I’ll be talking more about the secondary and so forth later in the preview, so I want to touch on receiver routes and the QB pocket here. First off, QB movement still feels off. The initial foot planting on the drop back and the way the pocket forms around you looks and feels good, but QB movement is spotty. The general issue still stems from scrambling. It’s just very awkward how the QB moves from scanning the field to running for his life. There’s a bit of a gliding motion the QB goes through where the feet have to get revved up real fast in a hurry once you have pressed the button to start scrambling. It does not look or feel right, but it seems like the concession that has been made to activate the QB’s legs during these instances.
In general, QB movement when throwing on the run also feels slightly off. However, in this case it’s all about giving users options no matter what. The game has to allow you to run backwards and throw the ball across the field; otherwise some gamers would be upset. That type of sequence understandably looks really messy and out of place from an animation standpoint. But there are other times where you are on the run, and once again the game almost has to speed up your QB’s body motions to make sure a throw can be made as you are about to be hit. Much like initially going into scramble mode, these are not new issues, and some will not even notice or mind, but it does make the scrambling quarterbacks look out of place in a game trying to look like the real thing. But, to be fair, these issues might tie more into the game engine and the fact that more types of throwing animations may need to be added to correct these faults.
Beyond those issues, the throwing and route running felt sound. I would not say those perfect three- or five-step drops based on timing are in place, but an underrated aspect of Madden has always been lead passing, and that still works great here for those instances. It is also much harder to successfully rack up passing yards this year, especially with the flats being monitored more closely (more on that later), but I did not feel like AI was reading my slant routes before they happened or anything like that. It more seems like the AI has been tweaked to lean a bit inside without giving up easy corner or out routes. Of course all of this is subject to change with lots of gameplay tuning yet to come, but it was refreshing to not just want to go for a slant, fly or flat route the entire time.
Essentially, the early returns on the passing game are that it’s tougher but more rewarding. QB movement still feels like it could be improved with better foot planting, but overall the game seems to want to reward the more creative QB. I threw way less than I ran though, so it was still tough to get a gauge on whether or not you will be able to put more touch on the ball during certain plays. Also, it will be interesting to track the time users will have in the pocket. I was under the gun quite a bit, but for now I’m just chalking it up to getting back into the flow of things.
I came away most impressed by the running game. The first thing that immediately stood out to me was the way the offensive linemen really held their blocks and also tried to get to the second line of the defense. In the past, two big issues with the running game have been running lanes suddenly closing, and linemen not having the AI wherewithal to block more than one defender on a given play.
To expand a bit on these two improvements, in the past I have routinely found holes I thought were open, only to have a defender easily disengage from a lineman and tackle my running back as he passed by. This was usually frustrating because it felt more like magic than anything else. If a lineman is holding a defensive tackle at bay, that DT should not just pull away and easily take down my running back at the last possible second. To put it another way, it’s one thing for a running lane to be closed up by a defender moving into the gap from the second line of defense, but it just seemed outrageous more than anything else for the hole to magically close just as I was about to run through it. At the end of the day, my best guess is that the improvements made to suction blocking help to make the visual experience make more sense with what’s going on under the hood of the game engine.
As far as second-tier blocking, it really was gratifying to take the Ravens and Jets in two separate games and put together drives with LT and Ray Rice that were more about getting yards on the ground than in the air. Inside the tackles or outside the tackles, there were yards to be had. And it was truly rewarding because of the improved blocking. Whether it was noticing holes or following blockers in the open field, it felt like your pace and ability to read the play really led to success. I also feel like these improvements were at least partially tied to user skill and my teams as my opponents did not have the same success that I had on the ground.
The overall physics and improved graphics also help this area of the game. It seems odd to tie graphics to an improved running game, but I actually feel strongly about this improvement being tied to the graphics. The graphics in Madden have not been “bad” in my mind, but at times they look muddy or blurry in some respects, which clouds my vision a bit. This year, the graphics have received a substantial upgrade, so it just feels like I have been given eagle vision and can now spot all these running lanes.
The physics tweaks also seem to lead to less "clutter" on the field overall while running. This idea of "clutter" will be a running theme for the preview, so it's important to understand that all it really means is there are not as many bodies falling all over the place. (For example, this will also relate to "tumbleweed" tackling and blocking on returns.) Basically, it just feels like there are more one-on-one battles going on here, and fewer people just nose diving into the ground when blocking or trying to add on to a tackle animation. It makes the experience perhaps not feel as rough and messy as it really is when running between the tackles, but it visually looks much better and allows the users to actually control what's happening in a much better fashion.
At this point, I chalk these improvements up to a renewed focus on AI, as well as the modified approach to how the physics engine is registering when players engage with other players. With a minimized amount of suction blocking, people who love to run should have a more enjoyable time pounding other teams into submission.
Last year, I constantly felt like the deep ball was a little too easy to pull off. I might be in the minority here, but it just seemed like even elite corners did not stand a chance much of the time if the deep ball was thrown far enough. Perhaps my user-control skills were a bit off, but even a well-timed swat did not do the trick often enough for my liking.
So far with this game, I feel much more in control of the situation on deep balls. I have been able to bat away deep balls on downs where I know they might be coming. I will gladly still get jumped by a deep ball after the run has been established and so forth, but I want those moments where receivers are double covered and still catch the ball to be more rare, and thus more memorable when they happen, this year. For example in a game I was watching between two other folks at the event, I saw one receiver come down with a ball around three defenders at the end of a half. The play did not result in a touchdown or anything, but it still made the users laugh and jump out of their seats because, while it looked a little funny because of the way the player dove through the air to catch the ball, it was a cool moment. Rarity breeds that type of excitement for one side and frustration for the other.
