Likely the most successful and recognizable sports video game franchise of its time, Madden NFL returns to consoles and computer screens for its 14th season of professional football action. As usual, the teams, rosters, logos, and stadiums have been updated based on information from the most recent (2002-2003) NFL season. Monday Night Football's Al Michaels rejoins John Madden to call the action and supply commentary, while a virtual Melissa Stark sends updates from the sidelines. There's even acknowledgment of Madden's "horse trailer" player of the game, for the first time in this edition. Other new presentational features include split-screen replays, smoother transitions between plays, new "specialty" animations for actions such as stumbles and open-field blocks, and player models of a variety and detail unprecedented in the series.
Among the most prominent new features in this "2004" edition of Madden NFL is the "Playmaker Control" system, designed to offer gamers greater control of the men on the field, both before and during a play. Gamers can change called plays or coverage at the last moment, and adjust blocking assignments and receiver routes after the ball is snapped. Other additions include an extended franchise mode, which uses a number of mini-camp drills to boost player performance during the off season, and an all-new Deep Owner mode, which saddles gamers with all the authority and responsibilities of a team owner, as well as those of general manager and coach. Deep Owner players can set prices for food, merchandise, and parking, or even build a whole new stadium and relocate the team.
The PC version offers a few features its teammates on the consoles can't match. The game can be played across the Internet against human opponents, through a system that features online leagues and tournaments, quick match games, buddy lists, career stats, clubs, and message boards. Computer players can also use a built-in Play Editor, which allows them to design new plays, or even create entirely new playbooks for use in the game.
Madden 2003 for the PC was arguably the best football game released last year regardless of platform. It sported stunning visuals, tight gameplay, and even a few features such as the accelerated game clock that were not present in its console brethren. This year things aren't quite as rosy. The on-the-field gameplay is pretty much the same (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), and while some new features are in place, it's high time EA Sports reexamined several parts of its flagship title.
There is simply no excitement this year. Perhaps this is due to the monotone and utterly emotionless play-by-play from Al Michaels and John Madden who read their scripts (much of which is taken from Madden 2003) as if they have a train to catch. Listening to the audio is about as exciting as eating sand. In any event, the series needs a shot of personality, and EA Sports only need look at its college football game on the consoles to see how to get it. Whereas NCAA 2004 has the aesthetics of a house party, Madden is that of an uptight formal dance. Visually, it looks pretty much just like last year's game, although there are new animations sprinkled in here and there. That's not to say the game looks bad; in fact, the only thing missing is dirty uniforms. If you play in the rain or snow, the uniforms look brand spanking new throughout the game.
The gameplay, while familiar, remains tight, and a few improvements make things a bit more interesting. EA's new "Playmaker" system isn't the revolutionary advance it's touted to be, but it adds a nice twist. Playmaker allows you to adjust things on the fly before and after the ball is snapped; you can change the direction of a play once you view the defensive scheme, instruct your defense to anticipate a run or a pass, add more hot routes to receivers, and even instruct blockers during a play. Other gameplay improvements include slightly improved defensive AI (especially on deep passes), better downfield blocking, and a more realistic passing model in that you cannot drop back 20 yards and expect to complete a lot of throws. The game forces you to stay -- and step up -- in the pocket.
Most of the new features this year are off the field, and unfortunately this is where Madden continues to languish. The franchise mode is certainly more robust and is loaded to the rim with options, but numerous problems remain which make long-term play a real problem.
The primary stumbling block is that the roster management AI remains woefully underdeveloped. This has always been an issue with Madden's franchise mode, but with the addition of the new owner's mode one would think that some of these old problems would go away. They haven't. There are numerous examples of the scatterbrained AI; many rookies are placed higher on the depth chart than established veterans. Don't be surprised if Denver drafts a quarterback and benches Jake Plummer, regardless of how well Jake did in 2003. Wide receiver Keenan McCardell was sent to #4 on the depth chart in Tampa Bay in 2004, despite being highly rated, and a rookie wideout (rated much lower than McCardell) was starting alongside of Keyshawn Johnson throughout the course of the entire season. These types of examples are commonplace in the game, and while the AI will usually start a star player (rated 90 or higher), solid players are not safe from being demoted in order to play a youngster.
If the developers want teams to play young players in place of aging veterans that's fine, but the veterans in question should at least show signs of slowing down. A slew of players retire when they are still at the top of their game. Why would a player who is 36 years old but rated a 91 overall hang 'em up? If this were a rare occurrence (Barry Sanders) it would make sense, but each year several high 80 to low 90-rated players retire for no other reason than they reach an age that the game deems as "retirement friendly."
Lingering issues with the AI still remains a problem area. The computer teams still do not trade between themselves or place players on the Injured Reserve (IR) list. This can create some major roster holes on computer-controlled teams. When you factor in that a lot of guys get injured during the season, teams begin to fall apart as the years wear on because the AI isn't smart enough to fill these gaps in the rookie draft and free agent period. Teams rarely draft for need but rather take the best player available, so just because the Browns have a stable of solid wide receivers, the AI is just as likely to draft another wideout as a linebacker.
Finally, the overall team ratings are downright bizarre. The worst team in the league is the Arizona Cardinals, weighing in with a 78 overall rating, while the Bucs are the best team with an 88 rating. So you have 30 teams jammed between 78 and 88. This can produce some crazy seasons, and while parity is alive and well in the NFL, Madden takes this to the extreme. Only in a video game can the lowly Bengals advance to the AFC Championship game in 2004 and win the Super Bowl in 2005.
The off-the-field stuff isn't all bad; in fact some of new features are spectacular. Owner's mode takes a page from text games such as Front Office Football and Football Mogul by allowing you to set ticket and concession prices, juggle team finances, and even pack up and relocate your team to a new city. Better yet, the computer teams will relocate as well if they no longer feel welcome in their home town. In the year 2009 of our test franchise, the Denver Broncos bailed for sunny California to become the Los Angeles Copperheads. The game assigns the team new uniform colors, logo, etc. The only downside to this is that you have no say over the CPU team's move and you could lose a hated rival as a result. Also, team logos are not placed on the new team's helmet, so every team that moves looks like the Browns.
The owner's mode is pretty deep, and will test your skills as a GM because if you linger too long in the red you may lose your franchise and be forced to buy another team that is also struggling. It puts a premium on turning a profit. Also included is the ability to sign coaches (including coordinators) as well as a training facility to help prevent injuries and such. All of this is tied together with your overall team budget. It's a terrific addition to the game.
The pre-season training camp is another addition worth mentioning. Last year's Team Mini Drills are now put to good use as you take specific players through a drill to help improve their skill. For example, you can take a rookie quarterback into a passing drill, and if you do well his ratings will increase as a result. There's a risk/reward system put in place so you can keep doing the drills over and over (with increasing difficulty), but if you fail at any time, you lose the rating points you have acquired along the way. It's a great mini-game that actually has an impact on your team.
If you're a long-time Madden fan, there's very little that will surprise you about this version. It's the same tried-and-true Madden gameplay with a few new wrinkles tossed in, and if all you want to do is play a few games here and there or hop online to test your skills, then this version is a winner.
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