Review: First they took away my telestrator. Now they kicked me out of the booth. Don't make Madden angry! You won't like it when Madden's angry!
Madden NFL makes its Xbox 360 debut by beginning with what's supposedly the final seconds of Super Bowl XL. The Philadelphia Eagles are down by four against the New England Patriots, but have possession of the ball. With only 18 seconds on the clock and the crowd roaring to an endless degree, the rush is on for a final touchdown. McNabb throws to LJ Smith just before being slammed into the ground. Smith catches the ball, but unfortunately doesn't get it out of bounds. McNabb runs to the line and hurries his team into formation so he can spike the ball to stop the clock. There's one second left on the clock and Super Bowl XL down to a single play.
This intense introduction represents the next-generation of football video games with awe-inspiring graphics that give you the most realistic NFL experience ever. In fact, the only unrealistic elements in the video presentation may be that Andy Reid isn't quite fat enough and that the Eagles actually make it to the Super Bowl again. The reason that the game looks so good is because it's not a suped-up port of the other console versions, but rather built from the ground up for the Xbox 360 launch. It boasts NFL players with photo-realistic faces, distinct muscle definition, and on the field movement that matches what you see on Sundays. Of course, more prominent NFL stars are extremely realistic while some lesser-known players in the league don't have as much detail, but that's expected and everyone still looks incredibly lifelike.
The sights and sounds on the line and in each stadium add to the realism, and really go a long way on high-definition televisions and with surround sound speakers. You'll see defensive players struggle back and forth against blockers as soon as the ball is snapped, wide receivers and their defenders showily exchange words and gestures whenever a catch is made, and tacklers perform ridiculous in your face celebrations with each sac. You'll also hear familiar game sounds like the Bengal's tiger roar and thousands of fans chant the team's name in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound. It's safe to say that you'll be captivated from the moment your team runs out from the tunnel and takes the field to the final play of the fourth quarter.
Certain visual effects that existed in previous Madden titles weren't as noticeable due to the use of wide cameras. But now, with a tighter angle in place, you can pick up on stadium lights gleaming off of helmets, breath forming in cold weather and wrinkles in jerseys. And it's not just between plays or during replays like past years, but in the midst of the action, too. A lot of this detail is lost as soon as the camera zooms out and it sadly doesn't return to that close perspective pre-snap, even when you're only checking the routes. Still, when the camera is up close and personal, it really puts you in the game and feels like you're on the line.
EA Tiburon spent a lot of time trying to perfect its new graphics engine, but in the process, it stripped the game of some familiar Madden features, namely Madden. His in-game commentary has been sidelined to the Ask Madden option in play calling. In his place are hometown radio announcers that are more low-key and subdued. I know that some gamers are going to miss his between-play remarks (because they were sometimes absurd more than insightful), but it's an overall better fit.
Other missing features won't sit so well with the hardcore Madden fans, though. For example, you won't find a minicamp mode in the game. Likewise, online leagues have been left and games are limited to two players. In effect, the Xbox 360 version contains quickplay, a watered-down franchise mode, and a stripped-down online play mode. Make no mistake; these missing extras don't have a dramatic effect on the gameplay. However, hardcore fans that will feel gypped should be forewarned because they won't be fully developing their players prior to the pre-season.
Two improvements that have in-game effects are the kicking meter and play calling setup. The new kicking meter is a satisfying change that isn't all that important. The play calling breakdown, on the other hand, has handy categories of formations, types of plays (like screen passes), according to key players (in case you want to always throw to Marvin Harrison or hand it off to Brian Westbrook), Ask Madden, Ask the coach, and last five plays. This improvement isn't as visible as the game's shiny new graphics, but it's definitely a step forward in terms of play calling.