Posted: Monday August 8, 2005 1:23PM; Updated: Monday August 8, 2005 3:59PM
New features for quarterbacks, such as Donovan McNabb, add to the realism of Madden '06.
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In Indianapolis last week, during a Friday rain delay of the practice runs at the Brickyard 400, someone asked Dale Earnhardt, Jr., how he was passing the time.
"EA Sports just came out with NCAA Football 2006," said Earnhardt. "And Madden comes out in just five days, in case you didn't know."
We know, Junior. Last year's Madden sold 1.35 million copies in the first week, and video games stores across the country will stay open late Monday so they can begin peddling the game just past midnight.
Madden '06 arrived at my office two weeks ago, and I have spent the last 14 days playing it pretty much all night long. It has left me exhausted, made me double up on coffee consumption, and I've found myself sitting at my desk daydreaming about ways to more effectively utilize my third receivers. At least I was awake at 5 a.m. on Saturday to watch the Falcons and Colts in the American Bowl live from Japan.
More than ever before, Madden '06 is a quarterback's game. While past years allowed wideouts and running backs to dominate, this year's game requires a quality quarterback to get the ball to those guys. (Sorry Bills fans -- just wait until you see J.P. Losman on here.)
There are two major changes to Madden this year that make it so QB-centric:
1) The most obvious and dramatic difference is the "Vision Cone."
In previous years, your QB would drop back and you were able to pass to any receiver on the field, the only negating factor being whether you could get the ball past the defensive players. This year, a vision cone has been added. It looks like a triangle of light that projects from your QB's head, as from a coal miner's helmet. As your QB drops back, you use either the right thumbstick or a combination of buttons to scan the field and find an open receiver.
You can still pass to guys outside the cone, though the further away you try to throw, the lower the completion probability becomes. Theoretically, the better the quarterback, the better his field vision and the bigger his cone. Kurt Warner's vision is much better than to Michael Vick's vision.
The cone can be maddening, but it's also what a real quarterback goes through when the defenders read his eyes, though I wish the cone would dim if you equip your QB with one of those eye shields. The vision cone makes the game easier defensively and exponentially harder offensively, because passing now requires the simultaneous use of both thumbs and several fingers, like you're playing a piano or typing an e-mail.
2. Once you find an open receiver, the new "Precision Passing" mode comes into play. By holding the left thumbstick in any direction, you can nudge your QB's throw a few yards in any direction, so you can lead a guy downfield on a fly pattern or toward a sideline on an out. This is a tremendous addendum -- intuitive, simple to use, and one that heightens the action and realism.
The other big addition this year is Madden's frighteningly deep "Superstar Mode," where you can have your own pro career. I created a running back from UNLV and named him J.R. Rider. You pick your character's parents, so I chose a father that was a former NFL quarterback and interested in mathematics, and a mother who loved photography and cave exploration. (I figured I'd either be an amazing rusher or Ricky Williams.) After acing a faux-Wonderlic test, I was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals and placed on the second string, so I demanded a trade and was shipped to the Broncos where I was immediately made a starter. From there you go through practices, interviews and various off-field activities, including my guy being cast in a supporting role in a comedy film called Air Hockey 101. (At press time, my Broncos were 6-2, with Rider averaging 35 carries a game.)
These changes all broach the subject of fixing something that isn't broken. Madden is the most popular sports video game of all time, and EA Sports could probably just change the year in the title and slap a new cursed player on the front of the box and still sell millions. And now that EA Sports has an exclusive deal with the NFL, they have even less motivation to compete when the only competition is themselves.
To EA's credit, they're trying to step it up, adding a few wrinkles (and a major crease with the vision cone) while retaining mostly the same visuals and presentation. Yesterday's New York Times had a story noting that EA is increasingly reliant on sequels instead of developing new games. That may be true, but with all its twists and turns, Madden '06 feels like a whole new ballgame.
While Madden is fun, the game isn't perfect. The most egregious flaw is in the punting game, as your teammates do not block for you until you catch the punt, so while the ball is floating toward you and defenders are bearing down, your teammates just turn and watch you. I've never seen so many fair catches in my life. They've also added an animation of player's helmets getting popped off from a particularly nasty tackle, although after it happened three times in one quarter, I realized they may use it a bit much.
It's worth noting that John Madden himself is less visible in this game than ever before. While he is reportedly still involved in the nuts and bolts of the gameplay -- designing plays, tweaking defenses -- his announcing sounds almost exactly the same as last year. At least they dropped the sideline reporter this season.
With the regular gameplay, the franchise mode and the superstar mode, Madden '06 is almost like several games in one, and well worth the $49.99 cover price.
Just stock up on coffee and sugar.
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Are you kidding? Go get Madden? What, you can't afford it? Alright, play this.