Crispy Gamer

Madden NFL 10 (Xbox 360)

Madden NFL 10 does not need a review.

If you have been conditioned over the past 20 years to salivate at the ringing sounds of the word "Madden," then you are already going "woooooooo!" at the thudding of Madden 10 hitting the store shelves. This guttural vocalization of pure joy translates, roughly, into:

"Honey, that videogame night with the guys is back on! The new version has the PRO-TAK tackling system and new signature QB throwing styles, they've rethought how the pocket should work, and I can manage my franchise online now, including with my iPhone. I have to do it, because I don't want to let the fellows down."

Madden NFL 10
Remember when they actually put John Madden on the cover of Madden? Yeah, us neither.

Whether you love the game or simply feel indifferent about it, the one thing you can say about the annual release of Madden is that it is simply Madden.

And that means that, whatever mad drunk money EA is still making from the game, it's not enough to induce Caligula fantasies of burning up something people like. Sure, the developer can ship review guides to journalists detailing the 70-odd new features they wedged into the game with all the love of an insect collector talking about the tiger beetles he has pinned in boxes under his bed.

You can talk about all the awesome new features, the new animation blending and "fight for the fumble" button-mashing mini-games; you can extol the game-changing stats, like new quarterback ratings and an overhaul of all player performance figures; and all I see is Madden. Because Madden is about what the game stands for, not about the bullet list of enhancements touted on the packaging.

This is the psychology of the sports fan. It might help explain why I am still a Broncos fan, and why I am drawn, like a sports fan to the beer line, back to pretending to do something that I will soon do in real life -- watch my team slowly fall apart over a brutal NFL season.

Madden NFL 10
Something I have always wondered: Who makes these screenshots? I mean, honestly, do you think I want to look at Eddie Royal's butt?

I like the idea of being a football fan far more than the soul-crushing reality of watching my home team attempt to rebuild its dynasty.

Who knows whether my Broncos will actually be 2-2 facing the New England Patriots on an upcoming cool October afternoon? In the middle of a summer heat, it's easy to forget that these aren't the real Broncos. It sure seems like them. I'm staring at my television and the boys in orange and blue are losing and I can't seem to stop the points from bleeding onto the scoreboard. With the controller gripped tightly in my hands, eyes flicking from the play clock to the defensive formation, I'm wondering if I should throw on the strong side, or hit that tight end on the slant; my mind is whirring with the real-time chess game of play calling, thinking that maybe I should pass in a short-yardage situation, just to throw off the other guy, or maybe it would make more sense to grind out the easy yards my backs reliably produce, old-school, smash-mouth.

Madden NFL 10
Want to know what's new in Madden this year? Two players on the cover. That's right, TWO!

And in the back of my head is that Madden debate: Should I lower the difficulty to give my team a chance? I know the odds makers are telling me the Broncos are an 8-8 team, but with a little boost of a slower, dumber computer opponent, they might sneak into the playoffs. But would that be fair? I mean, is this a game about football or is this a game of football? Do I control my team's destiny, or is it my obligation to suffer through the destiny fate has rolled for it?

Madden's creep toward realism only makes this conundrum more urgent. This year they allow for gang tackles of up to nine players! They've tweaked the player physics, so it feels even more real to try to cut back into an emerging gap. The game has speeded up and it just seems right, matching the pace of what I see on TV. I mean, they added guys to the chain gang to make it look right. They've turned the mantra "everything you see on Sunday is in the game" into a developer religion. And I feel a certain obligation to toe the realism line through my play calling, through my draft selections, through my dedication to my little pretend Broncos team.

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This intentional confusion is a media sleight of hand, a postmodern pick-pocketing that snatches your reality when you are not looking and replaces it with nothing. Madden is a sort of drug that promises to give you exactly what it takes away. The fact is, Madden is slowly becoming pro football; and while it is getting harder to tell the difference between the real thing and the simulation, I wonder if I even care.

Of course, that was always the point.

Several years ago, John Madden regaled a crowd at E3 from a big screen. He talked about how, in the early years of his game, they worked hard to make the videogame more like the sport. These days, he booms, We work to make the real thing more like the videogame.

Madden NFL 10
A careful eye for graphic detail will notice that the Eye of the Tiger Game Face Renderer was not used in this screenshot.

EA has been upfront all these years about what it was doing: This year there is more! Next year there will be more. More! More! More! And somewhere along the way, more stopped meaning new. Just more.

Like Zeno's paradox of an arrow that never hits its target -- at each moment, the arrow must travel half the distance to the target, then half, then half, into infinity -- Madden keeps getting closer and closer to the real thing, but never seems to arrive.

After 20 years, it's time to stop reviewing Madden and start considering the central weirdness of a game about a game. This staggeringly obvious and little-discussed fact should leave us wondering, "How meta are we gonna get before we puke from spinning around in this house of mirrors?" What's next? A restaurant whose theme is, gasp, a restaurant? Someone smarter than me once proposed that the ultimate Vegas resort wouldn't be New York, New York; but rather, Vegas Vegas -- an enclosed, miniaturized Vegas in Vegas, with an air-conditioned strip, little pyramid, shrunken spouting Bellagio fountains and, of course, a teeny-tiny New York, New York inside.

Madden NFL 10
This is not a screenshot from Madden. But does it matter, honestly?

And as absurd as that is, what's the difference between Vegas Vegas and Madden? Really not much, when the Madden box advertises its realism by noting that you get pre-game military jet flyovers in the game. How, exactly, is that different from people taking a respite from gambling to feel the patriotic tug of silence at a 9-11 tribute set at the foot of the New York, New York hotel?

To say that the mind boggles doesn't give enough credit to what really happens, where we are slapped hard into a stupor so soundly that we stagger around and then say, without irony, "Let's play some football!" as we sink into a leather couch with a beverage balanced carefully on our collective beer bellies.

Meanwhile, in the real world, animated robots pump up the television crowd and broadcast scientists invent new camera and optical effects to make sure the high-definition version of the game broadcast to the masses can stay as exciting as the videogame visuals cranked out in Madden.

Madden NFL 10
As a Broncos fan, I really hope to see this. But honestly, I don't think the defense will ever see the back of the Chargers' line.

The videogame and the gridiron slowly converge into an undifferentiated mass, and the old-school sports fan is left to ponder whatever happened to the fundamental athleticism and contest of will that is supposed to be at the base of the sport. So, yeah, this year's Madden is the best ever, if by "best" we mean a game so capable and thorough at absorbing the joy of the real thing, like that soulless liquid Terminator.

Damn.

Maybe I should just stop watching football.

But I'll always have Madden.

This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game provided by the publisher.

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