Who says you have to grow up? Here at SI.com's Game Room, our staffers review the latest sports video game titles to hit the market and welcome your feedback.
8/22/2006 12:00:00 PM
Who needs the CPU?
Posted by Jacob Luft
We've all had our share of fun against our favorite common opponent -- the CPU. As much as game designers slave to beef up the A.I., the computer rarely serves as anything close to a viable challenger. You can ratchet up the difficulty level but that only adds more frustration than satisfaction. Ultimately, there is no substitute for the real thing -- a human calling plays for the other team.
With that in mind, the latest version of Madden introduces one of the coolest innovations in the recent history of video game football: Live Opponent. Instead of beating up on the CPU for season after season in your dynasty mode, now you can call in a friend or any random Joe off the XBOX Live grid and have them take over your opponent for that game week. If you are the type who loves to roll off ridiculous stats against the computer, this isn't for you. But haven't you had enough of that by now? I'd prefer to let my ego take a hit and see what I can do against a full schedule of real opponents.
The flip side is more fun, however. When you are not in your dynasty mode, Madden gives you the option of being somebody else's live opponent, allowing you to crash the season of one of your friends or random stranger. The randomness is part of the fun -- you don't know going in which teams are even involved. I played a Live Opponent game last night and got stuck with New Orleans against Philadelphia. "Oh great," I figured, "I'm gonna get crushed."
Then I realized I could call a lifeline -- my co-worker Adam Levine who, by virtue of being single and having little-to-no social life, routinely houses me in video game football -- to help coach me up against the Eagles. (XBOX Live allows you to talk with people who are not in the same game session with you.)
Levine booted up the Saints in practice mode and started feeding me advice on sets and formations and substitutions. Here's a tip: Use the left trigger in play-calling mode to move Deuce McAllister to wideout and put Reggie Bush in at halfback. "Feed it to Reggie," Levine said. "He's a 97 speed!" I followed suit, and Bush wound up with three touchdowns on about five touches in the first half alone. Cover boy Shaun Alexander is pretty tough in this game, as I found out the hard way in losing a Live game to Nathan from the XBOX marketing team last week, but Bush might be the most dangerous video game running back since Bo Jackson suited up for the Raiders in the original Tecmo Bowl.
Every year the challenge for football video game makers is to come up with new features to add to their longrunning titles, so when a truly original idea is brought forth, they deserve praise. I think this is where EA has to take Madden in the future, exploring the different facets of online matchups. For instance, I'd like to see co-op play, where you and a friend can take on the computer together or square off against two other players. If you think scoring points on a human can be tough, try it against two! I'd also like to be able to create a league with my friends where we each play our game once a week. Previous online titles have had this feature, but it's sorely missing in this version of Madden, though tournament play is available.
Overall, I'd say this title is a must-have, even if you already own the equally outstanding NCAA '07. The games are different enough to make you appreciate them each on their own merits. With both titles out, it's time to kick back and enjoy the virtual season. Look out for me on the XBOX Live grid (gamertag: snake2112) as I try to crash your dynasty mode.
Michael Vick rolled to his left, looking downfield for an open receiver, when, from the corner of his eye, he spotted something. Vick avoided a diving Ray Lewis and glanced up to see Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler nestled in a gap in the Ravens zone, standing there patiently, waving at Vick to throw him the damn ball. Vick did, and Atlanta picked up 7 yards on the play. It was a simple play, but it happened so quickly and organically that it looked and felt like nothing, just a normal play in a game of football. Which is exactly why it was so amazing, since I was sitting on the couch pushing buttons to make all of that occur.
It's likely that nothing I write here will neither convince you nor dissuade you from buying Madden 07. By now, 17 years into the series, Madden is entrenched as best sports video game on the market and one of the top all-around video games, period. At this point, Electronic Arts could probably announce that next year they will be producing the game solely in black and white with extended dream sequences as an homage to the films of Federico Fellini, and they'd still sell millions of copies.
