Madden 13 on Vita and Kinect: New technology in the huddle

Voice commands, brand-new physics, new announcing, and a touch-enabled edition for the PS Vita: could Madden 13 be the most innovative version in years? We played it and have a verdict.

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Late August doesn't usually mean much for video gamers...unless you're playing Madden. Like the swallows of Capistrano, the arrival of the next Madden has become inextricably associated with the start of football season for us...and, the start of Scott's endless obsession over the NFL Team We Shall Not Name. Madden as an actual game doesn't really merit much to talk about year in and year out...new rosters, slight tweaks that only a veteran player would appreciate, or game modes that few might spend the time to discover. Still, the NFL fans buy it, and rightly so, because it's the only way short of a downloadable roster update to get an interactive taste of pigskin.

This year's Madden is different. Not vastly so, but enough to talk about. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions have an entirely new physics engine. There's Kinect interactivity, if you have a Kinect. And, for those ready to dive into Franchise Mode...surprise! It's gone, replaced by an odd new mode called Connected Careers. And, last but not least, Madden 13 is debuting on the PlayStation Vita in what could be the best handheld version of Madden ever made. We take a look at Madden in its newest console and portable iterations.

EA Sports

Scott:
I played the Xbox 360 version of Madden 13, using mainly -- forgive me -- the New York Jets. Contrary to what Jeff says, I'm not a Madden expert (I was smoked 38-0 in my first online Madden 13 game), but I play a tremendous amount of Madden each year. (I promise you now, I'm not going to mention Tebow after this paragraph.)

EA Sports has touted the new Infinity Engine physics as being a truly real-time, randomly surprising way of experiencing the game without canned animations and predictable outcomes. Players move amazingly fluidly, although sometimes exhibiting a bit of the rag-doll oddities that real physics gives to video game characters. Those are few and far between; generally, the virtual muscle physics works shockingly well. Nearly every motion feels different in Madden 13, which can take some adjusting to. Collisions are far more realistic, and forcing fumbles feels more natural rather than canned. More importantly, the game feels more fluid.

EA Sports

Connected Careers is a new mode that I appreciate, but find jarring. EA claims this mode is the first "sports RPG." You indeed earn XP for various milestones and achievements that are used to unlock perks that help re-sign free agents and other such subtleties. It's not really an RPG at all -- it's more like earning unlocked bonuses, or the way a freemium game earns "credits." You can pick a coach, thereby controlling a team, or just a player, like the old Superstar Mode. Online-connected careers can turn into a persistent universe, and if you retire as your current coach/player, you can resume anywhere else in that league/universe. Meanwhile, weekly news updates, and even fake tweets from ESPN personalities, give you a sense of a virtual season in progress. It's clever, but Franchise Mode diehards will find themselves dealing with a lot of new layout changes and other adjustments. I wish Franchise Mode were still in the game, too, but EA seems intent on making us experience Connected Careers versus ignoring it.

Madden's baked-in Kinect support is the boldest and ultimately the most irrelevant addition in Madden 13. I thought it seemed great back at E3 in a closed-door demo; Madden only uses the Kinect's microphone, and you speak out voice commands using a 6,000-input vocabulary to control player motions, audibles, time outs, challenges, and other presnap adjustments on offense and defense. This should work ideally like a third hand, allowing you to make moves while simultaneously doing other things with your controller. In online games, Kinect functionality works during presnap and deactivates voice chat during that time.

This Kinect play-calling wristband didn't come packaged with the Xbox 360 game, but maybe it should have. Sarah Tew

Unfortunately, Madden with Kinect in real life is more like a gimmick or a hobby than an essential tool; in fact, it's even a bit of a hindrance in its current form. Some phrases and controls appear onscreen when you speak, helping you understand what you can say. Others never appear; for instance, I could yell out "Keller" and make my tight end streak, curl, or motion, but he could also do other things that aren't clear unless I discovered them. EA Sports documentation with my review copy encouraged me that "there's a good chance that the Kinect sensor will be able to interpret most football-related vocabulary." It wasn't clear what I should do.

