Madden NFL 15

(This review first appeared on thumped.com)

When Pete asked if I wanted to review Madden NFL 15, I initially said no. You see, I haven’t played a Madden game since the Megadrive, so I figured I’m in no position to talk about this game because I can’t tell you what makes this game better than the previous fifty-odd iterations. Plus I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched a game of American Football except one time when I was in New York over Thanksgiving and went to a friend’s house and the football came on and all the MEN went into the basement to watch the BIG GAME and I joined them because the idea of a man NOT watching the BIG GAME was kinda making everyone uncomfortable. Basically, I’m nowhere near an expert on this. I probably shouldn’t be reviewing this game.

Besides which, if you’re the kind of person who is likely to buy Madden NFL 15, you’ll probably have bought it already. Likewise, if you’re not interested in either the game or the sport, I doubted anything I could say here would convince you. But Pete is nothing if not insistent, so I got ready to write a review based on the things I did know about, like the politics of the NFL surrounding the recent Ray Rice incident. Or maybe the study by the Wall Street Journal which shows that although an average game of American Football lasts almost three hours, the ball is actually only on the field and in play for 11 minutes. I was going to talk about Friday Night Lights, a TV series about high school football in Texas and how it’s the most criminally underrated show ever made. I was ready to write around the game, rather than about the game. You know, the kind of review a real wanker would write.

But then I actually played the game. And, you know what? It’s actually won me over. I really, really like it.

It took a while to grow on me though. Like most EA Sports games these days, Madden NFL 15 opens by dropping you into the middle of an actual game and expects you to fend for yourself. Since I haven’t touched a Madden game in 20-odd years, I hadn’t a fucking breeze as to what was going on and it demolished me. If I’m being honest, more than any other game in recent memory, these first five minutes in Madden NFL 15 left me feeling a little alienated. It seemed to be a game shouting “THIS IS NOT FOR YOU. GO BACK TO DESERT GOLFING ON YOUR PHONE, YOU LAZY FUCK.” I was ready to throw in the towel and dust off that wanker-review.

But something about the game made me want to persevere and figure it out. Along with Call of Duty, Madden is traditionally regarded as the game that the ‘core’ audience (whatever that means) tend to glom onto. And since I’ve already dabbled with a CoD addiction (300+ glorious, fun-filled hours in Modern Warfare multiplayer), I didn’t want to give up before I at least won my first game.

So I fired up the ‘skills trainer’. This is a series of drills designed to familiarise players with the mechanics of the game, starting with passing and blocking and so on. I guess this is mostly intended for people who are entirely new to the game but it still presumed a level of knowledge that I just didn’t have. To make it worse, the game doesn’t do a great job of actually communicating any information that might be useful to a new player. One of the first drills you run is practicing a lob pass. “Do a lob pass”, it says. Except at no point during these drills does it say how to actually perform a lob pass. So I failed my lob pass. And I failed. And I failed. I had no idea what I was doing wrong and the game seemed completely disinterested in telling me. It was only by chance when I was loading the game that I saw it in one of the random loading screens that flashes up for a couple of seconds at a time: briefly tap the button to do a lob pass, hold the button down to do a ‘bullet’ pass. This was like a eureka moment - once this was figured out, the game unfolded in front of me like a beautiful flower.

You see, I’ve realised that Madden is not the type of game to explain itself or hold your hand. In other games, like EA UFC, the equivalent of Madden’s ‘skills trainer’ is a series of extended quicktime event where even a complete beginner can easily rack up 100% scores and gold medals in no time. Madden NFL 15 is tougher. It’s not just a quicktime event - it’s knowing what to do and when to do it. And, starting out, you’ll fuck up the drills. You’ll fuck them up a LOT. You’ll be forced to restart again and again. And it’s only when you’re into double-digits of retry attempts that you’ll actually scrape a success. You’ll happily take your bronze medal and move onto the next drill. It’s not arcade game. It doesn’t try to compensate for your lack of skill or knowledge. And you know what? I appreciate that. It means that when I actually perform a dead-perfect lob pass, there’s an extra sense of achievement. I fucking earned that pass. And so that means I’m going to make a wild statement that might annoy some people. Okay? Here we go. If you’re like me where you have no interest in American Football and you know nothing about Madden (or have forgotten anything you did know), Madden is sort of like Dark Souls: an impenetrable melange of game mechanics where each tiny advancement feels like a massive success.

There, I said it.

Even for a non-fan like me, there’s a lot to appreciate about this game. I’m pretty impressed with the social integration. The game tracks each player’s stats and decisions in the game and add that to a cumulative database, so when you’re in a particular situation, the game can say “the majority of the community chose this play”. Similarly, players are encouraged to send in their favourite screenshots from the game to be used in the interstitial loading screens. So you’ll see a picture and it will say “submitted by @AssMan1993”. Probably more than any other AAA game in recent memory, Madden NFL 15 prides itself on its community focus. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s listening to its players and involving them in the game. For example, the game shipped with a bug that caused one player to be rendered as 1’2” tall. This glitch was fixed, but the massive viral popularity of the bug caused EA to turn it into an official game mode called “tiny titans”. That’s something I wish more games would take advantage of. The only other game I can think that does anything near as great a job of channeling the community is Dark Souls. Okay, I’ll stop with the Dark Souls comparisons now.

