When the announcement of EA’s exclusive licensing agreement was made last year, a furious debate erupted as to whether or not the deal would disrupt or strengthen the quality of the franchise. Some critics argued that the lack of competition would weaken the game itself, considering that it would be the only NFL title on the market. Others stated that the game would become much better, having the sole access to the resources of the league itself. Which argument was correct? Strap some pads on, because we’re going into the huddle with Madden 06.
Just like other titles in the 16-year history of the Madden Franchise go, Madden 06 has received a new focus on some aspect of the gameplay to make the title seem just as realistic as it possibly can be. While last year’s focus was upon the defense, this year centers around the offense, primarily controls around your field general, the quarterback. It’s been quite a while since there’s been a significant adjustment to the passing game – at least four to five years. Sure, there have been minor tweaks, such as inclusion of hot routes, but the premise behind passing has still been the same for a while now. What’s more, some of the exploitable “bugs,” such as having a quarterback scurry out of the pocket and throw a physically impossible pass were still included. This has been addressed with one of the newer, and perhaps most controversial features to the Madden franchise, QB Vision.
If you’ve ever watched a football game or seen a pre-game show, you’ve probably heard broadcasters talking about a quarterback’s field vision, i.e. how well they can survey the field and respond to the situation. As you can imagine, having great field vision means that you have an idea of where your receivers are, as well as where incoming threats are, such as rushing linebackers and defensive backs. In Madden 06, this translates to a lighted cone that extends from your quarterback: Star quarterbacks, like Brett Favre or Tom Brady, have huge vision cones that cover almost the entire field, whereas run and gun QBs like Michael Vick have smaller cones. These cones are important, because you’ll need to line up a receiver in a vision cone to have successful completions; throwing outside of your range of site dramatically reduces the chance for the ball to be caught by your receivers, leading to interceptions or batted passes.
So what does this mean in a game situation? Well, in particular once the ball has been snapped, you have to direct your vision cone to your chosen receiver (in effect turning the quarterback’s head in their direction) and throw the ball. Just like in the real game, defensive backs will read the quarterback’s eyes and head movements, which will require players to look off defenders by moving the vision cone back and forth across the field to confuse them. You’ve also got the ability to direct where your quarterback will throw the ball to further confound the defenses efforts. Thanks to the precision passing scheme, you can lead passes ahead or behind your receivers, as well as float passes ahead and throw shoestring passes to players.
This passing can be combined with smart routing your receivers to direct them to gain more yardage running their routes before trying to get open to guarantee first downs. Along with formation shifts and line slides, you should be able to give your quarterback some relative protection against the defenders. Ball carriers haven’t been left out either, as they’ve been given their own variation on the hit stick from last year known as the Truck Stick. This lets running backs and receivers lay Earl Campbell-sized hits on defenders, bowling them over as you rumble towards the endzone. Watching someone get knocked flat is truly satisfying.
However, there are some issues that complicate the offensive changes. First of all, the number of button and analog stick presses that you need to do to successfully direct your passes can be extremely time consuming, particularly when you have a blitz or a heavy pass rush bearing down on your QB. For instance, you have to hike the ball, direct your cone to your receiver, then perform your precision passing (which doesn’t seem to be removed from the inclusion of the QB Vision scheme) and finally hit the button to pass the ball. All of this is as you’re having the defense come bearing down on you. This is especially a pain given the Gamecube controller, where the buttons aren’t as accessible as they are with the Xbox and PS2 controllers. In lower difficulty levels this can be somewhat daunting, but at the Madden level, you’ve practically got two, maybe three seconds to pass the ball at the least. While the inclusion of preliminarily locking your gaze on a receiver helps somewhat, your button presses have to be so split second. This will drive a large number of gamers away from the franchise, even though you have the option to turn off QB vision. What’s more, the slightest move of the analog stick can get the vision cone completely lost and confused during a pass play, which complicates matters. And while the truck stick is a great way to get extra yards or possibly open up daylight, triggering the move slows down your ball carrier or receiver down so much that it makes them vulnerable to defenders that are chasing them down. Sometimes it’s just easier to try to make a run for it and get whatever you can.
