(reviewed using a Pentium 4m, with 1GB of RAM 600MHz, 256MB ATI Radeon Mobility 9600, 2-Channel sound, Logitech Dual-Action analog gamepad).
Madden--the computer franchise--has been around almost as long as Madden--the coach--has been. Originally released as “John Madden Football” in 1989 for the Apple II it defined many of the hallmarks of the generation: 11 players a side, the A-B-C format of play calling, and eventually the inclusion of real NFL teams. Gone were the days of playing with teams simply named “ New York ” and with player names such as “R.M. Pitts.” The Madden franchise also took on a broadcast perspective with play-by-play announcing. The best thing about the series was its adaptability--it took the best aspects of its competitors and better incorporated them into the Madden fold. Play-by-play announcing was originally incorporated in Cinemaware's TV Sports Football, but improved in the Madden series. (Some earlier series, such as Joe Montana Football tried to incorporate voice commentary, they were basically a badly digitized voice saying “first down.”) Stat tracking and General Manager play were introduced in the Front Page series of football games, but again improved in Madden.
Once Sega's Dreamcast--and the NFL 2Kx series--came to a burning halt, the Madden series became the only real show on the block, and for several years gamers were treated to a series of graphical and roster updates that left the beloved but dated core gameplay intact. Once ESPN's competing NFL series came to market, Madden was again forced to innovation to keep--and add to--its core base of fans. Some of those innovations worked, some fell flat. Late last year, EA Sports invested heavily to become the sole licensee of NFL video games, and could have rested on their laurels, returning to a pattern of what amounts to charging $50 for a roster update in a new package. Fortunately, that is not the case. Madden's gameplay overhaul makes the game feel fresh yet familiar. On the flip side, some of the added elements feel tacked-on and shallow.
(As a note, the gameplay really requires a gamepad. At less than $20, gamepads are some of the cheapest yet most desirable of PC peripherals, especially for the sports gamer.)
Five adjectives come to mind while playing Madden '06: fast, brutal, challenging, intuitive, streamlined. The gameplay captures the entire multitude of athletic moves involved in an NFL game without resorting to Mortal Kombat-like button combos such as up-down-up-left-1-2-1-2-right. While the dual-analog stick can be difficult to hold at times--particularly when trying to “swim left” with the left trigger while “running right” with the right analog stick--the controls are responsive and easy to use.
New in this installment of Madden is the use of the “Truck Stick.” Madden '05 introduced the “Hit Stick,” a control that allowed you to demolish an opposing player NFL Blitz-style. The Truck Stick is a Hit Stick for the offense, allowing you to blow up linebackers like an angry Earl Campbell. It is wonderful, especially for eeking out a few extra inches on fourth-down or goal line plays. Like the Hit Stick, if you overuse it, you will pay--in fumbles.
Madden really shines in its details. It asks you your favorite team during its initialization and thereafter rewards you with video clips and images of your favorite team while displaying its menus. During gameplay you will notice your QB throw his hands in disgust after a particularly bad pick, your punt returner throw the ball down in disgust after a fair catch, and your receiver place the ball over his head when the linesman isn't looking for a more favorable spot. The best part is that this doesn't happen all the time, so it feels fresh and real when it happens, as if you caught your pixels in a human, candid moment. The stadiums all look wonderful and reflect their real-life counterparts--even down to the noise baffling on the ceiling of Ford Field, the site of Super Bowl XL.
As a QB before the snap you can do almost anything a QB would be expected to do, send players in motion, audible, call a hot route, adjust blocking, call timeout, spike the ball, kneel down, but most importantly read the defense to determine where the weakness exists to exploit. Once the snap happens, the QB must be ready to move, as the offensive line can only offer protection for a few intense seconds.
