Image via the official Madden website
EA Sports has done a good job hyping up its new physics engine for Madden NFL 13, but does it deliver on the high expectations? Read the full review to find out.
Each year, EA Sports does its best to hype up its long-running Madden NFL franchise, whether it actually does or does not warrant said hype. Features are introduced and taken away seemingly at random, as the developers at EA Tiburon roll the dice on what does and does not make a good football game. They'll tweak the options, they'll rename a bunch of things to make it seem like the latest can't-miss feature, and they'll adjust the presentation to make you feel like it's worth your $60 to see your team's beloved mascot get 10 seconds of face time prior to a home playoff game.
But one thing they haven't done to this point is introduce actual, factual changes to their physics and mechanics. That's what will set the difference between this year's iteration and last year's generally well-received and yet ever-disappointing Madden NFL 12. That game did a lot to improve gameplay mechanics by adding in a slew of new animations, interspersed with some tweaks to how the offensive line threw their blocks, making a more pleasing experience.
The problem with that was the fact that it wore off quickly. Injecting the franchise with 20 new ways to tackle a player and five new blocking animations was great, and made the game feel like it was worth the $60 price tag for the first couple weeks, but beneath it all, it was still a soulless reminder that nothing is dynamic in the Madden series.
And that's what it really all comes down to. The "Infinity Engine," which is, of course, a very silly name for their physics engine. I don't know if that's what it's actually called and they licensed it that way, or if it's part of the Madden hype, but it fits into the latter so perfectly. It's like when Sony boasted about the Playstation 2 having an "Emotion Engine," which was code for "Hey idiots, give us your money!" (Coincindentally the PS2 rocked face, so that worked out just fine - just a way to point out that marketing spiel is, in fact, marketing spiel).
EA claims that this new engine and its touted balance system adds an air of legitimacy that the franchise has never seen. To make things totally clear, this engine mostly governs tackling, and not things like receiver vs. defensive back animations or the blocking from ones offensive line. While it plays a part in, again, the balance and fluidity of those things, the actual interactions going for the ball and locking up a block are still canned, and probably always will be.
Which is a cause for concern for a lot of people. Because some of the worst things about the Madden franchise are all-knowing defensive backs that can seemingly jump in front of every pass that's ever thrown regardless of where they're looking or how they're standing completely still, and yet for some reason can't hold onto those passes. The dropped INT rate in theses games is staggering, which is saying a lot considering the INT rate is also incredibly bloated. So it's a far-from perfect system.
But once again, EA Tiburon has touted changed to those animations and the A.I. that governs defensive players and how they react to the offense. Let's get some uniformity in this review and break down the individual facets of the gameplay, shall we?
New Tackling/Physics Engine
Tackling is now basically a set of checks and balances to ... your balance. Hitting a ball carrier is a little underwhelming at first, mostly because there doesn't seem to be a way to actually hit stick your opponent anymore, but for the most part, you hit the guy, he's going down. The new animations do look really awesome, and there's a lot of Newton's laws being enacted for once. Players will fall down in all manner of ways and for the most part, it will always feel like a fresh experience. Gang tackles are still underwhelming, but for the most part, the physics engine has done wonders for making sure a ball carrier isn't randomly impervious to your tackle because he's busy breaking a tackle from someone else.
In other words, if you touch the ball carrier, it's going to register. In past games, there were points where the running back might be stiff-arming a guy to his right and nothing happens when you hit him from his left. That doesn't happen anymore.
How about a negative? Sometimes the balance physics ... need some tweaking. When running in tight spaces, the new engine lets you have fantastic control over your running back, but sometimes that control is negated by the game deciding that you've suddenly been tackled when you haven't been touched. Occasionally, when you brush close to an offensive lineman engaged in a block, the defensive player will reach for you and at times, realistically bring you down. As a fan of the San Francisco 49ers, this is especially awesome because that's the Justin Smith special. But more often than naught, the player doesn't even reach for you and you just fall down.
In other words, it's very touchy. You'll find that running too close to engaged players will result in you comically rolling in a random direction, down by contact even though none has been made. This happens with offensive linemen, and this occasionally happens when you're running in the open field. You'll just fall. The physics needs some serious tweaking in this area, but thankfully unlike other Madden bugs, this one won't happen more than once a game or so, and it's usually not a debilitating issue. On one occasion, my player fell back about five yards and no forward progress was counted.
That's one area that took a big hit - ball spotting. I'm not sure why or how this has happened behind the scenes, but the placement is very often wrong, with players who are tackled well before the first down marker getting a first down due to the tackling physics at times not registering properly. The game thinks something else happened than what actually took place on the field.
The physics engine, as noted, lends itself to awesome control when you're the ball carrier. When you catch the ball on a short pass with the receiver, you feel like you really have a chance to make some moves and pick up yardage. In past games, you wouldn't be able to turn and pick up yardage - if you weren't already being led to the open field, your robot of a player would have no chance at all to make the turn and make some players miss without the aid of some jukes. In Madden NFL 13, you actually have close to a full range of motion and can guide him to the end zone.
