You might not think fighting games like Street Fighter and Soulcalibur have much in common with sports titles, but they share a common bond: You never really know how a given entry in the series will hold up over time. Sure, we’ll slap a score on the annual Madden/MLB/FIFA iterations, but let’s be honest: Those are just our initial impressions. It takes months of play — both online and off — to really determine how synced up the passing game is, whether any game-killing bugs regularly pop up in franchise mode, and whether human opponents can exploit certain in-game loopholes.
After all, I had fun playing Madden NFL 10 at the beginning — just like I do every year. But after I spent two full in-game seasons in an online league, one thing became clear: The game was a chore. Earlier this year, a Wall Street Journal study determined that an actual NFL game only contains about 11 minutes of action… and Madden was starting to feel a little too close to that ratio. The endless playbooks had become far too cumbersome, the overall experience had started to feel way too drawn-out, and I felt like the game was designed for Madden experts to enjoy and exploit. See, while I know football, I’ll never be a Madden savant. I know the various plays and strategies, but I have a hard time transferring that knowledge to the playing field.
I also have a tendency to get fixated on very specific plays and players. For example, when I’d take control of my San Francisco 49ers last year, I’d attempt to establish the running game early on with Frank Gore and then try to air it out over the middle with tight end Vernon Davis, occasionally mixing things up by going to Michael Crabtree or another secondary Niners receiver. Here’s the problem, though: Every one of my opponents saw through that strategy. In fact, one of my foes e-mailed someone else in our league and laughed at how predictable I’d been. Those are fightin’ words, son! I tried to mix up my strategy each week, but for some reason, I’d subconsciously go back to the same old tactics in the end.
And that’s why this year’s new GameFlow feature is perfect for me. Not only does it radically shorten the average game (my playtime per game went from about an hour in Madden 10 to about half an hour in Madden 11), but it automatically selects the best play based on a given in-game situation. Instead of focusing on specific players, like I tend to do, it takes a look at the bigger picture and recommends a play that’s more likely to be effective. And even if a GameFlow play call does feel like a boneheaded strategy in the context of the game — a rare occurrence, at least from my perspective — you can easily audible out of it.
Of course, you don’t have to use GameFlow if you don’t want to, and hardcore players likely won’t. But I felt like it really freed up my focus and allowed me to enjoy the game a lot more. Rather than having to balance both the coaching responsibilities and the quarterback play, I just had to focus on executing my strategies — and I had a lot more fun as a result. That’s why I’d say this version of Madden is far more accessible for what I’ll term the “casual hardcore” sports gamer. No, it doesn’t simplify things down to a Tecmo Bowl-esque four plays (you need some football knowledge in order to make GameFlow work for you), but it definitely enhances the experience for gamers who know football but could never hope to compete against the freaks on ESPN’s Madden Nation.
While GameFlow’s the biggest addition this year by far, though, it’s not the only change. Excitable new play-by-play man Gus Johnson adds some much-needed energy to the in-game broadcast — a vast improvement from last year’s robotic Tom Hammond, who always sounded like an android who needed an oil change. Sure, sometimes Gus got a little too excited when I’d deliver a simple screen pass to Frank Gore, but I’d rather have extreme exuberance than the alternative. The overall presentation is improved this year as well, complete with team-specific Super Bowl celebrations — a first for the series, and an addition that really adds a sense of accomplishment once you’ve played through the regular season.
But, yeah, I’ll go ahead and admit it: I don’t know exactly how Madden 11 will hold up for me over the next year. But I do know that, unlike most years, I really feel the improvements instead of just reading about them in a press release or seeing them on the back of the box. And when it comes to Madden, that’s as big a difference as I’ve felt in half a decade.