Review: Madden NFL ’11

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Pro football and the Madden game franchise have been part of the same sports/pop culture fabric for more than two decades. You don’t spend that kind of time together without learning how to evolve.

The real thing has witnessed the growth of ideas like the West Coast Offense, spread formation and defensive schemes. The games have withstood everything from passing windows to passing cones to the ProTak animation system.

But in the end, it’s still about how good the football is, and in the case of “Madden NFL 11,” some of it’s better than it’s been in years.

This newest iteration of the franchise has managed to do this through an array of gameplay innovations and subtle tweaks that add a sense of flow and chemistry to the football experience.
Perhaps the best evidence can be seen in the running game. One of the new features is the “Locomotion” engine, which takes into account a player’s weight, momentum and speed.

This basically means that someone like Atlanta’s 244-pound tailback Michael Turner can steamroll a 180-pound corner in the open field. Or, you get to witness the full open-field terror someone like Adrian Peterson can unleash on a designed cutback run.

Gone is the “sprint” button, leaving the player to think only about reading the blocks and seams in front of him as opposed to finding the best spot on the field to cut loose with a superhuman speed boost.

While it takes some getting used to, “Locomotion” has added magic to the running game. This is easily the most fun I’ve had playing old-school football since the “Madden” franchise arrived on the 360 and PS3.

The blocking on counter plays is the cleanest I’ve seen in years, and even the act of mashing into the line of scrimmage for four or five yards exhibits a kind of power and life that simply didn’t exist in past editions.

The passing game isn’t too shabby either, with receivers running pretty clean routes and making a genuine effort to react to whatever’s thrown at them, especially on high-thrown balls, so you can see the real value of someone like Larry Fitzgerald in the red zone.

I did, however, bear witness to a few AI brain locks both in the passing game and pass defense.
There were rare occasions where receivers would simply stand around, and there were others where corners wouldn’t put their hands up when the ball would be coming right at their faces, which would then lead to a completed pass.

At the same time, you also get a clearer sense of who the real playmakers are on the defensive side of the ball. Someone like Ray Lewis has a sixth-sense for charging through hole and ruining running plays, while Darrelle Revis finds ways to expertly throw the chains on your No. 1 receiver.

For a less-restricted experience, the game also features “GameFlow,” which essentially lets you assemble your own gameplan and let your “coordinators” pick the best play according to the on-field situation.

This slices down the time it actually takes to play a game, which is good for some of the more on-the-go or casual fans. If you don’t want to build a plan of your own, you can let the AI pick plays for you to run. I’d warn against this, though, since sometimes the AI makes strange playcalls.

Another wrinkle is the “strategy pad,” where the directional pad on the controller becomes responsible for everything from D-line shifts to hot routes. I hated it at first, as I thought it was too slow and cumbersome to me to make adjustments in time. But after about eight games, I adapted.

One thing I didn’t enjoy was the audio of the coordinator barking to me on the headset. It can be a little grating and repetitive after about 20 plays. I get it, sir … you want 11 men running towards that ball. Point taken.

Speaking of audio, the hyped-up Gus Johnson rides shotgun with the returning Cris Collinsworth for play-by-play and color commentary, respectively. I generally liked Johnson’s Red Bull approach to calling the game, but there were some points where he just seemed silly.

He whipped out the J-E-T-S chant, sang the “San Diego Super Chargers” ditty and whipped out “Get that man a new contract!!” when Titans tailback Chris Johnson (who actually IS angling for a long-term deal) burned the field for a 60-yard-score.

And let’s not get started on the in-game advertising, as Johnson will gladly tell you that the game was brought to you by “Old Spice body wash!!! Smell like a man … MAN!”

The game also features a host of other modes and options, such as Franchise Mode, hopping right into playing the Super Bowl, and the ability to team up online with others for some 3-on-3 co-op. As with any co-op mode, it can be pretty enlightening to see how well people play with others.

Madden NFL 11 is not quite the perfect recreation of what we’ll see on Sunday in a few weeks, but this version captures the on-field energy and power of the game better than its predecessors. It makes three yards and a cloud of dust fun again, and perhaps that’s the best evolution the series could have made.

BOX INFO:
Madden NFL ’11
Electronic Arts
Multiple platforms
Rated E for Everyone