With that in mind, let's say this for EA Sports: They could easily crank out new editions of Madden every year featuring new rosters, maybe some spiffed up graphics and nothing else new. But they don't. Instead, they at least make an effort to change it up and, some years more successfully than others, they always seem to innovate. Last season's game focused on passing, adding a controversial "passing cone" that forced users to swivel a wide triangle of light onto a receiver before being able to throw an accurate pass. (This year, the cone is turned off by default, although those of you who are either sadists or prefer having one more thing to do with your right thumb while playing can flip a switch and turn it on.)
To me, the most fascinating tweak in years is Madden 07's emphasis on the running game. Instead of simply adding more moves for the runners, EA has completely revamped the entire offensive system. Formerly you were only able to be the running back; now you can choose to be the fullback or even a lineman, and when the ball is snapped you're charged with finding and sealing your block. Whenever you want, with a click of a button you can switch over to being the ball carrier.
For instance, say you call a counter play. You choose a guard or tackle before the snap, and then at the snap you lead the way around the line and find a linebacker or defensive back and pancake him. You can set a regular block, but you can also throw a cut block or, in case you're about to get beat, you can even hold the defender and pray you get away with it (or if you're the Steelers you probably can do anything you want without being penalized).
The new blocking and running stuff is honestly a ton of fun, and the importance placed on being a 360 pound dude with sweaty pants makes the game feel as though Madden himself was sitting in the design studio, working on the animations. EA says they've done individual running animations for the different running backs, although I couldn't discern any significant difference between the various players. They've also made the right analog stick more important, adding left and right cuts. I find the problem here is that you have to remove your thumb from the turbo button to get over and throw a juke, which can result in a split-second of frantic general button mashing while you try to regain your finger placement.
The other significant change is with the NFL Superstar Mode. Introduced in Madden 06, they've completely reworked it and made it even more focused on the individual. The goal of the mode remains piling up stats for your created player, but now you can't just keep calling plays to get your guy the ball over and over. This year the plays are sent in from the sideline, so if you create a running back who gets drafted by the Broncos, like I did, you spend the game praying Mike Shanahan will get you 25 carries a game. This mode also produces visceral reactions, as when you break off a 30-yard carry down to the goal line, and then the coach calls a play-action pass or a fullback carry. I'm all about team and sublimating the individual, but after being overlooked a few times I found myself understanding why Terrell Owens is the way he is. And you know how in real football you'll occasionally see a running back flip out at a lineman who misses a block? If there was a button for that on Madden, I would have worn it out by now.
There are also a couple of smaller adjustments to the game, including following the lead of NCAA Football 07 and converting all kicking to analog mode. One extremely helpful new wrinkle is that you're now allowed to switch between players on defense by holding down a button and then using the D-pad to select whichever player you want, so there's no more furiously cycling through your defense trying to get to a particular player before the snap.
Madden '07 is also the most commercialized version of the game, as many graphics and stats now come with sponsors. I was surprised by the nearly complete absence of ESPN in the game. Last year, when EA Sports and ESPN inked a 15-year licensing deal, there was a lot of talk about integrating ESPN's personalities and content into the game. Perhaps they did, but in the PS2 version of the game the NFL Network has more of a presence than the Worldwide Leader. Not that I'm complaining.
Speaking of presence, John Madden himself is less visible in this game than in any previous version, and his announcing in the game all sounds recycled from the last five years of the Madden series. If it's in the game, they used to assure us, it's in the game.
Perhaps except for John Madden himself.
Ratings System (1 to 10)
Game Play: 9.7
I don't want to give out a 10 and make EA all complacent. The only part of the game that's even the least bit bothersome is the way that receivers and DBs occasionally have trouble turning around to face the ball or make a tackle. The PS2 version also briefly freezes up, as on a change of possession. But I'm really nitpicking here..
Since Madden continues to improve the look of the already gorgeous game, they get a 10. They cut down on the ridiculous helmets-popping-off graphic, and even have the refs wearing those new surreal stripes.
If there's any one thing that makes Madden so great, it's the replayability. From franchise mode to the new NFL Superstar Mode, this game will provide months of action. Franchise mode has also been infused, as a new college all-star game allows you to scout players before the draft.