It appears that reports of the birth of next-generation football on consoles have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, Madden NFL 06 has made its debut on the Xbox 360--but not in a form that could really be called next gen. Certainly this is a graphically impressive game that's far better than anything you've seen on the current roster of consoles. Player models, stadiums, tackles, catches, and throws have never looked this good before. But beyond the impressive technology backing EA's newest football game lies a number of holdover issues that stand out all the more blatantly when placed in direct contrast to the game's newest graphical components. Plus, there's really very little about Madden 06's gameplay that you haven't seen before. And for that matter, there's a lot you have seen before that's simply just missing from this edition. So, while the graphics of Madden have eked their way into the next-generation, the rest of the game still has a ways to go.
There's no doubt that Madden NFL 06 is a great-looking next-gen football game...
One thing that must be made clear from the get-go is that Madden on the 360 is not just a port of Madden NFL 06 as it appeared on other consoles. The game has been built pretty much from the ground up, though it still feels very much like a Madden football game. The controls are as responsive as they've ever been, making good use of the 360's controller. Passing feels tight; runs can be very satisfying (especially if you implement the truck stick, which was introduced earlier this year); and defensive stops and big hits are just as good as they've ever been. What's different is the way a lot of these actions look. Animations have been adjusted in a number of ways to make things seem more realistic. Jukes, stutter steps, wrap tackles, ball strips, tosses, bombs...All these things look just a little bit better than they ever have in the past. The fluidity of these animations is really quite impressive, even if the game doesn't exactly operate much differently from the way it has in recent years.
It's clear from the very first time you boot up the game that EA Tiburon spent the vast bulk of its time making Madden look a whole lot better. The player models and stadiums can be downright fantastic-looking at times. Up close, you'll really get to see a hell of a lot of detail in the players. Muscular definition in the arms and legs, shine off of helmets, and player faces--when done right--are phenomenal. Unfortunately, a lot of major players didn't get the full treatment. Big guys like Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Corey Dillon, and the like all look really, really accurate to their real-life counterparts. But there are lots of starting NFL players that simply don't look right. Take a look at someone like Brian Griese or Kerry Collins, and there's a pretty significant difference in accuracy. Still, even if the faces are off, the bodies look excellent. As for the stadiums, while the turf still looks a little funky in some spots, nothing else does. The crowds are great, and the sideline players and coaches are extremely detailed. In fact, in some cases you could argue that the coaches look better than a lot of the players, which is actually kind of weird. Incidentally, while Madden NFL 06 obviously looks its best on an HD setup, it also looks quite good on a normal TV. Some of the details are blurred-over, and you won't get the crispness you'd get from HD, but the upgraded graphics still look very much upgraded on a standard TV.
While so much work has gone in to the graphics, there are still a lot of little annoying things that detract from the visual experience. Shifting players around before the snap results in some stiff, jerky animations that seem well out of place in such a glossy-looking game. And in some cases, guys moved on defense will get stuck standing up, unable to get back in to a defensive stance after you move them. The old vibrating blockers issue is still just as prevalent as it's ever been, as blockers are still unable to avoid buzzing back and forth while trying to figure out which defensive players to block. This leads to some ugly-looking bunch-ups at the line, as well as during kick and punt returns. Running backs still get stuck on linemen; players will freeze on the ground after a play is over (and they'll stay there in the background during an injury cutscene if one presents itself); there aren't a ton of celebration animations (and you'll see a lot of them repeat over and over again); and you'll see some very abrupt transitions between cutscenes and gameplay. Many of these things are the types of problems that have existed in Madden games for quite a while now, and the ones that aren't seem like by-products of a shorter-than-average development cycle. Undoubtedly, Madden NFL 06 is an impressive-looking game, but you'll be hard-pressed not to notice its blemishes, as many as there are.
...but all the pretty graphics in the world don't make up for all the missing things in this game.
While there's clearly been a lot of effort put into the graphical end of things, the rest of the game, as a whole, feels pretty hollow compared to what we've grown accustomed to over the years. Many of the nifty gameplay and game mode innovations that the Madden series has introduced in recent iterations are either gone or have been stripped down. Defensive playmaker controls simply don't exist, so there's no way to change how an individual player on defense plays. You can shift around the defense to show blitzes, press or pull back, and align with assigned players--but that's about it. And the alignment feature is almost too good, since you can basically reposition your entire defense to hold down every single offensive player at the touch of a single button.
On offense, there are no formation shifts, though you can activate hot routes, call audibles, and/or send players in motion. The controversial quarterback-vision-cone feature from this year's game does make its presence felt in the game, though it defaults to "off." The computer player always uses it, so it's actually fairly easy to see where a quarterback is looking, but you yourself do not have to use it, except when you change a primary receiver before the snap. For some reason, the vision cone will pop back up, even with it turned off in the settings, whenever you do this.