The Good, The Pretty Good, and The Mediocre
In the realm of landmark birthdays associated with young adulthood, eighteen sits low on the totem pole, lacking the excitement that accompanies turning sixteen (when you’re legal to drive!!) and twenty-one (when you’re legal to drink!!!!). Sure, a responsible adult is happy for their right to vote (after all, people did die for us to have it) but being eighteen isn’t about being responsible, it’s about doing fun stuff, like driving (legally) and drinking (illegally) … just hopefully not in combination with one another.
[image1]What’s my point? Well, this year the John Madden football video game franchise can legally vote, buy porn, and get drafted. Yup, it’ll be eighteen years this December since the franchise first hit the market 1989, which may have been the most exciting thing that happened that year. Coincidentally, it was also the year I turned eighteen.
That’s the thing about Madden: if you’re a male age 10-40, you’ve probably played it and you’ve probably played it a whole lot, over a whole lot of years. It’s become more than a video game, having long ago crossed over to being a pop culture phenomenon. I actually remember exactly where I was and who I was with the first time I saw Madden being played, which was also the first time I saw the Sega Genesis. Suffice to say, I would go on to spend many hours with both. Well, the Genesis has gone the way of the Baltimore Colts, but Madden has remained a part of my life pretty much from that day forth.
This little trip down memory lane is not for nothing as the Madden franchise, like all video games, is at a crossroads as we enter the high definition level of gaming with the Xbox 360 and Playstation3 at the same time as Nintendo is attempting to revolutionize gaming with the interactive Wii, and the Playstation2 is still hanging in there... in a hundred million households. Despite the divergent systems and their place in the market, Madden hit all four last week.
Recently, EA has been adding something new to the game, basically so the title appears to be more than just an annual roster update. This year they are trying to appeal to the less than fervent gamer, as the main addition is the Player Matchup system, wherein you can – at the line of scrimmage – press a button and see what match ups favor your team (or vice-versa), and make adjustments accordingly. This is done by assigning certain players (such as smart QB). What ensues is a chess match not unlike real football, where you try to shift players, call audibles, etc. in order to create favorable matchups. Of course, any Madden player worth his salt did this by studying his own and his opponents depth charts, but as I said, it’ll be a boon for the more casual gamer.
In the interest of full disclosure, I personally don’t care about playing as a superstar, I don’t want to play as a blocking fullback, I don’t want to control passing cones, I’m not particularly fond of the Hit (AKA fumble) Stick, and I don’t care how much my team charges for a soda. All I want, and have ever wanted, out of the Madden franchise is to be able to play a full season (or twenty) as my favorite team, using fifteen minute quarters, and have it play out at least reasonably statistically accurate. And, indeed, Madden NFL 08's mechanics work very well when playing against other humans, whether online or in the same room. Unfortunately, when playing against the computer, the A.I. is – in a word – horrendous.
[image2]In this regard, Madden has always struck me as the video game equivalent of the Hollywood blockbuster where they spend 100 million dollars on the special effects another 50 million on the marketing, and 20 million for a major actor to star … but only .27 cents on the script. In other words, for all its polish and evolution, Madden has always failed on the most basic level. Despite all the bells and whistles added to Madden over the years we’re left with what amounts to a big budget movie with a dog crap story: a beautiful looking football game that should be awesome but a serious flaw on the most basic level, that of gameplay.
The reality is that when playing against the computer, the game doesn’t play like real football, and that’s due to the game’s propensity for making games “interesting” by basically cheating. Back in college we (all the guys on my dorm’s floor) even referred to this as the "Madden cheat” which at the time (and we’re talking Madden ’93 here) consisted of a running back busting through the line, taking four hundred hits (okay, more like twenty), shrugging them all off and taking off for the end zone. This resulted in more than a few curse words, and several broken controllers. One would like to think that over the years the problem would have been fixed, but really it hasn’t.
As example of this phenomena take a player like the Denver Bronco’s Champ Bailey (one of the best players in this year’s game, with a player rating of 99). When you play against the computer controlled Denver Broncos, you pretty much can’t pass to the receiver Bailey is covering, because he’s just that good. This is how it should be, what with his being a shut down corner. It makes sense in that it plays like real football.
However, play a game with the Broncos and suddenly Champ Bailey gets beaten like he got caught stealing on a regular basis, regardless of the receiver he’s covering. He gets beaten short, he gets beaten deep, he gets beaten physically (overpowered), he gets beaten mentally (he runs around in circles while the receiver streaks past him), he gets beaten by bad receivers with bad QB’s, he gets beaten by … well, you get the point. In other words, he’s decidedly NOT Champ Bailey, at least not when he’s on your team. In other words, it doesn’t play like real football, it plays like a game that tries to make the computer competitive by disregarding it’s own ranking syatem.
