Madden. One word sums up the most dominating franchise in video game history. Forget Mario, forget Sonic and to hell with Crash. The sheer scale of Madden has obliterated every other series to become the largest phenomenon the gaming world has ever seen. Don’t believe me? Take these three facts into consideration: 1.) The recent announcement of more than 1.35 million (that’s right, million) copies of Madden NFL 2005 were sold in the first week alone. There are some games that don’t even get up to that number of units sold throughout their entire shelf life. 2.) Rather than go up against the behemoth that is Madden, Microsoft fired their sports division dedicated to NFL Fever, citing its superior quality. 3.) Aside from ESPN 2K5, Madden is the only other pro football title out this year. That’s right, just about every other company ran away from the field this year, leaving an underdog to challenge the undisputed champion.
Last year’s Madden, while great, had a few balance issues that some players took exception to. Most notably was the over-emphasis towards the offensive side of the ball, which allowed for a number of rampant offenses and incredibly high scores, even on high difficulty levels. “Jetpacking,” or the quirk that let players consistently leap over defenders while making incredible catches all the time, infuriated opponents. Some player’s stats (such as cover boy Michael Vick) were so superhuman that it was nigh impossible to stop some of them at times. Even odder was watching people place these key players in off positions, such as using Vick as a wide receiver that could burn any defender. Well, if you spent all of your time mastering these tricks, you’d better get ready to go back to school, because Madden 2005 swings control back into the defense’s eager hands.
AI of the defense is no longer somewhat brain dead as far as run and pass situations are concerned. Let me explain. Whereas many of your linemen or linebackers from last year (or even previous years) would stand by as a pass zipped into the middle of the field, this year’s defensive squad is much more alert and ball hungry. Linemen will throw a massive paw up in the air or even try to jump up and block passes. Linebackers will swarm to the ball carrier, trying to jar a ball loose. Defensive backs will throw a hand up to deflect balls out of the way, especially if they don’t have a chance to get in the play. Yep, seems like in the off-season, the D-Squad hired a coordinator that made every player do wind sprints each time they didn’t make a play for the ball. Sure, you might be able to get a deep pass off on a lighter difficulty level, but try the same thing on All-Madden and the defense will shove your helmet down your throat.
Smarter AI isn’t the only tweak for the defense in Madden 2005. This year, you can make tons of shifts, alignments and coverage audibles, and you can make them as general or as specific as you want on any play. Similar to Offensive Hot Routes, Defensive linemen can now be shifted to the left or the right to help contain sweep plays or counter runs, or they can crash inwards and stop up the middle runs. Linebackers can now be assigned to blitz, hang back into a QB spy slot, or drop back into a zone for heavy pass coverage support. Defensive backs now can perform bump and run coverage to smother receivers, play 3-5 yards off the receiver for looser coverage, or shift their coverage for fellow DBs to better play man to man. You can even change up the individual assignment for every single player on the field outside of their pre-assigned positions in a certain play given enough time, assigning blitzes, zone coverage and containment outside of your typical defensive packages. What’s more, you can even assign individual players to stick to receivers, so if you want to shut down T.O. with your best DB, even giving him a solid double team when you want.
These shifts and stunts actually lead up to the next, and perhaps most fun, innovation for defense in Madden 2005, which is the Hit Stick. How many times have you watched football games and seen people just get plastered by a crushing tackle? Welcome to the fundamentals of the Hit Stick. As you approach an opposing player on defense, you can flick the right analog stick in any direction to try to lay a huge smack on someone. If a player is running slowly, they’ll merely shove a player. However, if you time it right and you’ve got some level of speed, you’ll be rewarded with a nasty pop that can potentially knock the ball loose or injure your opponent. Helicopter spins, people landing on their heads, these are merely some of the painful animations you’ll find thanks to this control scheme. There is two degrees of risk to trying to tackle this way. You have to worry about the relative size and strength of the tackler, because smaller players will bounce off of their target without slowing them down. Secondly, if you mis-time the blow, you’ll fly right past your opponent, landing on the ground and taking yourself completely out of the play. This often results in a player breaking out for a large gain, while you shake your head in disgust. It takes getting used to, but once you’ve got an idea of how to accurately smack your opponents around, you’ll be leaping and hitting players in this way all the time.