There’s one other thing, which is that the defense can see where you’re looking to throw the ball thanks to the vision cone. This is particularly problematic when playing other gamers, because no matter how many times you try to cue off a defender, an astute or competent player will switch to a nearby defender and try to position themselves in between the pass and the receiver. It’s somewhat easier to pick up and pick off passing plays now, especially since you have an indication as to where the ball in generally being thrown. This is perhaps the sole advantage given to the defense, because apart from a few minor tweaks to the AI, the defense has been left alone due to the focus on the quarterbacks.
With Franchise mode, mini-games and other features remaining the same, the only other significant addition to Madden 06 is the Superstar mode. While the Franchise mode gave you a better sense of control of an entire organization, Superstar mode focuses on the attempts to make your created player a legend in the NFL, from the day he’s initially drafted to the day he retires. Similar to the Race for the Heisman mode in NCAA football, albeit significantly expanded, players will be able to direct the fate of their counterparts in the league from start to finish. This initially begins by choosing your parents, including trying to balance their IQ scores, hobbies and occupations, which actually has an effect on your player’s stats. Smarter parents relate to your awareness, whereas athletic parents increase your speed or resilience to injury. From there, you’re off to meet your “mentor,” Terrell Davis, sign an agent and take the Wonderlic exam that all rookies take before the draft (a shortened version that is). After the draft and an interview, you’re thrown into preseason followed by training camp and the regular season.
During the regular season, you’ll discover that you’ll attend practices and also gameplan sessions to prep for upcoming games. Good performance during either one provides your athlete with temporary stat bonuses that can help during the game itself. However, poor play will hamper and even cripple your stats. Apart from focusing on the field, you’ll have to manage other facets of your life, such as signing agents, endorsing companies and products, and other day to day issues. You’ll also spend a significant amount of time trying to gain access to the performance institute to make your player stronger and faster than he currently is.
It’s quirky and creative at moments, even sometimes enjoyable, but for the most part, the Superstar mode isn’t cleanly implemented. For instance, many of the gauges and meters that affect your player’s life in the league are arbitrarily defined and measured. I can understand if you decide to go to the press and guarantee a win, only to fail miserably in the game on Sunday that your popularity will take a hit. However, you can win a couple of games and find your popularity and marketability will vacillate wildly, if it changes at all. What’s more, the expectations that are placed on your characters seem unrealistic. For instance, I created a halfback from scratch in Madden 06, and the game decided that he was apparently the redefinition of the position, with huge expectations riding on his shoulders. By comparison, a quarterback that I imported from a saved career file in NCAA 06 with a Heisman trophy in his resume was viewed as absolutely nothing. Anyone else see an imbalance here?
Speaking of NCAA 06, this is one of those situations where it’s infinitely easier and more preferable to transfer your players. Many of the created rookies would get cut in the preseason thanks to the stats they’re given during the mother and father phase, simply because they wouldn’t have what it takes. Either their speed is too slow, their awareness is crappy or there are other issues with them. You also have to take into serious consideration what kind of position you’re going to assign your player to make them a Superstar in this mode; otherwise they will never make it. This inordinately means that you’ll be churning out quarterbacks, since they’ll always touch the ball. Unless you’re prepared to continually hand the ball off to your running back (who will get tired and sit out for a couple of series to regain their stamina) or throw to a wide receiver (same issue), you’ll hardly find cultivated stars coming out of other positions. Again, considering that Madden 06 is obviously the year of the quarterback, this makes some sense, but it does hamper the experience somewhat.
Apart from this, there are a large host of issues that are unrealistic, misappropriated or poorly carried through. I’ll only try to hit some of the key ones that stand out. For instance, why do I have Terrell Davis as my mentor if I’m not a running back? If I’m a quarterback, shouldn’t I get Dan Marino or John Elway? If I’m a receiver, can’t I get Lynn Swann? There’s just no sense to it. Apart from that, Terrell, Rich Eisen and many of the other people that will send you voice mails or emails will continually repeat themselves message after message, making you not want to deal with anything they have to say. Considering that you’ll also get comments that don’t necessarily apply to you anymore (why is that movie that I filmed in the off season still coming out for premieres three years after it was released?), the voice mail system is strange. Movie roles are sometimes filmed in the middle of the week during the season, which I can’t particularly buy any coach being okay with, endorsement deals literally come and go with the sweeping tide of the gauges I mentioned earlier. Finally, many of the features are essentially text based mini-games that don’t particularly seem connected to the experience, with perhaps the exception being the movie roles, where you need to deliver the right lines. (However, with many of the right lines even not working correctly in the game, this becomes a moot point.)
