To judge by their commentary in Madden NFL 13, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms aren’t crazy about the current state of the NFL. Oh sure, they’re impressed with the talent level and overall competitiveness, but nary a series goes by where they don’t complain about rule changes that enable prima donna wideouts and too-precious quarterbacks to avoid crushing hits—effectively reducing the zero-sum level of NFL toughness. To hear Simms, you’d think back in his day, he was out there pushing Reggie White’s face into the Meadowlands turf for looking at him wrong, instead of the other way around.
But the game was different 25 years ago, when Simms was in his prime. Today it’s faster, with increasingly complex schemes, and more rules to facilitate exciting offensive play. Being a coach in the NFL anymore requires the technical skills of a rogue-state nuclear physicist, the personnel management acumen of Omar Bradley, and the ego-soothing, temper-smothering abilities of your childhood babysitter.
Madden 13 goes for the immersive NFL experience with “Connected Careers,” what some of the promotional material describes as the “first sports RPG,” but without any enchanted halberds or macabre collections of elf scalps. You can choose to play, online or offline, the role of player or coach. Either way, the experience is heightened by Game Face, the service on the EA Sports website that generates an in-game avatar using your front and profile head shots. This is the first Madden game to use it, and the results are hilarious. And, as funny as the player renderings can be, the auto-aging of your in-game likeness as coach is sobering enough to make you quit smoking and lay off the bacon.
The player role is in many ways the simpler one, and the mode more akin to a traditional role-playing experience. You start your career by choosing to be a high draft pick, low pick, or an undrafted first-year player. Each of these starting points have particular challenges, mostly involving expectations and your place in depth-chart hell. Even if you make yourself a highly touted rookie quarterback, you still have to somehow displace the starter on your chosen team by building experience through different practice scenarios—hopefully get helped along by a convenient career-ending injury that opens up a spot, or at least a blockbuster trade. But those factors out of your hands. Here, you only control your own guy, not personnel or roster hierarchies, and at first you’ll be watching regular-season games from the bench, at least until you take over and get some reps.
Coach mode is more akin to the conventional “career mode.” During games, you control both sides of the ball, and you don’t have to worry about breaking into the starting lineup. However, being the leader comes with much in the way of off-the-field responsibility. Beside playing the game, you must scout college prospects, negotiate contracts in-season with current players, sign free agents, make trades, deliver your star cornerback’s firstborn, and cure West Nile. Winning one for the Gipper is no longer remotely sufficient.
Both types of career can be played online (hence “connected”), with leagues full of friends or strangers. Online or off is a matter of personal preference. What concerns me more is that many of these features—the yearly attempts to make the full sports video game experience more “realistic”—come at the expense of the game on the field. I get annoyed when real players start dogging it on the field because of contract disputes; I’m not sure incorporating that into Madden is a net positive. In a “player” career, it might be several seasons before you even get off the practice squad and into a real game. Yes, that’s realistic. No, it isn’t that much fun. Once you get on the field, the game touts improved body physics, new “passing trajectories” similar to those in NCAA Football 13, and over 430 new “catch animations,” but none of those feel like a big step forward. That’s partly a limitation of the hardware, but also indicative of a bigger problem.
For adherents, the worst thing that happened to Madden was EA pushing out 2K Sports by signing an exclusive deal with the NFL after the 2005 season—the last year that the ESPN 2K series came out. ESPN 2K5 was priced at $20. That was a shot across EA Sports’s bow, and it responded with the full broadside. But without any legitimate competition, Madden can be phoned in, and it won’t affect the bottom line. Now that EA has settled a class-action lawsuit that threatened its exclusive NFL deal, it looks like Madden will continue to run uncontested for the foreseeable future. That’s too bad. It’s time to reevaluate the modern rules that protect the industry’s biggest star from harm. I’m sure Phil Simms would agree.