Monday, August 17, 2009

Madden 10 (360): Impressions

I've written many times that I have a Charlie Brown relationship with Madden.

More times than I care to remember, the marketing department of Electronic Arts has convinced me that, this year, I will finally be able to kick the ball.

Every year, the marketing department has turned out to be Lucy.

I have been an extremely harsh critic of Madden over the years, and with good reason. In short, it has always been an extremely poor simulation of professional football. Ignore the traditional, glowing reviews written by people who treat sports games like scratch-n-sniff stickers, basing their entire review on the first whiff. Ignore the fanboys who shoot the messenger when someone documents a flaw in the game.

Madden is easily the most overrated franchise in gaming history.

I tell you all this so that when I say Madden 10 is the most authentic simulation of pro football I've ever played, you will know that I'm not saying it lightly. And when I say that Madden 10 is far superior to NFL2K5, a game that is in my personal Hall Of Fame, I am not saying it lightly.

I am, however, saying it. This is the most realistic videogame simulation of pro football ever made.

Don't expect this kind of reality on the default settings. On the defaults, gameplay is positively glacial--there's nothing realistic about it at all. The flexibility of the settings in this game, though, is the best I've ever seen, and once the proper changes have been made, Madden 10 is an unparallelled simulation of professional football.

Let me explain what I'm looking for from a football game, because it will help you understand my frame of reference. And the grade I give out for Madden 10 in each category is after slider adjustments. Again, this is important, because the default settings are in no way realistic.

1) Players must run at the right speed, both individually and in relation to each other. I can't emphasize enough how important this is to the quality of the game.
Grade: A+. By far, the best I've ever seen.
2) Decisions must take place in roughly the same time windows as real life. If an NFL quarterback has to throw passes within 3 seconds of taking the snap, I don't want to be able to stand in the pocket for 5 seconds. I want the same sense of urgency.
Grade: A+. Again, the best I've ever seen.
3) Strategic and tactical decisions must create vulnerabilities. By this I mean if I choose a defense to stop the pass, then I should be more vulnerable to the run. This seems simple, but many games allow you to make choices with no downside. There should always be a downside.
Grade: A.
4) The ratings system must create distinct players. If players largely perform the same regardless of their ratings, then the rating system is useless.
Grade: A+. Best ever.
5) The performance of players must be variable to a reasonable degree. In particular, quarterbacks cannot be perfectly accurate, and neither can placekickers, which are two very common problems with football games.
Grade: A+. Again, best ever.
6) Sliders must be powerful and flexible enough to extensively customize gameplay.
Grade: A+++. Hall of Fame quality.

That's a fairly daunting list. Many football games do zero of those well. Madden was certainly a zero last year. This year, though, it's aces, and I even had to invent a new grade for the sliders.

Here are some more specific gameplay requirements.
1) There must be an accurate number of turnovers--both fumbles and interceptions.
Grade: A+
2) There must be a legitimate rushing game.
Grade: A+
3) There must be a legitimate pass rush.
Grade: A+
4) The A.I. must be robust enough to prevent "money plays." I don't want to be able to call the same play (offense or defense), or even the same few plays, and be able to win a game.
Grade: B+. Some plays work often, but nothing works always.
5) The A.I., on offense, must be willing to "stretch the field."
Grade: B+. The A.I. does throw deep, but not as often as I'd like.
6) There must be big plays on offense, created by both speed and power.
Grade: A+
7) There must be blocked kicks and big plays on special teams.
Grade: A+
8) There must be broken tackles.
Grade: A+. And they looks fantastic.
9) The A.I. must execute properly in the 2 minute offense.
Grade: C. It often does quite well, but occasionally doesn't run a hurry-up when it obviously should.
10) The A.I. must know when to use its timeouts.
Grade: C-. Again, often good but sometimes ridiculous. Last night, I saw a team on offense calling timeouts from their own 5 yard line with a minute left in a tie game. That is a huge, huge fail. The reason this isn't a D or F is because the vast majority of the time, timeouts are appropriately called.
11) The A.I. must be able to adjust to the plays being called by the human player.
Grade: B-. It's clear that some adjustment takes place, but certain adjustments (to formations, and particularly to well-established play direction) seem to go undone.
12) There must be an appropriate number and variety of penalties.
Grade: C-. Penalties are called too infrequently, although there is a wide variety. Also, a strange bug where holding gets called on field goals and PATs far too often.
13) Wide receivers must not always get off the line cleanly.
Grade: A+
14) The middle of the field must be a viable area of attack for by the offense.
Grade: A+
15) Flag routes must not be unstoppable.
Grade: A+
16) The ability to customize the visual settings to remove anything I don't want to see on the screen.
Grade: A+
17) Tackle animations that show the violent nature of collisions.
Grade: A+. Fantastic.
18) Fluid running animations.
Grade: A+
19) Animations that show the emotion of the game.
Grade: A+
20) Animations that show struggle.
Grade: A+. Wonderful.
21) First down measurements.
Grade: A+. Finally!
22) A realistic fatigue system.
Grade: A+
23) In-game injuries occurring at a reasonable rate.
Grade: A+
24) Sound effects that enhance the experience, including crowd sounds that change according to the game situation.
Grade: A+
25) A realistic home field advantage.
Grade: INC. It's not as readily apparent as in NHL, for example.
26) Entertaining and accurate booth commentary.
Grade: D. I just turn it off.

One last list, and this is for Franchise:
1) Reasonably realistic player progression.
Grade: A (based on Bill Abner's reports)
2) Reasonable roster management (including salary cap management) by the A.I.
Grade: INC
3) Competent drafting by the A.I. in Franchise mode.
Grade: A (again, thanks to Bill Abner)
4) Competent trading by the A.I.
Grade: INC
5) Reasonably realistic statistics for simmed games.
Grade: B (run TDs seem to be quite low)
6) An injury frequency that has a real impact on a team.
Grade: A+
7) Realistic player salary demands.
Grade: INC
8) A weekly highlights show.
Grade: A. It's not as slick as ESPN's from NFL2K5, but it's very, very good.

That's 40 items. I'm sure I left 40 more off, too.

Because I want all of these things, it's completely irrelevant to me how a football game plays out of the box. All I care about is how the game plays after it has been fully modified, and the sliders in Madden 10 are well designed, they're powerful, and they're effective.

After spending 30+ hours with the game since I received it (again, I got it early), the first 20 which mostly consisted of slider testing, I have a slider set that is essentially final. And with these sliders, I can say that Madden is ultra-realistic, ultra-intense, and ultra-challenging.

Sure, I can make videos of anomalies that I've seen. Occasionally, I do see something very stupid, like a DB running away from a play for a couple of seconds for no reason. But those kinds of moments are entirely incidental to the overall quality of the game. It's highly polished and thorough.

It's incredible, really. I've never seen a game improve so much in one year. Ever.

I'm going to start working on the slider post now and it will be up later today.

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