I'm driving the ball with the New Orleans Saints, re-creating the 2010 Super Bowl matchup between New Orleans and the Indianapolis Colts. All of a sudden, a coach is screaming in my ear about a receiver's route and the precise time to let go of the ball. Following his advice, I lock in on the receiver and let the ball go at the right moment. My receiver catches the ball as he nears the sidelines; then, with obvious effort, he gets both feet in bounds to move the sticks and continue my drive. Time to move on to the next play; this time, the coach has a screen play in mind and he's telling me what to look out for in terms of blocking…
Welcome to gameflow, the newest addition to EA Sports' upcoming football game Madden NFL 11. At its heart, gameflow is a feature that simplifies the play-calling process and is a direct product of the telemetry data that the Madden team at EA's Tiburon studios discussed back in March during the Game Developers Conference. After looking at the data gathered from many thousands of games played online, EA learned more than a few surprising things about its game and how Madden fans play it. These include things like the fact that an average game takes somewhere near an hour to complete. EA also learned that, despite having access to playbooks 300-plus plays strong, the average Madden user only tries about 13 different plays in a game. All of this data pointed to the need to simplify and streamline the Madden game experience but in a way that wouldn't alienate the hardcore Madden elite.
Enter gameflow--a new system that, when activated, lets the game take over the play calling for you, both on offense and defense. You can activate gameflow at any time in between plays, simply by pressing the A button (on the Xbox 360 controller). Your next play will be automatically called for you and you'll hear audio of a coach explaining the finer points on the play that has been chosen. According to Madden producers, the play chosen is based on such factors as the playbook being used, as well as the down and distance. Thanks to some in-depth research on the part of the Madden dev team, when using gameflow play calling, you'll be getting the same plays that a team's real life head coach or offensive/defensive coordinator would call in that same situation. Of course, if you want to make the call yourself, you can always open up your playbook and call your own plays at any time (or even audible out of a gameflow play call).
On its surface, gameflow is an ideal fit for casual Madden fans who don't know (or aren't interested in) the finer points of play calling. It looks to also have an effect on game speed--no more scrolling through pages of formations and plays to find a play you want. But there's another aspect of gameflow that should appeal to the more experienced Madden fan: game planning. Here, you can essentially design you plan of attack (and defense) from the ground up before your team hits the field.
When in the game planning menus, you'll be given a variety of down and distances--2nd and long, 3rd and short, and the like--then you'll be able to choose the plays you'd prefer to use in those situations. Prefer to run slants on third down and medium distance? Like to run the play action on second and long? You'll be able to set up the plays and formations exactly as you want. The gameflow system will have multiple plays to choose from in each situation, so you'll be able to rate the plays you've chosen with a five-star iTunes-like system; higher rated plays will appear more often in that situation. In addition to creating game plans from scratch, you'll be able to edit existing game plans if you're just looking to make a few tweaks to a system you already like. Of course, you'll also be able to make defensive game plans for specific situations (normal, trips, nickel, Hail Mary, and so on) Finally, custom game plans will work in online games when using gameflow.
The locomotion and dual-stick controls that are being used both in Madden 11 and NCAA Football 11 result in some tangible differences in feel when compared to last year's game. Receivers are more mindful of the first down line and out of bounds, while players with high acceleration numbers can be deadly off the line. This is especially true for defensive linemen when putting pressure on the quarterback and for receivers who are looking to make early separation from a defensive back on a short yardage pass play. Getting used to pulling off spins with the right stick will take some time, but the lean mechanic (used by pressing up on the right stick) feels like an improvement on trucking already.
Other noticeable changes in Madden include a new kicking meter and increased use of the D pad. Instead of using the right stick to kick, you'll have a horizontal meter that appears onscreen. After aiming your direction arrow, you press a button to set a cursor in motion on the meter, hit the button once the cursor is on the right side of the meter to gauge power, and hit the button a final time once the cursor returns to gauge accuracy. Last year's kicking meter didn't really bother me, so I'm not exactly sure why it's been revamped, but I didn't miss any kicks with the new system, so it doesn't seem to be that big of a deal.
As for the D pad, it's been redubbed the "strategy pad" and is used for all of the pre-snap strategic decisions you made in previous Maddens with the left or right bumpers (or the L1/R1 buttons on the PlayStation 3 controller). You'll still have all the options you'll need for things like line shifts, squeezes, and blitz shows, but you'll just need a few plays to get acclimated to the new control system.
As in NCAA 11, blocking has received lots of attention in Madden. In addition to players simply being more adept at nailing defenders and opening up lanes to run through, you'll be able to look at specific blocking assignments before the snap, so you'll know who's taking care of whom on offense.
Naturally, there's more to Madden than gameflow and game planning--EA producers were saving details on changes to online play or Franchise modes for a later date. Our next hands-on look at Madden NFL 11 will be in May, just before the Electronic Entertainment Expo, and you can always follow our continuing coverage of the game at the GameSpot sports blog.