Review: Electronic Arts Madden NFL 11
When we covered last week's release of NFL 2011 by Gameloft, we decided to hold off on reaching any final conclusions or issuing a rating until Electronic Arts published Madden NFL 11 -- the 800-pound gorilla of American football video games. Now that both companies have their games in the App Store, we're reviewing them together here, though you can save yourself the read with one sentence: Madden's better, particularly on the iPhone 4, but more expensive. Read on for the details.
Last year’s release of Madden NFL 10 took place a month after Gameloft debuted NFL 2010, its effort to stake an early claim to iPhone and iPod touch football fans. Following Gameloft’s now standard playbook, NFL 2010 arrived at an $8 price tag and drew everything from its audiovisual presentation to its gameplay from recent handheld games on competing devices, getting enough right in the process to merit a flat B rating. As soon as Madden showed up in the App Store with superior graphics, controls, and color commentary, Gameloft dropped its price, and has since sold at a discount relative to EA’s title. An iPad-specific version of NFL 2010 was released in April, quickly withdrawn from the App Store due to bugs, and then re-released to a generally mediocre reception from players.
This year, Gameloft bowed NFL 2011 for the iPhone and iPod touch at $7, while EA followed a week later with Madden NFL 11 at $8—a modest premium that will no doubt change over the next year. But there are actually two versions of Madden now: a separate $13 “HD” version for the iPad has different menu layouts, tweaked in-game camera work, and the promise of a free “Vintage Voltage Football” mode to be added in a future update. EA also promises to add a wireless multiplayer mode to both the iPhone and iPad versions of Madden; Gameloft hasn’t made any such assurance. For the time being, there’s no iPad version of NFL 2011.
iPhone/iPod touch versus iPhone 4 versus iPad
There’s good news for iPhone and iPod touch players: the graphics on both NFL 2011 and Madden NFL 11 have been improved from last year’s versions, adding additional polygonal detail to the players and improved stadium textures, as well. iPhone 4 owners are in particular luck due to full support in both titles for the device’s Retina Display, which enables the character models in both games to have imperceptibly tiny edges and blend in more realistically against the field. (Our screenshots of the iPad are 600-pixel-wide 4:3, with iPhone 4 at 600-pixel-wide 3:2, and iPod touch at 480-pixel wide 3:2.)
That having been said, Electronic Arts has done a better job of optimizing its game for the Retina Display. Player names are legible, on-field graphical overlays look TV-quality—better than on the iPad—and even the menus look as if they’ve been designed for high definition rather than just upscaled from lower-resolution artwork. Character models are impressively smooth in detail and animation on both games, though Madden does more frequent and impressive close-ups, and has acceptably detailed crowd animations to make the backgrounds more interesting during its frequent 360-degree field camera spins.
The camera spins highlight one of Madden’s biggest problems on both iPhone and iPad platforms, however: a less than totally smooth frame rate. When the camera turns on either platform, you can see it stuttering through several degree adjustments, and though the game runs acceptably fast on the iPhone and iPod touch during plays, the iPad version feels less optimized, and each platform shows a sluggishness in post-play cinematics that detracts from the otherwise impressive presentation. Gameloft tends to limit the number of players on camera after a play, keeping the frame rate smooth for the shrugs or fist pumps that follow any major development.
Though Gameloft offers a competent base level of audio performance with the expected crowd noise, tackle grunts and voiceovers, NFL 2011 includes neither color commentary nor full play-by-play, so the stadium cheers, horns, and whistles are frequently all you’ll hear after major plays—touchdowns and field goals excepted.
Madden NFL 11 is a different story, coming alive with voice samples. Huddles end with “break,” plays start with “huts,” and more or less constant color commentary is interrupted only at the start of plays, continuing through your selection of the next play. The crowd noise, whistles, and voices are more energetic, too, helping Madden’s sonic environment to sound more realistic and exciting. Music plays during both before games and whenever you pause it, unlike NFL 2011, which has only some generic pre-game rock music that transitions to a different track for the coin toss. There’s no question that EA has both more and better audio on its side here.
Gameplay and AI
Both games include all of the NFL teams, licensed player names, and four basic play modes. The first is a Quick Play or Play Now exhibition game, which EA equips with weather, day/night, team, and uniform choices, while Gameloft takes you directly into a game with your favorite pre-selected team, but no other selectable options. Next is a regular exhibition game with full team choices—plus, in Madden, the aforementioned other options—alongside a full-season mode, and a playoffs-only mode, each solely for a single player until and unless the companies add online multiplayer modes.
