For football fans across the country there are several key events that take place over the course of a single year — the Draft, the Super Bowl, and of course the release of Madden NFL. With the Draft already in the books, and noted college players already securing their starting spots, it’s time for gamers to begin their virtual seasons in Madden NFL 13.

This year’s iteration, as with every iteration, promises new improvements to the game’s core experiences — passing, defense, and animation among others — along with a new mode and a new presentation. Last year’s Madden 12, while still a suitable sports game, was a bit of a dud, but Madden 13, at least on paper, promises to be a big leap forward.

Part of that leap forward is displayed in the aforementioned presentation. Menus, player graphics, and animations have all been greatly improved, or almost completely reconstructed. Now gamers are treated to sideline commentary from CBS’ Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, who do a stellar job sounding natural amidst repeated stats and score lines.

Madden NFL 13 Review - Presentation

In addition to overall improvements made to the game’s audio presentation, the title looks much sharper visually. Snappy graphics for player’s season stats, helpful tidbits about their progress in the NFL, and your typical useless, but necessary, pieces of football trivia all make the game look as authentic as possible. The players themselves don’t look any more true to life than last year’s versions, or at least not until the game’s new Infinity Engine comes into play.

Part of Madden 13‘s biggest change rests with its attempt to recreate several key areas of the football experience, namely tackles and passing. Players will now interact with each other — whether it is a DB matching up with the offensive line, or a running back trying to break the last tackle — in an almost realistic fashion.

We say almost because there are still a few nagging collision issues, mainly in the run game, that emphasize the infancy of this engine. There were several times when a running back would only lightly graze a linebacker and, instead of brushing it off, they ended up toppling to the ground – as if four tacklers were on them. This minor hiccup doesn’t ruin the experience, but it adds a greater risk/reward to the running game, and actually makes it feel inauthentic in a lot of places.

Madden NFL 13 Review - Infinity Engine

On the flip side, the game’s new passing animations, trajectories, and mechanics make executing passes much easier. Gamers can now lead their superstar wide receiver, putting them in a position to catch the ball regardless of coverage – and on defense the AI will no longer be omniscient, only turning around to make a play on the ball if they truly know it’s coming.

When the roles reverse, though, and the gamer is controlling the defense, interceptions become far too easy. There’s no root cause that can be pointed out specifically, but the prevalence of picks and knockdowns was much higher than in past games. Not a deal breaker, but an area that could use some adjustments.

EA Sports did improve defensive play, that much is evident, but most of those changes were focused on eliminating the AI’s otherworldly awareness, meaning a ball won’t be swatted down or picked unless it’s actually seen.

All in all, the gameplay on the field is as markedly improved as fans would hope, with a few unexpected variables sending some of the experiences (namely running) in the opposite direction. Virtual football is still virtual football, EA Sports hasn’t lost their capacity to deliver that — there’s just the sense that a mad dash to improve led to a lack of fine-tuning.

Madden NFL 13 Review - General Gameplay

Gameplay is, of course, only 75% of the Madden experience, and in regards to that other quarter we have to give big props to EA for finding the perfect way to incorporate all of their various modes into one succinct experience. Yes, exhibition play, online play, and Madden Ultimate Team have returned but their presence is vastly overshadowed by the game’s new mode, Connected Careers. The mode ticks all the boxes — it’s a season mode, it’s a be a pro mode, and it even lets players relieve the exploits of Hall of Fame stars. It’s as diverse as any sports mode can offer, with tons of options to choose from.

Some of it feels like a little much, especially the mode’s implementation of XP to improve nearly every possible player ability, but it will give those die-hard Madden fans reason to play for another year. Those interested can even take Connected Careers a step further and bring them online, further fueling that competitive drive. It’s exactly what Madden needed — a way for every mode to feel a part of some central idea.

Xbox 360 owners should also know that, like nearly every EA Sports game released this year, Kinect support has been added. Players can call out audibles, switch receiver’s routes, or even predict the opponent’s play, but it all requires precise voice recognition, something Kinect struggles to deliver. Those that find they can use the feature will spend less time slogging through menus or struggling to execute several button presses before the snap, but its inclusion won’t fundamentally change anything.

Madden NFL 13 Review - Connected Careers

Recommending Madden 13 in the context of an annual investment is tough. This year’s iteration has a lot going for it — key improvements that make the experience more engaging to watch and smoother to play — but it also has a few faults that keep it from being “the one.”

Loyal Madden fans will appreciate the fusing of modes into a more inclusive experience, and players who have griped about finicky animations will like the new improvements – aside from some problematic collisions. It’s also worth noting that nearly every issue brought up on our ‘6 Ways to Improve Madden’ list was addressed in some way – and the updates definitely make a difference. Madden 13 is good not great, but further improving on this year’s base formula could get it there.

Are you looking forward to the release of Madden NFL 13? Which of the new features are you most excited about playing around with?

Madden NFL 13 releases August 28, 2012 for PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, and Vita. Game Rant played the Xbox 360 version for this review.

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