Madden NFL 10
This time last year, fellow staffer Richard Nolan gave Madden NFL 09 a rather respectable 88%, declaring it "addictive", "fun" and "very easy to get sucked into". When assigned to Madden NFL 10, I found myself in a similar position to Richard last year: I'd never extensively played a Madden game before, and my interest in the NFL could only be described as fleeting at best. Clearly, our benevolent editor is trying, one by one, to get us all hooked on American Football. I can only assume we'll be starting up our own team sometime in the next couple of years (the cat's out of the bag - Ed).
Sports games assume you're plenty familiar with the game they're simulating, and the most immediate problem for people who haven't been engrossed in the NFL for their entire life is that American Football is a complex game, and everything in Madden has a distressingly steep learning curve. The game assumes you're fully aware of the passing and rushing games, the importance of creating a pocket around your quarterback and the best way to inch your way up the pitch to make first down whilst also throwing a plethora of defensive and offensive tactics your way, thinking you can inherently tell the tactical benefit from plays like 'Cover 2' and 'Buzz Weak'.
Even twenty hours later, it felt like a good chunk of a successful play was down to luck. Madden's formidable difficulty is probably less pressing in the States, but in the UK - where the sport is yet to become as popular - the complexities of the game will likely deter most casual sports gamers from any incarnation of the series. Despite a daunting learning curve, my initial hours with Madden 10 always left me wanting to go back for another match to refine my game strategies.
The interface is as slick as you'd expect from an EA Sports title, despite some simply baffling picks for the soundtrack: does anybody seriously want to be listening to Judas Priest's screeching Painkiller whilst drafting a team and looking at your season statistics? The UI is far less hyperbolic than Madden 09's, and this year's focus on clean functionality is far superior to last year's spinning metallic blobs and constant deluge of player photos.
That's the feeling you get from Madden 10 as a whole: less a show of bravado, more an attempt to simulate the sport. The big new feature is the inclusion of the new Pro-Tak tackling system, which effectively replaces previous games' system of animation. At the start of a tackle in former years, players would be stuck in an animation loop until it concluded. Pro-Tak lets these animations play out dynamically, allowing runners to occasionally escape after being hit, quarterbacks to stand a chance at evasion and better options for the defending team to gang up on the offense. It makes EA's enduring simulation look and feel more like the sport itself, and the general pace of the game has been slowed down to give it less of an arcade feel. But ramp the game's speed up to its maximum setting and Madden 10 - moreso than any American football game before - plays out with a hectic pace that rivals the NFL itself.
Whilst an easily accessible exhibition match is good for a one-off game, the meat and potatoes of long-term Madden prospects lie in the Franchise modes. For my career I picked the team I saw win Superbowl XLIII, the Pittsburgh Steelers, which is probably an equivalent gesture to picking Manchester United in FIFA. Overseeing your team's development, roster and tactics is initially daunting, but the CPU can take on much of the work for those getting into the swing of things so you can focus on the pitch. The online franchise mode, which has been a bit underwhelming in previous iterations, now supports multiple seasons and live drafting. If you can manage to get a group of friends together the results are nothing short of spectacular, and EA have made it so that you can access your game from the web and iPhone.
With a more competent game on the pitch, Madden 10 almost feels as if it's more than just a simple incremental improvement over previous years. But then you start to move into the game's other new features: read the back of the box and you're promised "excitement" in the new Extra Point half-time show, an attempt to further simulate the entire Sunday league experience. They've drafted in supposedly-popular NFL Network anchors Fran Charles and Alex Flanagan to show you the rest of the league, and guide you through highlights of your game so far. In reality this is a wholly unnecessary addition, padding out the half-time with stiff, wooden voice acting and forcing you to look at statistics that you probably don't care about. Teams are also presented by icon alone, which is completely useless for someone who doesn't have innate knowledge of the NFL.
Then there's the commentary. Tom Hammond and Chris Collinsworth's voice work is a big let-down, with endlessly recycled "[player name here] is an excellent [position]!" statements marring the whole experience. The biggest commentary faux pas, though, is when you've got Madden himself (if you're stupid like me and have to use the 'Ask Madden' feature all the time, that is) giving you advice on an upcoming play, which often mixes with Hammond and Collinsworth's commentary to create ten seconds of inaudible garbage. It doesn't help the series image when compared to the likes of FIFA, which is doing a far better job of presentation.
Problems with the game start to pop up the further into it you get, with players statistics advancing in noticeably iffy ways. No matter how good the players on your offensive line are, their statistics will never seem to grow in line as much as your running backs and receivers who score the touchdowns. Favouritism, EA? Then there's the usual myriad of silly bugs, like having players run through the stands during celebrations. And whilst the animations have been improved on the whole, watching three players walk away from a touchdown with the exact same animation looks incredibly jarring.
But, overall, Madden 10 creates a stimulating, compelling game of gridiron. Similar bugbears continue to rear themselves year after year, however, and it seems bizarre that problems with commentary repeat in the series when fellow bastions of the EA Sport label can somehow manage to get it right. EA Tiburon have created a better, more realistic game of American Football than Madden's of the past, but they've also elected to smear over the inherent gameplay cracks with an impeccably glossy, bombastic, unnecessary and undeniably Americanesque sheen. It's better than Madden 09, but its fumbles leave it deserving the exact same mark. If EA take the game back to its basics, focus more on the feel of the pitch instead of the jets flying overhead and ditch the silly nonsense of additions like the Extra Point half-time show, then whoever gets drafted in to review Madden 11 next year will undoubtedly end up awarding a better score.