Ray Lewis does an uncompromising line in motivational speaking. Hear him talk, and you’re left with the distinct impression that even the legendary Baltimore Raven’s idea of unwinding involves doing something nerve-shreddingly intense. Like a game of Russian roulette – alone. He’s an intimidatingly inspirational character, all apex predator eyes and bear-wrestling biceps, and for his impassioned opening monologue in Madden NFL 13 he’s on trademark form, delivering a chest-beating pre-game battle cry that, while meant for Madden’s players, could just as easily be directed at its makers.
Over previous iterations, Madden had fallen into a rut of Grand Canyon-sized proportions. Issues endemic within the game’s engine earnt it a Tim Tebow-style reputation for skewed mechanics and “How the hell did that just happen?” plays, while its yearly development cycle saw its ambition not so much dented as crushed under the weight of necessity.
EA’s exclusivity deal with the NFL also didn’t help matters. Leaving the series without a legitimate rival naturally dulled Madden’s competitive edge. Although here, the fickle mind-set of American Football fans must also shoulder some of the blame. Obviously 2K felt that no matter how sanctified their competing titles were, not enough people would buy them without an official logo on the box.
So Ray’s now be installed in perpetual residence, standing guard on the Madden 13 title screen as a constant reminder to all that no longer will Madden’s defining monopoly be one on mediocrity. And his threatening presence definitely seems to have had the desired effect.
EA’s drive to make Madden indistinguishable from an actual TV broadcast continues with an entirely revamped presentation package. Everything surrounding the action is slathered in the same glitzy secret sauce all major US networks now seem to dip their presenters in to give them their big hair and glow in the dark teeth. It’s all looks so CBS, you expect each game to be followed by an episode of 60 Minutes. (Except for viewers on the west coast).
Appropriately, it’s the CBS duo of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms who’ve also taken over in the commentary booth as the mouthpiece of Madden state TV. Last year’s incumbents, Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth, suffered a gruesome death at the hands of a tin-eared sound editor, so it’s a relief that this time EA have laid off the audio guillotine allowing Simms and Nantz to gently ramble along, making up in naturalistic flow for what they lack in incisive analysis.
Behind all the authentic outfitting, however, it’s the newly incorporated Infinity physics engine that really steals the show. Each play in American Football is like a controlled explosion, lasting just a handful of testosterone-fuelled seconds before everyone returns to their starting positions and braces for impact once again. Infinity, like a sports science version of the Large Hadron Collider, smashes opposing players together, then sifts through the wreckage to show you what’s left with attention-grabbing realism rather than prefabricated animations. While it may have been developed for EA’s other football series, FIFA, Infinity has definitely found its home here.
It’s not perfect. Super slow motion replays in particular reveal unsightly visual blemishes, while pileups after a play has been blown dead often resemble a hideous accident at a contortionists’ convention, but Infinity’s swapping of imitation for simulation could easily be the best trade in pro football all season.
Elsewhere on the field, the improvements are more subtle but only slightly less significant. Casual players may well remain oblivious to most. For them, Gameflow continues to be an excellent pastoral guide, picking plays and sparing the complexities of X’s and O’s. For hardcore veterans however – those with the multiple rings and ruptured tendons – Madden is becoming the deeper, more rewarding game they deserve.
The NFL is currently very much a passer-friendly league, and so it is in Madden 13. Critically, EA haven’t fudged the game to make Quarterbacking easier, in fact, they’ve done exactly the opposite, giving you more of the tools to enable you to play the position accurately. Additional ball trajectories allow much greater precision when throwing. Teammates emboldened with additional IQ points and animations indicate when they’re looking for the ball and are now much more adept at completing plays. Your receivers can even be directed into desired positions using the analog stick.
To combat these offensive enhancements, on the opposite side of the ball, defences have also been rallied. No longer able to swat down passes without seeing the ball (previously the most infuriating artificiality in all of Madden) defenders have instead been made more astute, fiddling with their formations and disguising their intentions. If they do manage to blitz or baffle their way through your offensive line, you can quickly abort out of play-action or duck and dodge in the pocket. It’s all believably and finely balanced. Your heightened control thrillingly and intrinsically linked to the added weight of responsibility resting on your shoulders, making you glad they’re heavily padded.
Unless you’re after a standalone quick match, this year the debuting Connected Careers mode is the place to head, and it’s an all-devouring beast. Swallowing up the previously more segregated online and offline franchise and superstar modes and then spitting them out in one amorphous blob, Connected Careers is the closest thing Madden has ever come to a role-playing game. Skyrim with a line of scrimmage.
You choose a character – a current or legendary player or coach, or one of your own creating – and then take control of their life. Regular season games are your main missions, practice matches, training drills and other tertiary distractions your side quests, with experience points dished out to help you improve your abilities. As a coach you’re in charge of just about everything on and off the field, as a player you’re only concerned with the plays and personal issues that involve you.
Its scope is vast, it’s versatility undeniably impressive – any single mode in which you can run a full online franchise league for 30 seasons with 31 of your friends, or play Andrew Luck’s entire career all by yourself before switching to John Elway couldn’t be anything else – but it’s all a bit too utilitarian and lacking in finesse. If you just want to play your team’s matches for a single season you can’t without wading through fake Twitter feeds and frustrating virtual paperwork, while in online leagues there’s no longer an option to begin with a fantasy draft and across the board lots of effort yields underwhelming amounts of XP.
It’s these fumbles on the sidelines that keep Connected Careers to a field goal rather than a touchdown. But its presence, complimented by the return of Madden Moments and the niche Ultimate Team card collecting game makes for a formidable lineup. It’s on the field though where Madden NFL 13 enjoys its greatest triumphs, reproducing more of those enthralling moments the NFL likes to save for Sunday best. Ray Lewis once said, “Greatness is a lot of small things done well stacked up on one another.” Well, Madden is definitely on the up and aiming even higher. On this evidence, EA really should make Ray head of performance management.
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