You might think that in the rigid world of NFL football, there is only one way to interpret the events that happen on the field. The Wii version of Madden NFL 11 shows that this is not the case. Contrary to the ultrarealistic depiction of football presented in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 releases, Madden for the Wii falls somewhere between hardcore simulation and free-spirited arcade action. The exaggerated player models and emphasis on big-time plays give the game a wide-open feeling that is a far cry from the trench-warfare struggles of the real game. But there are just enough rules and strategy to keep this from being a gunslinger's paradise. Unfortunately, the middle ground Madden NFL 11 inhabits appeals to neither football enthusiasts pining for an accurate representation of the new national pastime nor arcade aficionados searching for a replacement for the now defunct NFL Blitz series. Madden NFL 11 is still a fun mix of big hits and big plays, but its noncommittal approach struggles to satisfy on either front.
The most obvious innovation in Madden NFL 11 is how plays are called. In addition to having the option to use a conventional playbook (in which hundreds of plays are available) or play arcade style (where only 16 choices are present), there is a new gameflow choice as well. By selecting this option, you put strategy in the hands of the computer and are free to focus on the action. A call is automatically selected based on the down, distance, and tendency of your team, but the results are extremely iffy. The computer has no concept of game situations. It refuses to switch to a pass-happy attack even when you desperately need quick scores and the clock is your biggest enemy. The special team calls are even more baffling. Your field goal unit will be sent out in the most inopportune situations, such as when you're down by 7 late in the game and your offense is on the 40 yard line. Because of these issues, you cannot rely on gameflow if you want to be successful. You have to audible to something worthwhile more often than not, which means that it's much wiser to just call your own play beforehand and not rely on the questionable decision making of the computer.
The football action is a strange amalgamation of two very different interpretations of NFL football. If you limit yourself to real-world strategies, Madden NFL 11 does resemble the actual sport. Players are generally smart on both sides of the ball, so defenders exhibit the acumen of the average player, and offensive linemen block the most threatening defender in their path. The physics don't always conform to real-life rules, but it's a close enough approximation. Running backs have momentum, so it's not always easy to tackle them with one defender, but their superhuman strength often allows them to carry 300-pound linemen a dozen or so yards down the field, which is implausible outside of a comic book setting. The realistic physics is one of the reasons this fails as an arcade experience, though. Players move with the same speed and perform the same moves as real players, so the action doesn't scratch that over-the-top itch. Plus, because you need to worry about rules such as interference and still make sure the right plays are being called, the start/stop flow mirrors that of a simulation.
Larger problems arise once you break free of realistic restraints and try to score by any means necessary. Quarterback scrambles are borderline cheap, allowing you to run down the field with ease. In fact, quarterbacks are completely preposterous in just about all situations. Not only can they run with consistent success, but they can throw from every angle imaginable. When running a play action pass, computer-controlled quarterbacks often keep their backs toward the line of scrimmage, but they can still throw with pinpoint precision. Whether the QBs are controlled by the AI or another player, they have ridiculous arm strength that allows them to throw with success no matter what position they're in. This means you can run around like your feet are on fire and still deliver the ball right in a receiver's hands. When you compound this with your receiver's knack for getting open on deep routes, the game devolves into a Rex Grossman-like "Forget it, I'm going deep" approach that, while fun, isn't anything like real football. These passing quirks are present even on harder difficulty levels, so emulating the real thing is just not an option.
The on-the-field action has issues, but Franchise mode is surprisingly deep. In addition to the standard ability to tweak your roster and design your own playbook, you have micro control over just about every aspect of your organization. Franchise mode is much closer to SimCity than traditional Madden because you have such a fine amount of control over the minutiae involved in running a football team. You can adjust the price of tickets, for instance, which has a noticeable effect on your overall revenue. This hands-on control extends even further in this latest edition, giving you advisors to talk to and dole out orders to. For instance, you may be asked how one of your superfans should be rewarded for his undying loyalty. Depending on what prize you dole out, your fan base has a reaction to your move, and your bottom line is affected as well. All this micromanaging doesn't make up for the uneven football action, but it is a silly way to relate to your team and gives you decisions to think about outside of football strategy.
There are also a bevy of alternate takes on standard 11-on-11 action that are at least novel, though they have limited long-term appeal. A fast-paced five-on-five mode has returned from previous games in the series, giving you just four plays on the offensive and defensive end to worry about. It's a stripped-down version of the real sport that should be easy to get into for people who don’t understand all of the intricacies of NFL football, but it's not very interesting. After a few big hits and long touchdowns, you've seen all there is to see, and the mode becomes boring. There is one unique twist on cooperative play that is at least entertaining for a little while. In one mode, the first player's role is the same as it is in traditional contests, but the second player does not control one of the athletes. Instead, he has Hand of God powers, knocking down opposing players with the push of a button. It's certainly strange, but it's fun to push defenders to the turf while the first player runs toward the goal line.
Unfortunately, using your Force powers is the most fun Madden Wii gets with a second player. The online mode is so stripped that it's virtually worthless. You can compete with other players in one-off matches, in either ranked or unranked games, but that is the extent of your options. You don't have the ability to join an online franchise, and you can't even play any of the minigames online. Furthermore, Madden Wii doesn't have voice chat support, stripping away the back-and-forth trash-talking that often encompasses online competitions. The action is generally lag-free at least, and it's handy to be able to challenge someone from some far-away land when you don't have anyone to play against nearby. But the online mode feels like a blast from the long-forgotten past and not in a good, nostalgic way either.
The preponderance of big plays is the main reason Madden struggles to capture the feeling of the real sport. Whether you're slinging bombs downfield on offense, lighting people up with big hits on defense, or returning kicks for touchdowns on special teams, there are lots of huge moments in Madden 11 even on higher difficulty levels. With so many explosive plays, though, Madden struggles to capture the strategic joy a more realistic approach would have offered. And since there are still rules to worry about, this game isn't able to home in on the joy of pure arcade action. Madden is still a fun game, but it has a serious identity crisis.