It's taken two and a half years and three releases, but Madden is finally back to form. In Madden NFL 08 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, EA Tiburon has put together the most complete version of Madden seen on either console to date. The gameplay is tight, practically every old feature that had been previously missing is back in some form or another, and new additions have been made that significantly change how you play the game--for the better. By no means is this year's Madden flawless; it's definitely got some quirks and underpolished aspects that will probably drive some people crazy. But taken as a whole, Madden 08 is easily the first great entry for the series on the 360 and PS3.
You'll notice the big difference in this year's title the second you hop into a game. Marquee players have been given icons to specifically represent what type of "weapon" they are on the field. There are a ton of these different designations, separating out multiple types of players at each position. Wide receivers, for instance, come in a wide variety of forms. There are quick receivers who are able to nimbly duck and dodge around defenders to get open; possession receivers are good at catching the ball in traffic; hands receivers can grab onto just about any ball thrown their way; and big play receivers will leap up to make those really spectacular catches. Every position has at least a couple of these different designations, though not every player is truly a weapon. In addition, each weapon type has an opposite, a player on the other side of the field who can, in a sense, cancel out their abilities. Big play receivers, for instance, are vulnerable to big hitters, finesse move defensive linemen have a tougher time getting by top pass blockers, and so on.
Say hello to the first great football game for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
The system itself works beautifully within the context of the game. Sure, you'll certainly note the differences between QBs like Brett Farve and Vince Young, but that would have been the case in any Madden game of the last few years. Here, you'll notice the differences in just about every position. Power running backs and speedier running backs are more individually defined than ever before, as are the differences between run blockers and pass blockers. On the defensive side of the ball, you see more in the technical differences in play between a shutdown corner that guards against the deep threat, and the press coverage corners who prefer to jam up receivers at the line. And the big hitters? Yes, they hit big.
These new weapon designations even go beyond basic techniques--they can actually give you insight into what the other team is doing. Specifically, the "smart" QB and defender designations come with a meter that fills up as individual plays on the other side of the ball are called throughout a game. After a single play or coverage scheme has been called four times, a quarterback like Peyton Manning or Tom Brady can actually see exactly what the defense is going to do, whereas a smart defender can get a glimpse of where the offensive play is going to go. Obviously the counterattack to something like this is to vary up your playbook as much as possible, which is in itself a great thing, since that's what real offensive and defensive coordinators are forced to do in the real game.
The excellent new weapons feature isn't the only way the on-field action has changed. Madden's control scheme is more complex than ever before, with more presnap controls than you'll probably ever know what to do with. Once you get the hang of it, the controls become like second nature, but it's likely that players not extremely well versed in the ways of Madden will get a little confused at first as they fumble around with the controls, especially since practically every button on the controller does at least something presnap. This is especially true on defense. The defensive playmaker controls are back, letting you assign coverage changes to individual players before the ball is snapped. You can also now focus coverage on a specific receiver with a quick button press, though doing so will draw defensive resources away from other receivers. When laying in big hits via the right analog stick, you can hit a player high by pressing up, and low by pressing down. Doing this has different effects on different types of players. Hitting high might cause a less cautious ball carrier to cough up the rock, while going low on a power back is probably the best way to take him down as he pushes past the line. There's also a button that will make your controlled defender attempt to strip the ball from a carrier, provided you time the button press right.
Between that function and the big hits, you'll actually be seeing quite a few fumbles throughout Madden 08. We're not talking NCAA 08 numbers of turnovers here, nor is the number of fumbles per game outlandish or unrealistic, but fumbling is far more regular an occurrence now than it's ever been in a Madden game to date. It's definitely noticeable enough that it will probably frustrate some players. More than anything else, it simply pays to be extra careful with the ball.
Between the new weapons feature and all the various control adjustments to this year's game, Madden 08 provides an extremely deep and challenging experience on the field--possibly even a bit too challenging, depending on your tastes. One of the complaints about last year's game was that the defensive back artificial intelligence was too much of a pushover, allowing too many easy completions. That's definitely not the case this year. DBs are quite tough to get out of position, especially on the higher difficulty settings. It's maybe a little overblown in terms of challenge there, as DBs seem to just magnetize themselves to receivers and always find a way to get an arm up to swat a pass away, however unlikely the situation. Even linebackers are tough to get the ball by a lot of times. But that's really the worst thing you can say about the AI on any level. Otherwise, it plays a very realistic game of football across practically every position.
The new weapons system of characterizing various players' abilities adds a whole new dimension to the game.
Another big complaint about the last couple of iterations of Madden was the distinct lack of features. Madden 06 had only a barren franchise mode and basic online play to its name, and while 07 cranked out a new version of superstar mode and a couple of minigames, franchise and online went basically untouched. In Madden 08, many of these modes have seen at least slight upgrades. The biggest and best differences are to be found in the franchise mode, which, while still not as rich with features as previous installments on older consoles, still has a fair amount to offer. During the season, you can now train individual players before each week's game to try to boost up their stats in certain categories. These stat boosts are tied into point totals you earn during drills. So, say you've got a receiver that's got a high, but not quite high enough rating in the "hands" category; what you'd then do is look at how many points you'd need in order to get him to the next level (points earned are determined by the difficulty level of the drill), and put him through his reps. These stat bonuses stay put, too, so you won't lose them the next week.
In terms of offseason features, the owner mode is back in a relatively new form. During the season, you can keep track of your finances via a series of menus that tell you everything from how your revenues and costs stack up against other teams in the league, to which players are currently in a contract year. You'll also hire a scouting agency at some point, and during the season you can task them with keeping tabs on up to 20 rookies from the upcoming draft class. The reports they give you aren't necessarily much more detailed than the ones you get by default on every player, but they tend to be more accurate in judging potential. Rookie potential is actually a new feature in and of itself, in that now, rookies with different expectation levels can become gems or busts over time. These icons don't pop up until a player has been in the league for a little while, but it's all about what a player's potential is. If a player turns out to be greater than his draft position would initially suggest, he'll get a gem icon and actually perform above his stats. Busts are, as you'd imagine, the polar opposite. Even a bust can still be a useful player if you find a way to get him to make plays, but it's far more challenging a prospect than with any other player.