Madden NFL 10: ImpressionsShawn Drotar

Posted on August 10th, 2009 in Gaming, Xbox 360, News, Opinion by Shawn Drotar

I’ve been playing the Xbox 360 version of EA Sports’ latest pro football title since Friday, and there are a few things that have caught my attention thus far.

First and foremost, it’s easily the best Madden in years as far as gameplay goes; it’s fun, exciting and very pleasant to look at. It’s both instantly familiar and satisfyingly new at the same time, which makes it a welcome addition to any sports gamer’s library.

While there hasn’t been enough time to get into the Franchise or other long-term modes to make any judgments (The game’s new Online Franchise mode won’t be active until Aug. 14), more time with the game starts scratching the surface, and some of Madden’s foibles - and hidden successes - come to light. Those things are what I’ll touch upon here.

Pros:

Overall game speed has been decreased, and what might have been a controversial decision for some became the most important decision in the game; one that will propel it to new heights. It’s simple - players run at their real-life speed on screen. It’s far more realistic and opens up a wealth of new strategic opportunities. I’ve always felt that Madden never let itself breathe, so concerned with frenetic twitch-play that all its nuance was lost. But now, like a fine wine, Madden 10 has time to sample the fresh air and reveal itself in whole. Finally!

Madden 10 sports a new rating system; finally widening the difference between average and superior players without having to make All-Pros superhuman. New accuracy ratings for quarterbacks based on the distance of the pass are welcome and ensure that the signal-callers play more realistically than before. In general, star players play like stars, but they aren’t unstoppable. The result is a more natural-feeling game that seems like it’s being played by virtual humans instead of video-game characters. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s definitely there. And if you want the old arcade feel back for some reason, the game’s settings will allow you to do exactly that.

  The game’s accelerated clock, which runs the play clock down quickly, is a huge addition. It makes the games more realistic while decreasing the down time during games, which is why it’s been clamored for by gamers for years. Even better? You can select the amount of play clock runoff that you’d like until you find the perfect fit for you. It’s a giant step forward and hopefully it will become standard in all Madden games going forward.

The game’s new injury system is terrific. Like in real football, quite a few players get “dinged” and have to miss a few plays, a series, or even a quarter or two. These small injuries make the game more realistic, more interesting and help ensure that each game is a little bit different from the previous one. A new risk/reward system allows you to rush an injured player back into the game, accepting that the risk of a more serious injury increases. If it’s the pre-season, you won’t chance it, but if it’s a playoff game, you’ll probably be willing to gamble… just like real coaches do.

Weather has a very real effect on gameplay. In the rain or snow, players slip, stumble and fall. It’s fun to watch, sure, but it’s real value lies in the fact that you’ll need to re-think your game plan in inclement weather - again, like real coaches do.

In local multiplayer mode, two (or four in two teams) buddies on the couch can play at different difficulty levels, which gives the less experienced gamer a legitimate chance to compete and adds to the fun for everybody. It doesn’t seem that important until you use it, and then you realize how valuable this option is. Tighter games equals more fun equals better.

– The new uniform selection tool is a nice little plus. Oddly, however, while the game does feature many “throwback” uniforms, all of the ones that will be used in the AFL anniversary games this season are not included. Nevertheless, the ability to mix and match uniform components will no doubt prove popular with the sartorially inclined.

While the play’s the thing, it’s hard not to notice that the game is gorgeous. From player models to animations to lighting, Madden NFL 10 may be the second-best-looking team sports game ever, trailing only the shockingly realistic MLB 09: The Show. The game’s new broadcast overlays and halftime/postgame recaps may be five years behind 2K Sports’ seminal NFL 2K5, but they’re better late than never, and generally of high quality. Animations are impressive and collision detection between players and the ball are remarkable. The game’s lighting engine is terrific, with shadowing and reflective effects that demand to be seen.

Cons:

Madden 10 has a rather thorough set of sliders to tweak the abilities of the CPU, listed as “CPU Skill” in the game’s settings, yet the “Player Skill” menu offers only four: Passing, Rushing, Pass Defense and Rush Defense. There doesn’t seem to be enough granularity there, though careful tweaking of the CPU sliders certainly have an effect. Nevertheless, it’s preferable to have a consistent set of sliders that covered both human and CPU play, however - though I understand the desire for simplicity, I’m still very surprised that this is the route they chose to go. EDIT: By clicking the “A” (Xbox 360) or “X” (PlayStation 3) button while highlighting one of the four simple sliders, the full slider menu is revealed. So it works great - but there’s no way to know that the option even exists; it’s not in the manual or the on-screen help.
Fight for the Fumble, a new mini-game that triggers when a fumble is caused, is patently silly. There’s just no two ways about it. I’ve seen fumbles that were bouncing in the open field, with a single player diving on the ball, only to watch in shock as the game then started up its button-mashing exercise and the team that didn’t have a player within five yards of the ball originally came away with it. It’s ludicrous, and smacks of “back-of-the-box” design. Fortunately, it can be turned off. It would have been disastrous if not.

The announcers’ scripts are solid enough, if a bit repetitive, but they simply get a lot of things wrong. They’ll sometimes say a catch was dropped when it wasn’t, that a player will be out for the game with an injury when the menu said he’ll be back soon, and other oddball things of that nature. Quite frankly, you can’t rely on them for information, and some gamers may be inclined to turn them off entirely to avoid confusion.

The game’s replays are truncated. If a play ran more than a few seconds long, the replay will start midway through; possibly causing you to miss an exciting interception, bone-crushing block or broken tackle. I can’t recall the last time this was in an EA Sports game, and I don’t know why it’s there now. One presumes it’s to limit the length of highlight-video uploads to EASportsWorld.com, but given the poor quality of those videos anyway, chopping the replays so haphazardly seems unnecessary.

There are still far too few penalties called by default (zero is not uncommon), but if there are penalties called, they are almost always holding, face-mask and clipping, and they happen most often on kick returns and field goal attempts - the same as in every EA Sports football title over the past few years. This part of the game needs a significant overhaul, as even it’s per-penalty slider controls seem to have few discernible effects, save to increase the number of the aforementioned three penalties.

Despite the suggestion that the game would feature a more robust running game, the CPU is still more than a bit pass-happy. It’s better than before, but while playing against the CPU, there’s no question that you can run a nickel defense on every play without fear of getting chewed up by the CPU’s ground game. Old habits die hard, I suppose.

Game start times are all Eastern. That matters now due to the game’s lighting. For example, games in Denver start at 2:15 PM on Sundays. In Madden 10, that would equate to 4:15 PM. However, if you start the game at what should be the correct time, the sun will already be setting at Mile High by halftime, when in real life, it would only be about 3:30 in the afternoon Mountain time and still a long time away from sunset. It’s no deal-breaker by any means, but if EA Sports is set on showing off their new lighting system - and they should - than this should be addressed.

There’s no question that Madden 10 is an excellent game, however - the pros clearly outweigh the cons. It’s a big step forward in the series evolution, and it’ll be interesting to see how the game’s received, not only at launch this weekend, but one, two and six months from now.

It’s probably worth noting that the game’s wholesale changes to speed and player ratings is likely the first real positive to come out of Electronic Arts’ exclusive deal with the NFL; it’s unfathomable that the game’s developers would have tried something so risky without the security blanket of exclusivity. There - I said something nice about the lack of competition. Now, I’m off to get a shower, because I feel dirty all over. I promise it won’t happen again.

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