Offense has been tweaked somewhat, but it’s nowhere near as substantial a difference as the defensive side. You still have Playmaker controls from last year on your side to help direct plays on the field, and you can still perform hot routes. QBs can now direct their receivers to a number of areas on the field. By switching up a receiver’s routes, you can direct them on a fly, curl, slant, in or out patterns to take advantage of the defensive openings. You can also perform formation shifts to provide additional run or pass blocking for plays. Since the offensive line won’t betray your adjustments, this can be used to rotate from singleback to I formations or give your offense an additional amount of protection during hurry up situations. However, by and large, defense is king this year.
Most of the features from last year’s game have returned in Madden 2005 with a few new additions. The Mini-Camp feature that helped players gain a sense of fundamentals for each role on the field has been bolstered with the addition of the rushing attack drill. Players first try to maneuver a running back through a hole behind a blocker and attempt to score as many times as they can before time runs out. Once the clock has stopped, players then take on the part of a defensive back trying to stop the opposing side from scoring. The other mini-game of note is the two minute drill; instead of a 2-on-2 game like the rushing attack drill, this is offensive squad versus defensive squads where you try to score as many points as possible without turning the ball over.
The groundbreaking franchise mode from last year has returned with some new tweaks to augment the Front Office experience. The first, and perhaps most widespread facet has to do with Storyline Central, an all inclusive term which now covers most of the information you’ll need to effectively run your organization. Primarily illustrated by local and national newspapers (USA Today) and supplemented by emails, you’ll be able to read up on all of the relevant league dealings and problems in every organization. As you catch up on trade rumors, game recaps and other stories, you’ll be able to tune into EA Sports Radio and listen to The Tony Bruno Show, the nationally carried radio program, which will provide deeper insight into the minds of the fans, players and coaches.
This sentiment is actually much more important this year than ever before, as Madden 2005 takes player emotions into account on just about everything. Akin to the emotional meters found in EA’s MVP Baseball (but much more in-depth), the members of your team react to everything from the size of their paycheck and the chemistry of the team to the lack of playing time and number of losses you’ve accrued. The season now adjusts player’s stats and emotions based on how they play and how the team’s morale is, so it’s possible for your team to win every week but find your star running back in a crippling slump. Balancing their needs and wants will actually become a much more important factor this year, as malcontented players will start to affect the spirits of your locker room as well as go to the newspapers and demand trades. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is put a troublemaker on the block and get rid of him as soon as possible to not screw up the team (as long as it’s within the trading period). However, you have to be careful, because if you trade the wrong person, you could screw up the entire team.
Trades are somewhat more complicated than before now that you have to take player’s feelings into effect. Before, you might have to concern yourself with the salary cap and your negotiation skills to acquire (or re-sign) an athlete. Now in contract talks, you’ve got to figure in the athlete’s interest in your team based on a number of factors. Obviously the money counts, but there are other intangibles, such as the coaching staff, fans, prospects of winning a Super Bowl and location, among other things that can sway someone’s opinion. All of these factors figure into the more important things for some athletes, and if you can’t appease their desires, you’ll never be able to sign them no matter how much money you throw at them. For instance, if Randy Moss wants to be the franchise player wherever he goes and you’ve already promised that to Jerry Rice, he’ll probably never sign with your team. If so, keep your chin up, because you may be able to sign a restricted free agent in the offseason.
Speaking of the offseason, Madden goes through nine separate steps to prepare your organization for the upcoming year. The largest change comes within the Draft section, which is much more defined and realistic for players wanting to track their prospects. First of all, you can scout and track the combine scores of fifteen eligible draftees, gauging how they might be able to contribute to your team. This can give you a pretty solid idea of who you’ll want to choose when your turn comes up. Thankfully, you can set the speed of the draft session itself, which is really fascinating to see the other teams trade players for selections, checking the available picks to mine players that have fallen into later rounds. Not only will the imaginary crowd signal their approval or disapproval for your picks with cheers or boos, but the morale of players on your team will also be affected by your choices. If you’ve got a linebacker who’s getting up in years, he might start to feel the pressure of having a first round star contending for his job. Yep, his stats will probably suffer as a result.
While NCAA Football fans were able to signal their approval of certain things via the create-a-sign feature, Madden goes one step further by allowing gamers to create their own fan to represent their team in the stands. It’s a little funky, but with some experimentation you’ll be able to create just about every single signature fan that you’ve seen hanging out in the stands. Aside from that, only PS2 owners have the option of taking advantage of features not seen anywhere else in the exclusive Collectors Edition. This version features video montages on Madden, its legacy and the phenomena surrounding the franchise. It also boasts a number of specific “Madden Moments,” which are scenarios of specific historic football games, a trivia game and three classic Madden titles. While these sport names like Madden Retro, Vintage and Classic, the rosters for each team have been updated to represent today’s rosters.