It’s also clear that the NCAA and Madden developers shared gameplay pointers when it comes to defenses covering the flats and communicating with each other. Players on defense are pointing to areas of the field or handing off assignments, and linebackers and corners are much more aggressively halting players coming out of the backfield. While this stunted my “money” plays from a year ago, it was nice to see teams not just giving up five and seven yards like it was no big deal.
The zone defense is also a bit super powered right now, but I would rather the defense have more power than not when it comes to Madden. For now, it seems like the concession being made is that defenses are dropping lots of potential interceptions. I don’t even recall intercepting a ball during the event, but I know I should have had at least five. However, this area is another one that is always hard to balance. Wide receivers really don’t fight the cornerbacks to make sure they don’t intercept passes, so the defenders sort of have to artificially drop a couple here and there in these games. Regardless, zone defense and the interception passes are still being tuned, according to EA.
In short, I believe even the developers would admit the defense has the advantage right now. That being said, I would always rather it be a bit too hard to pass than make it too easy. On this front, it will be more interesting to see if creativity, game planning and unpredictably are the keys to success rather than just “money” routes.
One of the big issues with Madden games is what goes on in the trenches. The 3-4 defense never seems to get enough love, and blocker-eating DTs never can really do their thing. I’m not here to say that all is well and good now, but the physics tweaks are presumably allowing linebackers to roam a bit more freely during the pass and rush. In addition to getting mauled by linebackers a couple times on pass attempts, the linebackers just seemed to be more active on the field. I did not have the time or inclination to really scope out if my defensive linemen were just taking up space to make this happen, but whatever was going on here was progress.
I have not really talked about the addition of consecutive hit tackles to this point, but again, NCAA and Madden seem to be sharing here. There is a new wrap-up tackle button, which I can’t remind myself to use yet instead of just going for Hit Stick tackles, but consecutive hit tackles seem to be more imperative for the running game. In tandem with the improved focus on weight and momentum, these make those moments in the trenches flow better. There are fewer bodies just falling over while having no impact on the ball carrier (see: "tumbleweed" tackling). The downfall is that you don’t really see “gang” tackles anymore, but the upshot is you don’t see 10 players face down in the dirt at the end of every play. If anything, it seems like an admission that the former physics engine was not going to work anymore, so now we have a modified engine in place that the team probably wants to build and add onto in the future to create those bigger scrums when necessary.
Beyond that, there is not much more to say about this aspect that I did not discuss while talking about running the ball on offense.
As far as I am concerned, the kicking game is just never going to be good as long as a meter is involved. Everyone is all about user control (including this guy), but I would honestly welcome “real” FG percentages when it comes to kicking field goals. In NBA 2K12, those developers have incorporated “real” FT and shooting percentages. All this means is that the players shoot closer to their real-life percentages, regardless of user input. Some scoff at these things, and it does go against the general consensus that user control trumps all in video games, but it just seems like the only logical way to make the kicking game interesting.
That being said, the new kick meter is at least aesthetically more pleasing than a big fat meter running across the bottom of the screen like the one found in last year’s game. Basically, the new meter is similar to one you might have seen in one of the old EA PGA games. I would not say the kick game is any harder or easier with the new meter in place, but it’s something new. On top of that, I may have said it before in my other Madden preview, but I love the new view when kicking field goals. It looks really pretty and mimics the view you would usually see during a game on TV.
The early returns here are somewhat promising. The action on kick-off returns does not devolve into a clutter of bodies like in the past, again, because of the new tackle/physics tweaks. Instead, it’s a cleaner, more singular battle between players. Again, I think this highlights a potential shortcoming with how the gang tackling is calculated now. While you won’t have guys just falling or diving to the ground all around the ball carrier, football still is a messy game at times. It will be interesting to see if some middle point can be found between utter ridiculous chaos and one-on-one battles on the field.
The punt return portion of special teams seems to fare better with this new gameplay style in place. I witnessed a couple nice returns, and it was not because one player was simply fast enough to get to the outside or because a gunner missed the tackle. Instead, it was more just that the blocking was set up enough, and the punt returner was able to make one move to spring himself for some yardage. The punt return game has been a little too boom or bust in the past, and hopefully this is a sign that punt returns can exist somewhere in the middle.
It has to be hard to find balance during a game of controlled chaos. With so many AI players interacting with one another, the physics engine and AI have to be on point or end up making the game look ridiculous. The last system in place led to massive scrums and players diving all over each other, inevitably leading to many fans to turn on the Benny Hill theme song while playing.
In addition, the removal of suction blocking and suction play in general has been something EA has tried to eradicate for years. While it’s probably not going to ever vanish completely during this generation, the tweaks made to the physics engine do have some clear benefits, as well as a couple potential shortcomings. All in all, the developers are not trying to win the war this year when it comes to the problems surrounding physics and suction blocking, but they do clearly want to win a decisive battle in Madden 12.
And while these elements of the game will receive the most focus, the other element worth watching closely is whether or not the presentational uniqueness being introduced to the game carries over to the way each team feels and plays.
Simply put, no one should be thrown off by the game this year because it does feel quite familiar from a pick-up-and-play standpoint, but if gameplay balance is found, there’s enough here to get people excited about where the franchise can end up in the future.
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