Being a sports title, Madden gets an obligatory shot at improving itself every year, unlike most other games (franchises with development cycles like Assassin’s Creed notwithstanding). And being that this is probably the longest console generation yet, this means EA Sports has had plenty of chances to perfect its approach at simulating NFL football. Usually a new Madden is considered one of two things, a minor tweak and roster update, or a complete overhaul. In this case, Madden 13 is slightly more of the latter, somewhat daring for a late generation release, but does it really change things up for better or worse? In my experience it was mostly the same, though admittedly with far more polish than the last several outings.
The major selling point of Madden 13 is what has been dubbed by EA as the “Infinity Engine.” What this really means is improved player physics, which basically debuted in the FIFA series the year before. The new physics engine allows for more realistic collisions and player interactions, which means no more completely pre-canned tackle animations. Players actually fall to the ground fairly realistically as they are gang tackled or have their feet swept out from under them, or they manage to keep plays alive while stumbling for balance. It’s all quite impressive in real time. My only complaint is that in the excessive slow motion replays they feed you to show this off, you can tell there’s a lot of instances where the “contact” is initiated prematurely, a couple of inches before the players actually touch. Also, for all the realism of the tackle at the focus of the play, sometimes you notice players flying backward after being stepped into at the end of the play. Still for a first effort it’s not bad and it does change how the game is played a bit since simply running into a guy can help make the play even if you didn’t manage to get your arms around him.
The other big change, for 360 owners at least, is the introduction of Kinect integration into the game. Like many games have decided upon recently, Madden 13 merely takes advantage of the camera’s voice recognition ability, rather than the motion controls. This means you’ll only be using it at the line of scrimmage before the snap to make adjustments to your play calling. Just about anything you’d normally bring up with a click of the right thumbstick can be accomplished through voice control now. That includes audibles, hot routes, line shifts, and more. There are cues along the bottom of the screen that can tell you what you can say, like “Challenge” to ask for a review of a call by the refs. You can even tell your players to hurry up to the line and spike the ball, or even just initiate the snap by shouting “Hike!” Unfortunately for me that last part didn’t always take, so I don’t recommend bothering with the voice command when you’re up against the clock, or else you’ll take a delay of game penalty when the game decides not to respond to what you’re saying. It is pretty handy though and can be a bit faster to use than digging through a menu. I never really played around with that stuff before but the Kinect inspired me to try a lot more things, so it could teach casual Madden players a thing or two in the process. And yes, you can use it in multiplayer without giving away your play. Your headset is automatically muted in the pre play period.
Finally, EA Sports decided to remix the franchise and superstar modes and throw them together to make something they call Connected Careers. This allows you to create both online and offline leagues or join others with up to 32 human players. You and your friends can choose either to take on the role of a player or coach, and these can be either created, current, or former ones, each playing your own way at the same time through a season. In addition, there is an RPG element to the game in which you earn XP for achieving goals every week and throughout the year. XP can purchase upgrades to your players’ abilities or allow your coach to hold on to or attract more free agents, for instance. Coaches also spend scouting points to decipher a prospects abilities throughout the year in preparation for the draft at the end of each season. If you get bored of playing the game one way you can “retire” and come back as another player or coach, all in the same league. This makes franchise mode less of a chore and more of a all-encompassing experience. And if you don’t want all this RPG stuff in your league then it’s pretty easy to skip past practices and games or have it automatically assign upgrades each week. My only issue with this mode is that for some reason the Kinect functionality is tossed out in player mode, even if you’re the quarterback, who ostensibly SHOULD be able to call audibles at the line of scrimmage (which you can still do with the right thumbstick for some reason). I’m not sure if this was intentional or a bug, but there’s a lot of things like that in Madden so who knows. Also, Madden 13 retains the Ultimate Team card playing game with a few minor tweaks, like rewards for loyal gamers who have played through previous versions of the game, unlocking various card packs for them.
As far as the actual gameplay on the field goes, I think this year’s edition of Madden is tilted towards the passing game quite a bit. EA put a lot of focus on throwing, with new pass trajectories, automatic dropbacks, increased awareness of the receivers, etc. This makes marching down the field with perfectly timed routes a bit of a blast once you get into a rhythm, as the passing icons kind of light up when a receiver is expecting the ball and you can put the right touch on it (with “Total Control Passing”, something I swear was coined and invented by the NFL2K series first) in order to ease the ball into the right passing lane. Running is a bit more interesting with the Infinity Engine as no longer are you immediately stopped in your tracks by a pre-canned tackle animation. Your player will bounce forward or back depending on momentum and it can be a difference in getting that last yard you needed. However I had real problems with the controls on defense. I don’t know if it was my own ability or the lack thereof of my players, but tackling in the open field was extremely perilous. More than once I found myself running straight past someone I thought I had the angle on or at least should have collided with a bit, at least getting an arm on him to push him out. Not the case. Supposedly the game defaults to auto strafing to help line up tackles but I never really saw this in my games, which didn’t help at all. Also, it still feels like a lot chicanery is going on in the background as far as deciding turnovers depending on the score of the game, but that could be my bias. All in all if you’re a diehard Madden fan not much has probably changed for you besides the advanced physics and passing and you will have no problems with it. Being a somewhat bitter NFL2K fan myself, I see much of the same things I’ve always disliked about the franchise that I feel take away control from me and impose arbitrary obstacles.
Presentation is definitely not a weakness of this edition of Madden, however. Complimenting the showcase that is the Infinity Engine, EA added much improved lighting to the stadiums, which features high dynamic range and actually adjusts to the position of the sun during the game. New angles are provided to mimic television broadcasts as well, and the detail on the new Nike uniforms is impeccable. Madden 13 taps the CBS broadcast talents of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms to change things up. You will see a somewhat uncanny virtual version of them in their booth before each game, accurately overlooking a different part of the field depending which stadium they’re in with is a neat touch. The screen overlays and epic soundtrack also seem to borrow from CBS’s playbook to a build a nice, coherent package. The actual play by play got on my nerves pretty quickly however, as despite the 9000 lines recorded for the game, the ones I kept hearing from Jim Nantz were about how my quarterback didn’t want to get sacked for a third time in the game, over and over and over again. Phil Simms also incorrectly states that a team needs two scores in two minutes to get back into a game when they’re down by well over three touchdowns.
It’s blatant mistakes like these that make me question how seriously EA takes their exclusive deal with the NFL or whether they’re just resting on their laurels and doing as little as necessary, because these are problems that should have been nipped in the bud ages ago and aren’t as prevalent in games where they have competition like the NHL series. Since this is the only choice you have though, the only real competition for Madden 13 is Madden 12, and since this year’s take on it does introduce a much better physics engine and presentation, as well as Kinect enhancements and an improved career mode, I do have to recommend it despite its nagging flaws.