Hands-On Preview: Madden ’07 By Christopher Bowen

Please Note: This column was written by Christopher Bowen. Please send all feedback to superbus@superbusnet.com. We’re in the process of upgrading to V3 and thus our system is being kind of wacky. Apologies to those who even for a second thought I’d touch an Sports game. ;-)

Madden ’07
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Genre: Traditional Sports/American Football
Release Date: August 22, 2006
Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 2, Xbox, Gamecube, PSP, Nintendo DS, Game Boy Advance

For the 2006 NFL Season, EA Sports – responding to Sega Sports making a superior game to their Madden game in NFL 2K5, then daring to charge only $20 for it – by acquiring the exclusive license to both the National Football League and National Football League Players Association, in a way that harkens back to the Mafias of old. Their first response to this was to jack the price of the game – reduced to $30 once it was learned that the price of the 2K game was hurting sales – right back up to $50. The general consensus after that was “they better make an incredible product now…”, which really didn’t happen; most of the improvements were either superficial or didn’t work out as well as intended, and other than people desperate for Superstar mode, it wasn’t worth the extra $20 that Madden ’05 cost.

This year, EA decided to get serious; when I asked Producer Thomas Singleton what the big difference was between the 2006 and 2007 versions across the board, instead of giving me a tagline like “Run To Daylight”, he mentioned the fact that they’ve had the license for a full year now, and that they’ve been able to use it fully. “We have had a full year with it (the license), so we’ve have used it to make a much bigger leap this year than Madden ’06 was” said Singleton, who’s producing the PSP version.

After playing each version hands-on (except for the GBA version, which is almost guaranteed to suck), I can actually agree with that statement. I was horribly dismayed with Madden ’06 and how little it improved over ’05 (especially as a jilted 2K fan), but this year, I saw some big improvements, including some in the features that were implemented last year.

Let’s start by going over the major improvements that went across each notable console.

Run To Daylight

The biggest thing that EA Sports is selling Madden on this year is a revamp of the running game called Run To Daylight. In this, you get to choose control of a blocker before the snap – be it a tackle, fullback or wide receiver – and use him to create holes, throwing different types of blocks with the right analogue stick: up has you throwing a standard block, down has you throwing a cut block, while you can go left or right with it to send your man a certain way (good for off-tackle plays). Once the block’s been made, and the running back goes past the line of scrimmage, control switches back to the halfback. It sounds confusing, and my first instinct was that I would end up taking my halfback in the wrong direction after taking control, but it worked surprisingly well.

Analogue Kicking

Furthermore, the kicking game’s been revamped, to the point where it’s actually takes a modicum of skill to make kicks for a change. All of the versions that have analogue sticks (except the DS… There isn’t enough time in the world to figure out how THAT shit works…) have an analogue kicking style now, which is best described as Tiger Woods meets Adam Vinatieri. It works by pulling back on the stick until the power meter is full, then pushing up, keeping it as straight as possible. It takes some adjustment – it’s even more sensitive than Tiger Woods’ golf swing mechanism – but it does add a lot to the game.

Graphical Changes

From an appearance standpoint, on every system other than the cell and GBA versions, a LOT of effort was made to make the stadiums – and their surrounding atmospheres – as authentic as possible. This means that between plays, when the camera’s panning around, you literally get to see the concession stands, stadium niceties, even the area outside the stadium, as if you were really there. It’s especially noticeable on the Xbox, where you could usually see the camera panning past the outside wall of the stadium to areas well into Foxboro itself.

A REAL Superstar Mode

Finally, in all of the games that have Superstar Mode, you play as your person… and no one else. Last year, it was easy to take a skill player and put him into the Hall of Fame, and the movies, commercials and panties of fans worldwide, but you were basically screwed if you took a trench guy. This year, if your guy is in the game, you’re in the game, and the camera switches according to that; you can concentrate on blocking assignments, running routes and the like without being distracted. And when your player is off the field… so are you. No more having to play useless downs, one of the things that turned me off to Superstar Mode the most last year. I didn’t get a chance to play with this mode much – I had to deal with either lines or BSODs (Blue Screen of Death) too much – but it’s shaping up to be promising.

