"It's still 'Madden.'" Over the years, that has been the most common criticism I've heard directed toward EA Sports' flagship franchise. And to a certain extent, it's a feeling I have shared. Despite new game modes, improved online functionality and updated presentation that more closely resembles real television broadcasts, the actual on-field gameplay had grown stale in recent years.
The series was in desperate need of a major overhaul between the lines and the developers at EA's Tiburon Studio delivered just that with "Madden NFL 13" in the form of the Infinity Engine, which introduces real-time physics to the series for the first time.
The Infinity Engine factors a player's mass, speed and body type into every interaction on the field, giving an air of unpredictability to every snap. Gone are the days of canned animations that contributed to that "it's still 'Madden'" vibe. Thanks to the Infinity Engine games now feel more organic -- seeing a running back shrug off a would-be tackler and then regain his balance to fight for additional yardage warmed my heart.
The Infinity Engine isn't perfect and you can expect to see some strange physics-related collisions now and again -- fans of EA's "FIFA" franchise know what I'm talking about -- but the benefits far outweigh the occasional hiccup.
The other significant gameplay addition to "Madden 13" is one first seen in "NCAA Football 13" -- Total Control Passing. Players can use the left analog stick to influence the placement of passes, making it possible to lead receivers into open space or put the ball on a receiver's back shoulder, and new pass trajectories help eliminate many of the legacy issues that have plagued the passing game in "Madden" for years. Things like screen passes and throws over the middle can now be attempted with confidence as game will pick the right pass type to fit the situation.
Also borrowed from "NCAA 13" are receiver awareness, which hides the icons of receivers who aren't looking for the ball, new quarterback dropback animations and throwing motions, and the ability to abort play-action and throw the ball immediately. On the defensive side of the ball, Read and React AI prohibits players from making a play on the ball without actually seeing it first, thus eliminating the "psychic" defensive backs that populated the franchise for years. Defensive backs in zone defense still seem to suffer from some of the same issues that plagued "NCAA 13" before the most recent patch, so hopefully that can be easily corrected in an update.
While most gamers will no doubt welcome the changes made to the on-field gameplay in "Madden 13," the removal of Franchise and Superstar modes in favor of the new Connected Careers mode is likely to be more derisive.
Connected Careers attempts to combine the best parts of the modes it is replacing and brings some great ideas to the table. Users begin as either a player or coach (you can choose a current player/coach, create your own or use one of the NFL legends included). Controlling a single player offers an experience similar to that of the now-defunct Superstar mode, while being a coach gives you the kind of total control over your team that was found in Franchise mode.
Whether playing as a player or coach, you'll earn experience points based on your performance during games and practices. Reaching weekly, season and milestone goals earn you bonus points, and that XP can be used to upgrade your stats as in a role-playing game. Coaches have their own upgrades but also can spend the XP earned by their players to help develop those players as you see fit and to scout incoming college players.
There are a number of subtle touches that help make Connected Careers a stellar sports gaming experience. Player ratings are affected by a coach's scheme, which means building a team is no longer as simple as grabbing the highest-rated player at each position. For example, when I took over the Redskins and installed a West Coast offense, Robert Griffin III's overall rating dropped by five points. Another nice touch is the virtual Twitter feed featuring comments from analysts from ESPN and elsewhere that give insight into the goings on in your league. Whether you're using a coach or a player, the menus inside Connected Careers are easy to navigate and much more user-friendly than those seen in past "Madden" offerings.
While I'm sold on the idea of Connected Careers and look forward to seeing what EA does with the mode in the future, there's no way to look past some egregious problems with this first iteration. Most of these issues stem from shoddy AI, but others are simply baffling design decisions.
On the AI side, I've seen teams sign a player in the offseason and then cut him before the first preseason game, as well as sign a player to a contract extension only to release them weeks later. Draft logic also needs to be improved. I'm not a Browns fan, but I have a hard time believing they would draft a quarterback in the first round in each of the next two years after taking Brandon Weeden this year.
Players cut during training camp tend to sit in the free-agent pool all season -- a prime example was Reggie Wayne, who was inexplicably waived by the Colts in the 2014 preseason, went unsigned all season and retired at the end of the year. The same happened to Randy Moss, who I used in Connected Careers until I was forced to retire as him after the 2013 season. I'm not sure why I had to retire with Moss as I had met all of my season goals, but I was willing to go with it and opted to continue my career as a young receiver the 49ers had drafted prior to the '13 season.
But instead of simply disappearing from my league and entering the Hall of Fame (like Charles Woodson, Ray Lewis and Tony Gonzalez had done in previous seasons), Moss promptly un-retired and returned for the 2014 season, only to spend the year on the free-agent wire. While it's cool that players can un-retire (Kurt Warner came out of retirement and is now the starting quarterback for the 49ers in 2015), the fact that I had to switch my player in Connected Careers only to then watch as the AI took control of that player didn't sit well with me.
The other really weird thing I saw during Connected Careers was a revolving door at the head coach position around the league. Not only did Leslie Frazier leave the Vikings after leading them to the Super Bowl in 2014, but no fewer than five teams changed coaches each offseason. By the start of the 2015 season, new coaches were in Dallas, New England, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New Orleans, to name a few. Speaking of the Saints, apparently Sean Payton's suspension extends to "Madden," as well.