Getting a grip on gridiron
MADDEN NFL 13 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3). EA Sports. $89.
Despite New Zealand being one of the world's most sports-mad countries, with almost anything that even remotely resembles rugby being avidly appreciated, there has so far been relatively little love shown to the American interpretation of the game.
Possibly due to the distinctly un-rugbylike razzmatazz and glamour surrounding gridiron, not to mention levels of body armour that would put most riot cops to shame, the average Kiwi has little time for the sport that captivates millions of Americans, but has struggled to carve out more than a niche following outside the US.
For American football fans frustrated with the lack of coverage outside late-night subscription TV, or even those who have watched the odd Superbowl and want to know what all the fuss is about, the Madden series of NFL games is a great way to get your gridiron fix, and this year's release has been hyped as the most advanced simulation to date.
Electronic Arts' stranglehold on the sports video game market is a monopoly in all but name, with rival developers slowly squeezed out by a combination of aggressive licence acquisitions, big budget production values and drip-feeding incremental improvements into each annual revision of their marquee sports titles to keep customers buying what is in effect the same game, year in, year out.
This year's major update for the Madden franchise is the introduction of the "Infinity Engine" to control the behaviour of players on the field.
Whereas in previous games, every movement was made up of canned animations, the action is now controlled by a ragdoll physics system where each individual limb reacts dynamically to every impact and stimulus, incorporating mass, momentum and muscle.
When this works, it creates some incredibly lifelike tackles - with no two plays looking the same.
Unfortunately the engine is still very much a work in progress, with some seriously strange, and occasionally hilarious, glitches causing players to flop around like freshly caught fish.
Another selling point for this year's Madden is the new connected careers mode, allowing you to compete in virtual leagues online, taking a player in any position from rookie to hall-of-famer. You control only your chosen player, with the computer controlling the rest of the team.
Although this lack of overall control can be frustrating, there's a lot of satisfaction to be found in seeing a young star progress through the ranks.
Your player earns experience points for each game and training session, which can be spent on upgrading individual stats and attributes.
The media also plays its part, with a virtual Twitter feed incorporated into the game and off-the-field events contributing to the soap opera-like storylines that are part and parcel of the modern NFL.
One of the main stumbling blocks that has prevented gridiron gaining much traction as a global game is the initially intimidating complexity of the rules, tactics, and game. Novices like me might find the intricate playbook sketches impossible to decipher at first, but Madden's gameflow system provides helpful suggestions at every huddle to help you decide whether to pass, run or punt. After a while you get an idea of which tactics work in certain situations and you know you're on the right track when you start second-guessing the suggested plays and formulating your own plan of attack.
One thing you're guaranteed of in EA Sports games is high-quality presentation and Madden NFL 13 might just be the company's slickest effort to date.
The graphics, commentary and realistic camera angles mean that at times, it is almost impossible to distinguish the action from a live broadcast. The sound effects are also impressive, with every crunching tackle and crowd roar convincingly recreated.
Overall, there's more than enough innovation and new features introduced this year to justify the investment in the latest Madden update. There's an incredible amount of depth to the career mode, and the developers have done a great job of making the game complex enough to appeal to hardcore devotees, but accessible enough for relative rookies too.
Whether it will be enough to convince reluctant rugby fans to give gridiron a go is another matter.
- © Fairfax NZ News