In fact, when playing against the computer (again, my primary mode of playing this game) it’s always struck me that the player ratings for your own team mean next to nothing. You get dominated at the line of scrimmage, your secondary runs around like they have their head’s up their posteriors, you get completely outplayed on special teams, your middle linebackers (who record almost NO tackles, which is completely contrary to … well, the reality of football) get knocked on their keisters by the wimpiest running backs, your wide receivers run away from the ball while the DB’s run towards it, etc. I could go on but I’m getting so aggravated I may go downstairs and throw a controller … and I’m not even playing right now!
[image3]Unfortunately, or maybe just naturally (given that the system is on the way out), the Playstation 2 version of Madden 08 suffers from this affliction in spades, as have all its predecessors. In fact, this year’s version is remarkably similar to last year’s, except for the addition of the matchup button, which – given the nature of the cruddy AI – doesn’t really mean much. After all, what does it matter if a DB is marked as a shut down corner when the computer can arbitrarily decide to negate any player rating by having – for example – an offensive lineman, with a speed rating of 55, chase down a cornerback with a speed rating of 95, from behind?
Regardless, it’s still Madden, so if you’re primarily going to play against friends or online and liked Madden 07, then it’s a good buy because – after all – you do get that roster update you’ve been waiting on since your team flamed out in the playoffs and turned over half its roster. The graphics are the same, the player movement is the same, the sound is the same, it's all the same. So, if like last year, you can stand having 40 plays run in the last minute of every half, wonky AI, terrible special teams play, etc. by all means have at it.
The Wii version of Madden 08 has the same problem with the computer AI, but instead of being basically a rehash of last year’s game, offers an entirely different gaming experience. The use of the motion control system is nicely incorporated and, for the most part, intuitive. It takes some adjusting, but eventually you’re hitting your tight end over the middle not with the mash of a button but rather with the flick of the wrist.
The main issue with the Wii is that in order to play Madden 08, you basically have to learn an entirely different control scheme, and the payoff for that depends on whether you think using the motion control system is worth it, because rather than the step up in graphics the 360 and PS3 versions provide, you get – at best – a sideways graphical experience.
However, since the Wii is a unique animal it goes even further in terms of opening the game up to the more casual gamer – by offering the choice of playing via the Family Mode, which means you only use the Wii controller sans the nunchuk, offering a simplified gaming experience. I can see Madden 08 on the Wii appealing to the Wii Sports players who aren’t looking for an in-depth football experience, but rather just want to have some fun throwing the old virtual pigskin around with friends, which is really what the Wii is all about.
For me, however, relearning how to play a game I’ve been buying for years needs far more of an incentive than the Wii provides, and that’s where the Xbox 360 version Madden 08 comes in. Last year's Madden 07 was a waste of money, as the game was rife with frame rate issues, funky animation, and overall bad presentation. Ultimately, I found it worse than the PS2 version of Madden 07.
[image4]The good news is that unlike last year’s version of Madden, this year’s has smoothed out all the frame rate issues and funky player movements. In fact, the entire game looks and plays considerably better, to the point that it’s definitely the best looking Madden to date. Better yet, the AI issues that have been, to me, the fly in the Madden soup for years have actually been addressed on the 360! That’s right, many of the computer AI issues I complained about earlier have been cleaned up, which is where I have long preferred the developers spend their energies instead of delivering “innovations” that I have no use for.
The special teams AI, however, remains consistent with the PS2 version (read: it’s horrible) so there is still room for improvement. Also, another major complaint: where’s the accelerated clock feature? This is a major element in keeping a game played with fifteen minute quarters statistically accurate and it’s missing from the 360 version! EA, bring this back (please?) and you'll have an even better game. Still, even with these flaws, this is – FWIW – the version that I’ll be keeping and playing a hole in.
Finally, the PS3 version is identical to the 360 in terms of options and A.I., unfortunately the similarity ends as soon as you look at the screen. It only runs at half the framerate (which is less noticeable than you'd think) and is distinctly blurry and choppy, with longer load times (which will drive you crazy). Just like Madden 07 on the 360, it's probably suffering from first-timer's disease.
[Editor's Note: The grades are different for all these different versions of Madden NFL 08, please make sure you are reading the right one.]
John Madden football has been a part of my life for nearly half the years I’ve been alive. Like any old friend, it’s been a combination of annoying, comforting, fun, and frustrating. The good news is that this old friend seems to be trying to change for the better, at least on the 360 (and almost assuredly on the PS3 … eventually) and that’s great. Even with its questionable A.I., I bought it every year for eighteen years, which is either a testament to top notch branding or my own stubbornness, and it’s always provided me with hours of entertainment (if a few broken controllers). So, you can imagine how excited I am by the future of the madden franchise on next gen systems. All that's left is for Madden to apply for a credit card, buy a pack of cigs, show up for jury duty, and get a damn job, you lazy bum.