I’ve been a dedicated Madden player for the past eight years. Each year, I am among the millions of fans itching to get a hold of the newest edition as part of a cherished ritual counting down to the start of the NFL season. Some years are better than others, bringing about new features and interesting presentational improvements, but Madden has remained fairly consistent over time. While some complain that there are too few changes between releases, one surefire way to experience Madden in a new way is to try it on a new platform. Madden NFL 13 heralds the franchise’s debut on Sony’s new handheld and brings with it a host of unique control options wrapped around the core Madden experience you're likely already familiar with.
Madden NFL 13 makes full use of the Vita’s many unique control inputs, starting with the touch screen. You can tap on any player to immediately take control of them before the snap or use your finger to drag a receiver and send them in motion. By far the best use of touch control is for on-field play calling. By pressing the L button, you can edit the play on the fly by tracing a route for your receivers with you finger. Madden has implemented new ways to call plays while on the field before, but this is the first instance of it working really well. The touch controls open up the gameplay considerably, allowing you to change your entire play without calling an audible and alerting the defense. There are inherent risks to abusing this feature, though. Often times a player might become overzealous and mis-time the throw, or the receiver might follow the route a little too well, incorporating any unintentional squiggles you may have made when trying to trace a straight route into his run. Regardless, open play calls makes the Vita version stand out and is one of the most enjoyable additions to the game in years.
The Vita’s rear touch panel also gets in on the gridiron action. While carrying the ball you can swipe your finger on either the right or left side of the handheld to perform a spin move in that direction or double tap it to juke. Truth be told, these inputs are less responsive than pressing the circle button to spin or juking by moving the right analog stick, but it's nice to have the option. Kicking the ball relies on motion controls and works out much better than expected. You still control the power of your kick by pulling back then pushing forward on the analog stick, but you control the direction and elevation by tilting your Vita from side to side or pitching it forward and back. This may sound laborious, but trust me, it quickly becomes second nature.
Madden NFL 13 still relies on the Franchise and Be a Superstar modes to provide most of the single player fun. Franchise mode is still fun and as deep as we've come to expect from Madden. In addition to cut days, more scouting options, and free agent bidding, the ability to trade future draft picks adds another notch of realism to the experience of roster management. Consistency also now plays a factor in player performance - players will now experience hot or cold streaks based on their performance, which will affect their morale and how they respond when the pressure mounts. It adds another thing for gamers to consider while playing. Perhaps, after three consecutive weeks of 4th quarter disappointments, you'll find yourself benching a cold Mark Sanchez and giving Tebow a chance to call the shots for the tail end of your play-off run. Another aspect of the game I like is the ability to switch teams after a completed season. There is something oddly satisfying about managing the front office of another team and having to compete against the dynasty you helped create.
There's also Practice mode, where you can fool around or improve your skills, and Madden Moments Live, which hosts challenges that task the player to recreate the most amazing moments from the previous week of football using actual conditions from the NFL season. The game comes pre-loaded with challenges based on the best of the 2011 season, which should be enough to tide players over until the weekly updates start to roll in. Be a Superstar is consistent with past iterations; you allocate skill and influence points for your up-and-coming superstar by using points earned through your exploits on game day or in a scheduled 10-play practice session. The player creation options are limited, though, and it's a mode that still desperately needs more ways for your player to express himself as an individual.
The Vita is still in that phase of its life cycle where its visual prowess hasn't been fully tapped. Due to this predicament I find it hard to tailor my visual expectations when it comes to a game like Madden. On the surface it looks as good as Madden looked in the early years of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but it's obviously not on a par with modern HD iterations. The graphics would be more impressive if the game ran at a smoother frame rate but, as it stands, the technical limitations are obvious. On the field of play the graphics are smooth, but during the interstitial presentations pop-in and clipping are highly noticeable. At least the players and coaches are recreated with sufficient visual style; the facial animation of a frustrated Eli Manning after being sacked for the third time is quite intense and coach Tom Coughlin’s grimace is chillingly true to life.
The menu system is clean and simple to navigate, but I would have liked it more if it had made use of the touch controls. The loading screens are kept at reasonable lengths and always share useful information about the game’s features. Overall, I think the entire game could do with more visual flare to prevent it from becoming such a staid affair - even the enhanced presentation for the Super Bowl could use some more excitement.
The audio has its high and low points. The deafening roar of the crowd almost compensates for its lackluster visual representation and is quite convincing overall. The quality of the commentary takes a hit from past years. On the positive side, the two commentators, Phil Simms and Jim Nantz, are both new to Madden, meaning essentially no lines of dialogue are recycled from past games. On the down side, they are a complete bore to listen to. Chris Collinsworth may have been annoyingly repetitive in past games but at least his distinctive personality came through in his performance. The problems with the commentary are exacerbated by disconcertingly out of place observations that at times are wholly removed from the in-game scenario, such as when a comment is made about failing to convert on fourth down after scoring a two point conversion. Another strange audio choice has to do with licensed soundtrack, or lack thereof. I personally look forward to the Madden soundtrack as an eclectic mixtape that helps each iteration stand out on its own, but this version only has grandiose orchestral tracks that play during the menus. You can catch clips of licensed songs playing in the stadiums but it doesn’t have the same effect as a well put together soundtrack.
In terms of value, Madden NFL 13 on Vita offers a comparable and competent alternative to the HD console version while costing a third less. The biggest drawback is that the online features are not as rich, but they do go far beyond what has been offered in previous handheld iterations. The ability to compete in online leagues is missed, but the lobby system works well in facilitating head-to-head ranked or unranked matches with players of similar skill. When playing online, I got the sense that my opponents were taking advantage of the touch control play calling just as much as I was, which led to some really unpredictable in-game situations. As I stated above, drawing out your own receiving routes on the fly can require precision at times, an issue compounded by lag. Luckily, if you have a stable enough connection you shouldn't run in to too many issues. Online is augmented with comprehensive chat and invite functionality, along with a scrolling ticker providing up-to-the-minute news from around the league courtesy of NFL.com.
There doesn’t seem to be much in the way with cross-play integration between this and the PlayStation 3 version. That is a shame, because earlier iterations on the PSP would allow you to transfer franchise mode save files so that you could continue the game on the road, and one would expect that process to be made easier with time, thanks to unified PSN/Origin accounts and the handheld’s streamlined connectivity capabilities with its console counterpart. However, the back of the box promises that you will unlock a Madden NFL 13 Ultimate Team Pack if you play a game online with both the PlayStation 3 and Vita.
Madden NFL 13 is a strong debut for football on the Vita, but there are still many possible improvements to be made. Now that the online infrastructure and touch controls are in place, the challenge is there for the developers to take things further and build a better, more exciting game of Madden. I can imagine future iterations with modes and mini-games built around the touch controls, as well as worthwhile console connectivity, but for now what is here is more than serviceable. Madden NFL 13 on Vita is the first football game I’ve played that gets touch play calling absolutely right and for that reason alone it is worth consideration.
This review is based on a copy of Madden NFL 13 for the PlayStation Vita, provided by the publisher.