Madden Ultimate Team First Look

Like trading cards? Like fantasy football? Then you'll want to hear all about this new update for Madden 10.

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I'd like to take complete credit for Madden Ultimate Team, but I know better than that. Ever since the From the Bleachers days--heck, ever since EA Sports released its collectible card feature back in UEFA Champions League 2006-2007--I've been clamoring for just such a card feature to make its way to other EA Sports games, and I've hardly been alone in that regard. Soon, those requests will be answered with Madden Ultimate Team, an upcoming feature update to Madden NFL 10 that mixes trading card collecting with fantasy football. And best of all? It's free.

If you've seen the Ultimate Team feature for FIFA, then you probably have a good idea of what Madden Ultimate Team is all about. Once you've downloaded the feature, it will become a separate menu item in Madden 10, and after loading it up for the first time, you'll be given a randomized set of cards, enough to get you up and running right away. Playing games with your team, you'll earn credits that you can then use to buy bronze, silver, or gold packs full of more cards you can use to bolster your team. You'll also be able to spend real-world cash to buy in-game credits.

Those cards include players, stadiums, playbooks, coaches, injury cards, and contract cards, and the quality of the card will be reflected in its status as either a bronze, silver, or gold card. Elite players like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady will obviously be gold status, while the majority of NFL players will be either silver or bronze level cards. The players in your initial pack of cards will be mostly bronze with a few silvers thrown in (the equivalent to overall ratings of 75 or below), but once you have some credits in hand, you can start working on improving your talent level.

Of course, there's a flip side to getting talent--there are those pesky contracts to worry about. As in FIFA's Ultimate Team mode, every player on your team will have a contract number associated with him. Using a player card in the game will subtract one from that contract number, and once it's reduced to zero, that player card will be discarded and that player will no longer be available to you. That's where another card type--contract cards--comes in so handy. Playing a contract card against a player (or coach) will increase his contract by the amount listed on the contract card. For instance if you play a four-game contract card against a player with one game left on his contract, he'll end up with five games left on his contract. As you probably have figured, contract cards are valuable, especially when it comes to keeping gold-level talent on your team. There are also injury cards, which you can use for injured players to accelerate their recovery.

Other cards available to you include team-specific playbooks, coaches, stadiums, and uniforms. You can have multiple playbook cards in your deck and use the ones you like for any game you play--either offline against the CPU or in online matches against other Ultimate Team players (there will be a matchmaking feature to pit teams of similar skill level against one another). Perhaps most intriguing is the team chemistry feature that has also been carried over from the FIFA and UEFA games. In those games, a team's chemistry rating improved depending on what position a player played (playing a midfielder in the midfield is a good thing after all). In addition, playing in a preferred formation and with players who spoke the same language also helped team chemistry.

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In Madden Ultimate Team, chemistry matters, but different factors are taken into consideration. Players who play on the same team in the real NFL will earn a chemistry boost; players who were on the same team in college will also get a boost. You'll also receive boosts for players who are playing with their real-life playbook, with their real coach, in their real uniforms, and in their home stadium. It begs the question: Why, in a game mode that's all about fantasy, do you want to encourage players to homogenize their teams along NFL team lines? Still, with the wide variety of talent available in the card packs, the chemistry boosts probably won't outweigh the simple fact that player skill will win out in the end. After all, why pair Aaron Rodgers with Jordy Nelson at wideout when Andre Johnson is also available to you?

Your Madden Ultimate Team deck will be limited to 100 cards total, with a maximum of 55 players available to you. Any extra cards you get through buying packs can either be discarded, which will earn you a small number of coins per card, or be sent to the auction block for selling to other users. As with FIFA's Ultimate Team feature, you can put any card in your collection up for auction, and the value of that card will be driven by the market. Unfortunately, Madden Ultimate Team won't have the addictive collectible card book that was found in UEFA--which served as a great place to dispose of unwanted cards--but producers said that feature could be a possibility for a future version of Madden Ultimate Team.

In addition to the bronze, silver, and gold cards, there will be a couple types of exceedingly rare cards available to players. The first will be legendary cards--these will all be current NFL players (no legends like Walter Payton or Jim Brown, unfortunately), but the players' ratings will reflect their "glory years." Think of Brett Favre with the Packers or Randy Moss with the Vikings at the height of his power. Playing a legendary player in a game will give your entire offense or defense a boost, and naturally, you'll want to protect those cards' contracts as much as you can. The other type of special card will come through weekly deals--these limited-edition cards will feature only elite players and will be available only for a short time.

The presence of Madden Ultimate Team looks to be great news for those who will be looking to get back into Madden after a few months away. There's no firm release date yet, though producers are aiming for early January as a tentative release window. In the meantime, they'll be tuning things, including features like the final roster in the game, the balance of players' starting decks, final card artwork, and more.

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Will Madden Ultimate Team take off? It's hard to say. I was a huge fan of the feature in UEFA and last year's FIFA game--it got me to play more soccer games than I had ever played previously. And while producers are hopeful that Ultimate Team will turn into an annual addition to the Madden series, there are no guarantees. After all, it's telling that the Ultimate Team feature was not included in this year's FIFA 10 (though it conceivably could be added at a later date). On the other hand, FIFA 09's Ultimate Team was a $15 DLC add-on. If nothing else, by giving Madden Ultimate Team away for free, EA is looking to expose the feature to as many people as possible. We'll see if the experiment pays dividends when Madden Ultimate Team is released in January.

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