With a new season of the NFL underway, it's time to check out this year's version of Madden. Not only is the venerable franchise back, it returns with promises born of the new infinity engine, providing real-time physics, unique in-game collisions, and the occasional big piles of players. Also, EA Tiburon has re-tooled the career mode so you can compete in online leagues. Leagues full of other gamers trying to get their own players into the hall of fame, and their own team to the Super Bowl.
Although the new features are welcome, Madden NFL 13 has nothing that will draw you in if you've tried the games before, and found them cluttered, confusing, and just plain hard to get into. But, for those who enjoy some pixelated pigskin, Madden 13 is solid, occasionally slick, and not afraid to wear some big hits in order to gain a few yards.
The biggest and newest thing this year, although not as big as Ndamukong Suh's monstrous defence for the Detroit Lions or as new as seeing Peyton Manning in Bronco orange, is the game engine. In Madden NFL 13 there are no more scripted collisions, every hit is now a real-time event. While it usually works, the in-game animations occasionally get a bit glitchy. It's the kind of thing that should get worked out in time, although Madden has over the years gotten a bit of a history with that sort of thing.
Another problem, whether it's the infinity engine, or a design choice, is the offensive linemen. Although this year it feels easier to hit gaps with your running back, if you just brush one of you own players you immediately collapse in a heap. Worse than that, if you run into the back of your lead blocker you might fly backwards like you've been hit by Ray Lewis making a point to all those doubters he talks about in the game's opening video. That's not saying the infinity engine is a fumble on your own five-yard line. It's a welcome, and mostly successful step forward. But, it may need a season or two to reach it's full potential.
The other advertised change is the new Connected Careers. Here you can set up and participate in online leagues. While there's nothing new there, the twist is that you can manage a team or play as a player within these created leagues. So, when you trade for players you'll be bidding against other gamers competing in the league. Also, if you're controlling your created player, your rating, and your chance of getting into the Hall of Fame, is judged against other gamers. If your team or player is crap, you can scrap it, take over a new one, and jump back into the league for a fresh start. It all works seamlessly, but if you fancy playing the old-fashioned way you can forego all the online stuff and just play through your career off-line.
And that is a very good thing, because if there is one thing EA Sports like to do, it's to get you online so it can give you reasons to reach for your credit card. This year’s best reason to give EA Sports more of your money is the return of Madden Ultimate Team. To begin MUT you get a deck of cards. While the cards mostly represent players, they also include stuff like uniforms, stadiums, coaches, and management options.
As you'd expect the players you get in your first deck are rubbish. If the game detects previous Madden games on your console you get additional decks of some slightly less rubbish players. Just don't expect to win anything online with a team made up with these players. Your defensive backs, with ratings in the low sixties, won't even be able to keep up with wideouts running their routes, let alone running them down after they've made a catch. And, if you ever run for a first down, you can bet that your offensive lineman is going to get flagged for holding.
So, if you don't want to put in months of grinding against the CPU to upgrade your team, you can buy packs of the all time classic players and coaches like Emmitt Smith and Vince Lombardi, or bid in online auctions for some of today's best players. Despite it being difficult, and/or expensive, to get competitive, Ultimate Team offers depth and a lot of fun. Especially good are the solo challenges. Once you unlock them by building, or buying, a team with a high enough overall rating, you can play against history's greatest teams including Steve Young's championship 49ers, or the Aikman/Smith era Cowboys.
If you're not plugged into the net you can still play a game and build an offline career. You just can't do anything in MUT, including grinding for coins against the CPU or playing unlocked solo challenges. Also, my favourite part of the game, Madden Moments Live, is locked off. Part of the online Gridiron Club, which also includes roster updates, Madden - on demand, and loyalty awards, Madden Moments Live is where you can replay some of the most important events from the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Updated every week, you can take the Bronco's to their week 1 overtime win over the Steelers, or go back to help the Giants beat the Pats in last season's Super Bowl.
However, on or off-line, the game has the same old Madden strengths and weaknesses. There are an enormous amount of plays to manage and learn. Great if you've played Madden a lot, or are willing to put in plenty of practice. But the enormous number of plays is frustrating if you've not played Madden in a while. Also, as with real life, there are no lower leagues. So all players are drafted straight into the NFL. When you start a career, if you're a receiver or running back you get on the field a couple times a game. And when you're on the field you'll spend a lot of time picking up blitzing linebackers and running checkdown routes. Yes, it's realistic. But does that make it a fun game?
For those fans of the NFL, and fans of Madden, yes, it is a lot of fun. Learning plays, building a playbook, getting familiar again with all the control schemes that come with all the different positions, anticipating run, passing and blitz plays before the snap, slowly improving player stats, playing in championship games, and getting to the Hall of Fame - that's all fun. While winning online is hard, connecting and playing is quick and easy. I didn't once have to wait to find a game or have any connection issues.
The sound design is good; there’s a smaller than usual selection of songs, but a fully orchestrated soundtrack, along with a fresh new commentary team. On top of all this, you get faux tweets from Trey Wingo and Chris Mortensen on the progress of your created player.
The passing game has also been improved. Now you can lead receivers or throw to a particular shoulder, and defensive players have to be able to see the ball, and then react. There are heaps more gameplay tweaks, all great improvements I'm sure, but improvements you'll only notice if you've been playing Madden NFL 12 solidly for the last year.
If you have been playing Madden for the last year, or the last twenty years, you'll love Madden NFL 13. If you signed up free to NFL Game Pass on NFL.com and have spent the last three weeks watching every moment of every NFL game (like me - thanks for the heads up Ben), by now you will be football crazy, and you will love Madden 13. Or, if you want a sports sim that you can get the knack of in half an hour, but will still be challenging this time next year, you may just love Madden NFL 13 too.