When you're not the ball carrier, there's some issues. Playing defense feels a little robotic in comparison to playing offense in this year. It's a shame because you actually have a lot more control over your player, it's just clear that difference physics mandate offensive players than the physics that mandate defensive players. You feel slow and lacking motion when you're on defense, while you feel quick and agile on offense. That doesn't mean it's favored offensively, it just means that it'll take awhile to adjust to feeling like two different games on either side of the ball.
Overall, the physics engine does a nice job breathing new life into the game. Running with the ball and catching those short passes is a very tight, controlled and pleasing experience. There is legitimate feelings of accomplishment when you get around defenders, and pulling off your throw to hit your receiver in stride has never felt more like Sunday. It all needs some tweaking, but it says good things about the on-the-field experience going forward.
Passing Game & Wide Receivers vs. Defensive Backs/Linebackers
The passing game mostly boils down to the interactions between the defensive backs and linebackers and the wide receivers. Madden has never featured a fine balance here, but it's getting closer with Madden NFL 13. The biggest thing to note is the improved A.I. for the defensive backs while removing their ability to simply snatch a ball without looking. Each year, EA claims to have fixed the all-knowing defensive players, and each year, it's clear that little-to-nothing has changed.
Fortunately, it seems much more genuine this time around. One of the most glaring issues was the fact that linebackers could be going one direction covering one receiver, and then suddenly jump four feet in another direction to make an interception with less than a half-second of notice. That simply doesn't happen in real life. And it simply doesn't happen much at all in Madden NFL 13. I didn't see it once. I'm not sure if that Superman animation is actually out of there, but I haven't seen it.
Deep balls actually feel like they're being fought for. Defensive backs run with receivers, and then turn to fight for the ball. Or at least, it feels that way most of the time. With the deep ball, unfortunately, it does often feel like the fighting for the ball aspect is more of a canned animation than a result of the physics engine. In other words, when a deep ball is thrown, it's hard to actually feel like you can do much to change what's going to happen with it. It feels like a pre-determined result.
The short-ball game is much harder this time around, but much more rewarding. Again, noting the fact that running with the ball feels great, when you hit a receiver on a slant, you really get this rush of determination to turn upfield and make something happen. Fans of the west coast offense will be fans of Madden NFL 13's passing game.
Unfortunately, it doesn't look as though too much has changed with the offensive line. In fact, it seems to have regressed on some fronts. Lead blockers will often make sharp 90-degree turns to block someone that you're already passing and leave you plenty exposed. They grab their initial assignments well though, and that makes for some solid initial running. But inside running is harder than its ever been with the odd quirks in the new physics engine. Your player will often fall at first contact, which isn't generally the case with inside running. The blocking doesn't do much to help you here.
Kicking and punting changes once again, but it's nothing you haven't seen before. It works just fine, your aim will be adjusted and then you'll flick the stick to set the power of your kick or punt and there's not much else to be said about that aspect. Other than the fact that, once again, punting length has yet to be adjusted, so trying to kick farther and lower simply results in a very low, very short punt. Still, it works more often than naught.
The return game is fun, and your players seem to throw up blocks better than ever before, and the new physics engine makes trying to run the ball back a thrilling experience. It seems a bit easier to take one for six than in recent games, but that could just be that it's one of my favorite things to do in Madden and have become pretty good at it. Unfortunately, there is still no way to adjust your kickoff coverage units, which is a glaring omission once again.
This year's Madden is a tighter experience on the field, with a little bit of unpredictability thrown in with the canned animations, and that makes it one of the better football gameplay experiences in recent memory. Still, I wish that they spent even more time focusing on this physics engine and not on changes to franchise mode and the presentation. That being said, it's a great start providing they keep it rolling, and it could spark the rebirth of a franchise that angered a lot of fans in recent years with sloppy outings. Gameplay rating: 8.5/10
Each year, so much is made of the new "authenticity" added to the gameday presentation. Most fans don't care much for this at all, but it does add a nice novelty here and there. One thing EA has been trying to do is capture the imaginations of fans and make them feel they're in the game ... Madden NFL 12 added some "unique" intros for each team (they all did the same thing, just in their stadium with their mascot, unfortunately), while Madden NFL 13 has made these appear less.
At any rate, the crowds, players on the sidelines and other touches to the field have been getting better with each iteration, and that's not changing here. It seems like they're getting closer and closer to actually making the players look like the players and they've added more microphones to get authentic crowd noise, so that's a plus. One negative is that they've done very little at all to separate playoffs from the regular season and preseason. The presentation is almost exactly the same, minus some cutaway images and one or two new lines from Jim Nantz and Phil Simms.
