It's not an easy task for a development team to make enough improvements to a yearly sports game series to warrant a purchase every year. However, EA Sports has not only managed to add enough features and gameplay tweaks to make Madden NFL 2004 a more than worthy purchase for those who bought last year's game, but it has also created one of best football games to date. Madden NFL 2004 covers nearly every facet of professional football, but what makes this year's entry in the series so special is the fact that it ties all its components together seamlessly. Even the new gameplay features have been integrated incredibly well, and the result is a game that models the sport of professional football much more intricately than any other game before it.
Madden NFL 2004 boasts a number of new features.
A perfect example of this is the playmaker control feature. While it initially seems like nothing more than a quick audible option, playmaker control is actually much more than that. Before the snap of the ball, if you don't like what you're seeing on defensive side of the ball, you can adjust the offensive play to compensate without calling an audible. For example, if a linebacker appears to be blitzing on the side you're about to run a halfback toss to, you can change the direction of the run on the fly by simply pressing the right analog stick in the opposite direction.
Similarly, after the ball's been snapped, you can direct teammates on the field to block opposing players in front of the ballcarrier by pressing the right analog stick in the appropriate direction. There's a little bit of risk involved in doing this, since its effectiveness depends on the speed of the teammate running over to block. In fact, when calling for a block in this fashion, you may be tempted to head for the teammate once you've told him to throw a block in an attempt to put him in between you and the defensive player more quickly. But you'll quickly discover this rarely ever works and almost always results in an appreciable loss of yards. In any case, the playmaker controls for directing your blockers prove to be quite valuable when used in the correct situation.
Running isn't the only facet of the gameplay in which playmaker control can be used. When using it on a passing play before the snap, playmaker control can quickly change the route of a receiver if there appears to be a gap in the secondary. When the ball is snapped, playmaker control can then be used to have a designated receiver break off his route and go in a variety of directions--even back toward the line of scrimmage. Again, there's a fair amount of risk involved, since the defensive line and linebackers are constantly gunning for the quarterback, but if it looks like you have enough time and it appears that you can get a receiver open by having him change direction, you can use this technique to pick up a few extra yards.
Defensively, the playmaker mechanic isn't quite as prominent. Essentially, if you see a key receiver lining up one-on-one with a cornerback that you don't have too much confidence in, then playmaker can be used to shift your coverage over to that side, making it a little more difficult for the receiver to get open. If the ball has already been snapped, then playmaker control can be used to shift your overall coverage to run or pass. It's these subtle nuances created by the playmaker control scheme that make Madden NFL 2004 that much more strategic and fun to play than its predecessors.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to modify plays on the defensive and offensive sides of the ball. On defense, you can shift the defensive line and the linebackers to compensate for any possible gaps that may appear in the line or to cover the outside better in the event of a toss. Offensively, audibles are still incredibly useful, and you can modify them in the coach's area in the menu.
The playmaker controls are an integral part of the gameplay.
The fundamental gameplay mechanics in Madden NFL 2004 have also been slightly tweaked. Like in NCAA Football 2004, play-action passing plays are much more effective against opponents, especially those controlled by human players, since the camera briefly follows the running back--making it seem as though it's actually a running play--before panning back to the quarterback. The running game in general feels much better, especially when you're running the ball up the middle, since the offensive lines tend to be a little more adept at opening holes when linebackers and safeties aren't shooting the gaps--in other words, getting stuck behind the ample posterior of an offensive lineman is much less of a problem than it was in the previous game. Running to the outside is also executed quite well and requires you to determine the best angle to take after your fullback has blocked a linebacker or a lineman has pulled from the opposite side of the line to make a block downfield.
Having a successful passing game in Madden NFL 2004 requires much more thought than you might initially suspect, especially since the defensive backs are much more adept at stepping into zones and going after balls, just like in NCAA Football 2004. Setting aside the playmaker controls for a moment, if you see a receiver in relatively tight zone coverage, then the chances for a successful completion are relatively low--even when running a quick out route, something that would usually guarantee a few yards. Conversely, if you see a receiver in tight man-to-man coverage running a streak, then you can try to lob the pass and hope for the best. But for the most part, a successful passing game requires you to identify the defensive coverage in the secondary, as well as that split second in the receiver's route when he'll be open.
With all these slight refinements and changes, even blitzing seems to have much greater risks and rewards. Audibles and the playmaker control can negate the effects of a blitz, but the playmaker control also requires the offensive player to think just a little bit more than he or she normally would, giving the defense one or two more precious seconds to hit the ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage. This is especially true for human opponents, though the AI for computer-controlled opponents is pretty good about not cheating when it comes to reading a blitz.