October 02, 2008
It’s that time of year again folks, update ... I mean, football season. I’m sure I don’t need to get into the pointless argument of whether a game played primarily with hands should be called football but suffice it to say that gridiron has always been something of an enigma to those of us dwelling outside of the U.S. Before I get a barrage of abuse thrown my way, let me just say that I’ve been playing Madden games in one form or another since way back in 1996 so I have a good twelve years worth of experience with the old pigskin. So I’ll take the snap, step back and survey what EA has thrown up in this year’s iteration of the most predictable entry on the release schedule.
I’m sure EA need no introduction. They’re responsible for some of the industry’s most recognised franchises, particularly when it comes to sports titles. The Madden series is celebrating twenty years on the market and, regardless of what you may think of the quality throughout that span, that’s one hell of an achievement right there (Twenty Years of Sequels – Achievement Unlocked). So let’s pop the hood on this bad boy and see what they’ve got running under there.
For most non-US residents Madden represents the only American Football game on the market and as such is kind of an enforced decision if we want to go head to head with the game's greats. In fairness, all pretenders to the Madden throne have pretty much failed to take off, mainly due to the fact Madden holds all the relevant licenses for players and teams, not to mention its established fan base. As with any kind of business and indeed any kind of sport, it’s your competition that makes you stronger. In this regard there is no real pressure on Madden to ever change its ways and try to expand or innovate too greatly. What we have here is a safe sequel that is practically indistinguishable from last year's offering and makes you wonder exactly what has been changed, if anything at all.
Obviously when you load the game up you’re greeted with a plethora of options, as you can instantly jump into a match or start up a franchise and try to take your favourite team all the way to the Superbowl. You can also take your skills online if you’re feeling confident about beating some of the world’s best players. For those of us with a more nerdish bent, you might decide to take a bit of time to tinker with your team, updating rosters and depth charts or even creating a team of your own design with the fluid create a player option. As ever the attention to detail is impressive and you can toy with your team to your hearts desire, then jump into a fully fledged season to see how they would perform.
I suppose I should get the obvious rant out of the way early, as there is absolutely no reason for this game to exist. Frankly, I’ve played every version of Madden that has appeared on the 360 and if I were to run them all side by side on identical televisions I wouldn’t have a clue which was which. When you are scrolling through the menus you’ll notice certain tags have a big "new" sign flashing next to them, it’s almost as if the developers are trying desperately to prove that something has changed. The changes themselves are superficial, a few new moves that can be flicked through with the right stick, slightly prettier graphics, updated rosters, improved commentary including play by play breakdowns with onscreen highlights and explanations of what just happened (in case you weren’t paying attention), and the option to perform a few different celebrations when you score a touchdown. Oh, and lest I forget, when you take a field goal a big old net appears behind the goalposts now to stop you knocking out someone in row Z. Thank goodness they finally got around to adding that particular gem.
There are only a few changes that seem to make any kind of real difference to this game when comparing it to its predecessors. The first being the clutch factor which you can turn on during your franchise season with quite interesting repercussions, as it results in teams playing better depending on the circumstances. If you are playing against one of your teams rivals or in a crunch play-off match, then the opposition will be more pumped up and likely to bring their A game. It makes things a bit more interesting but is more of a gimmick than a deciding factor in most matches. This aspect also ties in nicely with the new adaptive difficulty setting, which you can turn on to make the game match your skill level. To be honest, when I first saw this feature I was hoping it would do a bit more, like make the A.I. learn which plays you favoured and counter them more effectively, as a result, forcing you to constantly alter you plan of attack. Sadly this isn't the case as all that actually happens is the game alters the difficulty (while staying within the confines of the standard range from Rookie to All Madden) depending on how well or poorly you're doing. So all it is really accomplishing is that it saves you a trip to the options menu if you are trouncing (or being trounced by) the opposition. You now have a certain number of "Rewinds" during a game, which basically allows a replay of key moments of things that went wrong. If you are camped in the opposition's end-zone but then give up an interception, you have to chance to turn back time and take a different option. It’s an interesting idea but just doesn’t fit with a sports game, as it basically provides you a get out of jail free card to overwrite your mistakes ... you can even allow yourself infinite rewinds which basically reduces the challenge to zero as you can basically prevent any mistakes from creeping in. Surely part of the appeal of sport is the uncertainty of what might happen and in a single move that glorious uncertainty is all but replaced.
Now don’t get me wrong, this game provides a pretty damn good game of football. All of the teams are present and correct and you can get regular roster updates if you have online access. In fact the greatest selling point for series regulars is the fact you can now set up 32 player online leagues, complete with trades and real time statistics, it can bring the razzle dazzle of the league into your own home, assuming you can find enough regular players to keep things ticking over. When you are actually in a match you have a wide number of generic and some team specific plays to choose from and you can pick things up pretty easily as the controls are instantly accessible. The players look superb and the stadiums and weather effects have all been authentically modelled. As ever, the pre-match presentation is impeccable and the commentary, highlights and replays are superb, if a tad intrusive and repetitive at times. But it’s nothing you haven’t seen before and the fact you saw it in last years Madden game, rather than some kind of rival, is what really galls as you are being asked to pay $60/£40 for what is basically the same game.
The achievements on offer here could quite easily rival Madden 06 as some of the easiest available on the 360. After finally finishing my one hundred hour trawl to garner all of Blue Dragons achievements, I decided to wind down with some Madden. Four short hours later and the full one thousand points had been accomplished with the bare minimum of effort. Far from feeling satisfied, I felt a bit disappointed as the challenge on offer is non-existent. Most of the achievements just require you to score so many points or get so many yards and you can even accomplish most of them against a second controller which seems absurd. Part of me suspects the achievements have been made so easy on purpose, but that would just be way too cynical for anyone. Wouldn’t it?
This is not a bad game of football, in fact for most people it’s practically the only one they have a chance of playing but that doesn’t really excuse the same old game with a few brushes of paint. In the age of downloadable content there is no reason to see this game turning up year in, year out with a brand new price tag. The graphics are nice enough, the commentary and options are first class but if you own any other copy of Madden then you’ve seen it all before. The only excuse for people to buy this if they have a previous version is pretty much the online mode, but you'll need a full complement of 32 players to get the most out of the online league. At best you could rent this for some easy points, otherwise steer clear. You would have thought that on the 20th anniversary they would have done something special but this is just a shameless cash in. Again.
Probably one of the best commentary teams out there, and the play breakdowns are pretty informative and interesting. Does suffer from the age old flaw of repetition after a while but it never feels too intrusive.
Lovely to look at but only slightly glossier than last year, the weather effects and stadiums are a good touch but you don’t see them often enough for them to be too impressive.
Pretty much the best football game out there, but that’s mainly due to the lack of serious competition. Still it’s easy to pick up and play even for the most clueless beginner and with a superb online mode for serious players.
Covers all the bases in terms of presentation and options, with plenty to amuse pros and draw in the rookies. Sadly though it's nothing we haven't seen, say, twenty times before.
One of the worst EA collections yet, as things seem to have been dumbed down significantly and all of the tasks are supremely easy to accomplish. Four or five hours should see you through.
Individually this game should be superb and if you’ve never played a previous version this should be your first point of call. However, taken as part of a continuous series, this is a fairly pointless offering as it offers very little in terms of innovation. The online mode aside, how long can people go on producing the same games, year after year and just slapping a new number on the box?