I’m not one of the Madden devotees. Sure, I played the series back in the day, and played a ton of football games with my buddies in college, but I hadn’t really touched the franchise since ’08. Still, I do like me some football, so when I was asked “Hey, Funk, can you take the review of Madden for next week?” I shrugged and accepted. I assumed it’d be good and well-made – as befitting of one of EA’s flagship series – but completely fail to set my world on fire.

Holy crap, was I wrong. This game is great.

Madden is a bit of an odd beast in the industry. It’s an institution of its own, with millions of people lining up every year to buy the latest iteration – almost always pooh-poohed as a “roster update” by detractors – and yet it seems that many “core” gamers couldn’t possibly care less. Not only does the title’s very nature require a gamer to care about sports in the first place, but with two decades of games under its belt Madden almost feels somewhat unapproachable: If I haven’t jumped on board this train by now, will it have left the station without me?

No, it won’t have. At least, Madden 11 won’t have – and that seems to be the entire point. Now, don’t get me wrong: Madden 11 doesn’t throw out what works. If you’ve been a fan of the franchise from its humble beginnings all the way through its rise to superstardom, everything here is just how you know it. It’s still incredibly polished, from the faithful way in which it renders the NFL players and stadiums (now complete with stadium-specific chants) to the team-accurate playbooks and energetic color commentary.

The gameplay modes you love are still there. It still looks great with tackles and hits that look far less canned than in years past, and veteran armchair quarterbacks will feel immediately comfortable with the controller in their hands. If you’ve loved Madden for years, almost everything is right as you left it.

What Madden 11 changes, though, it changes for the better. Rather than having a magic “go faster” sprint button that you held down all the time anyway – something that felt very out of place in a game that otherwise tried to be as authentic to real life as possible – Madden 11 opts for something more natural. Your character will naturally pick up momentum as he runs, and a defender will have a much harder time bringing him down when he’s built up a full head of steam.

The mapping of running evasive actions like cuts and jukes to the right thumbstick has also been tightened up, and while it may take some getting used to at first, it’s a surprisingly nuanced system that feels like it rewards player skill in shaking tackles. Combined with the momentum-based running system, Madden 11 takes some sorely-needed steps into making the run game a genuine pleasure to play instead of something you just did to make your third-down pass conversions less trying.

Perhaps the single most welcome feature in this year’s outing is “GameFlow,” a system that allows players to completely eschew calling plays during a game – like the actual pros, they’ll leave the decisions wholly up to their coaches (in this case, the AI). I cannot overstate how much of a positive addition this is. It significantly speeds up games, and considering “games take too long to play out” was perhaps second only to “it’s just a yearly roster update” in complaints aimed at the Madden franchise, that can only be a good thing.

But beyond living up to its title and improving the flow of the game, GameFlow provides a welcome benefit for novices and veterans alike. It allows experienced Madden QBs to just concentrate on playing a great game instead of having to call every play perfectly, and it introduces newbies to what sort of plays you should run in any given situation.

The coaches also chime in with additional advice for every play – wearing a headset helps significantly with the immersion factor – which not only helps new players learn why they’re doing the play in question, but it acts as a backup reminder for people who know what they’re doing. Did you miss that wideout setting up for a long pass? Your coaches didn’t.

While it could be said that the GameFlow is basically just a streamlined version of the “Ask Madden” section of the playerbook, it works much more naturally, and in a cool little feature actually takes into account what sort of plays the actual teams ran in these situations in the past. Some Madden veterans may feel that the GameFlow system is a bit unnecessary and condescending, because they already know how to play football. If that’s the case, you can forgo the GameFlow system entirely and choose by hand, manually call every play by audibles (also neatly and smartly streamlined) or adjust your coaching preferences between games.

The Superstar mode – where you create a rookie player and make them into a legend – isn’t as fun as it could be. The ability to import your college star from NCAA Football 11 is a nifty touch, but it means that the player has played Road to Glory, which does everything Superstar does, but better. Since NCAA‘s commentary was largely left generic thanks to (the lack of) player identities, the color commentators still chatter over your games there. In Madden, since so much of the commentary is player-specific, they’re completely absent from games with your Superstar – and their silence is surprisingly jarring.

But this is just nitpicking, really. I’ve played and reviewed two other football games so far this year, and Madden NFL 11 is easily the best of the three. I’d go so far as to say it’s the best football game I’ve ever played, period – it preserves the essence of what the players love about the series while making it streamlined and tremendously accessible to newbies. It’s simpler, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less complex, and covered with a glistening coat of polish. It’s a game for both diehard football fans and a game for everybody who brushes the series off as just a succession of yearly roster updates.

I went into this game as a skeptic. Madden NFL 11 made me a believer.

Bottom Line: The core Madden experience is better than ever. The gameplay finds a nice niche in a place that is accessible and instructing to newbies while still retaining the complexity that veterans of the series love. The NFL trappings will make fans very happy to see their teams and home stadiums rendered in such faithful detail with entertaining color commentary. It looks fantastic, and is the best-playing Madden NFL we’ve had yet.

Recommendation: If you love Madden, this game deserves a place in your collection. If you love football or sports games in general, this game deserves a place in your collection. Even if you don’t, this could just be the one that wins you over, and you could do a whole lot worse than giving it a shot.

[rating=5]

Game: Madden NFL 11
Genre: Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: August 10th, 2010
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3, PS2, PSP, NDS
Available from: Amazon

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

John Funk plays as the Saints because his mom really likes Drew Brees.

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