'Madden NFL 11': First look

Philip Rivers looks so good in "Madden," he's almost expected to start talking trash. EA Sports

The average game of "Madden NFL 10" took more than an hour to complete.

"With 'Madden NFL 11,' we're cutting that time in half," says Madden's executive producer, Jeremy Strauser. "We're playing games now in about 30 minutes."

The difference? Try one of the biggest gambles in EA Sports history, as "Madden" designers have completely changed the play-calling system to incorporate offensive and defensive coordinators actually telling you what plays to run over the headset. After that, it's up to you to execute.

That's right: If you use the new GameFlow feature, you leave the play calling in the hands of the AI, cutting game time in half by simply eliminating the back-and-forth decision-making and sorting of menus to find the right formation.

The smartest thing the designers did, though, was leave a one-button exit from GameFlow, so that at any time, you can simply hit X and call your own play like in the old days. So if you want, you can follow the computer's advice on offense all the way down the field, but if you're in a tough spot or have an idea of a call you'd rather make, you can hit a button, call your own play and jump right back into the action without having to pause the game and find the correct screen. Next play, you're right back to GameFlow, or, if you wish, you can hit X again and take control for a second straight play.

"We talk about 'Madden 11' being simpler, quicker, and deeper, and GameFlow is a big feature that is driving this," Strauser explains. "This is a play-calling system that really unlocks the depth, complexity and authenticity of being a playcaller in the NFL and lets you have success with it whether you're a novice to the league or a 'Madden' expert."

Although "Madden NFL 10" featured close to 350 plays per team playbook, EA Sports' research showed that the average user was calling only about 13 different plays per game. "It's kind of a hint that something is going wrong," Strauser admits. "And that means the hard-core guys are bringing that number up to 13. Those weren't the minimum numbers. So when we started talking to players and coaches from around the league, we realized that this new method was a lot more authentic to how plays are called in the NFL."

Each play call is situation-based, and if you're hard-core into the X's and O's, you can go into the playbook and swap in up to 15 plays per situation, weighting them for the frequency you'd prefer the coaches to select. "We have different sheets like second-and-long, third-and-short, and you can go in and put the plays you want in there," Strauser says. "But if you don't want to go through the trouble, each team will have their accurate plays in their game plan right from the start."

Once you're in the game, the voice actor/coach will explain how to run the play over the headset, and during single-player contests, the play art will appear before the play as you break huddle. During two-player games, the offensive coordinator breaks down the play in one headset, while the guy on defense hears the defensive calls, but no play art is shown for the obvious reason that it would spoil what you're about to do. Other than that, everything before the play remains the same, as you still can call audibles and hot routes if you don't like the play once everyone is lined up.

"The audio is instructional as well," Strauser explains. "He's not calling it in the X, Y, Z trip kind of way. He's telling you how the receiver is going to break across the middle, and you need to get him the ball.

"The byproduct of this is not only is the game setting you up for success by calling the right plays in the right situations, but it really speeds up the game. If you've played games of 'Madden' in the past, you were in for a marathon, and it can be tough on people to devote an hour of their time to playing a single game. Now you can play two games in the time it used to take to play one. And the focus for us is that it's easy, it's authentic and it's as deep as you want it to be."

On the field

Once the play is called, football fans will recognize immediately that the game they've grown up mastering has completely changed in terms of player control, speed, acceleration and movement. These changes have made every aspect feel like a completely different experience. No longer is it about the guy with 99 speed. Now players with high agility will be able to cut better and take better angles to get to the ball. Players with high acceleration, such as Chris Johnson, will be able to burst through a hole that a guy like LenDale White will watch close before his virtual eyes.

In addition, although all movement, acceleration and turning is based off left-stick movement, all offensive moves have now been mapped to the right analog stick, enabling ball carriers to juke, high step, truck and spin as gamers flick the stick in different directions. This also enables runners to combine moves, as gamers might juke right, spin back left, then high-step over the outstretched arms of a defender.

I took Reggie Bush for a spin through practice mode and found it a really fun, fresh way to stutter-step, spin and speed past the D. Just don't get too happy, as with all the advanced body control comes the danger of leaning forward too much and falling flat on your face mask instead of rumbling for the first down. The biggest change with these advanced controls, though, is the elimination of the turbo/sprint button. That's right, turbo is gone, so now it's up to the speed and acceleration ratings of each player to blaze down the field, not some imaginary higher gear. (However, if you really want it, you can go into the options menu and turn it back on.)

"These are really fluid animations," Strauser says, "and it feels like no 'Madden' that I've played before. You can chain together moves like a stutter to a spin to a juke, then lower your shoulder as you try to get that extra yard. Now you don't need to hit four different buttons with a turbo modifier to perform these moves. It's a lot easier to use, and at the same time, it looks a lot more like you see when you're watching the NFL for real."

Another way EA Sports is trying to make everything appear more authentic is a serious upgrade to the game's presentation, including a lot of new cut scenes, from showing Drew Brees in the locker room before the game to Peyton Manning walking off the team bus in the parking lot. These scenes also include plenty of shots of the superstars without their helmets, as EA Sports is trying to showcase all the new heads and faces in the game thanks to an upgraded scanning technology that originated in EA Canada.

"The visual jump is amazing," Strauser says. "We've captured all of the quarterbacks now using this multicamera, hi-res system. It spits out the results of a head scan, but it focuses on the texture as well. The old head scans were great, but that was more about geometry as the textures they spit out were lo-res. This is an EA system that we're also using for 'MMA.' We've had access to the quarterbacks and a lot of Pro Bowl players, and it's a huge upgrade.

"I didn't think we could get much better, but now we've got the helmets off on the sidelines, and it really makes a tremendous difference. We've also added some really nice celebration scenes after the Super Bowl. People have always pointed out that the Super Bowl needs to feel more special. This year, it's going to feel really special.

"I think people are really going to be surprised when they see what a difference we've made in one year. I can't wait to hear what people think."

As for my immediate impressions (remember, I played only about a quarter), I loved the new control scheme and the focus on player ratings beyond speed. Now you can really tell when a player lacks the agility to turn on a dime (defenders now need to take the right angles to make plays, as the lack of turbo eliminates the makeup speed), and the focus on acceleration is a lot bigger than most people might realize until they get their hands on the controllers.

As for the CPU picking your plays? When I was first told, I was skeptical, but the longer I played, I actually started to like it more than I initially thought. Not only does it speed up the game, but it also makes you more like a player on the field, needing to execute the game plan rather than taking 30 seconds between every whistle to figure out what you're going to do next. The fact that you can simply audible out or call your own play with one button press also makes a big difference.

Besides, if you really can play two games in the time it used to take to play one, that's a difference that is not only unexpected but also a complete game-changer. Forget the days of failed features such as the passing cone and lead blocker control. This year, "Madden" gives you the one thing that matters most, and that's time. Or, in this case, more time to play "Madden."

Look for ESPN's more detailed impressions as the game draws closer to its August release.