Years ago, when the Mayan prediction of the apocalypse was a somewhat distant fear and some of James Harrison’s hits were still legal, the Madden dev team likely felt physics engines couldn’t be implemented well enough for player collisions to look realistic. Well, now it’s 2012 and for some reason, Tiburon and EA decided Madden is finally due for a physics engine; the Infinity Engine, that is. Now that the demo for Madden 13 has been publicly available for a few days, the fans have been given an opportunity to play the game with this brand new Infinity Engine. And if I’m going to write about the Madden 13 demo, this seems like the most captivating aspect of the experience to spend a thousand words or so writing about.
A friend once told me that games felt far more entertaining if you thought of the CGI characters as puppets trying to mimic humans, rather than thinking of them as humans themselves. While I don’t normally consider this sentiment when playing games because it murders immersion, I can’t help but think about these football players as virtual marionettes at times. The Infinity Engine causes them to stumble over each other like helpless ventriloquist dummies, sometimes after a play, and they often contort their bodies into positions that make me feel more squeamish than seeing an ACL tear replayed over and over during football games. Yes, the Infinity Engine, something I (and likely many more fans) begged to have in the game for years is finally there, and it’s messy, but a good messy somewhat like eating ribs with honey barbecue sauce dripping down your hands. The physics engine looks sloppy, can be immersion breaking, and causes new problems that I’m not sure the developers accounted for yet, but it’s like witnessing the baby steps of something much greater. But before I get overly philosophical, I’m going to go over some basic impressions.
The Infinity Engine already does a few nice things – obviously it makes the collisions seem more realistic, except when it doesn’t because these mannequins often have the grace of a 40 yard dash run by toddlers. The game’s advertisement that pre-determined impacts are history is true: a tackle may begin with something reminiscent of an old Madden animation, but then morphs into something physics-based when the runner tries to plow over the tackler or another defender dives into the ball-carrier with reckless abandon. Huge piles are formed when multiple defenders attack the runner or offensive players are inadvertently tripped up – this looks and feels more organic and real than those pileup mini-games implemented years ago when players were forced to repeatedly hammer down buttons to fight for the ball in a pile. Madden finally looks chaotic and ugly like real football. I wasn’t able to change the outcome of many impacts with my runner by pressing buttons during the tackle, but I think I need to get adjusted to not giving up when the tackle animation begins.
By the way, the passing controls are also incredible – this is the first time the back shoulder fade has worked for me in Madden, and goal line fades also work now as well – I managed to complete one to both Sidney Rice of the Seattle Seahawks and, of course, Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers. The combination of defenders/receivers being forced to react to passes, the height factor of the players, and the passing controls allow taller receivers to reach up and snag balls that sail over the head of oblivious defensive backs. As a wideout who is frequently tasked with simply out-jumping defensive backs, the Madden 13 cover boy, Calvin Johnson, should be pleased.
Other than the obvious mannequin contortion and stumbling issues, my greatest trouble with the Infinity Engine was the running game, specifically the inside running game. Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, and Roy Helu Jr. struggled to get through the trash in the middle of the field – players fell everywhere, and if my running back wasn’t attacked by a defender who slipped loose of his blocker, he tripped on one of his own offensive linemen who was on the ground or stumbled because he was too close to a lineman engaged in a block in front of him. Running through the middle of the field is a problem for everyone: when passing, I like the quarterback to drop back, then shuffle forward if no one is open, allowing the pocket to collapse around him and get in better position to make a throw. If I can’t find a receiver or just get nervous, I send the quarterback on a scramble down the middle, usually netting me a few yards before being forced to slide. This was very difficult to replicate in Madden 13 because runners don’t have the grace to sidestep offensive linemen, which caused the quarterback to stumble, and eventually a defensive lineman worked his way inside for a sack. In both cases, this is a similar problem to one I’ve experienced numerous times in NBA 2K12 – the players feel more like action figures (or mannequins if you’d rather have that comparison again) than real people. Openings in the line of scrimmage don’t feel like they are an approximately life-size two to four feet – they feel like they are just a couple of inches because of the sheer difficulty of navigating players from a distant camera angle using an analog stick. Because everything feels so small, it’s difficult to hit the holes with the grace required of an NFL athlete and sidestep the legs of offensive linemen and the arms of defenders. Runs up the middle averaged about a yard or two for me, though off-tackle and power runs, (usually with a fullback and pulling guard) as well as sweeps (or even cutting outside the tackles on inside runs) sometimes granted me a fair amount of yardage. This is obviously an issue, but perhaps it won’t be so bad once I have the opportunity to use practice mode to learn how to run the ball properly between the hash marks.
So now that Madden 13 is only a few days from spinning inside my Xbox 360, I’m still an ardent supporter of all the changes in the game. The Infinity Engine is just a synecdoche for Madden 13 and where it stands in the legacy of Madden video games: the players look and feel more like fraudulent mannequins than ever before (they just occupy a strange spot in the Uncanny Valley) but they reveal (just like Connected Careers) that the developers are finally committed to overhauling the series to try to make it an unapologetic football simulator that is second to none. I have already paid for Madden 13 this year because: a) I always do and have a shameless compulsion for the game, b) because it’s fun, and c) because I want to support this effort to improve the series. It’s extremely difficult for a team of developers to overhaul a game in a year, program out all the kinks, and include fan-favorite features such as roster editing, but if this effort is successful, I expect these little features to work their way back into the games along with some major annual improvements. For example, perhaps players will develop a little more grace in future iterations or the Infinity Engine will improve so that players move with more purpose and drive (athletes consistently reach for first down markers or end zones when they are tackled or push for more yardage, to give a quick example). Madden 13 isn’t extensively polished, but fans may need the far-sightedness to see beyond the limitations of the current game and look into the ideal of, say, Madden 18 will be if the game continues to improve along these lines. It should still be a great game this year, but what’s more important to me is that Madden 13 signifies a dramatic attempt to improve the game series for the future. I think Madden 13 is the first of many of these games that will be the stadium light at the end of the tunnel.