Just in time for NFL training camp is the latest edition of EA Sports' football juggernaut, Madden NFL 06. With last year's Madden NFL 2005 focusing heavily on improving the defensive game and overall presentation of the series, while not necessarily adding any grand, new game modes to the package, 06 shifts the other way, going out of its way to specifically work on the offensive side of the ball by debuting all-new passing controls. On paper, all the additions and changes sound like fine improvements, but the end result isn't nearly as impressive as it seems like it ought to have been. In fact, Madden 06 comes off as a somewhat unfocused and unpolished piece of work, which is sort of a shocking revelation for a brand that's ridden high on its level of quality for so many years. Ultimately, Madden NFL 06 is a highly playable game of football, but in comparison with the leaps forward the franchise has made in previous years, 06 feels like a false start.
The new quarterback vision feature will either be something you grow to enjoy over time, or it will become the bane of your existence.
For years now, the one aspect of Madden's gameplay that's barely seen an ounce of alteration is the passing game. That can be said for just about any football game of the last decade or so, too. Even with the additions of things like hot routes and formation shifts, the basic act still entailed snapping the ball, looking for an open receiver, and then pressing the button that corresponded to said receiver. Bing, bang, boom. But this year, the developer has completely changed the ebb and flow of how you pass the ball in a football game. Now, each and every quarterback is given a field of vision, represented by a cone of light on the field that highlights exactly what your QB can see. Quarterbacks with higher ratings (especially ratings higher in the "awareness" category) will get bigger fields to work with--like Tom Brady, Brett Favre, or Peyton Manning--whereas less-aware quarterbacks get a decidedly smaller field to work with, and sometimes can't see beyond a single receiver. When you first snap the ball, you'll be locked on to a primary receiver. But by moving the right control stick around, you can move your view to another receiver, should you need to. And trust us when we say you will.
Just like in the real-life NFL, reading a quarterback's eyes is a big part of playing defense. As such, the defenders in Madden 06 have the innate ability to see where your QB has his focus fixed, and they will predictably try to get a jump on the ball. To combat this, you'll need to look off defenders, either by moving to another receiver entirely or just by quickly flicking the stick back and forth to momentarily confuse them. You can opt to have the vision automatically snap to a specific receiver, rather than fumbling with trying to manually aim the stick, by holding down the right trigger button and then pressing the button assigned to that receiver. But then you have to let up on the trigger and press the receiver's button again. And you must do all this very quickly, for while the scope of things you have to do to get a ball into a receiver's hand this year has gotten more methodical in nature, the speed of the game has not.
And therein lies the folly of quarterback vision. While there's no arguing that the feature itself is realistic and adds complexity to the passing game as a whole, it doesn't exactly make it more fun, necessarily. The whole song and dance you have to go through to get the cone to switch to a receiver post-snap lends itself to you taking a whole lot more sacks than you might be used to, and even just trying to move the stick around manually is a clunky affair in the early goings. It's pretty much a necessity to keep the receiver you're throwing to in your line of sight, because if you don't, you'll throw the lamest of lame ducks, the likes of which you probably can't even fathom until you've seen it. So really, there's no room for error. By no means is the passing game unplayable now. Quite the contrary. There will just likely be quite a bit of practice time needed for the average football game fan to get accustomed to this newfangled cone, and some may even grow to enjoy it for its inherent complexity. Though conversely, others will have little more than utter disdain for it. So perhaps for this reason, the game has an option to turn off the passing cone altogether...though doing so will leave you with a game that feels practically identical to Madden NFL 2005 in every conceivable way.
To be fair, there are some other additions to the gameplay, most of which are relatively small, but almost all of which fare better than the QB vision. The other big quarterback-related addition is precision passing. Basically, by pressing the left control stick left, right, up, or down while passing, you can lead your pass ahead, behind, just above, or just below your targeted receiver's chest. This lets you lead your passes where the defenders can't get them. While it might seem a little odd at first, it's actually a pretty simple mechanic, and it works wonders when done correctly. Another neat addition is the smart route system. Here, by pressing a couple of buttons before the snap, you can tell a receiver to run past the first-down marker before breaking off into his assigned route. This is great for situations where you've got a perfect play picked out, but the ideal receiver is set to run a route that doesn't go past the marker. Though some routes seemingly can't be altered, most key ones can, and, again, this works great. For ball carriers, the big new change this year is the truck stick. It's like the hit stick on defense, but instead of tackling, you press the right control stick forward to try to bowl over a defender. Like the hit stick, it requires some good timing to be effective, and frankly, there are times when it seems like the stick isn't really doing anything at all. But then there are other times when you can see your running back knock a guy back flat on his ass. And that's damn satisfying.
