Review: The only game in town...for better or worse.
Much has been printed in recent months about the deal the National Football League made with Electronic Arts, in which the NFL granted EA Sports exclusive rights to its name, teams, and players, singlehandedly crushing Madden NFL's ever-rising competition. Even a blind man could understand EA's motivation, for better or worse; after Sega and Take Two took a huge a huge and costly gamble of selling ESPN NFL 2K5 for merely $20, which resulted in cutting into Madden's sales for the first time, EA took the easiest way out, by making sure nobody else could make an NFL game, much to the chagrin of NFL 2Kx fans across the country. Now that the uproar has died down, it's basically business as usual for Madden NFL 06 however ? Madden 06 follows the same formula it's used since Madden NFL 2001 debuted alongside the PlayStation 2; new features abound and consistent improvement of its core. This will probably be the final year of such improvements on the current generation of hardware; with the PS3 due next year, and the Xbox 360 out in November, the focus will shift to development for the next generation. Like every year, Madden is better than last year ? the question is, do all the refinements and new additions add up to spending another $50 on a series that's now the only game in town.
Very little has changed in Madden NFL 06's feature set from previous years ? everything from the previous game is in here (save the special features included in last year's Collector's Edition), and basically functions the same way. The Franchise/Owner setup is the exact same, right down to the return of the annoying Tony Bruno. That's not to say Madden's Franchise is bad ? on the contrary, it's still extremely deep and functional, just familiar. Online play also returns, but this time, you either need to make a $2 'donation' to play, or allow ESPN to send you promotional emails. I'm sure most will go with the ESPN spam. What Madden does have new is the Superstar Mode, which is the professional version of Race for the Heisman from NCAA Football 06. You can even import your character from that game (unless you're an idiot like me and buy NCAA on Xbox and Madden on PS2), or your created character from NFL Street 2. If that option is unavailable, you can just create a new player, using EA's 'DNA' system that generates parents and what position you should play. In Superstar Mode, you cut interviews, listen to text messages and voice mails from mentors, agents, and webmasters, practice, try out for movie roles ? you know, all the things a prima donna superstar does. Like RftH, the actual day-to-day things you'd do in Franchise mode are not present, as all you need to do is focus on one player and his activities. It's all a little cheesy, but it's something new. The PS2 version also includes an eventual link-up with the upcoming PSP version, letting you transfer data back and forth, and then play your Franchise game on the portable, then transfer the outcome back to the PS2, and it works the same way if you want to play your PSP franchise on PS2.
For Madden 06, Tiburon has touted the passing game as the massive overhaul, after fixing up the defense in Madden 2005. At the core of this is QB Vision, a 'cone' of vision (somewhat like you'd see on radar in Metal Gear Solid, the field of vision for enemy soldiers) that indicates how well a quarterback can read the field and find an open receiver or deliver an accurate pass. You can flick around the right analog stick to 'shift your eyes' so to speak, or hold L2 and press a button corresponding to the receiver you want to target. Some quarterbacks, such as Favre or Brady, will have a huge field of vision and can see all around the field, while your average 3rd stringer will have a tiny percentage of such vision. It makes the passing game far more challenging than before, though it has ups and downs. Because defenses can see this vision, they can check your eyes and see where the ball is going and get a beat on it to break it up or try for an interception, so it can be a challenge to trick defensive backs into making a mistake. However if your QB has a large field of vision, you can focus on one receiver and throw to another, and the pass will be pretty accurate; on the other hand, a QB with a small cone will throw a wild pass if you throw to a different target.
QB Vision is pretty neat, but it has its problems. The addition of an extra step before passing leaves a couple seconds or so of fiddling in the pocket, which leads to trouble with getting sacked if your offensive line can't hold. It gets more annoying when you're against a team that uses blitzes frequently, rendering your time for strategy to zero, which leads to quick passes and the possibility of getting picked off. It doesn't help that the AI secondary, whether you're controlling them or not, are very, very good at getting to the ball ? they almost read eyes too well and seem to conveniently be in the right spots constantly, leading to constant interceptions. The learning curve is definitely steep, and you really have to learn patience as well as have the guts to spend a couple more seconds before making the right decision, and hope one of those damn zone safety's aren't lying in wait to steal a pass with their impeccable placement on the field. The QB Vision also works on defense, as you can see what your opponent is doing, and if you're playing against another human, it can be an interception feast if they're not too swift with it. Thankfully, EA made sure you could disable it if you want, though it actually turns off the Precision Passing as well, so you can't really lead a receiver where you want them to go unless you have QB Vision turned on. All in all it's a hit or miss scenario, and you'll either love it or loathe it, or at the least tolerate it until EA tweaks it more for Madden NFL 07, be it on the next-gen systems or even on the PS2.
For the most part everything else in Madden this year is incremental. The running game features the Truck Stick, which lets you use the right analog stick (does EA love that stick or what?) to mow down defenders or leap right over them. It's only really good for the big backs like Jerome Bettis, but hey, it's better than that damn In the Zone gimmick that's in NCAA Football 06, rendering the game more like NFL Blitz than a football sim. Defense hasn't changed too much, aside from dealing with the QB Vision. Like when you're on offense, interceptions are far too frequent; it's too easy for a linebacker playing zone defense to leap up and pick off passes ? when your leading INT guy is a MLB, something is fishy...especially when he gets 4 in one game. Only through using sliders does this get a little better, but it's still a problem, one of the drags about QB Vision that needs fixing for the next edition. The best improvement is the computer AI, regardless of the QB Vision flaws. I was quite surprised and impressed at how every defense plays and reacts very differently; some teams are brutal on defense, attacking and blitzing, while others are constantly defending against the pass and a little bit lax on defending the running game. Even if you play the same team twice in a season, they mix up their strategy more than in previous years making you switch up your own gameplan. If you run the same play twice in a row, or depend on too small a selection of plays, chances are you'll get reamed too. The defense is quick to react ? some might say too quick ? but it keeps you on your toes.
Visually, Madden 06 is also improved, in little touches and refinements. Players continually look more and more realistic, and are matched with more animations than before, and they make the game look far more brutal than in past years, just like it was in NCAA Footaball 06. Stadiums and fields also look great ? fields get ripped up, and weather effects are getting more and more realistic. A very cool touch is the change in the overall environment; if you're playing a game late in the day, or during bad weather, there will be various changes to the game. The sky will get darker, the rain will stop and return, little things like that. It adds a little more depth to the realism of Madden. And of course, the frame rate is smooth though there's a smidgen of slowdown here and there, but not often. On the audio end, you'll notice little difference ? though Al Michaels and John Madden have been doing commentary in the game since the 2003 edition, there's been little new added aside from new player names, so many of the same phrases are recycled and overused. One must wonder what they'll do for 2007, since Madden is moving over to NBC for their Sunday night games starting next season, thus splitting up with Michaels when he moves to do the ESPN Monday night game. The EA Trax is back, and again, mostly sucks. However, there's a series of very cool NFL Films remixes, adding a bit of a hip-hop vibe to some of the famous compositions you've heard whenever NFL Flims waxes poetic on DVD.