As the old saying goes “Another year, another Madden”. It's not as jaded as it sounds, though, because the grid iron franchise has fallen into an impressive groove on the HD consoles as of late, and Madden 11 is no different. This year, the main addition is the new Gameflow play call system that streamlines on-field decision making for newcomers and veterans alike. There are a lot of other tweaks, additions, and omissions that make this year’s addition standout from its predecessors, so let's get to it before Brett Favre comes out of retirement again (read: already too late).
The reduction in game speed that began with last year’s game continues, with the Turbo button being removed when playing on the default settings. Instead of manually holding down the shoulder button, the game leaves the bursts of speed up to the runner’s intuition. This adjustment can take a while to get used to and you will likely find yourself holding still down the button out of sheer habit. The change emphasizes footwork over foot-speed, which requires you put a bit more thought into your running game. Eventually I came to terms with the change and respected the more realistic pacing accompanying it. Of course you have the option of turning Turbo back on and continuing to play as you always have.
Gameflow is the other major gameplay tweak. The philosophy behind this innovation is to expedite the play call system which, according to the developers, better mirrors the actual on-field decision process. With a single button press the coordinators decide which play is best suited for the situation based on the team's actual playbook. On the surface it seems Gameflow does nothing more than relegate the series’ staple 'Ask Madden' option to one button. Other than a few instances where Gameflow calls for some questionable plays, the system works as advertised. While it may be shunned by the most dedicated of the Madden faithful, who recognize that part of the fun is strategically picking apart their opponent’s game plan, there is a certain luxury to be enjoyed in having a swifter, CPU advised option always at the ready. The simpler calls and more detailed audibles both fit in well with the more streamlined experience Madden aimed for this year. For casual or more action oriented Madden players, Gameflow allows for enjoyable matches without the at times daunting micromanagement.
Complementing Gameflow is the Gameplanning feature. Here you can assign up to 20 plays for multiple situations on both offense and defense for the AI to choose from. You also value them by preference, although this system still doesn't stop the AI from making truly confounding calls occasionally.
There are other minor gameplay tweaks as you would expect. The kicking system has changed, as it does every few iterations, but not drastically so. Pro-Tak has received some noticeable improvements to make tackles seem more authentic and at times downright painful. All your jukes and spin moves are now relegated to the analog stick, which feels completely natural. The blocking AI on offense has also been improved. You only need to read the defense well enough to take advantage as your teammates hold off the defense long enough for you claim a significant amount of yardage.
Feature-wise the biggest addition is Online Team Play. Compared to last year’s intriguing but extremely limited introduction of the concept, it feels almost completely new here. Up to three players can team up to face off against the CPU, or as many as three other players over the internet. On offense one player assumes the role of quarterback, with the others either playing the role of running back or receiver, with the option of scrolling through the rest of the team. Defense has a similar set up. While playing with any of the possible player figurations I found the experience to be smooth and enjoyable. This creates a whole new way to play Madden with your pals, a facet that is vitally important to this franchise.
By far the biggest disappointment is the lack of anything new regarding Franchise or Be A Superstar Mode. This, more than anything, makes if feel like Madden 11 is just a repackaged (albeit still good) version of Madden 10. Regardless, both modes should still be captivating to the Madden faithful.
Visually, Madden 11 is strong enough, but the upgrades are not as striking as they were last year. The presentation this time tries to replicate the feeling of being at the stadium during a game, including authentic chants and music for each venue. With that mindset you would think more time would be spent brushing up the look of the crowd, but it hasn't. They are still the same flimsy human-shaped polygons twitching around in the stands. I am sure one day there will be a sports game that has a convincing-looking audience, but Madden 11 is not it.
Things are taken one step further with a full blown Super Bowl-style presentation option. The Big Game no longer feels like just another Sunday, but is rather hailed as the momentous event it truly is. Team-specific commentary is added to convey the accomplishment that is winning the Super Bowl. The field and stadium are all dolled up, the victorious team celebrates with expressive jubilation, and to top it all off you get to see President Barack Obama deliver congratulations.
As far as the soundtrack goes, I must confess myself disappointed. The dearth of contemporary tracks, likeable ones at least, is noticeable. Featuring popular tracks ranging from Kiss to Black Sabbath, it seems like a collection of songs that should have been in Madden years ago.
Fans have been complaining about the quality of the in-game commentary for years now and to rectify this EA have brought on sportscaster extraordinaire, Gus Johnson. Sports fans should know that Johnson has an ineffable charisma and energy when it comes to commentary. His presence is welcome, although the constant advertising slogans he is forced to chant quickly wear thin. Gus Johnson’s videogame persona is of course more subdued, but nevertheless he spices up the commentary considerably. Sadly, Chris Collinsworth is still here as well, spouting audio that is at times recognizable from three Maddens ago.
I genuinely wish there was more to say about this year's Madden, but there isn’t. Most of the tweaks have been made with a mainstream audience in mind. While that is all well and good, Gameflow has a real polarizing effect on players and those who reject it don’t have much new to explore other than the improved Online Team Play. Gus Johnson’s future with the franchise looks bright though, and we can hopefully look forward to a more feature rich edition next year. Madden 11 fumbles in some respects, but it is still a winner when it comes to fun and engrossing grid iron action.