Not enough bang for the buck
If it's not broken, don't fix it. That's most likely the thinking going on down at EA Sports. The Madden line of football games has been one of the most popular and has obtained many loyal fans for several years now. I can even remember playing a Madden game on the original Nintendo. Ahh, the good 'ol days.
Madden 64 is of course markedly different from that version, but not much has changed since the '97 game released a year ago. The most noticeable difference is that this game is not licensed by the NFL. The crew at Acclaim must have deeper pockets. But what true game player cares about licenses? Not me, but I digress...
The 64 system gives the programmers at EA lots of power to play with, and the graphics in the opening scene tell it all. The gameplay graphics are a slight let down after watching the opening movie, but, as you would expect, are still a large improvement over any SNES football game. The players are too blocky for my taste and surprising considering the power of the system. Motion capture helps in terms of realistic movements, but with the budget these guys have, you'd think they could hire more than one athlete (Andre Ware). On one play, Jerry Rice caught the ball on the sideline and continued out of bounds. There was a pathetic representation of a Line Judge directly in front of the player, but he just disappears as the player runs right over him. Eventually the ref reappeared, standing there staring ever vigil at the field even after the play is over (only one referee moves in this game). I'd kind of like to see some of the humor of the NFL enter the video game market. Rice could have run over the ref, sending his striped hat flying. True this really has nothing to do with a nickel setting, but it is one of the little things that could make this game shine amongst others.
All 10 of the buttons on the 64 controller (as well as the control stick/pad) are used at various points in this game, making coordination a must to get the Lions into the Superbowl this year. Some player moves available this year are the power surge, jump (to catch or block), hurdle, lateral, stiff-arm, swim, and dive. A new feature this year is the QB's touch pass: depending how long you hold the button, the pass will be lobbed, slightly arched, or bulleted. I played a few games coaching Green Bay, and Favre's power is not misrepresented.
Some of the nicer touches in this game include the large number of classic and fantasy rosters, the ability to manage a team as well as coach it (i.e. toy with trade deadlines, salary cap restrictions, and schedules), and an instant replay system that would make the NFL jealous. The commentary is thankfully under your control - just turn it off if it drives you crazy. Pat Summerall is tolerable, but if you let John talk, believe me, you'll think twice about keeping the maddenisms come half-time.
Also new to is the 'Helmet' cam, a first person view that puts you right in the middle of the action. While a nice idea, it is really hard to get the hang of and only serves to show the polygonal errors up close. We're still a long way from the kind of immersion that a helmet cam can offer.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and examining this game after its production has lead me to a few "constructive" criticisms. Primarily, the lack of audible plays (there are only three available). Unfortunately, this is one of the things that remains from the older versions. Also, seeing as how this is not the real deal and just a video game, I usually like to try a little trickery here and there (usually on special teams plays). There are only two options for fake punts or P.A.T.'s - somewhat limiting. Having all of the plays in the manual wouldn't hurt either, as time to choose just the right play is limited. Having a limited amount of time to call a play is realistic, but in the real world, the coaches know all the plays before they start. Lastly, the distance between the QB and receivers makes switching to another player down field in the middle of a play difficult to master. This is apparent on defense when changing from a lineman to a cornerback. I found myself being called for pass interference because I could not see what was going on.
Fans of the Madden series will definitely be in heaven with the newest, smartest, and most beefy version of the Madden line ever produced. Fans of football, video game technology, better gameplay, and official versions of things: take a look at NFL Quarterback Club '98.