Now, let’s look at what each individual system has under its hood.

XBOX 360

The Xbox 360 version is going to be the flagship of the franchise, and it shows. For one, Tiburon seems to be getting a hold of the graphical capabilities of the system, and are putting them to good use; the player models will be a step up from 2006 once the game is finished, the stadiums are beautiful as previously mentioned, and a big thing that EA likes to harp on is 3-D grass; if you’re running with a player, you see the grass kick up, and crumple as a player steps. I can’t give a true indicator to the true graphical power of this game, but I can say that for the most part, player models were solid (as good as last year in the alpha, at least), though the 3-D grass is going to need work.

The biggest change from last year to this year, however, is not only the addition of Superstar mode, but also how it works. Like last year’s PS2 and Xbox versions, you get to choose a set of parents to determine your skills (and they can be re-rolled). But as mentioned before, once you pick your player and his position… that’s it; you do nothing else but stuff for your player’s position. It works out especially well, since the control scheme changes depending on who you’re playing, as does the camera; it zooms in on linemen and the like, and out for receivers; that means you really don’t know what’s going on for the rest of the field. Also, while a skill player like a quarterback, you have the choice of either watching your defense perform, or reviewing game tapes of the previous series. Also, whereas the PS2/Xbox versions of Superstar mode concentrated on you making your mark OFF the field, with movie contracts and dealing with fans and groupies, this year’s focuses you with your performance on the field, with better ways to train and rehabilitate (more on this in a minute) your player. Either way, your agent – not Terrell Davis in full fledged “I’m getting paid for this, right?” mode – helping you along the way. It truly is a fantastic addition to a franchise that could have used it last year, and from every angle I’ve seen, they nailed it, spot on.

They also added different mini-games this year, and they’re CRUCIAL if you want to get anywhere in franchise or superstar mode. Most of them are takes on the mini-games of old; you can run the 40, do bench pressing, as well as position specific drills. It reminded me of the games introduced in Madden 95 for the 16 bit consoles. And whereas before, mini-games used to be little more than minor stat boosts for certain players that did them, now, they’re vital, as you have to use them to improve your stock in Superstar mode. Even when you create a new player for Franchise or exhibition modes, you’re forced to do the drills to determine how your players rate out. The days of creating yourself to put on your favorite team and jacking his stats up to 99 in every department are over. Not that I would ever put Chris Bowen as a Pro Bowl Right End on the Jets. Nope. However, from what I was able to play, there are responsiveness issues with the games themselves; they controlled sluggishly. I hope Tiburon fan fix this before the final version, as it’s too imperative to leave as it is.

Other than the aforementioned items, it looks to the naked eye (I don’t own a 360, so I’m speaking solely from the demo version) like the core of the gameplay is mostly unchanged. On the field, some minor changes were added, such as a way to “commit” on defense with the right analogue stick after snapping the ball; previously, you could only guess run or pass, but now, you can send your entire team to the left or right. However, if you guess wrong, prepare to be burned. Also, the audible screen now tells you which plays you can select; I HOPE that this can be disabled. Other than that, I can pick out no other changes.

As for online play, I wasn’t able to see anything involving the game working with Xbox Live, but I did get to see that gamers have “levels”, and go up in level as they perform more tasks in the game, and the higher their level, the more things they can unlock. This is still highly early, and could change, but basically, think of this as the graduation from the old “Madden Card” system, and for it to be integrated with online gaming.

Playstation 2/Xbox

The PS2 and Xbox versions of Madden got a minor facelift very similar to the 360; last year, they wanted to get a 360 version out while still setting the legacy consoles’ apart with Superstar mode, but this year, they acknowledge the fact that both systems are nearing the end of their lifecycles, and they are therefore paying less development to them. Nonetheless, these versions have SOME additions.