Though there are many different facets of each title’s gameplay experience that could be individually discussed here, one standout feature in the Madden NFL 11 titles offers casual gamers a world of difference: GameFlow. With GameFlow turned on as it is by default, Madden eliminates your need to choose plays, using artificial intelligence to select running, passing, punting, or defensive plays that it deems appropriate to the situation—an optional streamlining that completely differentiates the two titles. Rather than stopping the game for a menu-based play selection mode, Madden just overlays the current play on the field as a collection of lines and arrows that you and the team are supposed to follow, disappearing once the action starts. Though the arrows could stand to be a little smoother visually, the concept here is great, and the game’s action and intensity factors go up radically, akin to watching a football game on TV without any commercial interruptions. At any time, you can flip GameFlow off or on, gaining manual access to a detailed, segmented playbook, and you can redraw offensive or defensive plays with “hot routes” as well. Play selection is considerably easier and faster on the larger iPad screen, which EA has reformatted to display more options at once.
While NFL 2011 from Gameloft doesn’t have these features, it does have a GL Choice feature that lets you see the game’s suggested plays off to the far right of the playbook, and an editor that lets you change passing routes to your preference. The artificial intelligence has been improved to make games more competitive, though it’s still behind Madden’s AI, and occasionally stutters in situations where real players would unquestionably have reacted rather than just stood around. It needs to be said, however, that both games have moments—blitzes, tackles, and attempts at catches—where the players just don’t seem to be interacting realistically with one another, leading to crunches of multiple bodies in small spaces, and animations that are clearly not as cause-and-effect as one might hope. It’s as if both Gameloft and EA were able to achieve the benefits of truly 3-D graphics engines only by giving up the per-player AI that Apple’s CPUs might otherwise be capable of.
Control is somewhat spotty on both games regardless of the platforms they’re running on, and we’d like to see EA and Gameloft really focus on improving the way they handle buttons in the future. Each company uses a virtual joystick and ever-changing buttons to let you know what you’re capable of doing with the player you control, but the buttons fade in and out contextually—on Madden on the iPad in particular, there are times when the buttons don’t appear until a split second before you catch the ball or take control of a defensive player. Consequently, there are moments when both of the games feel like you’re not really able to take full control of the action as you would on a handheld device with dedicated buttons. Both games use tap-to-pass buttons that let you as quarterback touch any color-coded receiver to receive a pass, but focusing on the receivers’ ever-moving downfield positions prevents you from seeing blitzes in progress. EA tries to offset this with a second set of contextual receiver buttons closer to the bottom of the screen, but there’s just too much clutter on a cramped iPhone/iPod touch display.
After playing both NFL 2011 and Madden NFL 11, there’s no question that EA has shown up for this season better prepared—both companies have improved on last year’s iPhone and iPod touch titles, but EA has made bigger strides, and the overall experience of playing Madden is closer to what you’d expect from the game on a competing console, or even watching a real season on TV. Between its more polished graphics, superior gameplay options, and realistic audio, Madden NFL this year merits a high recommendation on Apple’s pocket devices, and is a great value for the $8 asking price. The less expensive NFL 2011 is still worthy of a general recommendation, but even at its lower price, it’s far enough behind EA’s effort that something new is going to be needed to make it stand out against the Madden juggernaut. Perhaps universal iPad/iPod/iPhone support could be Gameloft’s advantage going forward.
Apart from the absence of multiplayer functionality in the initial versions of Madden, EA’s only major weaknesses are in the iPad version of the game, which benefits from considerably more screen real estate and in some cases more interesting camera views of the action, but suffers in frame rate, sometimes also in animation and on-field overlays, as well. The higher price tag and the fact that EA’s even charging twice for what’s essentially the same game demand a superior level of overall performance, yet after playing Madden NFL 11 on the iPad and iPhone 4, the pocket sized version felt more polished and impressive. Future optimizations and additional features may distinguish the versions going forward, but for now, there’s little justification for spending $21 to get both iPad and iPhone/iPod versions. We’d call the current iPad version worthy of a general recommendation at this point in time—it’s good but not as smooth as it could and should be.