Madden NFL 13 Review
When it comes to the long-running Madden NFL series, gamers fall into one of three camps: those who buy the game every year, those who hate EA's exclusive NFL contract and refuse to buy the game, and those who pick up the game on occasion. This review is for the last group, because frankly those in the first two are less looking for a review than they are looking for validation for their particular view on the franchise.
If you've sat on the sidelines for the past year or so (and to a certain degree even if you haven't), you're going to find a rather different Madden NFL game in its 2013 version. Start up the game and you'll see an interface that resembles the Xbox 360's dashboard, with a big "play now" tile that can get you into a game with your favorite team right away. Getting into other modes takes a little more navigating on your part, and if you're looking to run through a season, kickoff a franchise, or play your way through a playoff bracket, well, you're not going to find any of those things. Outside of the one-shot Play Now mode and the trading card game inspired Ultimate Team mode, all of the game play is driven through the game's Connected Career mode.
Connected Career is an amalgamated game mode that morphs into different experiences based on how you start it. Begin a coach's career and you're essentially playing a franchise mode, handling your team's personnel, calling the plays, and controlling the on-field action. Start a player career and you're emulating a classic career mode, either as an existing star or with a player you've created from scratch. In both cases you'll only be in control of the one player, and unless you've chosen to take over for a starting player you'll spend a good deal of your time off of the field. You can also play as an NFL legend (at least as one of the legends that the game successfully licensed) and see how they would perform in today's league. And while "Connected" implies that this is an online mode, you can forgo joining an online league or forming one of your own and play the mode entirely offline against the AI. In all modes successfully completing weekly practice and game challenges will award you with experience points which can be used to improve individual player attributes. In a coach's career these points are used to improve all of the players on your team while in the other modes they are used exclusively for the player you've selected. The weekly game goals (and the season goals as well) have an impact on your game plans as they take the focus off of doing what you think you need to do to win and put it on meeting the goals instead. In a player career this means calling your own number as much as possible and in a coach career it leads to things like forcing an aggressive passing attack to make a yardage goal rather than trying to play possession ball.
A coach career gives you control over player trades, practices, salary negotiations, and player development, and if you're just looking to play through your favorite team's 2012 schedule it can all be a little much. I found the degree of control to be interesting for a short while, but a few weeks into the season I felt like I was spending too much time playing through game scenarios in practice and micromanaging allocating experience points to player ratings. Luckily the game lets you choose to automate all of the ancillary activities but you still need to tell the game to handle things for you on a task by task basis. Once you get to a game, though, it's business as usual with you making the play calls and controlling the in-game action. A word of warning, though, and that's that the coach career is not a simple relabeling of the franchise mode of Maddens past. If you're looking for things like a draft of your NCAA Football 13 graduating class you won't find them in the coach career.
A player career simplifies the weekly tasks to a practice, a game, and experience point allocation. It also simplifies the games that you'll be playing. You'll only be able to call the plays while you're on the field and unless you want to watch the other plays unfold on a drive chart you'll be fast-simming to the next moment that you walk onto the gridiron. While there is some fun to be had hogging the ball and padding your stats as a superstar, the games feel a bit more like disjointed game recaps on a local news channel than actual NFL games.
Another of the game's modes is the Ultimate Team mode. This is a build-your-own football team mode that resembles a trading card game. You start the game with a "pack" of cards that contains enough mediocre NFL players to field a team. You can then jump online to take on other gamers' assembled teams or play your way through a series of games collected into challenges based on NFL teams' 2012 pre and regular season schedules. Winning games in these challenges rewards you with coins and occasionally with bonus card packs or a star player's card. Coins can then be spent to obtain more packs of cards, with packs containing a higher percentage of the NFL's better players being pricier than those packed with "common" cards. This is where Madden NFL 13 follows in the footsteps of Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 13 which in turn took its inspiration from free-to-play games' micro-transactions. You're going to have to play for a good number of hours before you'll collect enough coins to purchase just one of the better packs, and even longer if you want to field a team that has any chance of being competitive online. If you're impatient or have money to burn, though, you can simply use Microsoft points to flat out buy better card packs without all of the work. At least EA was kind enough to base its online player matching in this mode on your team's overall aggregate rating. Ultimate Team mode may be a bit gimmicky, especially when you take the real world money transactions into account, but I had a lot of fun with it. My refusal to pay for the card packs made my ragtag team of no-names more endearing, and is also made the rare packs that I won or bought with my hard-earned in-game coins that much sweeter to open.