For one, Superstar mode is basically the same as on the Xbox 360 version; I see no need to go over it again. Secondly, there are now “Superstar” moves, which are basically the same moves as last year’s right analogue stick jukes and moves, only flashier; think of it as the football equivalent of Live’s Freestyle control. It should also be noted (as it is with 360 as well) that the passing cone is now optional; you can bring it up for an accuracy bonus, or leave it down; you’re not forced to either use it, get picked every other pass, or shut it off altogether. This is ingenious; no longer will a preference setting set apart the pros from the amateurs. Finally, the mini-games here have been changed, though I didn’t get to play with them much, though the PS2/Xbox versions do have one thing going for them: the mini-games in these versions help your player rehabilitate from injuries in Franchise and Superstar modes, and if you do poorly in them, your player gets WORSE, not better. There are currently no plans to add that aspect to the Xbox 360 version. Other than these additions, there’s not much setting this year’s game apart from ’06; the presentation is exactly the same as last year’s. It’s looking like the beginning of the end for Madden on the old dogs. Even online play is looking to be the same shit.

Playstation Portable

Last year’s PSP version was buggy and rushed. This year’s version looks like it had some time put into it, to the point where producers are stating that the game isn’t even being regarded as a portable game, but is being compared to the console versions. It’s showing; most of the options of the PS2 versions, save Superstar mode, are in the PSP version. Most of the new features in the PS2 version are intact in the PSP version, and therefore, no need to parrot them. However, let the record show that the game both looks and controls gorgeously; we’re talking far beyond PS1 quality.

Two features stand out for PSP: the first is a new mini-game that can be used to unlock items. It’s a DDR-style game where you play as a runner receiving a kickoff, and have to run it back against a set number of defenders, depending on the level. Depending on where they lean, you can move up, down, left or right; guess right, and you keep going, wrong, and you get tackled. You start with three “lives”, and one “truck move”, which negates everything the opponent is doing; you gain truck moves by stringing together perfect combos. It’s an addictive game, but ultimately a distraction.

The BIG difference – to someone like me, anyway – is the way the PSP version connects with the PS2 version. Last year, you could export your team on either version for use on the other, but only for exhibition mode. This year, you can move your whole FRANCHISE from one platform to the next. In greater detail, say you get up to Week 4 on PS2, and have to go on a road trip. You can export your franchise to the PSP version, play five weeks, get back, send the franchise back to the PS2, and start off right where you left off, on Week 9. This just might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen a game do, though I can’t say for sure how well it will work in practice, and what options will be lost from version to version.

Nintendo DS

Last year, EA released Madden for the DS, in what can only be called a cash-in. Naturally, it was blistered in reviews. This year, they’ve started to finally put the advantages of the DS to good use, and started incorporating the stylus in the game.

For one, the big difference is that you can actually play the game with a stylus or the classic button setup. In Stylus Mode, there is a right and left handed version; for lefties, the four face buttons become a control pad. With the stylus, you can either choose to do jukes and special moves as a runner/defender, or pass the ball as a quarterback by clicking on the receiver you want. It works well for passing the ball, but running, the moves feel a lot like casting spells in Lost Magic… and it’s just as much of a pain in the ass, too; expect to get destroyed while trying to do a move unsuccessfully. A lot.

Also, in a move that can be filed under the “No Shit, They Finally Figured It Out?” department, drawable Hot Routes have been added. It’s exactly as it sounds; you call a hot route, take your stylus out, click the player you want to do the route, and draw his route. However, the execution of the actual route is touch-and-go; the receivers can only seem to handle simply drawn routes, which I could blame on the early version of the game. Furthermore, it can be hard to hide your route when your opponent can follow your arm route; this can be handled with a blunt object, usually.

All this said, I expect the DS version to suffer again this year; the actual gameplay behind what basically equates to gimmicks isn’t too great; it’s sluggish, the players drift, and there’s collision detection issues. Again, this could all be fixed by release in August, but I don’t think it’ll be enough to save this game from mediocrity.

