Going for the Touchdown: Madden NFL 13 Reviewed
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.
Madden NFL, along with FIFA and NHL, is part of the holy trinity of the EA Sports religion. What this means is regardless of critical reception, new features, or even price, the game will sell bucket loads. In fact, barring a shocking revelation within this text, I can safely say the majority of readers will have already decided whether or not they will purchase this year’s game before they even click on this review.
Well, there isn’t really much written here that will surprise anyone who has played a Madden game before. The last Madden game I played was Madden 09, and I must admit, I would have been slightly disappointed if the game presented to me as Madden 13 was labelled as Madden 10 and released four years ago. It sounds harsh, but there seems to have been so little evolution in the series over the past four years that, frankly, I’m amazed there hasn’t been a riot amongst football fans. Compared to the wholesale changes presented by the FIFA series in the same time period, fans of Madden should feel a little let down by the lack of momentum in this franchise.
That’s not to say what is presented here is a bad game; there is plenty on offer, and what is included in the box is actually a pretty solid package, if not a game-changer. Because FIFA has the Pro Evo series competing against it each year, it needs to stay one step ahead if it is to get the lion’s share of sales. Madden, on the other hand, only really has one other similar title on the market – NCAA Football – which happens to also be developed and published by EA Sports, sometimes even seen as a partner to the Madden series. Therefore, the majority of changes present in Madden 13 are away from the play itself. The commentary team has been replaced and thousands of lines of new dialogue have been recorded. There’s a new lighting system, making plays and players look more outstanding than ever before, and the Infinity Engine, which more accurately replicates real-world physics, has been brought over from the FIFA series, with mixed success.
The biggest change in terms of options isn’t a new mode per se, but instead a merging of two previously existing modes. You can now play as either a coach or a player as part of Connected Careers, which allows you to take a career online to join with up to 31 other players in the same league. What’s impressive about this is some can choose to be players, whilst others can be coaches. Unfortunately, you can’t have a human-controlled player and coach on the same team, but it’s still a step forward for online play in sports games. There is an offline option for Connected Careers as well, which runs the same as the online mode and plays in a similar fashion to other career modes, but with a couple of small-yet-interesting changes.
Most prominent of these changes is the inclusion of a Twitter feed at the career mode’s home screen. Virtual representations of real-world sportscasters update their Twitter feeds in response to happenings within the career mode, and although some do seem artificial (you will start to see the same tweets after a while), it adds a small dose of realism to proceedings and it also helps give the impression events within this game mode have some form of repercussion in a larger (virtual) world. The other addition is a form of RPG-lite mechanics, whereby you can upgrade your player or coach by completing objectives and purchasing better skills with XP. You gain a base level of XP for completing each week’s practice as well as for playing in games. Players are also given weekly, seasonal, and career-long objectives, such as passing or rushing yard, sacks, or MVP awards to unlock bigger pools of XP once achieved. It’s another new feature making what you do in each game feel more like it counts toward a bigger picture.
The main downside I found to playing Connected Careers was it got repetitive pretty quickly, particularly in the player mode. Each week you have to participate in practice, but these never seem to change up. You’re given the same scenarios week in, week out, and none of them are particularly exciting. It would have been nice to be able to replay some particular moments from the previous weekend’s game, or even a compatibility with the Madden Moments mode (discussed later) would have made for some more interesting scenarios. Added to this is the fact that if you start as a rookie (and in particular a quarterback), you’ll spend most, if not all, of the first season sitting on the bench, unable to challenge the established regular for a first-team spot. It’s a realistic approach, as not many draftees slot straight into a line-up, but it still feels boring, and for a long time leaves weekly practice as the only taste of football you’ll get.
The Madden Moments mode just briefly mentioned above is part of the new Gridiron Club in Madden 13, which exists to serve as an area for fans of ‘real-world’ football to get regular updates via videos, and also earn loyalty bonuses from playing the Madden series. Madden Moments allows players to attempt to recreate feats from real-world football games, such as coming from behind at the start of the fourth quarter, or only allowing below a certain number of points from the opposition. Like much of Madden 13, Madden Moments will be updated throughout the season with new scenarios to play through. As I said previously, if these scenarios could have been added to the practice mode in Connected Careers, it would have made for a more varied and enjoyable experience. Also offered in the Gridiron Club is a regularly updated series of videos, including news from the NFL network, and gameplay tips from Madden veterans.
EA Tiburon seems determined to make the Madden series a central hub for NFL fans, and it wouldn’t be surprising if in a couple of years Madden contained an option to stream NFL games through the game itself. In a nice nod to long-time fans of the Madden series, the Gridiron Club also contains a number of loyalty bonuses for those who have played previous Madden games in this console generation, going back to Madden 08. Each game you’ve played unlocks a card or cards in the Ultimate Team mode, which, whilst it isn’t anything to show off to your friends, is still a nice touch if you enjoy the card-based gameplay of Ultimate Team.
