Another end-zone celebration.
There's a fine line between being confident and being cocky, a fact proven most recently by the fall of Roy Jones, Jr. The man who was once the greatest fighter in the world wound up kissing the canvas thanks to a solid punch by a hungrier opponent, revealing once and for all that being a champion takes more than past accomplishments: it takes poise under pressure and a watchful eye on the competition.
And when it comes to staying ahead of the field, few video games are as competent as Madden, the reigning pigskin gaming champ for well over a decade now. The competition waxes and wanes, but year after year, Madden games dominate sales charts and gamer's shelves like the fat man himself dominates a plate of buffalo wings.
But it isn't easy keeping up the killer instinct, and after the amazing Madden 2004, it's not entirely surprising that Madden 2005 doesn't seem very concerned about the competition. EA was content to beef up the defense and tweak the Franchise mode while allowing Madden's solid gameplay and depth to hold back the tide of ESPN NFL 2K5 and its stunning price tag.
Yet before trudging into the murky, comparative waters, let's check out Madden's new features. Although there aren't any new modes, there are two new mini-games. Rushing Attack matches a center and a running back against three defensive players. The running side gets points for long runs and touchdowns, while the defensive side gets points for fumbles and tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Then the sides switch, and whoever accrues the most points after playing both sides wins. This little game can be played online against a human player and is a great way to practice running the football.
The other game, Two-Minute Drill, is similar to Rushing Attack in that each side has two minutes to do what they can on offense, and then switch to defense. Big plays and touchdowns on offense equal points, whereas stops and sacks score for the defense. It's not quite as interesting as Rushing Attack, but does add some arcade flair to what is otherwise a fairly complex simulation.
Pretty much every other mode is the same as it was last year except for Madden's Franchise mode, which adds two new features: Player Morale and Storyline Central.
Player Morale is essentially a representation of how your player is feeling. A player who is down in the dumps usually won't play up to his potential, so as a GM you need to keep track of all the factors that might make a player blue and either take care of him or replace him. The factors that will affect your players are realistic and can lead to common real-life issues.
It's still very much a feature in its infancy, however. For example, a player with low morale won't start fights within the organization and create media controversies ala Terrell Owens that will bring down the morale of the entire team. Morale is most affected by winning and losing, and in a game where the Chicago Bears can easily beat the Philadelphia Eagles with the right player at the controls, morale isn't nearly the issue it should be.
Player Morale is integrated into the new Storyline Central feature, which is comprised of three aspects: national and local newspaper articles, e-mails, and a radio show hosted by Tony Bruno. The national newspaper clippings tell you what sorts of issues other teams around the league are having, while the local newspapers clue you in to what the important issues are for your own team. In the pre-season, this mostly means position battles. If you've got a couple quarterbacks vying for the number one spot, an article in the local paper will say something like "so-and-so is competing with so-and-so for the starting quarterback position." Although these articles are short and rarely interesting, they usually cover the issues you should be focusing on as a GM, helping you figure out where to focus your time and attention.
The e-mails serve the same purpose. If a player has low morale and isn't getting the play-time he thinks he deserves, you'll get e-mails from his agent to the same effect. Like the newspaper articles, the e-mails, are colorless, abrupt and practical.
Serious football nerds will dig the new radio show, which plays at the beginning of every week and usually involves an interview, some trivia, or a random irate call. Most of it is pretty general, especially Bruno's coverage of events occurring around the league. However, it's pretty clear that everything that was recorded for the show a month or two ago as it doesn't take into account any of the most recent developments, such as Quincy Carter getting cut, Eddie George being signed by the Cowboys or Ricky Williams' retirement. As a result, this portion of the game feels dated right off the bat.
Madden 2005 also lets players create custom fans. While a cute addition, it's just a cosmetic update that has no bearing on the gameplay. You can't make any female fans, or really scary-looking fans, nor can you make children. If I could make a fat husband and wife with six little kids all painted like the legion of doom, I would be more excited.
The far more interesting changes to Madden 2005 are in the gameplay, all of which are on the defensive side of the line. The most accessible new feature is the "hit stick.' Now, instead of running or leaping at a ball-carrier, you can press the right stick in their direction for greater impact and possibly a fumble or a dropped pass. It's useful for ruining the offense's ability to complete a pass (defensive CPU players will hit-stick the snot out of you on high difficulty settings), but the hit-stick fails to address a much more common problem in football game tackling: accuracy. While I appreciate the ability to slam a helpless receiver, the ability to put a sure hit on a ball-carrier is of greater import.
