It’s hard to judge sports games. For one, they always get released year in year out, on a schedule never derailed, much like new seasons end and start. In that regard, we’re not necessarily looking for something new, but rather for a more accurate digital representation of your favorite physical activity. Madden is a staple of both the yearly release genre and EA Sports annual athletics roll out. With EA having the exclusive rights to the NFL there is no competition and the game sells very well each year. Does that give the developer an excuse to rest on its laurels or does Madden 13 this year deliver a truly special experience?
The emphasis for this year’s installment is realism. Yes, sure, most of the time you will still recognize this year’s game as a video game, but it goes as far as possible to recreate the Sunday experience for the true fans who will no doubt burn many hours trying to complete the big play down field. First thing you notice is the presentation, right away from the main menu. Even the load up for the main screen seems like it’s part of a Sunday afternoon graphic you will often see. Same goes for the actual in game presentation with the digitized versions of Phil Simms and Jim Nantz calling the shots.
The game goes a long way to make itself a good reproduction of the Sunday broadcast, bringing in a new commentary team and allowing them to produce more ad lib moments to make the broadcast seems more dynamic. It goes a long way. Visually, it is a good looking game, with the player detail up-close being pretty good, and most recognizable faces will actually be… well, recognizable in game for a few brief moments they have their helmets off. The far away action will sometimes be noticeably downgraded and all of the background animations and graphics are still lacking (like an immovable sideline of players who you just clip through every time you’re tackled off field). The game is also not free from the occasional frame rate drop during transitions which goes to bog down the experience a bit.
The audio seems quite authentic on the field, with groans, tackles and sometimes the back and forth chatter of the digital athletes. The new commentary team goes a long way to making a more believable broadcast, creating a more dynamic and evolving commentary. Sure, sometimes they will call the wrong thing that will make you scratch your head, but for the most part the duo does a very good job of calling the play on the field. Unfortunately, like with many sports games you will often hear the same lines over and over, and if you’re playing the Connected Careers mode which calls for you to play the same team time after time, you would have heard it all by the 6th game.
What you’ll notice right away when popping in Madden is that the old plethora of playing options is gone. You will get a play now, and a play online option, but for the most part everything else will be hidden away in the Connected Careers mode. It’s a cosmetic change as your good ole Franchise, My Player, Online Franchise etc. modes can be easily found in that one place. All off the modes are still the same and obviously you got online play and online franchises, something that has been very well received by the competitive crowd.
When it comes to on-field action is when you notice the game’s most risky and notable adjustments to the game play. First off, all of the previous changes are back, you can still choose to play old-school Madden or a progressive one where the clock advances post plays, making it easier to sit through full matches without running out of time or having to save half-way. The career mode presents you with a little more depth in terms of how you manage your team, negotiate contracts and develop players, but the purists will often delegate these options anyways focusing more on the gameplay. These are all simple changes that don’t really alter the way Madden plays drastically, what does however is the Infinity engine, and it represents a big risk from developers this year, but for the most part, it pays off.
The infinity engine cans canned animations (see what I did there), in lieu of dynamic on field action. The engine accounts for a number of things such as size, speed, weight, momentum, angle of hit and so on and so forth, making sure that every collision looks different. The tackles no longer go into the same animations after contact, with the infinity engine each interaction is unique. This creates a very real on field experiences. Getting away from tackles is different, so is tackling someone from a different angle. You will never see the same play twice (in terms of collisions) and will be better off for it. This truly does move Madden franchise a long way.
Unfortunately, with the new engine also come new issues that the series will have to address in the forthcoming years. While a lot of animations look extremely good, some of them don’t hold up under the scrutiny of a close up. The limbs will bend in unnatural ways, so much so that seeing someone’s leg twist like that in real life would probably signify the end of a career. Similarly, players will often trip over one another on the same play or even after the play was called, unable to appropriately interact with the surroundings. Most of these things are very present, but thankfully they only come in play AFTER the play on the field has stopped and you’ve gone through seeing the good behind Infinity rather than the whole slew of bad.
Otherwise the gameplay is still very balanced and you will always have to stay on your toes to be successful. This new engine gives for a more effective running game as you will find bouncing off-tackle easier and spotting a good block because of good animations will soon become second nature. The passing game endures also, with the blemish still being the absolute ball-hawking skills of the secondary and the linebacker corps. Many times you will see CBs or LBs come out of nowhere or completely do a b-line for an interception, and while that makes things more challenging and forces you to think more on offense it is also not particularly realistic or believable.
A special mention I left in the end for one particular gripe of mine, and that is the in-game advertising. Okay, I admit, those go hand in hand with sports games everywhere, and having a sponsor for a broadcast is common nature. That may excuse EA Sports from plugging Gatorade every few seconds. Unfortunately, that does not excuse you putting in ads during the in-game loading screen. While yeah, it’s a minor cosmetic change and it’s at the bottom of the screen, I don’t particularly care that the Walking Dead S2 is coming out on Blu-Ray or DVD soon or how much putting that there increases EA Sports’ profits for the year.
Verdict: Madden 13 takes a big risk with the new engine which for the most part pays off in recreating a pretty believable experience. The presentation tweaks also play a large part in it. While Jim Nantz and Phil Simms have their digital avatars move in from the uncanny valley, their commentary is very spot on and insightful, although a bit boring after a while (like in all sports games though, so points for effort). There are still a number of visual issues that come with implementing a new engine, an unforgiving defense whose skills border on the side of improbable, and atrocious amount of in-game advertising. It’s not perfect, but it is definitely a step in the right direction.