Other Versions

There are three other versions coming out. Two of them are coming out for cellular phones, a J2ME and a GRU version. The J2ME version is a 3D background with sprite players, while the GRU version has motion captured players in 3-D sprites. It doesn’t really matter; both versions have 50 plays total (between offense and defense), accurate rosters, nothing more than exhibition mode, and are almost impossible to accurately control. The good news is that the game can be played with only the directional pad and OK button at the top of most modern phones, but it doesn’t work well in practice, and using the number pad is clunky and ineffective. Considering the fact that having Madden on the cover will draw a premium price, this one’s a good one to avoid.

There will also be a Game Boy Advance version. EA didn’t even bother bringing a previewable version to ESPNZone last Friday, which tells me that this year’s version will suck just as hard as last year’s. But it will sell, and that’s all EA cares about. And they wonder why they get the reputation they have.

The Gamecube version wasn’t there, mainly because the Gamecube is positively awful when it comes to playing sports titles that don’t have Mario prominently involved in them. Expect it to be a carbon copy of the other current generation versions.

The PC version will have almost the same hardware requirements as ’06, and I’ve been told will be very similar to the PS2, with the exception that the PC version has customizable stat screens. Let me hear a great big “who gives a f*ck”.

The only other version up in the air is the Wii version, which was celebrated for its potential with the analogue control. However, every producer I talked to stated that they’re not really giving much thought to the Wii version as of this moment due to the Wii being little more than vaporware. It’s possible that we see a version for Wii when it comes out, but considering EA’s history on this subject (they usually hold off a year before releasing new versions if they’re not ready, like they did with the PS1 version of Madden ’96), and considering the fact that a system like the Wii is basically uncharted territory, I would bet money that we don’t see a Wii version until ’08. Gamestop is saying a November 1st ship, but I’ll believe that when I see it.

Odds and Ends

The soundtrack for Madden – dubbed EA Trax – was released last Friday, and is available at http://www.easports.com/madden07/news.jsp. Due to the nature of the event, it was almost impossible to hear anything regarding audio, and I haven’t been able to… uh, sample the new tracks, so I can’t say for sure weather or not the soundtrack is any good, though Madden usually comes through in this regard, and quite a few songs will see initial release upon release of the game.

Finally, the release date is April 22nd for every version of the game. A quick poke into Gamestop.com reveals that the #1 influence of the exclusive license is… you guessed it, the price. Just looking at the prices makes my anus bleed. The 360 version will cost $60, current generation versions will run $50 (which is insulting, considering the lack of differences in each version from last year’s), PSP version will run $50, DS and PC versions will run $40, and the GBA version will be $30 for the five people left in this world that don’t know how to emulate a GBA and haven’t upgraded to a DS. There will also be a “Hall of Fame” version for 360, PS2 and Xbox

Final Word

I can’t in good coconscious recommend this game for fans that have been lukewarm to cold on Madden in the past. There’s not enough to make people ignore the premium pricing to be converted. Madden fans; however, should be camping out for this game… if it’s the right version.

The Xbox 360 version will be a brilliant game, and will start to show just what the game is capable of on the next level. It controls beautifully, looks gorgeous, and the changes made to Superstar mode – not even available for 360 last year – are well worth the upgrade for 360 owners.

The other big winner this year is the PSP version. For anyone that owns what is basically an expensive paperweight, you might have a reason to dust it off now; the PSP version is brilliant, and plays just as well at home as it does on the road. It might not do shit else, but that little system is looking great for sports titles.

Anyone looking at any of the current generations might want to take a good hard look, and see weather or not the new Superstar mode is really worth it; it’s the only reason I can think of, other than the new running game, to make anyone go from ’06 to ’07, and honestly… I don’t know if I can justify that being worth another $50. My personal stance, from what I’ve seen, is that it might be wiser to put that $50 towards the purchase of a 360 instead.

Every other version is varying degrees of mediocre to suck.

Lucard’s Note: You can download a nice set of screen shots here. This is the entire assets disc EA gave Inside Pulse. Knock yourself out.