I'm not one of the Madden devotees. Sure, I played the series back in the day, and played a ton of football games with my buddies in college, but I hadn't really touched the franchise since '08. Still, I do like me some football, so when I was asked "Hey, Funk, can you take the review of Madden for next week?" I shrugged and accepted. I assumed it'd be good and well-made - as befitting of one of EA's flagship series - but completely fail to set my world on fire.
Holy crap, was I wrong. This game is great.
Madden is a bit of an odd beast in the industry. It's an institution of its own, with millions of people lining up every year to buy the latest iteration - almost always pooh-poohed as a "roster update" by detractors - and yet it seems that many "core" gamers couldn't possibly care less. Not only does the title's very nature require a gamer to care about sports in the first place, but with two decades of games under its belt Madden almost feels somewhat unapproachable: If I haven't jumped on board this train by now, will it have left the station without me?
No, it won't have. At least, Madden 11 won't have - and that seems to be the entire point. Now, don't get me wrong: Madden 11 doesn't throw out what works. If you've been a fan of the franchise from its humble beginnings all the way through its rise to superstardom, everything here is just how you know it. It's still incredibly polished, from the faithful way in which it renders the NFL players and stadiums (now complete with stadium-specific chants) to the team-accurate playbooks and energetic color commentary.
The gameplay modes you love are still there. It still looks great with tackles and hits that look far less canned than in years past, and veteran armchair quarterbacks will feel immediately comfortable with the controller in their hands. If you've loved Madden for years, almost everything is right as you left it.
What Madden 11 changes, though, it changes for the better. Rather than having a magic "go faster" sprint button that you held down all the time anyway - something that felt very out of place in a game that otherwise tried to be as authentic to real life as possible - Madden 11 opts for something more natural. Your character will naturally pick up momentum as he runs, and a defender will have a much harder time bringing him down when he's built up a full head of steam.
The mapping of running evasive actions like cuts and jukes to the right thumbstick has also been tightened up, and while it may take some getting used to at first, it's a surprisingly nuanced system that feels like it rewards player skill in shaking tackles. Combined with the momentum-based running system, Madden 11 takes some sorely-needed steps into making the run game a genuine pleasure to play instead of something you just did to make your third-down pass conversions less trying.
Perhaps the single most welcome feature in this year's outing is "GameFlow," a system that allows players to completely eschew calling plays during a game - like the actual pros, they'll leave the decisions wholly up to their coaches (in this case, the AI). I cannot overstate how much of a positive addition this is. It significantly speeds up games, and considering "games take too long to play out" was perhaps second only to "it's just a yearly roster update" in complaints aimed at the Madden franchise, that can only be a good thing.