[10 September 2009]
I recently wrote an essay about a paradox that exists in contemporary sports video games: how do you balance realism with playability. And more importantly, as these games tend toward realism, are we, who lack sports expertise, able to keep up with a drastically more technical and realistic sports experience?
The basic idea for me came down to this: “It only makes sense that, as the systems became more powerful, the realism in the games followed a similar trajectory. Sure, in NHL 94, you could sweep across the top of the goal crease holding down the slap shot button and score almost every time, but the difference in strategy, graphics, and realism that the Sega Genesis offered over previous hockey iterations like Nintendo’s Ice Hockey were staggering. With the emergence of Next Gen systems, this line between realism and playability is increasingly blurred.”
Of course, the answer is as much yes as it is no. The amount of people that know how to call the right defensive set against a third and long when up by three points in the fourth quarter is relatively slim. The amount of people that can enjoy condensation on players’ visors and those players’ unique facial ticks is markedly higher. That is to say that the strategy and graphical advancements of sports games have finally become level with one another, and it takes a select type of person to truly appreciate, understand, and correctly utilize all that these games have to offer.
The most recent installment in the storied series, Madden 10, most aptly exemplifies this dichotomy. Undeniably the most realistic football game ever produced, the game makes small concessions in its gameplay to make way for more dynamic animations and a realistic presentation—initially, a huge concern for me that has (having played through it) turned into an innocuous shoulder shrug for my part.
On first viewing and playing it, Madden 10 is somewhat schizophrenic, trying desperately to be anything but a video game. It has cut scenes of tailgating and pre-game fan activities. There’s a halftime show—no, really—that contains highlights from your current game, and depending on whether or not you’re in dynasty mode, scores and updates from around the league. There are cinematic cut scenes during the play that you’ve never seen before in video games that are more focused on gameplay. In short, Madden 10 is trying less to be like a video game and more like an interactive presentation of Monday Night Football.
When I first started playing, this was a huge problem for me. I don’t much care for close ups of players being tackled (which at first seems like a major problem as the game cuts to these scenes before the player is actually down and the play is officially dead) or sideline rail footage of the kickoff team as they head down field. But the more that you play the game, the more it becomes apparent that these are merely aesthetic developments and that the advancements that the game has made with the same technology has actually improved it by leaps and bounds. One example is the gang tackling system. For instance, if a running back is stood up mid-stride, his teammates (as well as those piling on, trying to tackle him) create what is essentially a huddle, in which they try to push the pile for extra yards. This addition is largely due to the advanced technology and not necessarily to a more ambitious design team.
This increased realism, however, makes the game’s little glitches all the more glaring. The most annoying of which is the players’ apparent inability to run diagonally across the field when they have the ball. In an attempt to outrun potential tacklers, the ball carrier will take a path that consists of intermittent 90-degree angles to get to the sideline instead of running in a straight line. Another minor gripe is the nonexistence of sideline players and media members who the on-field players simply run through. It seems a petty complaint, but certainly, one that should be addressed in game that strives for realism to the extent that this one does.
The various franchise modes (“Be a Superstar” and “Franchise”) are functional but mostly unremarkable. “Be a Superstar” allows you to either create a new player, play as a current rookie, or import your player from the “Road to Glory” feature from NCAA 10 (the latter being the most functional and well done of the lot). Franchise mode gives you nearly all of the responsibilities and options of a franchise’s front office and coaches, allowing you to trade, pick up players as free agents, create depth charts, etc., all of the things you’d expect from a game as comprehensive and intensive as Madden.
Those functions aside, there’s really not much to it. Play your games, deal with injuries, trade for players if there’s a need. And herein lies the crux of the gameplay and realism split: There are just some things that the casual player will never care about and that will largely be left out of or excised from the game. But in terms of the current video game landscape, Madden is head and shoulders above the crowd. Despite its sometimes incomprehensibly simple defenses and spotty AI, this iteration is without question the most complete, enjoyable, and realistic version of Madden yet.