Remember what the NFL was like this time last year? The league was in a state of suspension. Free agency didn't start until the late summer. Meanwhile, EA showed off Madden 12 and its first-ever fan-voted cover athlete Peyton Hillis amid speculation over whether there would even be a full NFL season.
A year later, everything couldn't be more different -- except for Madden, that is. In the first hands-on play time with the new version scheduled for release sometime in the late summer, you'd be hard-pressed to tell what, if anything, had changed. Except for presentation.
Madden 13 has had its announcing team revamped: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms have replaced Chris Collinsworth. Using a real two-man studio team seems like a step up (disclosure: Nantz and Simms are on CBS Sports, and CNET is a part of CBS Interactive), and Nantz and Simms will have a greater in-booth presence in this game, even appearing onscreen. As a spectator of Madden 13, it sounds exciting; as for how it will play out over a hundred online matches, we'll have to see.
I also got to play the new Madden during yesterday's cover athlete announcement event in New York City. The biggest differences I noticed were on the offensive side -- specifically in the passing game -- based on the one-on-one play time I had in basic Exhibition mode on an Xbox 360. Receivers can be instructed to change their routes midpass for more-natural improvised plays, and you can take control of receivers after the snap for different types of clutch catches. A member of Madden's development team explained how to pull off these moves, and also let me know about some improved scrambling techniques. The passing tweaks worked well; I was able to improvise a streaking cut across the field with Santonio Holmes off a Mark Sanchez pass for a touchdown, reminiscent of a 2010 Jets-Texans game. As for catching the ball myself, well, it seemed to work better with larger stretches of field as opposed to tight goal-line situations.
If you fell asleep a little bit reading that last paragraph, well, that's the problem with Madden these days.
I love Madden. I love the NFL. Still, the core game, as good as it is, has become so advanced and realistic that the refinements and adjustments have taken on the intricacy of systems engineering. For the rest of the NFL fans, Madden represents a marker for a season to come, an interactive souvenir. What I'd still love to see Madden become is a living document of each season, an interactive encyclopedia to teach kids and adults about coaching strategies and NFL history, and a more interconnected way to relive real games on Sundays. It's not so helpful to guide the NFL-curious to discover what the game's all about.
In the end, this year's Madden looks like...last year's Madden. As Madden has become an ever-more-popular competitive global game, maybe that's inevitable. Like any competitive game such as Street Fighter or Starcraft, tweaks and balances are made gently to avoid ruining the experience for expert gamers. Madden has its hard-core crowd to address, and maybe that's the part that will always win out in the end.
My early peek at Madden didn't reveal any other gameplay modes, and there are probably other surprises and changes in store -- but they didn't manifest in this early hands-on. The build was so early that new rosters hadn't been installed (Tebow wasn't a Jet yet). Oh, and Calvin Johnson is your new Madden 13 cover athlete. For more on how Madden 13 will play, we'll all have to wait until the NFL season is just a bit closer.