Which brings me to those two. On the plus side, there's A TON of new voice work, with plenty of unique triggers. On the negative, these two say the dumbest things of any commentator in any video game. It's some of the worst stuff ever - the unique triggers are often things like "they're lining up in the kick return formation," or 300 different ways to pin an incomplete pass on the quarterback and not the wide receiver.
It's so bad you might think it's par the course for these two, but in reality, it's much worse than they've ever been live. The stuff they say is so grating and annoying, you'll be turning the audio commentary off by your fifth game or so, if you didn't do it after the first. It is by-far the worst commentary ever in a Madden game.
The menus are slow loading and clunky. Navigating through them, whether in Connected Careers or just going through the main menu is a chore. It sure looks pretty, but like the Xbox Dashboard, it seems more suited to a touch screen than a controller. They've also got that futuristic "pan the camera through the menus and take you through this big experience to get to the start menu" thing going on. You'll know what I mean when you see it. It's slow and annoying.
Again though, it's very pretty. The game looks plenty polished on this front and it's only a minor complaint. Still, things can be very confusing at first, especially in the aforementioned Connected Careers mode.
The graphics are beautiful in this game. The Nantz and Simms models are particularly creepy and poorly done, but aside from that, the field looks great, the players look great and the game plays very smoothly with it all. There are no complaints here.
It's hard to really judge how good the presentation and graphics are at this point. On one hand, the slow menus and just horrifyingly awful commentary should count for something, but Madden is really a beautiful and well-polished game aside from that. The commentary may not be good at all, but that's really on those two, while EA Sports has done a good job to cover their bases in regards to unique phrases and situational awareness. Presentation rating: 7/10
The main feature of Madden NFL 13 will be the Connected Careers mode. You can choose to be a Player or a Coach, with the latter being more like Franchise Mode from iterations past and the former being more like Superstar mode. If you pick a Player, you'll go through and play just your position and earn experience to put into making your player have a better overall. In theory it works, but in practice, there's a lot of times where not enough is in your hands and some players will spend more than a couple seasons only playing on special teams.
Still, the experience system is a fresh take on Madden's seemingly random progression system in past games. In past games, players were assigned a potential rating and they progressed, again, seemingly at random. It didn't really seem to matter if you had 100 yards rushing or 2000 yards rushing, it always ended the same.
Coach mode is, as noted, much like franchise in past games. Except it sticks with the experience system - everything you do and everything a player does contributes experience points that you can add to get your players going. It's something that feels tedious at first, but still adds a whole new layer of control, and really does reward the players you use more. You'll play through a whole season, assigning experience as you go along and generally improving the strongest parts of your teams.
If you were a fan of fantasy drafts or editing players though, you'll be disappointed. EA Sports has offered up the incredibly weak "we ran out of time" excuse, despite the fact that this is something that has always been in the games. That's right, they're suggesting that they ran out of time in implementing a way to have a fantasy draft to take into Connected Careers, despite the fact that you can create a team in much the same way. In reality, EA has made this very questionable decision for other reasons, though those are unclear.
They'll lose more than a few buys over it, but smart money is on them getting those buys back when they re-introduce these things as a new, can't-miss feature in next year's title.
Aside from that, there's your usual assortment of options, including the trading-card based Madden Ultimate Team, which hasn't really undergone many changes at all, and the ability to edit rosters and the like, which feels pointless outside of Connected Careers.
Online play in this title is par the course. Internet connections that are good for most games but still not amazing may falter here and there, but it does appear steady. The big attraction is taking Connected Careers online (again, without the ability to have a fantasy draft) and playing with a bunch of people. You can do essentially all the things you could do offline, with multiple people, and play through season after season. It's fun, and there's really not much else to be said here. Online more or less works.
One big gripe is the fact that there is an achievement for the Xbox 360 version that requires you to own a Kinect sensor, which of course requires a newer Xbox 360 console, and of course, the Kinect sensor itself. It's a maddening thought, that they'll require you to buy extra things just to fully complete the game. On top of that, this review does not contain anything about the Kinect functionality, mostly because it looked slow and annoying and I wasn't interested in it. Oh, and there's a new Madden theme that is pretty cool. And you can Tebow. Neat.
Modes/Other Stuff Overall
It's a shame that EA can't just give fans what they want the first time. They have to improve things and then needlessly take away features that fans know and love for no reason. Some things will certainly be back next year, while improvements made this year will surely be gone then. Still, it's a fresh take on franchise mode with Connected Careers, and it should be able to hold your attention for a good, long while. Modes Overall: 7.5/10
Madden NFL 13 is a tighter, more controlled experience. The changes on the good side outweigh the changes on the bad side, and when it's all said and done, you'll enjoy playing the actual game once you get past all the non-gameplay complaints. It's a much stronger effort from EA Sports, and that's mostly due to the Infinity Engine. Bad name aside, it's a great start with plenty of issues that will hopefully be taken care of as it grows. If this is an unofficial reboot of the way Madden if played, then you shouldn't have any problem with being an early adopter. It's well-worth the money paid. Game Overall: 8/10