The game's final mode is Madden Moments. These are a collection of real game scenarios that challenge you to repeat or change history, and if you succeed your performance is (somewhat mysteriously) scored and uploaded to the mode's leaderboards. While there are only a handful of scenarios available from last season at launch, EA promises to add new ones each week based on events that unfold during the 2012 NFL season. This should make the mode appealing to anyone who follows the league on a weekly basis - I know I'll be checking in on it once a week.
Now we get to the gameplay itself, which is actually the most important part of this review because modes don't matter if the game can't deliver on the gridiron. Madden NFL 2013 delivers some pretty significant changes when compared to the last few iterations of the franchise and it all begins with the new game engine, dubbed the Infinity Engine. The "Infinity" in its name comes from the canning of canned animations, which have been replaced by a physics-based engine that dynamically renders player movements and hits based on real-world modeled attributes such as mass and speed. The result is probably the most realistic looking Madden game I've played to date, although it still feels like the game has a ways to go before it's truly realistic. I'm still waiting for the day when a running back and linebacker can meet at the goal line in the air as they're both leaping over their lines. I like that the new engine makes some new things possible, though, such as breaking up a tackle with a last minute block instead of watching as a tackle animation goes through its frames, but on the flipside it seems that players tend to fall a little more often than they should. Still it's the engine's rookie season and I see some potential in it for the future.
A couple of changes have been made to the passing game with the addition of total control passing and receiver awareness. The first of these changes allows you to use the left stick while throwing a pass to affect its trajectory. This allows you to try to thread a zone or to try and keep the receiver between the ball and the defender. Receiver awareness models the fact that a receiver can't catch a pass if he isn't watching for it. The passing icons under the receivers are now ghosted out until the receiver begins to expect that the pass might be coming his way. I found this to be a good addition to the game because it feels like a more realistic way for the receivers to behave.
In spite of all of the positive changes, this iteration of Madden is still not quite up to providing a fully realistic simulation of NFL football. Runs seem to be all or nothing affairs, resulting in either ten yard gains or two yard losses, making it hard to establish a "three yards and a cloud of dust" power running attack. On the passing side of the coin, interceptions are too frequent whether you're on defense or are the one doing the passing and your line tends to act like a sieve during play action passes. And what's up with the clock? Seven minute quarters are this year's default standard, and that is plenty of time to put together a 300+ yard passing game or a 100+ yard rushing performance. But if you can do all that in what amounts to less than a half of a full game, something is still off in the sim aspect.
Kinect support has been added to the game in the form of voice commands. You can yell out for a timeout or bark audibles like a real quarterback. In theory at least. The Kinect has a hard enough time recognizing a timeout call, let alone an audible, and it's simply better to just take care of all of those things with the controller.
In all, I like some of the changes new to the game in its '13' incarnation. The Infinity Engine is a positive change, but we're still not quite there yet in terms of a complete realistic package when it comes to simulating NFL football. I had fun with some of the game modes, but I really do miss having a simple season mode where I can just pick a team and play straight through their 2012 schedule. Looking at the whole package I wish that the on-field action felt more like an NFL game to me, but that doesn't mean that the game's still not plenty of fun to play.
Final Rating: 82%. Still not quite up to being a real NFL sim, but a lot of fun to play nonetheless.