Saturday, September 5, 2009

Game Review: Madden 2010

You know, some people just enjoy punishment. Or maybe enjoy isn’t the right word, but there’s a certain guilt that people have that drives them to seek penance, and for some this leads them to debase themselves in all manner of degrading ways. Personally, I’ve never understood this, but last week I discovered myself unintentionally participating in one of the most severe acts of contrition you can undertake. So let me give you this bit of advice: if you ever feel the need to undergo public humiliation, there can be no more complete a venue than trying to win games in Madden 2010 as the Detroit Lions.

Yes, it’s fall and that means the return of America’s most gripping obsession. No, not football, silly – simulated, video game football. And the undisputed dominatrix of the genre is John Madden, who for years has provided casual football fans with just the kind of whippings they’ve deserved. But after playing the newest version for a week, I should warn you: this year, there is no safe word.

Okay, that’s probably taking the metaphor too far (or… not far enough… hmm) but the fact remains that while Madden remains the best football video game in the world, and possibly the best sports video game period, 2010 may have gone just a little overboard trying to top itself. Every year the game adds more and more features in an attempt to both remain fresh and also become as realistic as possible. Madden has said in interviews that part of his intention is to make this as much a football simulator as a game – i.e., he hopes it can actually be used as a teaching tool for people learning the intricacies of the game.

Well, it certainly succeeds on that front. The only problem is, unless you are a hardcore Madden player or a literal student of the game, like an offensive coordinator or something, chances are you’re going to have a harder time playing this version of Madden than you did with earlier iterations. One example can be found in the reworked audible system. In years past, I have done my best Peyton Manning impersonation – line up, check the defense, then audible to one of the three plays preset for such a situation. That took a bit of knowledge about football and some gaming skill, but you don’t need to actually be Peyton Manning to pull it off.

Now, though, when you hit the audible button, a giant menu of different plays pops up, closer to a dozen than three. And you certainly don’t have time to actually check what those plays are, because when you come out of the huddle now (in games against the computer, that is), the timer will speed ahead to 15 seconds left on the play clock unless you are in a situation where you can run down the game clock as well. This means that you have to read the defense, decide to audible, hit the correct play and have your guys shift positions in 15 seconds – and you have to have memorized all dozen different audible calls in advance in order to select the right one.

Now, again, for those hardcore Madden fanatics like the dudes who play it on ESPN for money, this is probably another evolutionary step towards one day actually fusing Madden with real football players somehow. It’s great for the dedicated. But for casual players who just want to bang out a few tough yards in Shawn Merriman’s bloated roid face, it’s a frustrating experience. So too is the tweaked defensive AI, which now excels at reading the quarterback, meaning even if you have Reggie Wayne in single coverage with no help over the top, having Manning throw it deep isn’t going to result in a long gainer but rather is more likely to be a pick. Maybe not if the DB is Ellis Hobbs, of course, but more often than not, which makes it pretty difficult for a casual player to beat the D.

That’s not to say there aren’t some nice improvements this year. The designers have tweaked the rating system for each player so that there’s a bigger gap between A level stars and C level journeymen. And besides the sims actually looking like the real players, then, they play like them too. For example, every single game I played ended up with Joseph Addai getting sidelined due to injury, so score one for the dev team. It’s almost more realistic than the NFL itself.

Some of the other changes are also reasonable. In Franchise Mode, for instance, it’s no longer a simple task to bilk the AI teams out of their best players for pennies on the dollar; the trade system has been beefed up so that the other GMs aren’t all Matt Millen level executives. And the best change is probably is at the line of scrimmage; now when you check to see what routes your players are running, there are decoy routes you can select instead so the person you are playing against can’t easily defend your play calls.

This year also marks the first year the Madden doesn’t do the play calling; instead, it is handled by Chris Collinsworth and some other dude. Collinsworth is pretty good in the booth and I think is a good choice overall, though there are some glitches in the audio track. For instance, if you have the Ask Madden feature up to help you with play selection, Madden and Collinsworth will sometimes talk over each other, making it seem as though Tony Kornheiser is also involved. Also, it’s clear that some of the bits of dialogue are standard and then are mixed and matched to whoever you are playing at the time, meaning Collinsworth sometimes ends up praising complete a-holes like Philip Rivers in a way that no self-respecting journalist or football fan ever would.

Overall, then, it’s a nice enough package, but unless you have the time and interest to really devote yourself to the game, chances are you’ll be better off sticking with an earlier version of the game and letting the real NFL handle the business of serious football.

My Grades: A- for being the best sports game around, but a B for actual playability. At best.

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