Over time, maybe I could learn to multitask: some commands, like "Revis, cover Wayne," are easier to say than to button-press, but the Kinect didn't always understand me. In fact, I encountered a lot of mistakes. I yelled out for my wide receiver Schilens, and the Kinect interpreted that as "Challenge," and called a time out for a challenge that I lost. That's not cool, and all it takes is one error like that in an online game for a hard-core player to never use it again. My system also had a really hard time understanding me when my volume was turned up; the problem went away with the volume off or when wearing headphones. I've never seen this in other Kinect-connected games.

EA Sports

Madden 13 also has new in-game commentary from Phil Simms and Jim Nantz, and even the lead-in pregame presentation feels more like a CBS Sports broadcast (CNET is owned by CBS). Their commentary feels more TV-natural, but still prone to repeat phrases if you play a lot.

Madden 13 on the Xbox 360 is a better game, but a different one. Its pieces don't all add up, but it's the most different version of the game in years, and a nice stepping-stone to what next-gen console versions might become.

Yep, it's like a handheld version of the console game, down to the menus. Sarah Tew

The real superstar in this year's Madden lineup, though, might be the Vita version. EA Sports has made excellent PSP versions of Madden in the past, and the Vita edition of Madden 13 feels almost exactly like a miniaturized version of Madden 13 with Madden 12 modes. Franchise Mode exists, as does Superstar mode, Madden Moments, and online play. There's no Infinity Engine for the physics, but the in-game animations and gameplay are shockingly impressive. To a casual observer, you're playing console Madden. And, down to the submenus and extra modes, you are.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Vita's dual analog sticks are the biggest factor in making Madden 13 a portable success; all the standard Madden controls are intact, along with a few odd rear touch-pad controls. The sticks aren't perfect -- sometimes I wish the Vita had 3DS-like circle pads instead, and the lack of rumble along with the small characters onscreen can create a lack of feedback in crowded plays.

Drawing new routes on screen with your finger. Sarah Tew/CNET

There's also a clever use of the touch screen employed in easy-to-use play adjustments: you can draw a new route for a receiver in seconds with your finger.

Load times take a while, and the whole game suffers from a bit of slowness, as if the Vita's being pushed to its early limits. It's still a must-buy for an NFL fan, and perhaps one of the best killer apps the Vita's had this entire year.

Jeff:
To say the Madden franchise has been riding in cruise control for the last few years is putting it lightly. Not much in the way of innovation has made it into the game, resulting in mediocre reviews and divided opinion among its loyal fan base.

Madden 13 represents the biggest effort its developers have made in moving the chains, but it may not be exactly what the diehard camp had in mind.

EA Sports

Spotlighting the list of alterations this year is the Infinity Engine, responsible for the new player and contact physics. I think it renders the game a bit on the arcade-y side, but its ability to reproduce real-to-life football overshadows that. Running the ball is challenging but satisfying, though it can be easy to collide with a teammate.

Like a handful of its recent predecessors, Madden 13 offers game control variations for every level of football fan, ranging from novice (me) to expert (Scott). You can play it on autopilot or you can use a custom play each down.

Aesthetically speaking Madden 13's presentation feels different in a lot of ways, but the pop-up menus at the line of scrimmage can quickly cloud up the screen. At the very least they could have some sort of transparency. Also, the game clock banner has a habit of disappearing at the play call screen. It's a pretty important piece of information, so not having it for clock management is just ridiculous. Rest assured, there's plenty to stare at in Madden 13. Most of the production value is top-of-the-line, including the mesmerizing slow-motion replays and a smooth blurring effect during certain camera movements.

With this being the first version to support voice commands via Kinect, I was anxious to see how they were integrated into the game because I had genuinely enjoyed some of it in Mass Effect 3. From what I can tell, the game consistently has a tough time deciphering voice commands -- and when it counts. Since calling for a play challenge manually isn't as easy as it should be, I tried screaming it out well before both teams got to the line of scrimmage -- nothing happened.

Even though it's the only option for football fans, there's plenty to love in Madden 13. Aside from a few glaring issues and a flawed design choice or two, there's something for everyone, whether you're a casual fan or hardened Madden vet.

 

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