E3: Madden NFL 13 Day One Thoughts

Posted June 5th, 2012 at 7:30 pm

EA Sports made a splash yesterday by announcing the “Infinity Engine” and Connected Careers for Madden NFL 13. The latter really isn’t on display at E3 – nor would it really be feasible to play through in such an environment – so the former is getting most of the glory and rightfully so. The physics-driven engine isn’t completely changing the way Madden plays but it is definitely enhancing it to a great degree. 

The central concern with going the route of physics is that it’ll produce awkward looking events, too many outlandish looking hits, and ultimately hamper gameplay. That has been the case in other games that have attempted it whether it be Backbreaker or even FIFA 12. The feeling going in was that Madden might be the more exciting product when compared to NCAA Football 13 (which lacks the Infinity Engine) but that it could also be far less refined.

It was a pleasant surprise then to find that the Infinity Engine is producing organic looking interactions but in an understated way that doesn’t harm the immersive nature of the game. In fact it enhances it with some really great looking moments and more realistic outcomes – and the spectacular type of hits seen in the trailer are rare as they should be. Even in less obvious ways it makes a difference like running into a teammate, trying to shake off a tackler and how they recover, or being knocked off a line when running a route.

The blocking is where things didn’t quite feel as advanced. It could be the physics or not but run plays were pretty much hit or miss. There were occasional ones where a huge hole opened up but otherwise finding an opening was more rare and backs were stopped right at the line of scrimmage in those cases. Quicker backs seemed to do better than power ones who surprisingly weren’t breaking many tackles or always falling forward close to the line of scrimmage but in the open field once they got a head of steam were tougher to bring down. QBs seemed to have plenty of time in the pocket – maybe a little too comfortable there for that matter. Pass rushers made some really great looking moves at times but it took quite a while to get to the QB.

There are still some things that will need to be cleaned up with the Infinity Engine of course but the number of issues seen was far fewer than anticipated. Because the Infinity Engine isn’t as drastic as one might imagine it means going between Madden and NCAA will be much more reasonable than it would have otherwise. Madden will still look and feel somewhat different but the core gameplay will remain familiar between the two.

Play action has been an issue with EA’s football titles for as long as I can remember and, finally, that may have been resolved. Whether that is more due to the time the QB is getting or because play action is “fixed” is another question. I’d still like to see different types of play fakes and even authentic ones for each QB but it’s a start and addressing it removes one of the biggest frustrations experienced every year. It’s been probably 10 years now that I felt forced to remove play action from my game plan almost entirely. Now I’ll be going back to it.

Special teams is another area that maybe didn’t get a lot of publicity but has been notably improved. Shockingly there were lanes on punt returns and some open space on kick returns. While none were returned for TDs, which could have been a warning sign of its own, just having the ability to potentially break a return is a welcome change.

What may be the enhancement that snuck up on me the most in a positive way, but probably won’t be identified by most until actually playing Madden 13 or spotted in videos, is how the receivers actually catch balls. They do so in a much more natural manner and not only does it look great but it affects the result of the play and the ability to run after the catch.

Mixed results in other areas include specific routes like curls (worked great), coverage from defensive backs (much better), press coverage getting beat at times (a good thing), differentiation from QBs not so apparent (a few throws off line but otherwise Christian Ponder seemed as effective as Peyton Manning), DBs aggressively going for pass break-ups (fantastic), and running screen passes (troubles found there). The CPU picked off a lot of passes but similar opportunities for the user-controlled team were dropped over and over which was disheartening.

Blitz pickup seemed to be much improved. On a few occasions rushers that would have gotten to the QB in the past got blocked or at least had their paths altered allowing enough time to get the pass off. CPU controlled QBs late in games really pressed the issue with risky passes. Understanding that they’re in a situation where they have to take chances most of the throws however were just flat out bad.

In general when playing we found our defense to be ahead of our offense – points were difficult to come by. What might be a little more concerning is that the CPU really didn’t generate many points either. All games were played on default All-Pro difficulty. Though points were low teams did have success moving the ball just not punching it in whether that be due to stalled drives or interceptions ending them prematurely.

Presentation wise much may have been stripped out of the builds considering there was no team intros on the field (just the new game intro), nothing at halftime, and quick transitions between quarters. Post-play scenes and replays look much better than in the past with more natural player movement and some sharp replays that show off the players really well – but they resemble NCAA Football 12/13’s more than authentic TV presentation replays.

There is the need to improve how the post-play scenes are stitched together as one might have a player somewhere and immediately in the next they are shown in a completely different place and situation. The wrong player is often congratulated by teammates after a big play on the sideline also. Jim Nantz and Phil Simms were there to introduce the games and – despite audio being pretty much impossible to evaluate under the circumstances – did seem to provide commentary that was relevant to the situation and sounded better than in past looks at the game.

This is a very Seahawks-specific thing that caught my eye but does bring up the need for Madden to provide more situation-specific personnel. While it’s something the user can presumably alter the game should automatically bring in the players the way they are used by coaches. It was 3rd and 14 and Red Bryant was on the field at defensive end when it should have been Bruce Irvin.

It’s always important to note that these impressions were based off only a few hours of gameplay in a tough environment to judge things. More time will be spent with the game tomorrow and many videos are to follow soon for all to evaluate. Madden NFL 13 appears to be a significant advancement for the series. It isn’t going to be received as a revolution but has probably done enough to gain favor with fans who have been looking for significantly more out of Madden in recent years.