Review: No longer as easy as Paris Hilton.
The hot and muggy days of August, the cold beer, the grill all fired up. It's that time of year when football fans are full of optimism ? it's the start of the preseason. But for gamers, August also signals the release of the newest Madden game, one of the most famous franchises in this industry. Last year it was all about the competition between Madden NFL 2005 and ESPN NFL 2K5, which surprised everyone with its excellence and $20 price tag. Electronic Arts, the maker of the Madden series, felt threatened, so they inked a deal with the NFL, ensuring that the Madden series would be the only games that could feature NFL players and teams. So this year, pigskin fans have no choice but to get Madden NFL '06. Does it stack up well against its competition? Definitely, because there is none.
Without any competition, Electronic Arts could have taken the easy way out ? update rosters, make some changes and slap on the year '06. And yes, Madden NFL '06 would still sell millions. Fortunately, the team at Electronic Arts made their developers work overtime to create a polished product that has been upgraded from last year's installment substantially. But are upgrades always a good thing? It depends.
Last year's cover athlete was linebacker Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens, and subsequently the defensive aspect of the game received a major boost. This year we've got quarterback Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles as our cover athlete, and I'd argue that he is already suffering from the Madden cover athlete curse (the T.O. incident). But since EA chose McNabb, this is apparently ?The Year of the Quarterback?. The passing game in football games has been left unaltered for over a decade, because if something works, you leave it alone. But EA has completely overhauled the passing game this year with the new QB Vision and Precision Passing elements.
The QB Vision is one of the most controversial topics of the year, as some love it and others hate it. QB Vision is an element that attempts to make the gameplay far more realistic. This is done by having each quarterback have a ?cone? of vision, which is basically a way to display what the quarterback can or cannot see. Naturally, guys like Peyton Manning will have a much wider ?cone? of vision than rookies or dime-a-dozen guys like Rex Grossman. This impacts the gameplay severely, as you can no longer run around the field and then fire a bomb to a receiver on the other side of the field without your feet set. Now, if the quarterback doesn't see the receiver in his ?cone?, then the pass will almost certainly be wide of the target. Conversely, if the receiver is in the line of vision, then the quarterback can make a very accurate throw. You can have the ?cone? lock on to a single receiver, or you can change your line of sight and look at other receivers. With Precision Passing, you have more control over where the ball is thrown. With the left thumbstick, you can direct the ball to be underthrown, overthrown, to a specific side ? anything to make sure that the receiver catches the ball, not a defender.
One major concern about this QB Vision is that finding that open receiver, locking on to him and then firing a pass takes time. To be honest, it takes twice as much time as you are basically picking your receiver and then throwing, instead of picking and throwing automatically. The more time you take, the more likely it is that your quarterback will get sacked. As you would imagine, this doesn't go over too well with casual football fans. Most hardcore football fans love this feature as it adds realism, but in a way the Madden series has always managed to please everyone. At first I was disappointed with this feature because with my Redskins and Patrick Ramsey, there was trouble with the passing game. But over time, this feature grew on me and I began to enjoy it. But then another issue came up in regards to the multi-player aspect of this game. If you are playing against someone, then they can see your ?cone?, and then can cover the receiver you are looking at with more ease. The realism debate can be brought up, as one would argue that players in the NFL look at the eyes of a quarterback to look for his target, but casual fans don't care about this argument. The ?cone? of vision can be turned off, but by doing so you are ignoring one of the biggest changes between Madden NFL '06 and Madden NFL 2005.
Otherwise, the actual gameplay hasn't changed too dramatically. Offensively, you have a ton of options prior to the snap. You pick a play from what seems to be an endless playbook, and then the chess match begins. You can call an audible to switch plays, you can adjust the position of your linemen, you can switch receivers to different sides, and you can use optional routes for your receivers in case their normal routes become congested with safeties and linebackers. Smart routes have been added this year, which are basically directions for your receivers to extend their routes for a first down. This means that if you are faced with a 3rd and 6, instead of having your tight end run his 5-yard route and stop for the catch, he'll extend his route a yard or two to pick up the first down. Yet another small, but noteworthy addition.
The passing game has been altered due to the QB Vision and Precision Passing, but the running game has also been upgraded with the new Truck Stick. This is a nice addition if your team has a bulky runner, and is great in short yardage situations. Basically, the Truck Stick is a new move that, if timed well, can knock a defender to the ground and have you plow right into the end zone. As you can tell, this might have been inspired by last year's performances by Jerome Bettis, so if you have a smooth runner like Clinton Portis, the Truck Stick might be something you'll overlook. Otherwise, I didn't see any new moves or animations for receivers or running backs.
The defensive aspect of the game remains relatively untouched, but they added so much last year that you can't blame them. The defensive Playmaker controls are back, allowing you to make any defensive change prior to the snap that you can imagine. Sending your corner to blitz, having your safety double-team Randy Moss, everything is possible. The Hit Stick also makes a return, making it possible to go for a devastating tackle in hopes of producing a fumble with a well-timed tackle. But as many players know, poorly timed flicks will result in missed tackles, those oh-so embarrassing missed tackles.
The artificial intelligence seems to get better and better every year. As long as you're not playing on the Rookie difficulty rating, then games will turn out as realistic as possible. Big runs will be limited to a few occasional defensive lapses, while receivers will catch the ball depending on the coverage and his rating. There aren't too many clipping problems as in years past, where the ball would travel through someone's torso. What's nice is the new head-tracking feature, where players will actually be looking at the ball instead of catching it blindly. If you dare venture into a game on All-Madden, good luck. The AI is on top of everything, and with the new QB Vision, it doesn't get any easier for you. Factor in all of the adjustments that can be made before the snap, you can see that Madden has turn into a very realistic football game. It's actually so deep that it becomes a chess match, although others may see it as a guessing game.
With these new features, the controls had to be changed around a bit. Unfortunately, there's one problem. I like running with my quarterback, which is done by holding down the left trigger. But this year, if you tap the left trigger, your quarterback will throw the ball away to bail himself out of a sticky situation. The problem becomes obvious: what if you see an open field, are about to hold the trigger down, when you see a linebacker pounce at you, and you draw your finger away in hopes of finding an open receiver for a quick catch. But the controller thinks you tapped the trigger, thus throwing the ball away and killing the play altogether. A few other controls have changed, as the A button is used for turbo on both sides of the ball, which is reminiscent of the ESPN games.
What separated Madden from other games has been its wide variety of various modes. Surely you would find your Quick Game for those that want some casual fun. You can always find a practice mode to sharpen those skills and learn how to use the QB Vision effectively. You can create tournaments, go through tutorials, practice certain situations, create players, create fans, collect Madden cards and play mini-games. All of this stuff is terrific, but the heart and soul has always been the Franchise mode. The Franchise mode has been revolutionized over the past few years, but this year only minor changes have been instituted.
Just like last year, you pick your team and you are thrust into training camp. By participating in mini-games, you can improve your players. Then comes the pre-season, followed by the season and the playoffs. All of this continues for up to 30 years. During these years, your team can undergo major changes. You can scout players in hopes of drafting what your team needs, you can put players on the trading block and wait for offers, and you can sign free agents. But all of this isn't as easy as it used to be. Free agents weigh out their options, and salary, team prestige and the fans will play a role in their decisions. You can switch to the role of the team owner and manage everything that you could think of. From setting prices at concession stands to upgrading stadiums by adding things such as wireless Internet, from firing coaches to relocating the team to another city (including building a new stadium, creating logos, advertising everywhere in town) ? everything is possible.