Another new defensive play mechanic is the ability to strafe, finally allowing you to face the quarterback and thus be in a better position to pick-off or swat the ball. It only works in conjunction with movement, so if you reach a spot and want to turn around to make a play on the ball, you must make the turn while moving. At any rate, it's a good addition.
But the deepest defensive addition is the new hot-route system. Now, players can quickly tell their line to slam right, left, forward, or drop back. You can command a right or left LB blitz, an all-LB blitz, or have all LBs drop back into zones. Go ahead and tell any specific player to blitz, or send them into one of three zone coverages on the fly. You can even set corners to specific receivers, double team, and play tight or loose coverage.
The trick is, you have to get it all done before the quarterback snaps the ball. Fortunately, most hot-route commands can be entered as soon as the screen switches from play-calling to gameplay, giving you at least four or five seconds to enter commands before the quarterback even gets a chance to call for the snap. As a result, you can quickly tailor your defense to match your opponent's offense, ultimately making for a more playable and more competitive game.
Obviously the offense needs to deal with this, so they've also added the new ability to call formation shifts without changing the play itself. This can be useful if, for example, you see the defense is stacked for a blitz and you want better pass protection. By changing the formation and then setting some hot-routes for blockers, you can quickly change your offense to match your opponent's defense.
Another new offensive tidbit is the option route. Usually reserved for tight-ends attempting to find holes in a zone, these are indicated on the play-calling screen as an orange route with two branching dotted orange lines. Ideally, the receiver will run part of the route, decide which option will leave him most open, and run there. That can be a strain on the A.I., though; I've had it backfire plenty of times as the option receiver ran into coverage, ironically leaving me with fewer options instead of more.
Aside from these new tweaks, Madden's gameplay is nearly identical to what we've seen for the last couple of years, which means it's still the best in the business. The running game is solid, the passing game is solid, and now playing defense is a bit more solid. However, post-snap defense still isn't very fun. You can hit harder and strafe, but neither of these do enough to make actually playing defense in Madden qualify as enjoyable.
Graphically, Madden 2005 hasn't changed at all from last year. The Xbox version clearly looks the best, whereas the PS2 and GC versions are far less detailed. There are some nice new animations and things generally look good, but I think EA should take a cue or two from the Dead or Alive series and really work on its hottie technology, because the cheerleaders in Madden are freakish in a very bad way.
Madden 2005 doesn't sound much different, either. Some new poppy radio tracks have been added, and John Madden and Al Michaels do a fine job commenting on the games. Sure, Madden rambles and gets really redundant, but he's been doing that for years. Who am I to complain?
The online mode is solid and very functional for both the PS2 and the Xbox versions of the game (poor GC gamers get shafted again). Players can join quick matches, optimatches, tournaments, or screw around with Rushing Attack. However, as of yet there is no League Play. According to EA, League Play will become available when "Premium Pass" goes live in late August. This is basically a online feature that costs twenty bucks a year, giving members all sorts of perks, such as personalized career pages, an EA calendar, and early registration for the Madden Challenge (a 32-city competition that will ultimately decide the best Madden footballer in the nation).What this means is that online league play is not currently available for Madden 2005, and that eventually it will cost you money.
When Premium Pass does become available this month, though, players will be able to sign up for one entire year free of charge thanks to a deal between EA Sports and Dodge. I'm not sure what this is going to mean visually, but according to the EA website, it sounds scary: "The Dodge sponsorship of the EA SPORTS Premium Pass will not only provide gamers enhanced gameplay features, customization, and content, but also reach our targeted audience and generate awareness of the Dodge brand in a unique, powerful, and persistent way." Yikes!
Madden NFL 2005 marks yet another excellent entry into the famous series, but doesn't deviate much from the path laid out by Madden NFL 2004. It actually offers less new material than ESPN NFL 2K5, which struck a chord with its VIP system and Weekly Prep. However, Madden's gameplay is more consistent and more solid than ESPN's, especially in terms of playbook depth and passing, and ultimately that's what distinguishes the champ from the challenger.