Review: Madden NFL 2004 (XB)


Game:Madden NFL 2004
Platform:: Microsoft Xbox
Developer:Electronic Arts
Release Date:: August 12, 2003
Official Home Page:Madden2004.com

As the Royals finally descend from there lofty spot atop the AL Central, my thoughts turn screeching back to football, and the promise of Dick Vermeil?s third season with the Kansas City Chiefs.

If you think about it, Electronic Arts releases the Madden games at just the right time every year: during the preseason, while every football fan is excited and hopeful of the upcoming season. Nobody?s hearts have been broken yet, and even if they released it after Week One, it still wouldn?t sell as well, because of the dejected half of NFL fans who?s teams lost that week.

Moreover, they start the hype at just the right time too: during the NFL draft, when schmucks like me are parked in front of the T.V. for five hours at a time. After seeing this year?s ads (and/or watching Hard Knocks from two years ago), who in their right mind would WANT to be a rookie for the Ravens?

So, at this time every year it?s me and Madden, living out my fantasy Chiefs season, although I won?t ever be completely satisfied with the game until I can pull out a gun and shoot Bill Romanowski, a la ?The Last Boy Scout.? However, I?ll take what I can get.

GAMEPLAY

A lot of hype has been generated over the new Owner Mode, and I have to admit that there?s a certain novelty about it, but I can think of about half a dozen reasons to buy this game and none of them are the Owner Mode. Priest Holmes being rated a 97; yes, that?s reason to buy the game (and thank you, THANK YOU, Electronic Arts, for trying to be young and hip and putting Mike Vick on the cover instead of Priest. I thank you, Chiefs fans everywhere thank you) and Owner Mode isn?t, but I?ll get to that in a little bit.

For those who?ve played any of the Madden franchise, you know the basic gameplay. Running the offense is simple, running the defense is simple, calling plays is . . . well, it?s as simple as it?s ever going to get, but they?ve obviously found the minima of the learning curve and they would be fools to deviate from that.

For those who?ve never touched it before, not to sound redundant, but it?s simple. On offense, A-button hikes the ball. If it?s a run, the handoff happens automatically and you run until you?re tackled. If you want to get fancy, you can sprint with A, spin with B, hurdle with Y, or dive with X. When you?re ready to take the next step, you can stiff arm with the L trigger, or juke with the R trigger. If it?s a pass play, the button labels will come up over the corresponding receivers. To throw the ball, just hit the appropriate button. If you want to rifle it in, mash that button down. If you want to lob it, just tap the button. If you?ve got nothin? and you want to run with your QB, hit Y to toggle off (or back on, if you want) the passing icons and pretend you?re a running back.

On defense, even more simple. A and B cycle through defenders before the snap. After the snap, B sprints, Y jumps, A switches to the defender nearest the ball, and X dives. If you?re playing a defensive lineman, you can help yourself get around those offensive linemen by using L and R triggers to either swim move or rip move them aside. Simple.

What?s even better is that you don?t even have to control the players. You can just call the plays, hike the ball, and the players will be computer controlled until you command them with the stick or pad. Moreover, they?re actually halfway competent when left to their own devices. Even I will do this from time to time on defense, just because I suck getting through the offensive line.

What makes Madden good is that you can play it that simple, or you can take the next step in complexity. Don?t like your selected play?s chances against a particular defense? Call an audible; or use the Playmaker function to order your backs or receivers to run a different way; or call Hot Routes on your receivers to take advantage of holes in the coverage. (As an aside, I just received a lesson in the finer points of reading defenses and calling hot routes from Cris. Strong safety blitz = Tony Gonzales touchdown.) On defense you can audible, you can do line or linebacker shifts, you can ?pinch? in to help stop the run, you can audible your corners to bump and run or give the receivers room, you can use the Playmaker option to commit a player to run or pass defense, however much or little you want to tinker.

Also, this may be the first edition of Madden I?ve ever seen that actually has a realistic balance between the ability to run the ball and the ability to pass. The pass defense has gotten tons better, so throwing for 500 yards is no longer a foregone conclusion (although still possible when you?re playing as the Chiefs). It?s more difficult to break big running plays, but it?s not biased against the run either; you just have to start behaving like an NFL running back by following your blockers and choosing your holes carefully. For this purpose I *really* like the Playmaker feature. Before, if you called a run play, and the defense stacked against it, you had to either try and stick it out, or attempt an audible (and I?m notoriously bad at remembering my audible plays). Now you can actually flip the play at the line of scrimmage OR simply use the R stick to tell your running back to run the other direction. Now, if I get within 10 yards of the end zone, ?Chiefs Smash 24?, baby; and flip a coin to guess which way I?ll run.