Keep on truckin'.
On the defensive side, apart from a few obscure artificial intelligence tweaks here and there, nothing's really changed at all. All the customization aspects that debuted in Madden 2005 are back again, and they all work fundamentally the same. While it's clear that the focus of development in 06 was the offense, it might have been nice to have made just a change or two to the defensive system. But hey, at least the defense is still fun.
Unfortunately, Madden NFL 06 also has a few gameplay bugs and glitches on both sides of the ball that dampen the experience somewhat. Most of these are pretty minor things, like draw plays where--every single time--your quarterback's vision will be focused straight ahead, as opposed to focusing in the direction of a particular receiver. This makes it blatantly obvious what you're doing, giving your opponents a great opportunity to come thundering after you. Finally, there are still some AI glitches here and there where running backs will get stuck behind offensive linemen, linemen will get stuck trying to block defenders, and so on. While no specific one of these bugs completely wrecks the game or anything, the combination of multiple issues like these makes Madden 06 seem sloppier than in recent years.
So, Madden still plays great, despite its rough edges. It just isn't much of a leap forward from the last game. Unfortunately, the same can easily be said of the play mode front as well. All the usual suspects--the franchise mode, minigames, quick play, online, create-a-fan--are back. And they're all the same. There are no new minigames whatsoever, and the franchise mode looks like it could easily have just been lifted right out of 2005 and plunked down into 06. Even the Tony Bruno radio dialogue that plays through much of the franchise mode seems largely lifted from 2005, and the parts that are clearly new don't come across any differently or any more interesting than the old stuff. Owner mode's been completely untouched, the free agency period still comes after the draft, for some reason, and you still can't sign more players past the maximum of 54, even if you put half your roster on injured reserve. In short, if it was in Madden 2005's franchise mode--even if it was buggy or broken--it's in this version too. Of course, we loved Madden 2005's franchise mode, and it's still great fun to play with here. But the fact that hardly a single iota of it was even tweaked or marginally fixed up is disappointing.
When was the last time you saw negative passing stats during a TV broadcast?
The online play comes across similarly unmolested. Apart from an egregiously long sign-up process on the PlayStation 2 that forces you to make the best of a no-win situation by making you choose to either pay $2 via credit card or agree to get spammed by ESPN mailings to register your account, the online works just as it did last year. You can jump into a quick game, create your own, or hang out in a lobby with other players, chatting about whatever while a sports ticker goes by. The online play is predictably smooth, functioning just how you'd want online competitive football to be on the PlayStation 2 or Xbox (the GameCube version is, unsurprisingly, lacking in the online department). The one addition made this year to the mode is the EA sports locker. It's a sort of hub area where your friends can access files you leave for them, and likewise, you can do the same in their lockers. One of those files you can upload is a franchise mode game. The notion here is that your friends will download your franchise games, play them, reupload them to you, and then you can insert them back into your franchise mode offline. Why would anyone want to go through such a convoluted process to play offline franchise mode games? Don't ask us. But hey, the option's there if you're into it.
With all that said, there's one big game mode debut in Madden NFL 06 in the form of the superstar mode. The premise here is actually a fairly ingenious one. In franchise mode, you can manage the day-to-day tasks of an NFL team to your heart's content. In the create-a-player mode, you can model a player after your own likeness or any likeness you prefer. Why not smash them together into one thing? The superstar mode is a way for you to take your created player and send him off into the gauntlet that is the NFL, free to develop your career however you choose. You can be a stand-up guy with a "go team" attitude, or you can be the me-first-minded egomaniac who's constantly complaining about coaches and guaranteeing Super Bowl wins. Hell, who wouldn't love to live the fabulous lifestyle of an NFL superstar? That's what makes the mode such a brilliant idea in concept...and such a colossal failure in execution.