A real commitment to excellence.
As a combination Raiders and Cowboys fan (strange mix, I know), I'm not very excited about the upcoming football season. With Gannon at QB, the Raiders are destined to always do well in the regular season and choke miserably in the playoffs, while the Cowboys routinely stack up pretty evenly with teams like the Lincoln High School Trojans of Stockton, California.
And to make it worse, Michael Vick broke his leg. The most anticipated offensive phenomenon in football breaks his damn leg. Though he might recover in a few months, the 2003-2004 season is likely going to be a mixture of amazing defensive performances and crappy teams field-goaling each other to death. While I'm all for bone-jarring sacks and combo-tackles, nothing is more enjoyable than watching a dominant offense march over the fallen bodies of its adversaries on its way to the end-zone.
But there is another option in the backfield this year, and it's called Madden 2004. And it's the best football game you've ever played.
Not only has EA taken team micro-management to the next level with the outrageous Owner Mode, but they've also added a great gameplay feature called Playmaker, which will surely be ripped off left and right. Throw in tons of options, tons of modes and the kind of quality we've come to expect from this vaunted series, and it's easy to see why Madden 2004 is the best thing to happen to football since the '76 Raiders.
Each passing year brings some improvements to the series, but the new Owner mode takes sports management to a somewhat ridiculous, entirely brilliant level. You start off in Training camp, where you can mold player skills by engaging in mini-games. Next comes the Preseason, where you play games, tweak your roster and sign and trade like a demon.
Where things really start smoking is in the regular Season, when Madden 2004 suddenly becomes as much a 'park simulation' as a gridiron game. Though I sort of feel that the price of hot dogs at 3COM Park rings the same bell as the price of tea in China, in Madden 2004 you can actually agonize over such things. You literally build your stadium, place it in a city and then evaluate your expenditures and strategies from an economic perspective. Take out ads to boost attendance, raise or lower ticket and parking prices, tweak salaries – whatever you have to do to makes ends meet. If I were a parent and saw my kid seriously playing with Owner mode, I'd buy the little sucker a beer and a prostitute, because this goes beyond just being a game - it's a virtual business venture.
It's also a virtual miracle, the kind of gameplay enhancement that just begs to be stolen and poorly replicated by competitors. Kudos to EA for going the extra ten yards here.
But if you're not impressed with such details, never fear, because Madden 2004 comes packed with all the options and modes from past Madden games. Hop into Single Games, Playoffs, and of course Madden 101, where John Madden, Al Michaels and Melissa Stark walk you through some of Madden 2004's new features and how they work.
And after all, the gameplay is really what sets one game apart from the pack. Madden 2004 wisely builds on its fundamentally solid base with better coverage on defense and the terrific new Playmaker options.
In some senses similar to Freestyle mode of last year's NBA Live 2003, Playmaker is a new series of commands mapped to the right-analog stick. Given the context, a quick tap of the right stick can switch the direction of a run play, redirect blockers, change your primary receiver's route or dictate your defensive strategy.
The offensive Playmaker options are simple but surprisingly useful. The ability to quickly change the route of your key receiver can give an observant quarterback a nice, quick advantage over the defense without the ostentation of using hot-route commands (which are less subtle than Playmaker). During a running play, you can actually use Playmakers to point blockers in the right place, lending a great sense of realism.
Defensively, Playmaker is very handy if not terribly exciting. You can cheat to the strong or weak sides of the field before the ball is snapped, or to anticipate a run or pass immediately after the ball is snapped. While these aspects of defense marginally improve the defensive player's control over the field, they do even better things for the offense, specifically on play-action and draws plays. Now, when an offensive player executes a draw, he can almost count on the defender to over-commit to the pass upon seeing the icons appear, and run the ball an extra couple yards while the secondary gets back into position to top the run. In other words, it works just in the real world.
On top of the intuitive Playmaker options, the AI in general has noticeably improved. Some serious oomph is especially apparent on the defensive side of the ball, with corners who regularly intercept ill-advised passes. No longer can you just hit any receiver button when you're about to get sacked - you MUST throw the ball away or the defense will pick off your pass, which is a nice touch of realism. Other cool details include defenders sliding on their knees to catch passes and quarterbacks getting knocked into throwing bad passes.
Madden 2004 looks a lot like Madden 2003, which isn't a bad thing. A wealth of great new animations have been added, but some old annoying animations are still around (like getting tackled from the front and falling forward). The stadiums look great, the crowd looks a little better than usual and the game still looks a lot like Madden, with all three systems' versions looking almost exactly like one another.
But while all three console versions share graphics and gameplay, each comes with one exclusive feature. The Gamecube version lets you hook up your GBA to call plays in privacy, as well as getting suggestions from the computer. If you own the GBA version as well, you'll be able to unlock new teams.
It's a nice feature, but Gamecube owners can't help but be bummed out thatMadden 2004 is only playable online with the PS2 version. Given, getting the Gamecube online is neither easy nor common, but it doesn't change the fact that this is exactly the kind of game that deserves special online consideration.
Madden 2004's noises are indistinguishable from last year's version, although some mediocre pop plays while you navigate game menus prior to playing. Al Michaels' commentary is fine as usual and John Madden sounds like a total idiot. My theory is that the developers have done this on purpose. While Madden consistently and effortlessly make an ass of himself on television, his commentary in Madden 2004 is even worse than on TV because he tries to sound reasonable and pedagogical while making rambling, asinine comments. Maybe one day they'll figure out a way to make him sound cool.
As bad of an omen as it is to have Michael Vick on the cover of your football game, EA has managed to keep from tripping up on any details in this year'sMadden while adding some major new features. There is more virtual football reality available in this game than you could ever hope to find on TV, in the newspapers or on the internet. The lack of online play is a disappointment and keeps this version a notch below the superior PS2 one, but even so, this is a great football game and comes highly recommended to Gamecube football fans.