With Madden NFL 12 EA Sports delivered arguably the best online experience to date for a sports game and came out on top in the community choice awards voting for the category. Madden NFL 13 looks to continue the impressive online performance with an expanded suite of features that includes true multi-season online leagues via Connected Careers mode, a new skill points ranking system, and ties to social media accounts.
Especially considering it was a release week that brought a jump in sales and with it a surge in online usage the online performance for Madden NFL 13 has been quite good. Games have generally been smooth and responsive. There are of course the occasional games hampered by some lag or ending in disconnects but those experiences have been few and far between. From personal experience to gauging the results of others in varying circumstances it’s another real encouraging start for the online games themselves.
Where concerns have arisen have been with the EA Servers and the necessity of a constant connection to them for “Online” Connected Careers to work. Those servers have been completely down at times – though this has seemed to be isolated only to some users and not all suggesting there may be some sort of capacity cap – and connections to the server have been lost during play. It’s troubling because losing connection during a game, even against a CPU, in “Online” CC means the results don’t count and game’s have to be restarted. It also causes any changes since the last save to the server to be lost.
Reliability of the EA Server for CC mode has seemed to improve since release. Still it can be somewhat unnerving knowing that a lost connection, which could occur at any point for any number of reasons, would result in such a loss of time invested in the mode.
Games have proven to be competitive with good balance between offense and defense. Often online play is where gameplay deficiencies get exposed but for the most part it’s again been a strategic experience with an emphasis on execution rather than exploiting issues.
Ranked games are available through quick match and direct challenges and are set to All-Pro with 6 minute quarters. That quarter length, coupled with accelerated clock, is slightly on the short side as a single extended drive can sometimes take up a full quarter and severely limit the overall number of possessions per game. However it’s not so short that the results feel artificial but even a bump up to 7 minute quarters would make for more strategic games.
For those who like those longer games though there is still the “Communities” feature – a Pastapadre one is set up on the 360 with 8 minute quarters – and it’s a nice option to have available. Nothing has been done to “Communities” for this year which is somewhat unfortunate since it had a strong debut but interest wasn’t really sustainable in the feature’s current state. A problem within “Communities” that has been cited comes with results not being recorded in both Online Team Play and standard games when a user quits or is disconnected.
One concern that needs to be addressed comes with the few number of seconds provided to select a play on defense. This is actually not anything new, but what causes the problem is GameFlow will present a very limited option (sometimes just a single one) on 4th downs. It’ll often only offer punt or FG block and doesn’t take into consideration whether the opposition might go for it or if a regular return or safer play might be the best option. This can also cause a problem when trying to base a play call off the offensive personnel. Finding the desired play within the right formation again is difficult to do with such limited time. By the point the opposition has selected a play (which if they’re using GameFlow could happen immediately) backing out and finding the right play within five seconds is anywhere from tenuous to impossible.
Last year Madden introduced what was a breakthrough in the handling of the kicking game. Latency was taken into consideration on kicks providing much more accurate timing. Cases of kicks being shanked because of lag were really eliminated. Losing the button kicking made it a concern that trouble with kicking would return but thus far things have been very responsive. It’s not clear if the work done to improve kicking was transferred over or if the consistent online performance has simply made that a non-issue. The kick meter is slower online than offline so adjustments have to be made in that sense. It’s also great having the “Ball Hawk” feature as timing was very difficult considering any lag when going for picks, deflections or receptions. Now being able to just hold the button down in advance can result in a big play.
Kinect for Xbox 360 can be used online – and it’s implemented in a smart way when it comes to voice chat. Unfortunately this is something I’ve turned off and might recommend for others who would only use it sparingly. In one tight game the Kinect picked up something Jim Nantz said and blew two second half timeouts. That had never happened offline, and may have just been a coincidence, but it became not worth the risk to have the Kinect functionality turned on.
The commentary can also be frustrating as Nantz calls out all the adjustments being made and in doing so tips off the opponent. It’d be one thing if pre-snap adjustments were pointed out from time to time but it’s another when he notes it on every play and alerts opponents to the tactics.
The streaming videos in the online section of the game finally play smoothly! It’s a wonder it took years to get that running properly. Now the annoyance of having a video buffering every two seconds when in that area is gone.
The new skill points system for ranked games is a bit of a mystery. Points given out after each game appear to be related primarily, or solely, on the skill level of the opponent. It’s unclear if the level of teams chosen factors in at all.
Replays can be saved following the games and stat emails can be set up to go out automatically after every game. Madden really needs a better way to view your own personal (career and game-by-game) stats as well as that of others. Depth charts can be set offline to carry over to online games. Results can be sent out via Twitter or Facebook but they don’t cite the opponent’s gamertag or community name.
A separate look at “Online” Connected Careers will come at a later date. There are already issues being cited with the handling of disconnects (no ability to reset games – user disconnected automatically gets a loss) and that accelerated clock doesn’t seem to be working for those head-to-head games. There’s a lot to dig into though including the functionality of the website, how it works when a “Coach” takes on a “Player”, the procedures during the off-season, whether night games happen when they should and how often bad weather games occur, and of course the continued evaluation of the reliability of the servers.
Based on the early evaluation it’s another very strong entry in regards to online play for the Madden series. There are a wide variety of ways to play (standard games, within communities, team play, online franchise, online superstar) and performance has been good particularly considering the heavy traffic of a release week. How well online ultimately will be perceived for Madden NFL 13 though will in part fall on the Connected Careers feature and whether (acting as online leagues) they’ll prove to have been properly designed for sustainability and whether the necessary reliability in terms of performance, result reporting, and advancement will have been delivered.