For the longest time, the Achilles' heal of computer football games has been the running game. The running game is generally abandoned for some bastardized Steve Spurrier-influenced fun-and-gun offense where passing on 4th and 32 isn't unheard of. Even as late as Madden 2003, the player could design a 4WR set that would slant three to the left and streak one straight ahead, causing the computer AI a digital aneurysm and ensuring six points whenever run. (Sega's NFL2K suffered from this in the passing game and the run game. If you can find an old Dreamcast player, you can start a trip down memory lane by mentioning the stiff-arm button. The author once stiff-armed seven Minnesota defenders using Barry Sanders' stiff-arm button in route to another touchdown.) This is not the case with Madden '06. Passes can be very effective if run correctly as can running the ball. The trick is being able to run them effectively and know when they can be effectively run. Madden '06 balances the running and passing game better than any game to date, perfecting it to the point that running teams like the Baltimore Ravens feel like and play like running teams. For the first time, game planning feels like a viable option in a computer football game.
Playmakers truly feel like playmakers. Shaun Rogers is unreal on the defensive line, and Roy Williams has a superhuman nose for the ball just as he does for the Detroit Lions. Brian Greise adds a calming element to the declining Buccaneers, and Drew Brees spends his quarters demonstrating pinpoint precision. Brett Favre seems to always have a fourth-quarter trick waiting to happen, and Priest Holmes rips off yard after unstoppable yard.
The best thing, though, is the worst thing when it comes to Madden '06. The passing game has been reworked, although the new passing game can be turned off. There are two modes to the new QB vision using the right analog stick or the eight- then the receiver-specific-button. The problem with the stick is that it is both too slow and over-sensitive. Your QB's cone of vision starts to his left, and then swings along with the velocity of a postal worker. Many times your quarterback will suffer an unseen sack just trying to get your vision cone out of the flat and onto the first receiver. Even though the cone is slow, it is strangely difficult to focus on a receiver--much less “look off” a defender. The cone is slippery to control and doesn't switch well between eligible receivers. The easier-to-use button-eight-than-another-button scheme works better and can actually be used to look-off defenders, but can be an problem in tense situations where the protection collapses around the QB and he needs to get the ball in a hurry to an open receiver. This requires three button presses, at the very best taking 0.75 seconds, and stuffing your quarterback into a dirt nap.
Even though the passing game is really a great innovation, it needed more polish before implementation. As it sits, the game is more playable by turning off the new passing mode and using the familiar key presses.
The core game--Franchise Mode--is really where Madden shines. It is the perfect blend of on-field simulation and general manager simulation. Less impressive are the owner functions and the new Create-A-Superstar mode. (although it was fun to drive the Dallas Cowboys into the earth, increase beer prices to $17.00 and lose the fan base, eventually selling the team to an east coast interest as the New Jersey Buttonmen.)
Create-A-Superstar feels like a tack-on from a marketing meeting, It is basically an NFL player RPG where you create your character--ahem, player--and form his personality through dialog, then go to the draft, training camp, and try to make your way up a phantom NFL roster. Your reward is an increase in decoration for your throne room. . .wait, that was the Civilization series. . .your reward is an increase in decoration for your apartment/home--a poorly rendered rendition of MTV Cribs.
Small issues--like it being too difficult to fiddle with your favorite team's playbook, or too difficult to make it easily able to incorporate your namesake onto your favorite team--still exist. It can be done, but it isn't as straightforward as it could be. One could wish that more time when into streamlining the specialization aspects rather than developing odd tangents--such as Tony Bruno's weekly show or the Superstar Mode--that are overlooked after the first week of playing.
The best part of Madden is potentially not a part that is in there at all. You never get the feeling that the computer is cheating. When the AI beats you, it is a learning experience and never feels unfair (Author's Note: OK, maybe one time when Shaun Foster ripped off a 99-yard TD run on 3rd-and-17). Usually, you will be yelling at your phosphor-based life forms for your own shortcomings than you will ever feel like the game has robbed you. This is important for a sports game where winning usually comes down to exploiting weaknesses in the code rather than weaknesses in your opponent.
The previously included Training Camp and Practice minigames have also been included.
This is the best looking Madden to date. Truthfully, only the coaches retain the wooden zombie-like look that plagued the players for generations (although that may be fitting for Tom Coughlin.) The helmets look wonderful and the uniforms sport the correct colors and get dirty as the game goes on. The uniform numbers are rendered in the correct font, and most teams have multiple options for multiple uniforms.
