The Madden video-game franchise is in a pretty comfy spot.
It really can't be screwed up. The gameplay, graphics, animations, etc., are things it's been fine-tuning for literally decades. All the tweaks and adjustments and additions through the years have molded itself into a well-oiled, reliable virtual football engine.
You can buy the game and have complete confidence that it will look fantastic and it will play well. In that respect, it absolutely will not disappoint.
The 2011 iteration of Madden is no exception. The formula is still intact. It still works. It's still fun.
The downside to the consistent formula is that it's just not terribly exciting anymore. In years past, the Madden marketing team has had something new and different to sell you: superstar mode, franchise mode, a revamped passing system, the hit stick, something. Whether or not it turned out to be good, at least it was new. There was something to check out; something revamped or mind-blowing that would change things.
But it occurred to me Monday afternoon that I had no idea what was new in Madden NFL 11. If there was a new hook or new angle, it had eluded me.
As I sit here now, I've owned and played the game for hours, and I still don't know where the cool new stuff is hiding.
If I had to pick one, I guess the big new advance this year is "Gameflow." Gameflow is -- actually, I don't have to explain this to you. Remember the "Ask Madden" button in the play-calling screen that would have the computer pick a play for you? That's Gameflow. They just made it a little prettier and more prominent in the game.
The idea is that it simplifies things for the player, and it does, and that it speeds the game up, which it also does. The trade-off is that it makes the whole game-playing experience a bit more robotic, and a bit more mindless.
It's easy to use or ignore, so if you still want to call your own plays, you're not out anything. Myself, I think I'm going to stick with the Gameflow. It would be one thing if the feature was stripping out actual NFL X's and O's, but instead, it strips out Madden X's and O's.
The difference is that Madden X's and O's are based not just on actual football, but also on finding things you can exploit in the game -- little tiny flaws in defensive back play, rocket-catching, etc. Those things are important for the serious Madden players out there, but I'm not looking to get on the Madden Nation tour bus and win $100,000. I just want to enjoy a football-like experience on the moving picture box.
What else is new and worth noting?
The biggest thing is something you won't hear a peep about: The turbo button is no more. Turbo is automated and out of your hands. Again, you won't read about this on the back of the Madden box or see it featured in a commercial, but it represents a massive change, particularly if you've been playing Madden for years and years. The Turbo button is second nature. It's as natural to me as blinking or making a drug joke upon the sight of Matt Jones(notes).
It takes some adjusting, but it actually works pretty well. When your little guy needs to turn on the jets, he does. You'll get used to it, and while you'll probably still hammer the right trigger fruitlessly, the running game isn't harmed at all by the change.
The things you count on Madden improving from year to year -- the animations, player models, the overall look of the game -- have all advanced appropriately. It is the best-looking and smoothest playing Madden ever, which, of course, it should be. The computer's blocking has made another incremental improvement. Most player and coach faces look very good, which is a tough thing to do. I promise, you will not find a finer virtual recreation of Norv Turner's face anywhere in the universe. The Norvness will shock you.
Look at that picture above. There's Peyton Manning(notes) in the middle, of course, and behind him is Jeff Saturday(notes). I can't see his number, but I know it's Jeff Saturday, because ... well, because look at him, it's Jeff freakin' Saturday.
To me, that's what I've purchased here -- the standard, incremental upgrades that users have a right to expect. Again, the game looks, plays and feels better than it ever has, and that's significant. That's not nothing.
It's all about your expectations and what you need to feel like you're getting your $60 worth.
To me, the small improvements are an absolutely valid reason to purchase the game. It's all I need. The standard formula still provides a quality gaming experience that will entertain me. But that's me, and since I love football and like video games, it's not a huge challenge for EA Sports to reel me in. It's like selling edible gold polish to Marshawn Lynch. Some things take care of themselves.
But if you're a little more discerning than me, the basic lack of major advancements is also an absolutely valid reason to not purchase the game. There's nothing here that'll blow your mind. There's nothing that will set the video-gaming world on its ear that you need to be a part of.
Some notes about more specific things:
Online Team Play. I don't play a ton online, so it's not a big thing to me, but the new three-on-three online team play is reviewed positively elsewhere. You and two other guys are on the same team -- one of you is the quarterback, one is the running back, and one handles the wide receivers, and you play against three other dudes doing the same thing.
Franchise Mode. Here's the exact amount of thought that went into Franchise Mode at the Madden headquarters:
Guy #1: Hey, do we want to have Franchise Mode in the game this year?
Guy #2: Yeah, I guess.
Guy #1: All right. Hey, where's the guy whose job it is to improve Franchise Mode?
Guy #2: I think he's in the hopper.
Guy #1: To hell with it, then, we'll just leave it exactly the same.
And that's where it ended. Franchise mode is the exact same thing it was last year. Seriously. It's almost indistinguishable from Madden 10. They didn't even bother to change how it looks. I'm afraid that the franchise mode fans, like myself, have become afterthoughts.
Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth. Getting sports video game commentary right is difficult, if not impossible. You've got a limited number of pre-recorded soundbytes to match up with an almost unlimited number of game situations that can occur. Things will sometimes be a little off, or a little awkward, and I can accept that. Nature of the beast.
But when that's the case, and you know some things are going to be a little off, isn't it best to just play it safe? If the commentary is abbreviated, broad and simple, there will be fewer awkward moments, like Gus Johnson screaming, "UH-OH, THERE HE GOES!" as a player jogs out of bounds, or "TO THE ENDZONE!" when the quarterback throws a pass from the opponent's 1-yard line.
Collinsworth's commentary is bad in the opposite direction. He likes to give these long, thoughtful answers, which is fantastic on Sunday nights on NBC. But they get so repetitive, so quickly in a video game. Honestly, I'm not sure that the very first versions of Pat Summerall and John Madden that appeared in the Madden franchise weren't better than what we have today.
Ultimate Team. Don't do it. Don't get involved. That's my advice to you. Yes, it's fun, but it's slightly addictive, and it preys upon the notion that you just like to buy things. You work to accumulate coins, and then buy players with those coins, and assemble a team. It's basically NFL Farmville. You'll find yourself obsessing over it, for absolutely no payoff. There's nothing to be gained here, unless you hate the time you have and desperately want to waste it.