Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Madden 2006: One Game Played Review

Few moments signal the beginning of the pro football season like the brouhaha surrounding the annual release of EA Sports’ Madden NFL. From spring to August, the buildup over the game—whether in “exclusive” screenshots on gaming sites, prime-time commercials or NFL Network informercials—creates a fevered anticipation of newest incarnation of the beloved franchise.

I approached this year’s game with some trepidation. Reviews, usually stellar for this best-selling title, have been lukewarm, one even suggesting that this be the first year that hardcore Madden fans don’t add the latest version to their library. Uh-oh.

With my online-purchased game on backorder, I threw caution to the wind and used a rapidly expiring Blockbuster coupon to rent Madden 2006. Below I provide my impressions after playing one game.

Upon startup, you are given the option of selecting your favorite team, which changes the background highlights and featured cutout player accordingly. Naturally, I picked Washington. I couldn’t help but laugh when two of the “highlights” were alternate portions of Clinton Portis’ dramatic, game-winning reception against Green Bay…that was called back by an illegal motion penalty. Another video clip was a cutaway of Mark Brunell leading the offense to the line of scrimmage. Those are the highlights? A play that didn’t happen and a quarterback who is rapidly sinking to third string?

Selecting Play Now, I was pleased that the Redskins were automatically chosen as the home team; Sábado Gigante were the default visitors. I might be wrong, but the Redskins were an underwhelming 77 rating; the Giants were a dismal 71.

The reports are true: the graphical improvements over 2005 are minimal. You still have the same four bozos in the stands with “Hi Mom!” painted on their stomachs, still doing the Hip Hop Hooray wave, still complaining after inconsequential, game-ending plays. Sigh.

Player animations have minor tweaks, like the ability to look back for passes and new hard-hitting tackles. (I had two helmets go flying…in the first half. That happens, what, once every other game in the NFL?) I appreciate that rookies, who previously were represented in menus by silhouettes or empty space, now have generic, race-specific player images. Rookie cornerback Carlos Rogers, for instance, seems to be the love child of Ray Parker, Jr. and Grace Jones. I’m sure his family’s proud.

What happened to the cheerleaders? Do they only show up in regular season games? Sure, they were grotesquely face-mapped clones of Grand Theft Auto hookers that danced offbeat. But they’re a part of the game that shouldn’t be denied. I don’t think I’m alone on this one.

John Madden didn’t have much to say during my game after the contest was no longer competitive. For once, when a team is losing by 35 in the 4th quarter, I’d like to hear him say “Those guys have no heart and less talent. Clearly they’re mailing it in. Their fans must be hanging themselves as we speak.” Would that be so hard?

The audio mix is supposedly in THX. According to my Panasonic 7.1 THX certified receiver which receives a signal via digital optical cable, it’s in run-o’-the-mill stereo. The referees, on the other hand, have their on-field mics turned up to 11.

Madden 06 features a new twist on the traditional passing procedure, adding the Quarterback Passing Cone, or QPC, which represents your player’s scope, direction and distance you can throw your pass. While the spirit of the new scheme is to be praised, its execution left me choosing more running plays. Whoever at Electronic Arts thought that changing a proven formula made good business sense apparently has never heard of New Coke.

My first pass—my second play from scrimmage—was a 55-yard touchdown rainbow to Santana Moss off a play action fake. But as the great poet Billy Dee Williams warned, “Don’t let the smooth taste fool ya.” The learning curve for passing is high, and for the rest of the game I struggled to maneuver Ramsey’s 15% pie cone from left to right without getting creamed. You can look off one, maybe two receivers before you’d better throw somethin’.

One immediately annoying point is the remapping of the change player button pre-snap defense. If you’ve played through four or five seasons of Madden 2005, you develop an instinctive feel for adjusting player assignments quickly. In 06, the X button cycles player control left, O cycles to the right. Kickoff coverage then has a different arrangement for changing players. It sounds nitpicky, but when the first time you can’t drop your left lineman into zone coverage because you’re controlling the right side, you’ll see what I mean.

Oddly enough, my game ended in a similar fashion to my early 2005 gaming experience. Portis was virtually unstoppable behind the counter trey, breaking off runs for 80, 70 and 44 yards en route to setting a new NFL record of 298 rushing yards. Add to that six touchdowns on 23 attempts and you’ve got yourself a Tecmo Bowl kind of day.

The Skins’ defense, even though it could “read” Eli Manning’s throws, had some awful lapses in coverage. (One occurred when I foolishly tested the “Ask Madden” feature. We immediately gave up a 54 yard touchdown to Amani Toomer. Thanks, John.)

The post game passing and rushing logs are great once you decipher them (so that’s why the game includes an instruction book. Hmm!) I learned from the logs that every one of my successful runs came from the I-formation. Eat your heart out, Joe Bugel.

Final score: 70-28, Redskins. Perhaps bumping the difficulty up to All-Pro would be in order, eh?

I like Madden 2006. The new playbooks, updated rosters, and extra animations make this a definite play. But unless you simply must have this game before September, wait and pick it up for less than $49.99. The initial experience says that it’s an expansion pack, not a great advance in gaming football. Don’t believe the hype.

If anyone would like a brand new, unopened copy for the PS2 for $45, let me know.

8 of 10

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