Add to this great control system, a complete spread of game modes for the advanced player or the newbie alike. Consider this: If you?re a complete initiate to the game, the Practice mode will be the THIRD mode you play. First, you?ll want to check out the Football 101 mode, which will hip you to basic controls as well as basic football strategy. After that, you?ll want to do some time in Mini-Camp mode to practice the individual player skills. Then, you?ll want to do some Practice mode to get your pass timing down and practice reading defenses. Or you could be like me when I first started: Set it on the easiest difficulty, crank up the stats of your Roster, and just go to town. It?s all good.

And then there?s the Owner Mode. Actually, Owner Mode isn?t a mode in and of itself, but is an adjunct to the normal Franchise Mode. Basically, all that Owner Mode does for you is let you set ticket, concession, and merchandise prices during the season and lets you TRY to move your team or get a new stadium between seasons. It would be basic economics, but if your team goes 15-1 (as mine did during my first season) you can pretty much get away with anything price-wise. Your supply of beer and hot dogs meets their demand for a playoff-caliber football team. You use your excess capital to sign new free agents, advertise, and foot the bill for (part of) a new stadium if you want it. Of course, if you need the city?s help to build it (you will), you?ll need to convince them; and suing them is not an option, even if you play as the Raiders. You?ll have to juggle the money around to do it, which might include selling some exorbitantly priced advance seating, which will piss off some of your more proletarian fan base. Or, you can look at offers to move the franchise to another city (and why was Topeka, Kansas included but Wichita, Kansas wasn?t? Wichita is much larger than Topeka). You can even try to move the franchise without a specific offer from another city, but don?t expect to succeed; oh, and your wonderful fan base back home will be pissed at you if you try to do it, even if you fail. It?s a neat addition, and definitely worth checking out, but I don?t think I?d buy the game just for it.

I have one big knock on Owner Mode, though: You can?t use it with created teams, and if you want to use created players you really have to be careful because you can only use Owner Mode with the salary cap ON. I know, what?s the point of playing Owner Mode if you don?t have a salary cap? I don?t know. It apparently works for baseball.

GRAPHICS

Okay, I?m back to saying that I?m not going to be impressed with graphics until they?re to photo-realistic. I mean it this time. The graphics are . . . . exactly as good as you?d expect. The players still move stiffly between plays, and they don?t use a whole lot of polygons on facial features (or as Eric S. pointed out, fingertips), and this DOES unfortunately carry over to the cheerleaders. In the grand scheme of video game football, though, it?s not a big problem. Most of the time you?re looking at the action from a fairly well-removed camera position; and there, during the game, when it matters most, the graphics are Just Fine.

There are several (and at this point, standard) camera angles to choose from, and you can specify your own, of course. The replays show exactly how well they?ve modeled the physics and collision detection. I don?t remember seeing any hit that looked like it violated common sense, let alone Newtonian physics. I especially liked the innovation of playing the replay in the middle of the play selection screen. It?s a small tweak that speeds up gameplay quite a bit.

Strangely, the collision detection post-play and during replay looks quite a bit better here than in NCAA Football 2004, which makes me wonder what sort of silo effect is going on over at EA. I didn?t notice any gross errors at any time; although, like I said before, players still move kind of stiffly between plays. The worst is when a player gets called for a penalty. They try to go for that head-down, quasi-ashamed look, but it just comes out looking . . . stiff.

Fortunately, you can design stadiums in Owner Mode before you pitch the idea to the city for funding. The options are a bit limited, but still fun (what am I going to do with tunnels coming out of every section? Flood the field with tigers?). My favorite bit: The closed scoreboard. My biggest problem: No retractable roof. It?s not just SkyDome anymore, guys. There are retractable roofs everywhere. You?ll give us the shabby-chiq of the Cowboys unfinished ?toilet-seat? roof, but no retractables?

The stadiums really feel huge this year. Maybe it?s a darker shading or some greater attention to lighting effects, but the feel of the stadiums was bigger, more epic. There was one little thing that I really, really liked: In some stadiums, there are mini-scoreboards that you can see from the field. I kicked an extra point on that side of the field, and the scoreboard updated right on cue.