Ultimate Team has been part of Madden for a couple of years now, but like almost everything in Madden 13, it is now more integrated with the rest of the game. Unlocking certain cards such as Vince Lombardi or Joe Montana allows players to use these avatars in Connected Careers mode if they wanted to play as an NFL legend. As an isolated gameplay mode, Ultimate Team is just as addictive as ever, with the drive to earn coins to unlock extra packs of cards still gripping hold of you and refusing to let go. This year’s effort also includes a whole bunch of Solo Challenges, which consist mainly of matching NFL teams’ pre-season and full-season schedules, with tiered rewards for working your way through the matches. Although the rewards start off small at 50 coins (a pack starts at 1,500 coins), the challenges eventually start to offer up full packs, and even exclusive cards you can’t find in packets.
Whilst Ultimate Team doesn’t contain one sole objective, the main aim is to make your team as strong as possible by buying more cards and carefully managing players’ contracts. There is a good amount of packets available to buy, either through coins earned in-game or with real-world money, in the form of micro-transactions using virtual currency It’s certainly possible to spend a small fortune here if you’re not careful, and I must admit EA has been a little sneaky with its design choices in this mode, making it far too easy to accidentally purchase a packet with real-world money due to the placement of the options and the fairly vague descriptions offered for each option. Still, being able to buy various packs focusing on rookies, superstars, captains, and other themes means players can hone their efforts into making their squad their own. For those with a CCG-based OCD, however, you can forgo building the best team for building the best collection. Each team in the NFL has a collection to be filled, and whilst every player isn’t eligible, if you find a player in packets that appears for a team on a regular basis, they’ll probably be in the collection. Completing one of these unlocks a coin bonus and also extra, exclusive cards, so it’s well worth your time if you have the inclination to do so.
As mentioned toward the start of this review, once you actually enter onto the football field, Madden 13 plays much the same as any Madden game over the past few years. Most of the changes in this entry are cosmetic, with new lighting systems, updated uniforms, and the effects of play on the field being more evident as the game goes on. Perhaps the most impressive change, presentation-wise, is the new commentary team. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms introduce each game from the commentary box, and it looks like a lot of work has gone into getting their likenesses as close to reality as possible, because these two look better than the majority of players in the game. Nantz and Simms have also recorded a whole host of new commentary for Madden 13, and this really adds to the feel of watching an authentic NFL game on television. Players get specific lines for introductions and when certain plays are made, and the comments are often fairly constructive, rather than being there for filler. Of course, you’re going to hear some lines more than others, but the variation means repetition shouldn’t become too much of a problem.
The other big feature lauded on the back of the box is the inclusion of the Infinity Engine, which promises to bring real-time physics to Madden and make the game more realistic in terms of hits and player movement. A similar engine was introduced in the FIFA series last year, and like FIFA, Madden’s version of the engine is prone to teething troubles. Replays show players’ limbs clipping through other players, and a lot of the time they will fall over each other when returning to start a new play, making for some comical, if immersion-breaking, interactions. There is nothing on the level of FIFA players’ legs disappearing into their bodies, or randomly breakdancing when fouled, but it still looks like the engine could do with some fine-tuning. When it works, however, it provides some of the most crunching and wince-worthy tackles I’ve seen in a football game.
The presentation issues aren’t limited to clipping issues and player stupidity, however. Much has been made of the fact that each NFL stadium is included within Madden 13, and whilst each has been faithfully recreated in terms of architecture, there are certain elements which take away from the TV-like package, and leave the bare bones showing. Crowds are still a series of repeated character models and animations, making them look almost like a moving diorama at a museum, and panning shots over the stadium reveal the exterior areas to be almost like film set backdrops, painted on canvas. I appreciate that these points aren’t game-breaking, or even crucial to game of football, but if EA Tiburon has gone to such lengths to make the game as close to TV-authentic as possible, it’s strange to see such blatantly artificial elements still present in the game. It looks incredibly poor, and reminds you more than anything else that you’re playing virtual football as opposed to watching it on TV.
On the other hand, Madden 13 also contains some of the finest texture details I’ve encountered in sports games. During replays, you can actually see the texturing on the football as it flies through the air, and the player likenesses are amongst the most accurate I’ve seen. For a sport where the vast majority of a player is covered in a uniform, it’s impressive to see so much care has gone into still making players recognizable. All this detail doesn’t come without a cost, though: On several occasions, mainly whilst attempting to throw as a quarterback or on a rush, slowdown crippled my attempts to drive up the field. Slowdown is inexcusable and game-breaking at the best of times, but in a football game, just after the snap?! It is the worst time imaginable for a game like this and can really put a dent in your attempts to find your man. Throwing a football successfully to a receiver is about timing as much as anything, and this lag knocks you off your stride to a crippling degree.
Another year, another Madden. Does it do enough for me to recommend it to you if you have the previous year’s entry? No. Does this matter if you’re a fan of the series? Likely not. Madden 13 does, however, do enough to allow me to recommend it to you if you’re interested in picking up a football game and haven’t owned one for a couple of years, or if a number of your friends are picking it up and you want to play online with them. Connected Careers is potentially the most revolutionary element of Madden 13, and could shape the future of sports games if it executes correctly.
As a package, Madden 13 will keep players and fans busy throughout the football season, particularly when considering the amount of content updates promises in terms of Madden Moments and Ultimate Team cards. It’s disappointing that on the field Madden 13 plays so similarly to its predecessors, but the encompassing package should do enough to placate all but the most ardent of naysayers.
Final score: 4.0 / 5.0
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