The stadiums are wonderful. Your players disturb the chalk on the sidelines and the endzones and in rough weather conditions in open air stadiums, the fields gradually get worse and worse in quality. Every camera angle looks good and has it uses and fans. The fans in the stands look better than their sprite counterparts, actually having direction, but aren't still perfect. The fields really stand out, though. Grass, field turf, and Astroturf stadiums all look, and really feel different.
Most importantly, each player is represented with his real-world counterpart. While the faces aren't perfect, the bodies are. Cory Schlesinger looks appropriately stumpy and Roy Williams look appropriately gazelle-like. The linemen look like they could eat the skill players for lunch. Different players wear different pads. Some runners will naturally hurdle where others will naturally drop a shoulder. The whole scene develops a wonderful sense of verisimilitude that makes the game feel simulated rather than being played.
Sound is arguably most important in sports games than in other games. For us to experience a true “being there” sensation, sound must be on the list. None of us have ever been in a swordfight. Very few of us have piloted an airplane. Fewer still have driven a formula-1 race car, but all of us--in the United States anyway--has played football in some way or another. This makes the sound important as sound is the gateway to memories and memories are the gateway to emotions and emotions are what we use to feel bonded with a game. When your favorite team stinks on the gridiron, it isn't a tall order to play through a few Madden sessions to get your juices flowing again. Then again, how many of you have shelved PC football because the on-field counterpart was just too depressing? For the pure emotional connection Football has with Football fans, the sound is very, very important, conjuring something visceral within each player. Hearing the onfield chatter, the snap of the ball, and the collision of human bodies, being at the stadium, in my backyard, or on my computer screen each can bring you a “you-are-there” feeling that cannot be easily matched. It is matched in Madden.
And all these sound superlatives are flushed immediately down the toilet by Big John himself. (Author's note: I am not a Madden hater. I own a couple of his books. I occasionally roll my eyes at his comments, but when faced with the other brain-dead color commentators on TV these days, I'll take Madden--as long as it isn't in Green Bay .) The commentary from Madden ‘06 has been imported from the less than stellar performance of last year. A miss with the hit stick is always commented on by the same “this is what's in today's league” comment. John kept mentioning the Pats even though the Lions were on offense. Was this a bug, a worthwhile reference to the Patriots, or John being John? With Madden's somewhat off-balance commentary, it's hard to know for sure.
Bottom line is that the sound transforms the player onto the field of play. No longer will you feel guilty for packing some beefed-up representation of yourself on the field because you will feel there! You will belong. Then Madden will pipe up with some canned response and completely blow the illusion. Great sound, great music, worth a ten, but you can't tell the man whose name is on the box to shut up, can you?
One other note on the sound, the music is a great, eclectic mix of rap, rock, old-school NFL songs, and urban remixes of those old-school sounds. The music fits very well in a game that may be about the modern game, but keeps its traditions holy.
The multiplayer isn't bad but is really isn't anything great. Finding games online now is simple, but will tend to wane once the real football season is on. A better bet is to buy a second gamepad and challenge a buddy or a spouse during the week or during halftime of your favorite DirecTV contest. Madden makes one heck of a bet-settler on Football Sunday! Having Madden on the PC means the TV is still free to show the game and the halftime highlights.
Madden is one of those love-hate franchises. The franchise and future draft mode make it perfect for long-time play as a general manager. The roster, coach, and rule updates make buying it every year a necessity for NFL honks. Unfortunately, those same honks are those that take the franchise mode most seriously, perhaps blowing though ten virtual NFL seasons between the Super Bowl and the Hall of Fame Game. This game is meant to be played exactly three-hundred-sixty-five-times. . .every single day until the release of the next entry.
BOTTOM LINE: 9
With only one NFL franchise on the market, it was reasonable to fear EA Sports would phone in this addition. Instead, gamers are rewarded with a major overhaul, crisper graphics, and a new passing system that needs more development. All in all, it's fun, addictive in a way football games haven't been recently, and worth the reduced price to pick up this edition. With the possible improvements to playbook edit-ability, and better implementation of the tacked-on create a superstar mode, and maybe more--or maybe less--commentary from John Madden, I think that Madden 07 may be one for the ages. If not, get 06. It's a hell of a lot better than what's has come before.