Madden NFL 2004 takes the field for an unprecedented 14th season, poised to add another year to its dominance of virtual gridiron. While EA likes to tout their sports games with the ‘It’s in the game’ tag, in the case of Madden that falls short of describing how much a part of the football season Madden has become. From the pro players who play it on the road to the Madden Bowl Championship during Super Bowl week, Madden ‘ownz’ its own spot in football culture – as confirmed by this year’s unprecedented induction of the game into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Turn up the lights and cue the music because it’s time for kickoff. Only one question remains: “Are you ready for some football?”
This all-pro looks to be in top form, with that immersive quality that really creates the sense of being in the game right from the first kickoff. With the graphics already looking great in prior versions, attention turned this year to improving the animation. Gone are the awkward jumps from one movement to another, and now replaced by natural transitions: the smooth way quarterbacks drop back, scramble, set and pass – the running backs’ cut, spin and juke without losing a step – gives such a realistic look it almost approaches watching live TV.
Controlling that action gets a new boost from the addition of EA’s Playmaker system (over the usual football controls). By using the right stick on the controller, it allows quick changes in the action based on the situation. While it sounds good the actual results are a mixed bag. At its best, prior to the snap Playmaker works like a quick audible, changing the direction of a run or the route of the primary receiver. Coming up to the line it’s a great way to exploit a hole in the defense. On the other hand, once the action starts, adding another control to the eight buttons and a thumbstick already in use approaches overload – especially to just direct blockers’ or receivers’ tasks that the game should handle without extra input.
Despite the attention paid to creating the look and feel of the NFL game, the final product plays decidedly out of balance in favour of the offense. Defensive control feels one step behind and too often defenders who appear in perfect position fail to make a play as the ball carrier goes by them. Combine that with an unrealistically high tendency for broken tackles, and every play can turn into a parade of defenders trailing the guy who got away as he streaks down the field for another score. Making the defensive changes needed to account for these game issues – like keeping extra help back on every play artificially – changes the defensive gameplan and undermines the simulation aspect of the game.
EA Sports’ signature presentation-style, featuring current music gives a hip, polished feel to the game; although with only 23 songs repetition sets in all too soon. NFL fans will love the new favourite team feature. Not only does it add team colours and player pictures as backgrounds, it uses the console’s clock to get the date and sets the default quick game to reflect the current match-up in the season for that team. Ironically, the commentary (including that of Madden himself) is perhaps the single weakest part of the game. Unlike the witty observations heard on Monday nights, Madden’s voicework feels lifeless and frequently repetitive, coming across like a bad caricature. Similarly, Al Michael’s play-by-play comes off as mechanical, complete with audible changes in his voice within phrases where soundbites are spliced together.
A wealth of features gives Madden appeal beyond just the singular ‘Game of the Day’. Franchise mode goes well past the usual play-a-season affair, and the new owner mode offers an all-encompassing team management sim. Building a champion means improving your players each season in training camp, where performance in mini-game drills earns increases in player stats; and further involves making trades and signing players within the confines of the salary cap (you can even generate revenue complete with a sim-stadium, featuring the thrills of setting concessions and parking prices). Sadly, those looking to quickly setup and play a season will find themselves out of luck. Wading through the numerous menus, along with long save and loading times, further conspires to make the franchise mode a more frustrating endeavour than is necessary to play out a season.
Although online play also enjoys enhancements this year, it stumbles short of a touchdown. Lobbies and EA Messenger make finding friends, chatting and setting up games as user-friendly as possible, even if stuck without a real keyboard. A new, easy to use tournament system sets the stage for some epic “friendly” competition amongst buddies. For those enjoying a broadband connection, gameplay feels as tight as if both players were in the same room, and the new EA Sports Talk allows for in-game voice chat using a USB microphone. Clearly a sales-motivated decision, the inclusion of 56k dial-up support only degrades the experience for anyone unfortunate enough to try it. Even if one player connects via broadband, gameplay jumps in fits and starts making it all but unplayable. In complete disregard for their fans, EA’s continuing feud with Microsoft over control of the online servers means that once again Xbox players get denied online play.
As the reigning champion, Madden could easily recycle last year’s game with new rosters and sell another few million copies to the thrill of reviewers the world over. Their hard work improving the animations and adding new features shows a real commitment to keeping Madden at the head of the pack. Yet somehow they’ve lost sight of what put them at the top in the first place – the football game on the field. Sure, the ability to run 40+ seasons of a franchise offers an amazing amount of interaction, but how many will genuinely take advantage of it beyond playing a few seasons and thinking, “Wow, what a cool feature”? Meanwhile, along with the balance issues, unrealistically high numbers of turnovers and frequent worst-moment-possible penalties shatter the illusion of simulating an NFL game. While these points are a matter for tweaking, bugs like blocked passes that become fumbles and a nasty feedback drone when removing the disc slipped through in the rush to release, which further tarnishes this year’s effort. Madden’s veteran execution still delivers its compelling game of football, but in a league of fierce competition, the miscues potentially leave the door open for the challengers to take the title.