For the past few years, the "Madden NFL" series has been treading water. Every iteration boasted visual improvements and gameplay tweaks, but fundamentally, it's been the same football title that gamers have been playing for the past decade.
With all the advancements in online connectivity, social networking and programming, the series cried out for a revamp. It needed a fresh look that took advantage of the current technology. EA Tiburon has slowly worked toward it, and finally, that game has arrived.
"Madden NFL 13," which hits stores Tuesday, is the next-gen football game that fans have been waiting years for. It has re-imagined the series connecting the franchise mode online in something called Connected Careers. It has integrated the game with Facebook and Twitter, so fans can brag about their victories on platforms that matter. The Xbox 360 edition even supports voice control via Kinect.
But the biggest update comes with the Infinity Engine. It's the cutting-edge physics system that makes "Madden NFL 13" play like a new game. For the first time, speed and mass have an effect on collisions. Canned animations are relics of the past. Now every tackle is generated in real-time.
It brings a new level of unpredictability to football games. Running backs hitting a hole can trip over their own linemen. Heavy tight ends can bounce off tackles from lightweight defensive backs. Safeties will punish receivers going over the
Sure, every hit will look like it hurt. The Infinity Engine also takes physiology into account, making sure players don't look like rag dolls during the play. But it also turns a football player's balance and center of gravity into a factor. Running backs can be nudged off balance with a leg tackle, but they can still go on if they're agile enough. That means every play must be run through to the end. Just because there is a tackle animation, it doesn't mean it's over.
With that said, because the physics system is new, it doesn't always work perfectly. There are some plays where I swore my guy didn't go down on a tackle. There are moments when random players on the field spaz out for some unforeseen reason. But those are minor complaints when every matchup shows you something new.
For example, I once saw a bad throw hit a referee on the field. A fullback stumbled through the line and bounced off tacklers like a pinball before he was slowed down when one of his own linemen fell on him. My quarterback threaded the needle between two defensive backs, and he awkwardly caught it before crumpling to the ground.
I've never spent so much time poring over replays before. The other tweaks to the gameplay isa new Total Control Passing that rewards gamers who know where to place the ball so it doesn't get intercepted. It's easier now to lead receivers or even break out of play-action motions to make throws. Elsewhere with the aerial attack, "Madden NFL 13" now takes into account when wide receivers are expecting throws. Gamers can't toss the pigskin at any time; they have to check the wideout to make sure he's prepared.
On the defensive end, the best new move is the Ballhawk feature, where gamers can hold on to a button, and the defender will automatically go after the ball for an interception. It's an aggressive move, but the reward of a turnover is worth it even if you give up a rare touchdown.
Thinking outside the box, EA Tiburon added Kinect support that made sense. The team eschews any form of motion control and instead uses the sensors so gamers can adjust plays easily if they don't know the pre-snap button presses. (There are a ton.) It's sometimes easier to just call out a play rather than browse through menus to find the right one. It works about 80 percent of the time, which is good enough for single-player games.
All of this comes into play in the Connected Careers mode, which is now the de facto Franchise Mode. EA Tiburon rethought this core feature and expanded it so it's more personal. Instead of taking on the role of a faceless franchise, gamers can step into the shoes of a player or coach.
They pick their persona and control their futures as they work toward building a Hall of Fame career. They're scored on their accomplishments, and players can see how they stack up among their friends. I focused on the coach's side, which essentially lets players take control of the team's scouting, depth chart and contract negotiations.
As coach, gamers play "Madden NFL 13" as they would an online matchup. They control the quarterback, running back and defense. But the big difference is that there's more of a role-playing game element: Coaches earn experience points for accomplishing goals, and they turn those into power-ups for their team. They can help football players progress or buy packages to keep stars from retiring, aka the Brett Favre perk.
Best of all, these modes work online and offline so gamers can create leagues with friends that span several seasons. They don't even have to feel bad about leaving or going on break because online leagues can move on with gamers' franchises on autopilot if they quit. A computer just controls their squad. It's a nod to those who can't fit a weekly game into their schedule.
All these improvements to "Madden NFL 13" amount to a revolution for the franchise. It lays out the foundation for a new chapter in the series, one that looks bright if the EA Tiburon can keep adding innovations that matter.
'Madden NFL 13'
* * * * (out of 4)
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita