(Let me start off by apologizing for this review being so late. Two weekends ago, right after taking Madden to review, I dunked on a basketball rim with a metal 'net' and shredded my right pointer [or trigger] finger. It opened a gash that required seven stitches, and left me unable to play video games. Now this begs several questions; I imagine your first question is “You can have an injury that keeps you from playing video games?”, followed by a gasp, and then passing out. My first question is “Why do they have metal basketball 'nets' to begin with?”, and especially at a retreat center in Marin County, California... the mean streets of Brooklyn I can see, but $%#@*& Marin? Anyway...)
So, here we are, twenty years of Madden. It's been on a lot of platforms, and heck, how many other game franchises have remained that relevant for that long? This is a particularly interesting time for the franchise, as it's in its third year on the high-def platforms. The balance and focus has clearly shifted to these next-gen versions, to the point that the PS2 and Xbox formats seem like an afterthought.
There are plenty of new additions to this year's release, and the focus seems to be on making the game easier for the casual gamer rather than hardcore Madden-ites. Since the game has already been out for a while, and people have read about or played it for themselves, I won't spend a lot of time talking about all of this year's new features. Instead, I'll highlight the two major ones and then address what doesn't change in Madden, particularly the computer's A.I..
The main new addition is the My Skill feature, which you begin at the start of the game by taking a Madden Test (that somehow looks a lot like the chess game from Star Wars) that analyzes your skill for each facet of football - running, passing tackling, etc. The results of this test become the baseline for the skill level you play on.
Though this addition is a good idea, it doesn't really work. It has merit because it (finally) allows a player to play at different difficulty levels for different parts of the game, which makes sense because someone (okay, me) who can play All Madden on offense might not be very good at, or interested in, the defensive side of the game. This customization to your specific interests and skills is always good for a sports game when it's implemented properly.
This skill-tracking system, however, is constantly active, so as you play the game, it continues to adjust to your skill level. If you get better at a particular facet of the game, that part of the game gets harder. While this might make sense in an RPG like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, the problem is that it undercuts the purpose of player ratings. If you have a stud QB making stud QB plays, the game adjusts to this, making you face harder and harder defenses (which are not actually based on the defense rating of the teams you're playing) until your stud QB is, well, not a stud. So what is the reward for actually getting better at the game?
Also, football is a game of ebb and flow. Sometimes a player or a whole team has a bad game – call it the “any given Sunday” factor. However, the game doesn't allow for this. If your RB is in a slump, the game becomes easier, and if he's hot, it gets harder. There's no room for realistic luck.
To help combat this, there are still sliders for you to adjust your own team's play but, inexplicably, the CPU sliders have been completely removed from the game. I cannot overstate how much this hurts the gameplay, especially for someone like me who primarily plays Madden against the computer (more on this later). If you want to, say, lower the CPUs interception rating (and you will want to), you can't, which means you're left facing sticky-fingered defensive players from every side of your opponent's defense.
Speaking of things that are missing, there is still no accelerated clock feature in this year's Madden, and this is the third incarnation of Madden in high-def. The lack of this feature means the CPU ALWAYS plays in hurry-up mode, which is contrary to the nature of the NFL where teams almost always hike the ball with fewer than ten second left on the play clock. This leads to long games and inflated statistics.
Also new is the Rewind feature, also known as the Madden addition guaranteed to cause more dorm room fistfights. Seriously, if you thought your opponent rewinding a particularly devastating play over and over was bad enough, knuckle up for this one, because here a player can actually erase a play altogether. Your "friend" didn't like your 99-yard TD bomb?... REWIND! Admit it, you'd punch Granny for rewinding that! Actually, I overstate the case, as what makes this feature work is that you can turn it off and on, allowing anywhere from 0 to unlimited uses per game, but still, friendships will end if players DON'T turn this to zero - count on it.
Now, onto (more of) my rant... er, criticisms. I've reviewed Madden before, and I always did so with the totality of the gaming world in mind. However, my finger is still throbbing, I'm hopped up on pain meds, and I'm tired of making excuses for a game that doesn't serve my particular gaming desires.
Yes, Madden looks great. Yes, football is a game that translates well to video games. Yes, EA does a semi-consistently good job of providing new features each year. Yes, millions of people buy and play Madden every year, seemingly without complaint. I get all that, and I think Madden has most of the features to be a great video game, but I'm consistently turned off by the game's continual problems with A.I..
To be clear, I usually play Madden against the computer, and I do so in the hope of being able to play an entire season, keep statistics, and at least have the experience resemble real football. What this means is that I like to play 15-minute quarters (with an accelerated clock!), and have the A.I. represent the current state of the NFL in a reasonable manner. Now, don't get me wrong, Madden's AI when playing against another player is very good (excellent even), and the game is determined – as it should be – by a combination of the players skill and the ratings of the players and the teams. This is as it should be.
But this summer, I had an epiphany. A younger cousin of mine from the East Coast visited me, and I asked him if he played Madden, to which he answered, “No, I stopped years ago, because I got too mad. That game cheats.” And that sums up where I've come to with Madden. I'm a stubborn dude - I'll bang my head against a wall or break a controller because I want Madden to be the game it should be, but the truth is I don't play Madden anymore, because the game's A.I. is atrocious.
Football is, as the cliché goes, a game of match-ups. If you have, say, a great WR lined up against a mediocre CB, you attack that weakness of your opponent, or if your opponent has a weak O-line, you pound the ball against it. It speaks to the very nature of the game, but this is where the Madden series has consistently dropped the ball, because when you play against the computer... the nature of football - nay, reality - and the games own ratings go out the window.
What do I mean exactly? Take playing against a CB like Champ Bailey, and his high rating: You basically cannot pass to his side of the field because he'll pick (almost literally) anything you throw near him. This may be frustrating, but it makes sense, since that guy is a “shut down” corner, much like he would be in real life. But if you have Champ swtich to your team, he gets beat like a dog all day long against receivers of any ilk. Gone is Champ, and in his place is Chump, the stumble bum. All of this because the computer's AI is too lazy to have consistent results, regardless of whether you or the computer controls a particular player.
How much do I hate Madden's AI in single-player mode? Let me count the ways. On kick-offs, the computer breaks tackle after tackle to get in a long run. You break no tackles, get knocked down if you're breathed on, and fumble if you even look at the break tackle button. The computer's offensive linemen with speed ratings of 55 catch your WRs with speed ratings of 95 from behind. The makeup AI is so absolutely out of control, it makes the game nearly unplayable. Got a scrub team battered in the 4th quarter? Be prepared for their 78-rated QB to put up 300 yards and three TDs to make it close, to keep the game interesting. But that's really a lie: It's not “interesting"; it's just Maddening.
I could go on (and on and on) about the A.I., so I'll leave it at this: When you play Madden against the computer, all the good the game has established – how it looks and feels like real football, how it moves and plays like current players – can be knocked into the wind at any given moment. Now to be fair, the addition of the Rewind feature helps alleviate a lot of this because, instead of having to reset a game based on a ridiculous play by the computer, you can simply erase it. Still, that you have to edit your own game to make it realistic is a problem, as is having the ability to temper the game's
cheating inconsistent A.I. by changing a few sliders.
For years Madden has been improving visually and adding features, but to what end? What you're left with every year is a game with a split personality: An awesome football game that's great to play with your friends or even online, but makes you want to smash your machine if you ever play against the computer.