With every new Madden release, there are almost always one or two features that get the bulk of the attention--features that not only make the current Madden different from its predecessors, but also seemingly make the upgrade from one year to the next worthwhile. Madden NFL 10 is no different in this respect. Some of its new features are substantial, like the long-awaited Online Franchise mode or the new types of tackles generated by the Pro-Tak system, but it feels like most of what's new in Madden 10 is less glossy and far more granular, affecting only the mechanical aspects of the football experience. It's almost as if Madden 10 represents a back-to-basics philosophy for the franchise, taking the focus away from fancy modes and even fancier presentation elements for the purpose of making the sport itself the main draw, but there are still many lingering problems.
There's evidence of this philosophy in the way prominent features from last year's game take a backseat. For example, last year's Madden Test--which assesses your ability based on a series of cool-looking hologram drills--is back, largely unchanged, but it's buried under the quick-modes option. Even the stylized menus from Madden 09 are gone and have been replaced with a more streamlined interface that lets you get to where you need to go quickly, whether you're signing a free agent or trying to look at some key stats.
Obviously, this is of great benefit to the Franchise mode (both online and off) since the most fervent Madden players spend a good portion of time navigating in and out of menus to build the best team possible. But aside from that, the Franchise mode remains unchanged on a superficial level. It does include a new presentation element in the form of a show called The Extra Point, hosted by the NFL Network's Fran Charles and Alex Flanagan. This functions as a recap and halftime show that goes over the basic stats of a specific game or the results of the previous week with some very light commentary that doesn't offer all that much insight. However, one aspect of this show reveals one of the Franchise mode's biggest potential shortcomings.
At the end of any week, The Extra Point gives a player the Offensive Player of the Week or Defensive Player of the Week award, depending on his position. Despite numerous occasions when players had an almost supernatural performance for five-minute quarters, not once did any of them receive the recognition. They were always awarded to individual players on AI teams. After looking at stats of these players from other teams in the Franchise mode, it becomes apparent that there are two parts to this problem. The first is that some players, like Tom Brady, are just that good and should probably win such awards, but the second is far more devious: stats don't seem to scale properly for five-minute quarters. In other words, when the computer plays its games, those stats are designed to reflect full quarters, or at the very least, they reflect a simulation of a "full" game. They aren't representative of truncated quarters where there simply isn't as much time to wrack up as many yards, completions, sacks, or touchdowns as the stats suggest.
It's hard to gauge how much this affects other aspects of the Franchise mode, such as player progression--if it does at all. At the end of every season, a player's overall rating changes based on a number of factors, including overall performance, potential, and age. But even this process seems a little inconsistent. One player, who was also injured for most of the season, received the biggest hike in the overall rating, while another player in the same position, who was far older and had an OK season, dropped only a single point. There is just no way to tell how the categories are weighted and if playing truncated quarters means that your players won't progress the same way that players on computer-controlled teams do.
Expect this man to win a lot of Offensive Player of the Week awards.
Fortunately, playing an online franchise mitigates a lot of these problems provided you fill most of the spots with other people and not just computer-controlled teams. But it also has its own share of issues--the biggest being that there aren't any salary restrictions for free agents. If you happen to see a top-tier player out there and want him on your team, all you need to do is clear a spot for him on your roster and it's done. Granted, players participating in a franchise can determine whether or not to let things like that happen, depending on how dedicated they are, but it seems silly to not have some restrictions in place by default. Likewise, CPU trades can happen unchecked--you can dump the worst player on your team for the best on another if that team happens to be controlled by the computer. Thankfully, the commissioner can turn this off completely, but it would have been nice to see some additional parity between the offline and online Franchise modes when it comes to some of these front-office features.
Still, the online Franchise mode does a lot of things really well. Those who have played NCAA's Online Dynasty will instantly recognize the basic setup where all participants flag whether or not they're ready to play the week. If some players lag behind, the commissioner can force the franchise to move forward, and if the commissioner cannot fulfill his duties for any given week, he can promote another player and have him take on the role. Additionally, the commissioner can set the amount of time players have to make their decisions in the draft--a useful tool for making the 54-players per roster fantasy draft run a little smoother.
Whether you're playing offline or online, Madden NFL 10's gameplay tweaks are equally evident in either situation. The much ballyhooed Pro-Tak system (a fancy term for better gang tackles) works as advertised, with numerous players clinging to the ball carrier before dragging him down in some situations. This feature also adds some much-needed muscle to the running game, making it feel as though you're really fighting and scraping to get those few extra yards out of a run on offense and stuffing a running back with five or so players on defense. At the same time, however, it seems easier to evade solo tackles in Madden NFL 10 than it did in previous Madden games, allowing you to execute some spectacular breakaway plays if you're on offense. This generally happens when you have a one-on-one situation--something like a running back against a cornerback. If he performs a single spin move on that corner, there's a pretty good chance that running back is going to break for at least a 20-yard run, if not a touchdown. That might not seem completely unrealistic until you see it happen over and over again, or when you see a normally less-than-agile tight end perform the same feat.
The Pro-Tak feature works as well as it needs to.