Beware the dangers of rapid weight loss.
“With great power comes great responsibility.” Right after Uncle Ben said those wonderfully trite words, he got shot and robbed. The irony there had never occurred to me until I played EA’s new-ish Madden NFL 06 for Xbox 360. EA certainly holds great power in the video game industry, with more money than god, but they don’t have any sense of responsibility. Instead, they’ve gone and shot their best franchise in the foot while trying to rob gamers of sixty bucks. The jury’s out on whether or not they shot Uncle Ben, too.
By proxy of the increased cost of Xbox 360 games, Madden NFL 06 asks for more money than any Madden game, ever, yet provides the thinnest Madden yet, missing a great deal of content from past titles, wrapped in a presentation that makes Kyle Boller look consistent. Yes, the engine renders players in incredible detail and yes, the traditional Madden gameplay is intact. The essentials are all here and just as much fun as they always have been. But for more money, you want more fun, and Madden NFL 06 somehow gives you less.
So how much is less? Try Exhibition mode, Franchise mode and Online play – in other words, a PSP’s worth of content on your Xbox 360. It makes sense to strip all the extras out when you’re trying to cram a burly game onto a handheld, but our Xbox 360 has a 20 GB hard drive and more power than any system before it.
The stripping is actually metaphysical, as they didn’t just cut modes, they cut modes within modes. During the Franchise pre-season, you can play games and make trades, and during the season you can play games and make trades. There’re no more spring training drills, no goals to meet, no mini-camp, no morale to manage, no practices to schedule – this really is the PSP franchise, but on a $400 new console.
Since there’s no compelling reason to play the Franchise, you can just play Exhibitions or Online games instead. We were hoping for more from the Live! content considering what EA didn’t do for their Franchise, but instead it’s more of the same lobbies, Optimatches and rankings that have been available in Madden games for years. It works well enough, but doesn’t go very big. Did I mention the PSP version is also online?
At least the Xbox 360 version plays well. The only difference between the current-gen and the next-gen is that there’s no such thing as playmaker defense in the future. This was a nice initial addition that sadly goes the way of the dodo, but aside from this small step backward, everything you could do on either side of the ball in the console versions is included in this one. Though not defaulted on, the vision cone is back and can be toggled with a tap of a button. On offense, you can still call audibles, send men in motion and players on hot-routes, or on defense shift your players, show blitzes and re-align your guys to match up with their opponents. If you’d like a more detailed look at how Madden 06 plays on the Xbox 360, check out our Xbox review. I can’t believe I just wrote that.
Really the only concrete change to the play mechanics is in the kicking game. Not that it was needed, but the change is still for the better. Before kicking, you’ll have to aim by pressing a button to stop a swinging arrow. From there, the arrow becomes a power bar, rapidly filling and emptying. It’s not as elegant as the previous version, but this new take works because it provides more room for the skill of the kicker and the pressure of the moment to influence the action of the play mechanic. Way to settle for a field goal, EA.
With otherwise identical play mechanics, it may shock you to hear that this version features a totally new engine. So what does all this horsepower mean from a gameplay perspective? We hoped it would mean gang-tackles and doggy piles. We couldn’t wait to latch on to a running back with a safety, then switch to a linebacker and deliver a brain-popping, helmet to helmet hit right in the kisser. Instead, if you touch a player who is in the process of getting tackled,you fall down. I once tackled a guy and his falling body lightly brushed four of my players, making them all fall down in a row like synchronized swimmers diving into a pool. Not quite the gang tackling we were hoping for.
Still, when 300-pound defenders aren’t dropping like autumn leaves, the gameplay looks incredibly slick. The player models are obscenely detailed, animate smoothly, and were blessed with tons of new animations. Many faces look spot-on, although I think there’s some sort of algorithm at work relating the accuracy of a player’s face to their real-life popularity. Michael Vick Lewis looks like Michael Vick, but Quincy Carter looks like, I don’t know Don Cheadle, maybe. But the grass is the best grass ever, the stadiums are eerily accurate and the crowd has graduated to full 3D, rendered glory. The level of detail marks a monster improvement for the series, although that’s to be expected considering the burly power of the rig.
Madden 06 may be the best looking entry in the series between whistles, but every play is bookended by weird cut scenes. Before the snap, these show the quarterback walking up to the line and barking instructions to teammates. After the play ends, they show players celebrating or lamenting what just happened, followed by a stadium shot. These are always chunky and clunky, running at uneven framerates. To make matters worse, you can’t turn them off. You probably don’t care what Drew Bledsoe looks like as he walks up to the line (he doesn’t look a lot like Drew Bledsoe, either), but the game insists on showing you, anyway.
An interesting new feature is the default pre-snap camera angle. Instead of taking the high-angle approach associated with previous Maddens, here the camera begins right behind the quarterback, but slightly raised so you can really soak in the game’s new look. If you want to check the coverage you can switch out to the normal Madden view, but then you can’t switch back to the up-close view mode, which is preferable for running the ball up the middle. We don’t know why this isn’t an option, just that it should be.
And if you want the officials to take another look at a play, you’re out of luck, because Madden 06 lacks the ability to challenge calls. It’s another inexplicable omission, and while it isn’t really a feature we’ve relied on too much in the past, at least it was there for the few times it came in handy.
The developers did manage to make one big, unexpected improvement to the series. Now, John Madden only talks if you ask him to via the “Ask Madden” option. Seriously. Best Madden game, ever!
Aside from this major improvement, Madden 06 sounds an awful lot like a regular football game. Some random, enthusiastic radio announcer calls the plays pretty well. There’s plenty of ambient crowd noise and you can hear the quarterback bark plays, especially when the game bugs out and he gets stuck screaming “Hut-Hut” every second until he snaps the ball. This is especially annoying when the computer is trying to run out the clock, because the guy will just sit there and “Hut!” for thirty seconds.
So I’ve bitched and moaned for an entire review and made lots of jokes at EA’s expense, but surely there must be something revolutionary – aside from Madden speaking when spoken to – in this rather expensive package, right? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the best menus you’ve ever seen in a football game. That’s right, when calling plays you can pick by formation, type (only running plays or only passing plays), star player (all plays featuring your best player), Ask Madden, or ask your team’s coach. It’s really a good change.
The main menu has also seen a dramatic makeover, having been divided into three columns that telescope out nicely to accommodate new options. Moving from your franchise into game settings and back again has never been easier, or more futuristic.
As much as we love those menus, though, it bothers us that Madden 06 for the PSP, I mean Xbox 360, is missing so much content. Football games devolving? I hear in Madden NFL 08 we’ll be playing Exhibition games with apes, the ball will be the Statue of Liberty’s head, and it’ll cost $100! Isn’t progress great? If we were you, we’d wait until next year to dig into this once and hopefully future king, because Madden 06 for the Xbox 360 has all the trappings of a brand new Madden curse.