STAFF REVIEW of Madden NFL 13 (Xbox 360)

Friday, August 24, 2012.
by Matt Paligaru

Madden NFL 13 Box art The end of August signals a bittersweet time for sports gamers. It is the time when Electronic Arts begins to roll out its annual stockade of sports titles. For those with only one or two sports to their palette of enjoyment, it isn?t difficult to jaunt to your local retailer and pick up the first one, and again weeks later to the second one.

For those who enjoy most, if not all of the annual sports titles, trips become so frequent that you end up on a first name basis with everybody you encounter: The guy behind the counter at the store, all of the other employees you see so often, and even the same person that lines up with you over and over again. But once it?s said and done, you have a smorgasbord of sports titles, and one full year to wear them out before the ritual begins again. Welcome to the beginning of sports game season. The gun cracks off the line and Madden 2013 is the first to emerge from the starting blocks.

Firstly, a congratulations to Peyton Hillis, who was last year?s recipient of the Madden cover curse. After a stellar 2010 campaign in which Hillis combined for over 1600 total yards, he was only able to play just over half the games last year, and finished less than half of his totals from his stellar season. This year?s victim is Calvin Johnson, whose near-1700 receiving yards and stellar 17 yards per reception will be tested by John Madden calling him every night before a game at 4 AM making ghost noises into the phone. The Madden curse is yours CJ.

Last year?s Madden was a game full of mechanical improvements, better graphics, bad announcing and a fairly mediocre online experience. Fortunately, EA has found a way to fix the problems plaguing the online experience and causing delays throughout for people with larger gamer profiles, which is really refreshing. A fix rolled out within FIFA 12 early last Spring, and appears to have been transitioned into all of the EA games.

This review comes out a few days before Madden 13 does, so it feels a bit odd spoiling some of what you will be experiencing when you go in cold, but when you get the game, just pop it in and play it. Right away, without even thinking about some of the presentational enhancements, you?re going to notice a brand new physics engine. Dubbed ?Infinity,? this is the type of game-changing engine NHL players have been enjoying for the last two years. Now, more than ever, your players interact better with each other?s presences on the field. Quarterbacks can?t mysteriously float through the offensive line anymore, and they can?t hand off the ball as easily anymore. In fact, it?s going to be frustrating the first couple of times you play it, because after 21 years of shortcuts and playing the timing window like you own it, the game fires back and is absolutely ruthless. Many a fourth and inches have been stopped of its easy first down by the Quarterback?s leg tripping over his center, or a running back that hasn?t been properly handed the ball by the QB, leading to an awkward collision. The previously mentioned trip is a real thing. Infinity physics mean that your virtual squad can lose their balance and trip over each other?s feet like a bad Benny Hill skit, or get hit awkwardly and suffer cramps and spasms. Some of your games will look less like a football game, and more like an episode of the Three Stooges, but it works. This is the style of collision physics every sports game needs to have, and adds so much more to the realism aspect of the Madden series.

Make no mistake. This is enough to change the way you play Madden forever, however, the entire passing engine has undergone its ?once in a blue moon? alterations as well. This time around, it isn?t a small series of nitpicks. The way you pass has drastically changed. New series of passing animations lead off changes in pass mechanics. The ball now travels at varying speeds, across different qualities of trajectory and perhaps the most necessary (and frightening) change is that receivers no longer have 1000% awareness of when and where the ball will be. Since the dawn of Madden Time, no matter how badly you messed up your throw, receivers would always be in the neighborhood of the pass, unless they were being interfered with or your throw was so frantic that the kid eating a hot dog in the 4th row caught it. No longer will this be the case. Passing lanes are now spelled out based on a receiver?s readiness. If he can?t make it to your pass, can?t see you well enough, or is being too well covered, you are told, and you can then react accordingly and pass to somebody a bit more aware. With the Madden series making catching the ball as challenging as it should be, it is harder to connect than ever before, and you must continue to vary the quality of offense, switching up your running and passing plays. Awaiting this challenge is improved AI and defense. It has often been the case that if you select the exact same play repeatedly, the AI would catch on and catch you before you could wipe the smug smirk off your face. Now, failing to vary your passing and your runs are more punishing than ever. Again, bearing in mind that in-game cramps and injuries are impacted by the hit stick mechanics, you best learn to become a multi-dimensional Madden player if you intend on living and dying by CPU play.

That gameplay is partially enhanced with the use of the Kinect, of which the game recognizes numerous verbal commands. I?ll call this EA?s work-in-progress for this game, however. The Kinect voice commands have a limited window in which they work, and only work for a view in-game commands. They would be endlessly helpful if they worked at any better than hushed tones, since the Kinect has a hard time recognizing your excited play calling. No Quarterback in the history of the NFL has ever started a play with any less than a raised voice, so to have to tell the game you want to hike the ball with the same enthusiasm of telling it that you are going for an actual hike is a bit off-putting. As I say with all Kinect modes in progress, treat it like more of a bonus than a necessity, because that is all it is.

