Reviewed: November 26, 2005
Released: November 17, 2005
At the risk of flogging a dead horse I just have to say I’m a huge fan of fair competition, so I was understandably upset when EA snatched up the NFL license for the next five years. After seeing what has become of their exclusive NASCAR license I had little hope for the future of NFL, at least until 2K Sports could rejoin the fight, but this past week spent with Madden NFL 06 on the Xbox 360 might just be the positive sign I needed to regain my faith.
Perhaps I’m still just in shock from that killer opening movie, a movie that I watch every time I load the game. If you aren’t totally motivated to play some football after seeing this intro then you have no soul and should probably just give up gaming and ship your Xbox 360 to our office immediately.
Let’s just get this out of the way up front. Madden is hands down the best looking sports game on the Xbox 360 at launch and probably lands in the top three best looking games for the entire launch library. Unlike other titles that hide behind their flashy facade, Madden basks in its own visual glory, stunning you with its beauty then kicking you in the groin (in a good way) with its gameplay.
I’ve been playing a lot of Midway’s Blitz: The League lately so I forgot what it was like to play a “real” football game. Not to detract from Midway’s offering – Blitz is a fine and fun game, but once you start exploring the wealth of gameplay options, massive playbooks, and some of the best presentation in the history of football, Madden will secure the top spot once and for all.
It’s all about the realism and EA went to all the major stadiums and measured and took photos and recreated them all in more detail than is really required. Then they went and photographed and cyber-scanned most of the NFL’s starting line-up; about 200 players in all including coaches. Hmmm…what about the cheerleaders?
Now that we have character models that look unmistakably like their human counterparts, you just need to add some stellar mo-cap to bring them to life and you won’t believe your eyes when you see these players move. You’ll swear you are watching a broadcast game. Even the most mundane of post-play animations look incredibly real.
The menu system for Madden pays tribute to the blade menus of the 360 interface. You navigate the sliding menus opening new ones as old one dim and slide away. It’s a brilliant design and totally intuitive making the most of what would otherwise be a complicated overload of information, especially in the franchise mode.
When you dig beneath the shiny new paint job you find at its core, some classic Madden gameplay, and that’s okay because if you already know and like how the game is played then you are ready to roll. There wasn’t much that needed to be improved anyway, and nothing really that the additional power of the Xbox 360 could offer.
Offense and defense flows smoothly and you can now pick your plays by type (great for novices), formation, coach recommendation or even ask Madden what he would do. There are even some plays based on specific players on certain teams. Pick your play, flip it if you like, override it with an audible, and hike the ball. You still have all the tools of the trade like Hit Stick, Vision Cone, Precision Passing, and True Stick.
One of the more interesting features is the new kicking system that “borrows” from the 2K Sports NFL games. Now that they are out of the NFL business nobody will care that you can use the two-part swinging arrow followed by the power meter kick system. It’s actually one of the easier kick systems of all the ones that have been tried.
There is a cool new damage system in place that borrows from Blitz. Hard hits can result in player injuries that are now shown with picture-in-picture X-rays; anything from cracked ribs, broken bones, or torn ligaments.
If you have been following the other EA Sports releases for the 360 you are probably wondering what got cut from Madden. Actually, the title survived the trip to the new system relatively intact, mostly because this is not a port, but rather a complete rebuild from the ground up. But some things are missing.
One of the most disturbing omissions is your inability to challenge a bad call. Now there are probably a lot of purists out there who don’t believe in instant replays, but this has become a part of the sport and you just can’t rip it away from a game that strives for this much realism.
Also missing are all those challenging mini-games from training camp. Not only is this a huge open wound in the single player game, it also eliminates a lot of the fun Madden fans had playing these games online. Now we'll actually have to play football.
The Owner mode is strangely absent, but there is a good Franchise mode and excellent support for Online Multiplayer. The Franchise mode appears to be easier than it really is just because of the fantastic new menu interface that makes wading through all that information fun and easy. The game tracks a phenomenal amount of data for all of your players for up to 30 years and you can go back and research this info whenever you like.
Taking your game online has never been easier with Xbox Live and you can easily find a game that matches your criteria or create your own and have it search for players. Using the new Live features you can also track the type of gamer you are looking for and avoid those posers who bail when they start to lose.
The level of detail in Madden NFL 06 is staggering. EA really wants to put you in the game and they have done just that. Player faces not only mirror their real-life counterparts, they also emote, even beneath the helmet, and don’t even get me started on the high-gloss headgear and textured uniforms, or the accumulation of dirt and grass stains over the course of the game.
There are subtle distinctions between the various grass types at the stadiums, and inclement weather like rain and snow are accurately modeled, both visually and for player performances. Watch as the ground takes a beating over the course of a game. You can actually tell where the majority of the plays are taking place by the wear on the field.
There is all sorts of stadium ambience including scoreboards, big screens, cheering crowds with hundreds of individual spectator models and plenty of activity along the sidelines. Stadiums like the Hoosier Dome and Soldier Field (places I have been to) look spot on and just wait until you see a night game with all of the floodlight effects.
Player animation has been taken to new heights of realism. Tackles actually connect and you can see contact points that are now based on limb on limb rather than a contact box around the entire player. If you grab a guy by the arm he will spin around or if you grab his legs he topples over.
Some of the best animation is after the snap where you can watch the linemen struggling to hold the defense back or check out more than 140 unique animations for just the receiver alone. Spins, jukes, dives, everything looks totally real and all the motion flows together seamlessly.
Again, the focus is on realism and EA recorded the voices for more than a dozen starting quarterbacks so when you hear them calling out their signals and audibles it really is them. The roar of the crowd rises and falls with the success and failure of the home team and the entire stadium can virtually come alive and overwhelm you if you aren’t careful.
There is some really good music that kicks in for the replays and the NFL film sequences. Plus the menu music is energetic and upbeat. It will definitely pump you up.
Madden offers a solid value for those looking for the basic football package. There will undoubtedly be those who grouse over the missing Owner mode and I will be more than happy to sign any petition you care to start to bring back the mini-camp. Of course if you must have all those things now you can settle for the inferior looking Xbox version.
The Franchise mode will keep you busy for months and there is no end in sight for the countless hours you can spend online or in the casual pick-up game with friends and family.
Here I was, all set to boycott NFL games for the next five years and all it took was one new game system and a copy of Madden NFL 06 to have me do a complete…err…180. That’s not to say I don’t miss the NFL 2K6 that will never be, and I won’t stop playing Blitz: The League anytime soon, but Madden has definitely found a permanent position in my Xbox 360 game library.
I'm glad to see that EA isn't taking their NFL exclusivity as a free ride to crank out mediocre sequels without fear of competition, and I really can't wait to see what they can do with the Madden franchise in 2007.