I said I wanted to play Madden NFL 15 until I won my first game. Well, I’ve done that. I reached the arbitrary goal I set myself for this game. And I think I’m going to keep playing this game. As a sport, American Football is still mostly Greek to me. I don’t know who any of the players are, what any of the positions do, or when to run a particular play. Christ, I even feel like a total fraud for just using the words “run a particular play”. And I’m sure this knowledge would really open up the rest of the game to me - there are entire game modes, like the fantasy football-type thing, that require this outside knowledge. But at this early stage, it’s all incidental shite that doesn’t actually matter. The important thing is that the basic game itself is actually lots of fun. And that’s what’s going to keep me coming back.

Watergun assassin: The grand game story of Street Wars →

As I write this, I’m starving, but I dare not go out for food. My assassin could be anywhere. Eventually I break down and prepare the meal of the desperate: Two frankfurters scavenged from the back of the fridge, boiled limp and naked. Spoonful of mustard. I am in genuine fear of being shot.

Show your work

I’ve been reading Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work, which is like this great little book that perfectly straddles the line between motivational anecdotal bullshit (e.g. the Ira Glass quote on the ‘taste gap’) and practical advice (e.g. ‘have your own domain name that people can associate with you’).

For the past year or so I’ve been taking part in a 1 Game a Month group here in Dublin. It’s a great group, full of lovely, helpful and enthusiastic people and I’ve learned loads about all sorts of different subjects I’m interested in: game design, programming, art, and sound. But I know people are frustrated with me there because getting me actually to let them see what I’ve done is like pulling teeth. I’ll keep it all to myself.

Around Christmas, I took part in a gamejam where I made a game where you had to navigate using sound. This was the first time I’d ever let anyone else play something I’d created and it scared the shit out of me.

I want to get better at this - showing people my works in progress. And most of all, showing people my finished work.

So here we go.

23 and me: The complete James Bond →

Liza Daly watched all 23 James Bond films (and apparently read the novels, too). On Quantum of Solace

This is the only movie in which Bond does not get laid. It’s also the only one in which he is not captured. Draw your own conclusions.

Worth reading. Although she says she's never met anyone who will defend Moonraker. I'll go to the mat for that film.

The Worst Day Of My Life Is Now New York's Hottest Tourist Attraction →

The brother of someone killed in 9/11 visits the 9/11 Memorial Museum.

I think now of every war memorial I ever yawned through on a class trip, how someone else’s past horror was my vacant diversion and maybe I learned something but I didn’t feel anything. Everyone should have a museum dedicated to the worst day of their life and be forced to attend it with a bunch of tourists from Denmark. Annotated divorce papers blown up and mounted, interactive exhibits detailing how your mom’s last round of chemo didn’t take, souvenir T-shirts emblazoned with your best friend’s last words before the car crash. And you should have to see for yourself how little your pain matters to a family of five who need to get some food before the kids melt down. Or maybe worse, watch it be co-opted by people who want, for whatever reason, to feel that connection so acutely.

Amazon guts Comixology

Gerry Conway: The ComiXology Outrage

And so, as we could have predicted, Amazon wrecks Comixology.

What has it been, less than a month since Jeff Bezos bought the most promising tool for renewing the mass distribution of comics in the digital era? I’ll give the man this: he’s moved faster to undermine an existing technology for the benefit of his own company than General Moantors did when it sabotaged Los Angeles’s public transit Red Line for the benefit of the bus fleet they wanted to sell the City of Angels. Job well done, Jeff. My comics reading has gone through the goddamn roof thanks to Comixology. The convenience of having an entire comics store at my fingertips is a powerful thing for someone with poor impulse-control. Being able to buy and read a comic from the same app is beautiful and simple and is exactly why I spend way more time inside Comixology than say, Comic Zeal.

Splitting it into two experiences - buying a comic from the website, switching apps, downloading reading it in the Comixology app destroys this simplicity. It destroys what made Comixology so powerful. And to what end? To increase the profits on each individual sale at the expense of what I bet will be lower overall sales? It's a giant shame to see a smart company be so short-sighted.

(Of course, I realise this whole thing is such a Western problem. You'd expect a lot of people's monocles to fall into their tea over this issue. "You mean they changed it to make it harder for me to waste money with them?!")

The Guilt of the Video-Game Millionaires →

Great article about how indie game devs are handling sudden financial success. Favourite line is this, about Davey Wreden, the creator of the Stanley Parable, on how he'd ground himself:

Wreden returned home having decided how, if his game sold well, he would spend the money. “He said that he would go to the store and buy the cheapest and most expensive salmon,” Ismail recalled. Wreden would then cook the two fish side by side and conduct a taste test to see whether the cost difference was justified.

Jodorowsky's Dune

Jodorowsky's version of Dune is right up there with Kubrick's Napoleon as one of the most famous films that never was. This documentary is an amazing glimpse at what could have been.

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds →

The makers of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter on how games today are created with an artificial 'lure' to pull the players through the level (like the yellow landmarks in The Last of Us) and how this makes the game world feel synthetic and unnatural.

The Setup / John McAfee →

This is amazing. Without spoiling much: his favourite piece of software is the remote control software for the M153 50 caliber machine gun. His second favourite is the Smart Voice Recorder for Android.

Defining Cinematography →

Interesting anaylsis of how 'cinematography' and 'visual effects' are intersecting from the point of view of the Academy awards.