Before we jump into discussions of the enhanced career and Ultimate team games, it?s best worth mentioning some of the little details Electronic Arts did to enhance your experience. The first, and most important thing: GUS JOHNSON IS GONE. After begging for more hatred than a musical collaboration between Justin Bieber and William Hung, Gus Johnson?s commentary did the Madden series no favors and that era is finally over and done with. Again, I feel it necessary to reiterate Johnson is a perfectly capable football play by play voice, however, it just doesn?t transition into the video games well. Johnson is a lot like hockey play by play voice Bob Cole. Cole is somebody whose voice has associated with real hockey games so well for years, but once you put him behind a mic for the 2K games, it all fell apart. Taking Johnson?s place is Phil Simms and Jim Nantz, who, well, sure. They?re fine. I don?t know why they got rid of Cris Collinsworth, but perhaps he was part and parcel to Johnson?s appearance, so I guess you take some of the good with the bad. Simms and Nantz call the action from enhanced stadium views where EA has done everything from measure the position of the sun per what time it is in the game (I?m not even joking) to placing the broadcast booth in the exact spot where it is in the real stadium. I can?t even begin to think about what sort of silly complaints led to these types of fun changes, but well, if you really need to see how the sun shines on Lucas Oil Field at 3:27, this is the game that will show you.

Once you?ve had enough time to test drive the game play mechanics, you?ll barely have scratched the surface. Madden Ultimate Team is back, and is interwoven into the rest of the game. Rather than a standalone and independent product like the Ultimate Team modes have been, Madden?s features unlocks and players you can use both in that game mode, and elsewhere. They?ve also given incentive to those who skip MUT to play, which is equal parts conniving and equal parts genius. You can only unlock specific football legends through the use of playing through MUT, however, if it sounds too intensive, you are given a headstart if your profile shows you having played previous Madden games and other EA football products. MUT will recognize your brand loyalty and reward you with better players and potential tradebait in the way of specialized trading card packs. The more you?ve played, the better starter swag you get. This is your chance to whip out, or borrow some of those old Madden games off your friends to make your MUT life a bit easier. I didn?t find many other changes to MUT to report on, but as always, if the CCG-style sim game catches your fancy, and you love football, this is always an enjoyable mode.

Career modes return, and with them, perhaps one of the biggest time sinks in all of sports gaming. Both the coach mode and the player mode have returned, and are bigger than ever. More variables, more tasks, more ways to level yourself, your team and your players up. In fact, within the first hour I put into the coach?s career mode, I was only able to make it through the first practice, and evaluate my roster. I?ve delved a few more hours into it, and there are certain facets that continue to intrigue me more than others. The fake Twitter accounts, for example, show us the way we absorb and choose to digest our news now. Gone are the fake newspaper reports, and fake full length sports reports, replaced by a fake Trey Wingo recanting it all to us in 140 characters or less. Again, there?s not much more to report here outside of the fact that you really have to ready yourself for a career mode that will probably require 100 hours of gameplay to make a significant dent. Granted, you could sim your way through the whole thing like you have been able to in years past, but it will make your life endlessly harder in this game, and the use of challenges and goals seem to entice you not to try to take shortcuts. Prepare yourself for one thing though, which is one of the most annoying things about career modes in sports games (EA isn?t the only one guilty of this) ? Offline career contains no auto-save feature, so you have to go into the appropriate menu and save every time you want to put the game aside for the night. It will remind you that there?s no auto-save, however, it?s annoying all the same.

The online connected career mode is where the biggest innovation and stride has been made, and we could be here until Madden 14 trying to figure it out. I?m never one to condone reading instruction manuals before playing a game, but it might be a good idea here. In my time, I?ve sluiced through and written some of the most convoluted policy documents that you could ever imagine, and the connected career mode is still giving me fits days after I first encountered it and sat down to read about it. EA used the term ?Sports RPG? to try to explain it to reviewers, and it?s a term I pass on here, because, quite frankly, I can?t explain it any other way. You take on the role of your character, and guide him through his mission to become a hall of famer. However, your ?quest? so to speak is made harder by having to ensure that you analyze your potential suitors well enough, so to find an ample fit. In other words, don?t walk into that proverbial gunfight with a super soaker. If the Jets don?t need a QB, there?s no sense in trying to be their QB. Naturally, as a sports fan, you may find your moral obligation override your business obligations (I had a hard time straying away from the Seahawks no matter what I did,) but you may have to don the colors of the enemy to build a better player. There?s a bit of RPG-esque logic thrown into your face there. You couldn?t slay the Mana Beast with the bow and arrow, so why even try?

