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Madden NFL 13 review: The little engine that could


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The common theme of annual sports game entries is usually "better than last year." With all of its issues, Madden NFL 12 was still better than Madden NFL 11. In reality, most of the time, the best a new sports game can do is make players hopeful for the future of the series. Madden 12's "balance of improvement and ongoing flaws," according to our review, wasn't a great foundation for building hope.

Madden NFL 13 has that foundation. And while it's not a perfect game, it has – to borrow a term often used in fantasy football – the upside of being close.

Gallery: Madden NFL 13 (E3 2012) | 28 Photos

To start, we have the inclusion of the Infinity Engine. Layered with the game's existing animation set, the Infinity Engine calculates real-time physics into the mix when players collide. Instead of players getting caught in predictable tackle animations, player interactions feel much more organic. On one of my first plays, Packers receiver Randall Cobb caught a pass over the middle and was wrapped up by a defensive back. While being dragged down, a safety slammed into the two players from the side, forcing Cobb onto his side as he stretched his hand with the ball across the goal-line for a touchdown. This was the first of many great moments made possible by the Infinity Engine. The fluidity of motion in tackles like this is especially satisfying when the engine performs at its best.

That's not to say the engine is without a few issues. Reminiscent of FIFA 12's first outing with its own physics-based Player Impact Engine, Madden 13 occasionally has players stumbling over one another, primarily after a play is over. Bears defensive lineman Julius Peppers had a clear lane to crush my quarterback at one point, but tripped over the center's leg. In another instance, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis knocked a runner backwards after barely touching him. In fact, a blocker actually stood between the two players but, as far as Madden 13 was concerned, a collision had been triggered and so down he went. Suffice it to say that power runners will have a more difficult time at the outset with the Infinity Engine.

Aside from the engine, Madden 13 receives some updates in other areas as well. Much like NCAA Football 13, the passing game has 25 new passing trajectory zones and the ability to more accurately place a thrown ball using the left analog stick. Just like NCAA 13, the difference is subtle yet effective, and successfully throwing the ball between a linebacker and safety feels great. There's also a better balance between "psychic" defenders and play-making receivers this year as well. You'll still see extraordinary interceptions at times, but receivers seem much more eager to make plays in Madden 13.

Jim Nantz and Phil Simms replace Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth in the commentary booth, and it certainly shows. Nantz and Simms sound more conversational – Simms even has a few moments where he stumbles on his words naturally. They're also more careful with their lines, as mid-play and pre-play words are typically non-specific. Even when Tom Brady is calling out changes before the snap, Nantz opts to call him "the quarterback." Unfortunately, Nantz will almost always note when you make pre-snap adjustments on defense, alerting your opponents when you command your secondary to play press coverage or show the blitz (this even led to a touchdown for my online opponent in one game). This is the lone, glaring oversight in commentary this year, and it still trumps the atrocity that was Madden 12's commentary.

Presentation improvements don't stop in the booth, as a handful of quarterbacks have their voices in the game this year, thanks to developer Tiburon pulling sound bites from real game footage. More noteworthy is the lack of a licensed soundtrack. Opting for a more orchestrated track, Madden 13 closely follows the pageantry of the NFL and the way it's broadcast on TV.

The other marquee addition this year is Connected Careers mode, which mashes the superstar, online franchise, and offline franchise modes of years past into one go-to feature. Creating a league with friends yields countless options, such as a standard coaches league or my "Thinking RBs" league in which players can only control their running backs. Combining the previous modes into Connected Careers means that all three modes now share the same features, including the new player progression model. Instead of Madden 12's randomly increased player ratings after each season in online franchise, the superstar model of player progression is updated for Connected Careers, letting players dole out XP as they see fit. Players have a list of team and individual goals for every member of the roster to achieve, netting them experience points throughout the season.

While it's nice to allocate XP on my own to upgrade the skills I want in each player, I found the pace of progression to be far too tedious to be impactful over the course of a few seasons. For many lower-tier players, earning a worthwhile chunk of XP in one season is a tall order, and you'll often find that the ratings you want to improve for a given player are the most expensive. Not only is the slow burn of player progression unfit for a typical online Madden league, but it remains unrealistic compared to that of the NFL. Unless you place low-rated players high enough on your depth chart, and thus out on the field, they never seem to improve significantly.

There are some other drawbacks to Connected Careers as well. When re-signing players to new contracts as a coach, for example, there isn't enough nuance to discussing wage terms. In one case, I missed out on re-signing star receiver Greg Jennings because he rejected my offer, and I never had another chance to try reaching a deal with his agent. As with the rest of Connected Careers, it's an issue of lacking a tutorial and helpful tips. I still don't understand what "scheming" actually does for my team, because the mode doesn't make it clear what happens when I adjust those settings.

Ultimately, though, Connected Careers does so many things right that they outweigh the flubs. I'm particularly fond of the live draft feature hosted by NFL analyst Trey Wingo and the free agent bidding war in the offseason. Connected careers also includes a fictitious Twitter timeline and news center, which generates stories based around the athletes in the game. Even when Skip Bayless or Mark Schlereth repeat themselves in their tweets, the micro-storyline aspect of the mode doesn't get tiring.

There are plenty of other improvements this year, like the solo challenges in Madden Ultimate Team and the added play action abort mechanic seen in NCAA 13. The Infinity Engine and Connected Careers, as two rather large updates this year, come with a couple of flaws. Still, what these features offer to players trumps the drawbacks brought on by a change in direction for the series. The bottom line is that Madden 13 is a great football game, and lays the foundation for eventual excellence. With a little tweaking and building upon its features, the series definitely has a bright future.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Madden NFL 13, provided by Electronic Arts.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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