Aside from the exclusive features of the Collector’s edition, the only other feature is the inclusion of Xbox Live support for Microsoft’s console. Unlike the earlier speed bumps that plagued NCAA’s transition onto the online service, Madden’s foray into internet gaming is incredibly stable and robust. This means that Xbox owners will be able to enter tournaments, perform optimatches or quick matches to jump into play, and track your stats and rankings. Interestingly enough, you can take the Rushing Attack mini-camp game online and play anyone anywhere, similarly getting ranked in the process. However, the most fascinating online features are yet to come, as EA announced the upcoming Premium Pass, which will boast league play, exclusive tournaments and other features, including a promised answer for cheaters and continually disconnecting players.
Graphically, you really aren’t getting too much of an upgrade from last year’s title. That’s not to say this is a bad thing at all. Madden was one of the better looking football titles back then. You’ll still large character models that animate incredibly well throughout the entire game. This happens to stand out when the action switches to a cutscene recapping an impressive play or a colossal failure. Make sure you pay attention to end zone celebrations, because these are really nice. Again, I emphasize the life that’s been thrown into the defense. The swarming, arm raised, leaping aggression from a hungry D can definitely be felt throughout a game, and when you couple that with the bone crunching hits from the hit stick, you’ll be impressed by what’s been included in this year’s game. Instant replay (especially if you’re rubbing something in your friend’s face) has never looked or felt more painful. However, the largest problem graphical issue that arises is the plastic, expressionless faces that now populate most of the game’s character models. Players don’t really seem too into what’s going on, and both coaches and cheerleaders have this Botox over-injected frozen look on their faces that doesn’t change. It’s distracting and rather disturbing, particularly if there’s a close up. Sound effects really haven’t changed too much last year’s game as well, which is to be expected. What you would hope is that there’d be much more dialogue to draw from for this year’s title, but unfortunately, you’ll hear the same lines often repeated over and over again. I would’ve wanted to hear new phrases and a sense of presentation, especially with this being the 15th year of Madden, but this wasn’t to be.
I actually didn’t bring up the inclusion of Tony Bruno within sound for a specific reason, which is that he’s both a boon and a curse to franchise mode in a way. The concept of the radio show, particularly since Bruno is known for his hard-hitting opinions, was an interesting idea that seems like it stood out from the Storyline Central idea somewhat. I love the idea of getting information about the league from a weekly show. However, simply getting audio streams when I’m playing a video game doesn’t feel as interactive as it should. Perhaps this might have been remedied if it was presented in a video format, where you actually saw Bruno present his show, do his interviews and take calls. If Imus and Stern (when he still was on the air) had video of the guys in the studio conducting their program, I’m sure you could get the same setup for the game.
On top of this, there was a point at which I wanted much more information about my specific team and what their needs or wants were. Bruno simply didn’t deliver this in the best way. If I’m running the Cowboys, I don’t care what the Redskins are doing or if they’re having trouble signing one of their star players. In fact, I’d probably prefer it since they’re one of my rivals. However, more times than not the radio show would focus on external things without even touching on my squad, and if I’m going to go through the trouble of specifying a favorite team, I’d like every aspect of my franchise mode to have the slightest inclusion of my team every week of the season. Even if it was Bruno saying something minor like, “Before I wrap up this week, looks like Kansas City is having a great season but will really need to prepare to take on the Pats at Foxboro on Sunday.” It would at least seem slightly personal. Having a spread of the local papers around the country was also a great touch, but I was hoping that there’d be much more information from my hometown paper as to potential issues or items of interest. True, most of the problem makers are going to go national to try to press a solution to their problem, but I’d love to find out more than just 4 stories about what’s happening locally if I’m a GM. Fans have a problem with the new ticket prices? Hello, newspaper sports poll! You know, things that GMs have to deal with on a constant basis. I also hoped that the franchise mode would allow me to train many more players in the pre-season with the mini-games, or have a much more in-depth preparation for upcoming games during the regular season, including things such as viewing tapes of upcoming opponents. I don’t necessarily need the option to create fans in the stands.
Don’t get me wrong, because Madden 2005 is easily the deepest version of the successful franchise yet. A radically expansive franchise mode and an incredibly reactive defensive control scheme combine to make one of the best updates to a football game to date. Like usual, Madden usually sets a standard for other titles to follow, and the attention to the defense side of the game should be the new benchmark for other games to follow. Whether you’re a hardcore fan or a newcomer to the sport, you should make sure that you get your hands on Madden 2005.