where and how you throw the ball. This gives you a huge amount of options on passing – but it also takes some getting used to.
Make no mistake: This represents an advancement for the series, geared towards longtime players who will recognize and appreciate the subtleties introduced in the passing game. It gives you far more control, and you now have the ability to shred defenses more than ever before. However, rookies and casual players will need more practice to put the ball exactly where they want it, steepening the learning curve.
There is still a bit of inconsistency on the defense, and defenders can suddenly come out of nowhere at warp speed, but not as often as in the past. This has more to do with the continued shift in the series away from players constantly running deep plays. There used to be a time when you could have two minutes left on the clock and score multiple touchdowns. Those days are more or less gone, and you will need to be smarter than in past games and run shorter plays, saving the big plays for special occasions. This should be nothing new for veterans of the series.
There are also a few other minor tweaks that will add depth to the gameplay. You can opt out of a play action after the ball is snapped, for example, and the QBs have more animations to give you a better sense of how they should be throwing. A planted back foot is always going to be ideal, but a new receiver icon color system that tells you when they are looking for the ball will be more important.
The other side of the ball
My biggest complaint about Madden 13 is on the defensive side of the ball. The offense has seen minor changes that require more skill and practice, but once you learn the new pass trajectory system, the defense is at your mercy.
Previous Maddens were marred by the occasional superhuman defender, who would seemingly become momentarily omniscient. They could be running ahead at full speed, and without looking, knock down a ball. It was eerie how good they were, or if you were on offense, simply frustrating. The problem now shifts in the opposite direction, which is more realistic, but also a bit unbalanced.
Defenders no longer seem to know where their targets are at all times like they used to, and instead have to rely on their defensive routes – which is great – but it also means they can be burned often. Defenders will still swarm on any deep play, but short plays are easier for a defender. The game is harder than ever before, and the defensive AI can still step it up, but the improvements have made offense easier and defense harder. It is a balance issue more than anything.
This is still an improvement over the deus ex machina defensive plays that probably caused a few broken controllers, but it still needs work, as a skilled offensive player can now pick apart defenses.
Licensed by the NFL
As with all Madden games, you expect a certain number of bells and whistles to accompany the presentation, and a fair amount of commentary from knowledgeable, real-life people (at least since John Madden left and took with him with patented nuggets of wisdom along the lines of “if you want to win, you need to score more points than the other team”).
This time around you are joined by Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, who begin the game with an animation of them in the booth, discussing the game. The commentary is varied and smart, but as players tend to play in patterns unique to them, you will soon hear repeated lines. This is a minor quibble, and one that may never change. For the most part though, the commentary is astute, and you will often hear bits about the players, the team rivalries, and other lines specific to the play and game you are on, which can be remarkable.
Outside of the game itself, Madden 13 offers a lot of additional content beyond the typical quick play, franchise mode, and online games. If you sign up on NFL.com’s Fantasy Football league, you can link your accounts and track games, and ESPN has plenty of video content to watch, along with the active ticker that you’ve come to expect.
There is also a “Best of 2011” section, which gives you specific scenarios from 2011 that you are tasked with recreating. The game may start you on the 20 with a tied game and a minute to go, or you could be down by 14 as the fourth quarter starts. There are five selections at a time, and these will be frequently updated, which offers a lot of potential content. It isn’t a new idea, but it’s a good one.
All of the former game modes return as well. Previous offerings have tried to make the franchise mode into a role-playing-like experience, and a bit of that remains, but EA Sports seems to have decided to stick with improving the core mechanics over trying new ways to play, and I’m totally OK with that.
One new iteration for Xbox users is the Kinect inclusion, which allows you to call audibles vocally. It is a bit gimmicky, but it is both fun, and has some actual gameplay benefits, especially when playing other real-life people online. You can call out the play you would like, as well as the player you want targeted, and that goes for both offense and defense. For a casual player, this will be a fun inclusion, but for seasoned veterans that know the ins and outs of both Madden and football in general, this adds a surprising level of depth to the game, and makes the plays more precise.
Madden 13 is a work in progress. The Infinity Engine shows a promising future for the series. The new pass trajectories, momentum, and new animations give the game a new level of precision that the series hasn’t seen before. The system still needs a bit of work though, and this is where the annual nature of the franchise shows stress. More time to polish the game would have been nice.
The changes to the series bode well, and I am already looking forward to next year’s offering. That doesn’t mean that this year’s game is a bust though, far from it. Madden 13 is an improvement over Madden 12 – not a huge one, but enough that going back to older versions is tough.
Madden 13 doesn’t reinvent the franchise, but it’s still the best entry in it, without question. Putting all other questions and qualms aside, the series is still fun even after all these years, and that’s a remarkable accomplishment. It also shows the direction that the series is heading, and it is a good one.
Score: 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by EA)