SOUND

As I?ve said before, there?s not a lot you can do with sound in a football game, and Madden 2004 doesn?t do it. I don?t understand. NCAA Football 2004 added some great little things with crowd chants, but the only thing I heard on Madden was the VERY sporadic ?Let?s go? or ?De-fense? chant. The feel ends up being rather vanilla; definitely not as amped as NCAA was. This is a real letdown, since any football fan knows the effect crowd noise can have on a visiting team (not to brag, but Arrowhead Stadium is considered one of the hardest places for opposing teams to play). Oh, the hits sound like hits and the whistles come at the right times, but there?s just something missing. The sound hasn?t gotten worse, per se, but they didn?t do much to make it better in my opinion.

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn?t mention our announce team of Al Michaels (the prima donna) and John Madden (the obviously senile). I still miss the warm, plangent tones of Pat Summerall, so my ire towards Michaels is probably colored that way. The speech seems to flow pretty well from him, and there?s a funny little feature I encourage you to try whenever you?re feeling down. Get into a game, and then repeatedly hit the button to pause the game, and then hit the A button to resume the game. Each time, EACH AND EVERY TIME you do this, Al will start with some sort of segue, like he was coming back from commercial or something. ?And we?re back,? or, ?Let?s go back to the field,? or something similar. What?s even funnier is to wait until Madden goes off on one of his weird, rambling tangents, then pause and come back really fast, and it sounds like Al is cutting him off. Call me weird, but this put a smile on my face.

John Madden, ex-Raiders Head Coach John Madden, is drawing closer and closer to being certifiably senile; in real life and in this game. I can?t tell you how many times I muttered, ?John, shut up,? while playing this game. He would talk about running the clock out when I?m 1st and 10 on the opposing 35, down a touchdown, and have over a minute left in the half. He would call a 1 yard reception on 2nd and 10 a ?great play.? He talked about a great defensive stop when I would rush for 5 yards. To wit, it was Madden-ing.

FUN FACTOR

A warning to long-time Madden players: This year, even the ?Pro? difficulty is no pushover. The AI has gotten tons better on pass defense, and while that helps you out, it hurts you just as bad; especially if you?re not the strongest passer in the world.

Parity has become a reality in the NFL, and nowhere is it more true than in Madden 2004. It took me just as many tries to beat the Houston Texans as it did the Pittsburgh Steelers. No joke. Although, I?m afraid I have to give an amber-colored GLS warning. WARNING: Obtaining a 21 point-lead by halftime will result in the opposing running back being covered in Teflon. This is a major indictment, and I don?t just throw these out when I suck at a game. Every time I jumped out to a big lead, some rather UNIQUE circumstances occurred to shift things back towards neutral. Now, this is probably more realistic than not, since teams make adjustments during games, and there?s always the unforeseen random turnover. In fact, it?s nice to know that the predictability of the machine has been reduced. I just thought I?d better warn you, you can?t necessarily play the odds and win here anymore.

This increase in skill and random events would be murder to fun factor if it weren?t for some EXCELLENT training modes to help you with your skills. For those familiar with the Mini-Camp mode, they added a new one this year that you can only play in Franchise mode: Pass Catch. I found out part of the reason that I sucked so badly at passing and intercepting ? I was hitting the jump/catch button too late. Once I got that timing down, I was even making Eric Warfield look good. Practice Mode against random plays is a GREAT way to learn to read the other team before the snap. The Situation Mode let?s you test your skills under controlled conditions. If all else fails, just pump up the stats and go to town.

As an aside, my friend Ken goes even one step further than this. He has a special Roster built for bad days that has the Chargers pumped up completely, and every other team in the league basically lobotomized and on life support. Petty? Yes, but cathartic, and a hell of a lot of fun sometimes.

For those who will inevitably ask: You can?t cream people after the play. Part of me is happy for this, because when you could do that, I would inevitably inadvertently nail somebody after stopping some 3rd down play and give up a brand-spankin?-new 1st down. Part of me is sad, because in lieu of the aforementioned gunplay, blindsiding Romo was great fun. However, there IS a work around of sorts, although it?s despicable: You can?t hit people after the play, but you can sure as hell cream a kicker after a kick and before they blow the whistle. Truth be told, they?re tough little buggers.

All-in-all, this is the best version of Madden they?ve come out with yet. It looks like they?ve finally figured out the pass-run balance, they?ve smartened up the d-backs, they?ve given you even more ability to adjust at the line of scrimmage, and they?ve fleshed out the Franchise mode with the new Owner feature. I don?t know if I would buy if I had another recent Madden version, but I?d consider it. People waiting for the ?right? version to come out before committing the 50 bucks can stop waiting now. The improved gameplay more than makes up for the shortcomings.

Ratings
Gameplay: 8.5
Graphics: 7.0
Sound: 6.5
Fun Factor: 8.5