Consider that, again, that this may be another 100 hour jaunt, especially when you find out you can retire your character in realtime, and start all over again if you don?t like your character, or have worn out his welcome. You can also do that in the offline career mode.

The million (or rather, $59.99) question that remains every year is whether or not the latest version of an annual sports game is worth purchasing. In years past, my opinions have been fairly unequivocal one way or another. Madden 13 is a game for which I have no answer. On one hand, the casual Madden game will likely find no value in upgrading last year`s title right away. After all, Madden 12, while not being the best one in franchise history, was still a very serviceable game, and has not instantly aged as terribly as when, say, Madden 08 came out and Madden 07 look instantly like George Lazenby to its Roger Moore. But when you consider that the staunchest of Madden fans have been coming back for the last 20 years looking for more, it is worth the upgrade. Electronic Arts has been finding new ways to keep their franchises from running into the ground, and while THQ and 2K continue to push the pace as much as they can with their yearly game edition improvements, EA manages to keep pace. The gameplay mechanic changes would normally be enough to test drive it so to speak, but when you have taken one of your long time meal tickets (career mode) and gambled on making it a completely new experience, there can be severe repercussions. Fortunately, it perseveres, but not before it?s guaranteed to make your life difficult once in a while. Gone are the days where you can button mash your way into the next game, or transaction. This one makes you think more than ever, and might even require you busting out a notebook for reference.

Graphics 8/10. I?ll admit, I don?t think the graphics got any better, and if they did change, they actually got worse. With the new physics engine, the characters definitely feel, at times, very wire-framy. Player sprites will have awkward glitch moments on the field during snaps, and parts of them morph into strange colors. The fields and stadiums, however, look vibrant and brilliant as always, with the exception of the fan patterns in the crowd. Still, credit where credit is due, the game looks pretty good for the most part, and in a game like Madden, if the atmosphere is beautiful enough, a few blips on the playable characters are excusable.

Sound: 9.5/10. This is the first time I?ve considered giving 30/10 because of the lack of Gus Johnson, however, I might break Xbox Addict?s scoring engine. The sound effects here are about as good as you can get without the on-field swearing or inviting your opponents to perform anatomically impossible sexual acts on themselves during a heated play. The fact that EA chose to digitize numerous QBs to get the voices right is commendable, as is the added crowd effects and the much improved commentary. I still can?t help feel Cris Collinsworth got a bit of a shaft and should be brought back into the booth for 14, since I think the quality of his insight was always great, but Nantz and Simms are still good enough for me.

Control: 6/10. I was pretty civil with the controls last year, but after continuing to see the addition without subtraction, they?ve become a bit too messy and abstract. A working knowledge of last year?s game is almost a pre-requisite to be able to play this game with any varying degree of success, and as I previously mentioned, the Kinect controls can be more burdensome at times than a benefit. In fact, I will admit that between the time I started to, and finished reviewing this game, I stopped bothering with the Kinect controls, and started longing for the simplified controls of games old. I still don?t understand, for example, why you have to confirm whether you want to catch a pass or not, when you have other pressing matters (like breaking through coverage) ongoing at the time. Learning the controls in this game to their fullest extent is a yearlong challenge in its own, and perhaps it?s time for EA to look at including a simplified set of controls for those that don?t want to do more than have a game of pickup with their buddies over a couple drinks before Sunday Night Football.

Gameplay: 8.5/10. There?s a lot of déjà vu going into this game, however, it really isn?t anything new to you, the football gamer. After all, there are only so many ways you can continue re-inventing the wheel, and to EA?s credit, they find ways to put a convincing coat of black paint on the wheel every year to make it look new enough. This year did what it needed toward keeping pace with some of the other games like NHL, who have been implementing a more realistic sense of game physics into their title for a couple years now. For me, through the huge career modes, the Madden Ultimate improvements, and everything else I?ve been happy to see, the Infinity Engine is what does it for me. This is the crowning jewel of this year?s Madden game, and this collision detection system is what this game has been desperately in need of. We?re no longer in arcade-esque times where it?s acceptable to float your running back through an entire scrimmage without a scratch, so this is one of those things that I hope is here to stay and will be implemented going forward.

For what it?s worth, I must close this review with a slight update from something I mentioned last year, and offering a shout out to my pal Tracy Hackler at Panini America, who helped confirm that only ONE of the golden tickets from the Marshall Faulk Hall of Fame sweepstakes in Madden 12 were redeemed at press time for this review. So folks, there is still one out there. If you can find one of the remaining Hall of Fame Editions out there when you go pick up Madden 13, and have extra money burning a hole in your pocket, it might be worth the gamble to pick that up too. In the meantime, head out there and enjoy Madden as your precursor to the NFL season. See you again in a few weeks for NHL 13. Fans of that sport may not be so lucky this year.

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 8.5 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 9.5 / 10


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