Last year's Madden NFL 10 saw the introduction of online cooperative play, where two players could join forces to take on the AI on the field. It was a good start, but camera issues prevented it from being a must-play feature in that game. Nonetheless, the developers at EA Tiburon have pressed forward with the idea in the upcoming Madden NFL 11, and they're introducing the new online team play feature. Reminiscent--in spirit--of the online team play features in games like the NHL and NBA Live series, OTP in Madden will have some twists of its own, as well as features that won't be found in any other EA Sports game.
As many as six people can take part in online team games, with a maximum of three people per side. You'll also be able to play with any permutation of the six total/three-per-side limit (that is, three vs. the AI, three vs. one, two vs. two, and so on). Before you begin an OTP game, you'll be able to choose where you want to play on the field. There are three positions to choose from. On offense you can choose from quarterback, running backs, and wide receivers; on defense, you'll have defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs. Here's the twist: If you choose to play as running backs, you'll be able to switch between any of the halfbacks or fullbacks on the field; similarly, when playing as the linebacker squad, you'll be able to switch between any of the linebackers on the field. The same will go for any position on the field--when playing in that squad, you'll be able to access any player in that squad. One final pregame squad selection option will be "Any"--if you select this option, you'll be able to choose any player on the field that is not currently being controlled by a player.
Once the game begins, you'll have the responsibilities and abilities of the position you're playing. As a quarterback, you'll be able to call plays and pre-snap audibles; wide receivers will be able to call hot routes (and run whatever route they want after the snap). Similarly, on defense, the player controlling the linebacker will be able to call defensive plays. Once the play begins, you'll be able to switch on the fly between whatever players you like--something that seems more useful on defense than when playing on offense, since you'll want to be able to switch to the player closest to the ball.
During our hands-on time with OTP, we played as a wide receiver on offense, while our teammate played as a quarterback. It was fun to call hot routes on the fly for our selected receiver, but we had to make sure that we coordinated our route change with our quarterback (though he could see the new route if he brought up the superimposed play art before the snap). Running routes and trying to keep ahead of the defensive back was also a great deal of fun--things tended to break down when we decided to improvise on the field and change the route. The quarterback--not being able to read minds--wasn't able to keep up with our rapid changes in direction, and the result was often an incomplete pass.
The problem might be exacerbated when the AI is controlling the quarterback--though developers did say they recognize that this would put increasing importance on the QB AI and are making adjustments that will hopefully stave off those problems. One other bit of interest--while AI-controlled wideouts do a better job of keeping their feet in bounds when approaching the sidelines, there's nothing stopping you from running out of bounds and directly to the team bench, regardless of where the QB puts the ball--perhaps a "feet in bounds" button would be a good solution for those threaded sideline passes.
Online team play will put a premium on communication and coordination, and Madden 11 will reward you for playing OTP well thanks to an achievement system that will reward you at different positions based on your play on the field. For instance, if you're playing quarterback and manage to throw 300 yards in a game, you'll earn an achievement that will give you a bonus to your awareness and accuracy ratings. These bonuses will be permanent for that position--in this case it would include a small bonus to accuracy and awareness--so that the next time you fire up an OTP game and play as a quarterback, you'll enjoy that additional boost. In addition, everyone will be able to see your relative skill at each position, which will make it easier to pick positions before the game begins.
With last year's cooperative play and this year's online team play feature, it seems that the Madden series is inching ever closer to full 11-on-11 online football. Whether that happens next year or further out remains to be seen (as well as whether or not playing offensive lineman can ever be anything other than completely boring). Look for more on Madden NFL 11 as we lead up to its August 10 release.