When the Xbox 360 debuted late last year, so too did the newest iteration of EA-brand football, in Madden NFL 06. Rather than churn out a cheap and dirty port of its other console versions of the game, EA Tiburon built a new version of Madden from the ground up. The result was a much more attractive game of football, complete with a new menu presentation and excellent new player models, stadiums, and the like. The trade-off for that newness, however, was an incomplete game. It played like Madden, but it lacked the depth of its predecessors, offering only a barren franchise mode and online play as extra features. Madden NFL 07 builds off of that previous game, tossing back in some of the missing features from the other console versions, as well as including some new components. Unfortunately, Madden 07 comes encumbered with some quirks and bugs, as well, and it's still not nearly as complete of a football game as the other console and PC versions of 07 currently available. But despite all that, this is a definite step in the right direction for the series on the Xbox 360--just not a leap.
Madden NFL 07 brings back practically every feature that was in Madden 06 (not a tough feat, considering how little there was to the package), as well as the superstar mode, which was heavily featured in the other console versions of Madden 06 but was absent in the 360 version. On top of that, a number of new gameplay upgrades have been brought to the table, the majority of which are available in all versions of the game. By themselves, none of these individual changes or upgrades is particularly game changing, but taken as a whole, they add a nice dimension of depth to the gameplay experience.
These features include the highlight stick, a new kick meter, and lead blocking controls. The highlight stick is a new version of the truck stick used for runners on offense. Here, you can use the right analog stick to pull off the sorts of crazy jukes and steps that star running backs are so well known for, and on top of that, depending on the type of back you're playing, you can opt to use more-powerful moves, or more finesse-based maneuvers. This feels like the natural evolution of last year's truck stick, though most experienced Madden players will be able to get by just as easily using the button-based moves rather than making liberal use of the stick. But if you take the time to learn the stick and figure out how to use it and the button controls together, you can be a very hard runner to stop.
The new lead blocking controls are likely to inspire some new tactics from all types of players. Here, while on offense, you can opt to switch your controlled player to any of the available blockers during a running play. This includes offensive linemen, tight ends, fullbacks, or whoever else might be blocking on a play. When blocking, you can just do standard blocks, or you can even get dirty and do some mean-spirited cut blocks. This is an interesting mechanic, because it stops you from having to rely on CPU blockers, which as any experienced player will tell you, are not always the most reliable players on the field. You can also quickly switch back to control the running back once you've laid down your block, which is good, because the CPU running back doesn't always manage to find the holes you're creating. At first, you may find yourself unable to effectively use this feature, as setting up the right blocks isn't always the most intuitive thing in the world. But after some time, this control method gives the running game a really interesting new perspective, and those who love finding new strategies are bound to eat this up.
The other changes to the gameplay are less significant, but they're enjoyable all the same. The new kick meter is probably the most accurate representation of kicking available in a game thus far. With this meter, you use the typical arrow to line up your angle and then press down on the right analog stick to set up your power. The meter quickly fills up, and then you press forward on the right stick to set the power, as well as your accuracy. The accuracy is based on the angle at which you press up. If you press too far to the right or left, the kick will get away from you. If you land it within a set space, it'll go right where you want it to.
Much like NCAA 07 this year, Madden 07 gives you the option to try and jump the snap while on defense. Pressing a single button at just the right time lets your defensive player get a lead on the blocker in front of him and gives you an advantage while trying to get to the quarterback or runner. Of course, this is a risk-versus-reward situation, as opposing offenses will often try to lure you offside by using a hard count and faking the snap. The CPU tends to make very liberal use of this feature, and it tends to lead to far more encroachment penalties than are realistic for an NFL game. If anything, it ought to lead to more false-start penalties on the offense, since offensive linemen are notorious for jumping before the snap. Still, it's nice to see a key feature from the NCAA series find its way into Madden, and when timed properly, it gives a tangible advantage to the defense.
Beyond that, the changes from 06 to 07 are mostly ancillary, and fundamentally, the game plays very much as its predecessor did. The basic feel of the game seems a little bit on the easy side, especially on the default difficulty. Namely, the defensive-back artificial intelligence doesn't seem terribly adept at handling certain types of routes, so it's possible to exploit those routes for easy gains on a regular basis. However, upping the difficulty to all-pro and all-Madden tends to fix that right up. On defense, there are a few more available options in terms of positioning your DB, LB, and DL corps, and you can commit your defense in a certain direction the moment the ball is snapped. But individual defensive-playmaker controls are still missing, which is unfortunate. The quarterback vision cone, which made its debut last year, is still available, though it's not a required feature. You can tap the right analog stick after snapping the ball, and the cone will pop on, letting you use it for a little accuracy boost. No, it's not any more fun to use than it was last year, but that's not altogether surprising. It's also worth mentioning that the achievements in this year's game are decidedly more interesting than in Madden 06. Most of them actually require some effort to get, though few are unattainably hard.
In terms of features, Madden NFL 07 brings back the franchise mode and online play from last year's game--literally. The franchise mode is practically untouched in most every way, with only a basic off-season menu list to mess around with and none of the presentational pizzazz of the other console versions--no Tony Bruno radio show, no newspapers, no e-mail dialogue with your roster, no owner mode. It's certainly functional as is, but that's about all that can be said for the mode. The online play hasn't evolved terribly far, either, with the usual list of EA Sports features included, such as the usual head-to-head play, lobbies, the EA Sports locker, and such. One new feature that sounds very cool on paper is the live franchise game. While in the franchise mode, you can opt to play one of your franchise games against an online opponent by switching on a toggle in the team-select menu. This sends an invite to players sitting in a live franchise game queue on Xbox Live. You also have the option of inviting friends to a game. Unfortunately, we were never able to connect up with one of these games. Every attempt we made resulted in an immediate connection drop, both by inviting friends and going through the player queue. Fortunately, all our head-to-head games played just fine, and we experienced little, if any, lag.
The big new addition to the feature roster this year is superstar mode. If you played the Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube, or PC version of Madden last year, you're probably already familiar with this feature in its basic form. You take a fresh rookie player, of any position, through his NFL career, facing the various trials and tribulations that are typical for an NFL player. The version last year suffered from some annoying quirks and interface issues. Some of those problems still exist in the other console versions of Madden 07, but less of them appear on the 360. You no longer hang out in a cheesy hub area modeled after a player's house, nor do you have to worry about taking on movie roles or getting haircuts, and so on. Instead, the sole focus of the mode is on making your player one of the greatest NFL players of all time and eventually getting him into the Hall of Fame.
All throughout your superstar's career, a meter will depict how far along your player is toward establishing his legacy as one of the best of all time. There's no specific list of things you have to do to become a Hall of Famer, but obviously you want to have the most storied career possible. Apart from throwing a lot of touchdown passes while playing as a quarterback or intercepting a billion passes as a defensive back, you have to interact with your team and establish a personality. You do this through various interviews, which give you specific answers that gear you toward a team-minded player or a Terrell Owens-like brat, as well as through a new influence system. In this system, every superstar has the ability to play certain roles on the field, and these roles range from, say, a field general for a quarterback to a possession receiver for a wide receiver to a rookie for, you guessed it, a rookie.