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Review: Madden NFL 11


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Sports is the ultimate common ground for the common man. From the salt-of-the-earth mechanic to the high-powered Wall Street exec, sports has always broken social barriers and given all (well, most) of us something to relate to each other with. Sports games, on the other hand: not so much.

As technology improved, the pursuit's become "realism." In the place of arcade-style fun is simulation, and sports games have become a kind of secret fraternity that often don't welcome newcomers with open arms. You need years of experience or worse, a degree in sportgameology to enjoy them. On the surface, Madden NFL 11 doesn't appear to buck that trend, but key design decisions help it shake off some of the inaccessibility of Maddens past.

Gallery: Madden NFL 11 | 81 Photos

The most obvious change this year is Locomotion, which eliminates the turbo button entirely and adds weight to player movements through inertia. If you've got a power running back who's managed to take a few steps unimpeded, he's going to gain a lot of momentum and run dudes over. This makes for an exciting running game, something that hasn't really been fresh in Madden since the introduction of the Truck Stick. And because there's no longer a turbo button, the game feels way less arcadey and more like a simulation, a decision that should be easily understood by football fans making their first forays into Madden.

This time around, my man Gus Johnson -- a dude whose passion and flamboyance outshadow most of the wooden and robotic commentators of today -- puts in some major work.

I also like how EA changed up audibles. Instead of just setting your own, you're given a handful from your playbook specifically geared toward your current offensive or defensive set. The brilliance of this is that it allows you to switch your play up without your opponent being the wiser -- you're in the same formation and you've just switched out of a man spy for a zone defense, without actually moving or highlighting any players. It's an incredibly valuable tool.

Remember last year's commentary, if you can even call it that? This time around, my man Gus Johnson -- a dude whose passion and flamboyance outshadow most of the wooden and robotic commentators of today -- puts in some major work. It's still somewhat unnatural when he's pronouncing team names or specific player names, but Johnson's comments are almost always precise, poignant and energetic.

With a headset hooked up, offensive and defensive coordinators will also chime in with their own brand of commentary through CoachSpeak, offering pre-play anecdotes and tips on what to watch out for. It's enjoyably immersive, but its real value is as a sort of tutorial. There were several occasions where I didn't notice a top receiver had moved to the slot or a particular halfback had been pulled to take a breather, so having that extra set of eyes is a layer of protection I wasn't used to, but welcomed. "Training wheels" is maybe too strong of a description, but by taking a bit of the guesswork out of play calling, CoachSpeak provides some welcome footholds for new players.

Those are all smart additions, but this year oddly brings a host of tacked-on features. I hate Superstar mode, a barebones version of NCAA Football 11's excellent Road to Glory. Here, you take on the role of a single player and guide their performance on the field. Without the whole college aesthetic behind it, Superstar mode is hollow and offers no incentive for me to care about the player in question. They're already a professional football player, so they've kind of hit the ceiling, you know?

Another unnecessary feature: Madden Moments. It's a returning mode where you replay last year's craziest highlights, like the Steelers' pre-playoffs home stand against the Ravens back in December and the Colts' November win against Baltimore. I would've liked to see more classic moments in the game (omitted for pretty obvious reasons), but here's the real issue: Why would I want to play these moments when I could just as easily go online and play a game against a real opponent? The answer? I wouldn't. [Update: As a couple of you savvy commenters pointed out, this is a returning mode to the game. Sorry for the error.]

Then there's the new Game Flow system, which ... it's just not for me, guys. I've been playing Madden almost my entire life and I'll be damned if the CPU or a particular team's established play style is going to offer more valuable input in any situation than what I already know. If it's third and six and I see my opponent has lined up four wide receivers and one halfback in its offensive set, I'm going to blitz him like there's no tomorrow. I'm not going to sit here and let the game choose a more conservative, prevention-minded defense -- if I smell blood in the water, I'm going into a frenzy. There's something about that the game just doesn't understand.

Maybe if the team had passed on these gimmicks, they could have fixed the bits of Madden NFL 11 that end up suffering. The game's online franchise mode is still a joke even after all these years and the addition of the strategy pad doesn't really make hot routes or line shifts any easier. It's the same amount of button presses, they're just different buttons, which might annoy series vets. Considering you have maybe four seconds (at most) before the snap to move your guys around, being able to quickly adjust assignments is crucial.

Luckily, Madden NFL 11, with Locomotion, the improved audible system and coordinators feeding me tips, has taken a considerable step forward in the accessibility and polish of its on-the-field action. Or to put it in the common tongue: Though it's in constant danger of going wide, Madden still gets it through the uprights.

This review is based on the PS3 version of Madden NFL 11 provided by EA. Madden NFL 11 launches on August 10 for $59.99.

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