As far as the technical aspects of the game goes, you’re not particularly seeing a quantum leap forward with the visuals in Madden 06. In fact they pretty much look like those from last year, with the exception of a few new animations for tackles or those included for the Truck Stick. I do have an issue with the number of helmets that keep flying off during a game, which seems to be at an epidemic rate. In one playoff game I counted more than thirty instances of helmets rolling around on the field, which is absurd. Perhaps one of the major inclusions, primarily during replays, is the inclusion of head tracking for passes, so the receivers and defensive backs actually look like their following the path of a thrown ball during a play. Visually, you’re still going to find the Xbox version to be the best both in load times for graphics and sheer quality of game textures. The PS2, while still at the bottom of the barrel for load times, is still somewhat sharper than that of the Gamecube, which has better loads but weaker resolution textures.
Much of the game commentary feels like it’s been recycled from last year’s title as well, although there are a few moments where you’ll get a player specific phrase thrown out here and there by Al and John. Unfortunately, they really are the standouts, as most, if not all of the Tony Bruno commentary in the Franchise mode is exactly the same, and the dialogue in the Superstar mode is passable at best. Terrell Davis is definitely not an actor or a speaker, and it shows in the delivery of his lines. The minor characters that represent your webmaster, agent and the performance coaches are broad parodies of these types of people, and are generally pretty thin. Even Rich Eisen, who’s typically got a great delivery, becomes a shadow of his standard presentation. Gamers will also be treated to an eclectic mix of rock and rap for the EA Trax selection this year, although the true standout are the remixed NFL Films soundtracks, which actually sound pretty good. If you’ve ever seen an Inside the NFL or a football documentary, you’ve probably heard the original songs, so it’s cool to hear them spruced up a bit.
Not to leave the handheld market out, the GBA and DS have also received their version of Madden. While both games feature roster updates, these are virtually the same games as last year, although there are a few minor improvements. The GBA game has received a couple of tweaks to the AI and to the frame rate department, so the game is definitely not as choppy as, say, two years ago. You can tweak the difficulty of the game quite easily, along with making your routes and audibles on the fly thanks to the improved playbook scheme. However, if you were expecting many of the changes that have been sweeping through the console versions, you’re sorely mistaken. There is no vision cone, not should you be looking for some button combo for hit or truck sticks. Instead, what you’ve got is some solid sprite-based football bolstered by features designed to give you quick bursts of football. Thanks to the two-minute drill, practice, and situation modes, you can get a few minutes of gridiron play in if you’re pressed for time. Otherwise, you can jump into quickplay or the season mode for longer seasons, with the latter tracking records and statistics quite well across the weeks of league play. The primary addition to the GBA this year is the addition of mini-camp games, including passing, running and tackling drills along with field goals.
The DS, while highly criticized last year for a number of bugs in its gameplay, primarily with the touch screen function, has squashed a number of these issues, but still has a ways to go before it outpaces its GBA sibling. While the gameplay has tried to implement touch screen functionality throughout the entire game, there are still a large number of moments where you’ll simply disregard it in favor of the buttons. The kicking mechanic is definitely handled much better than last year, and there is more emphasis on the flicking motion that the DS is known for in terms of kicks and passes, but it’s still going to come down to an either/or choice for most DS gamers instead of a mix between the two styles. The DS gains the mini-camp mini-games as well, along with a team creation feature, play creation feature and a bare bones franchise mode that gives you the basic controls over a team. While it doesn’t have vision cones or the depth of the console franchise mode, it is still engaging to have this feature included on top of Seasonal play.
Overall, the first year of the exclusive deal with the NFL didn’t exactly pan out as well as many gamers would’ve hoped. While the inclusion of the vision cones and the concept of the Superstar mode were creative ideas, the actual implementation of the features ranged from inconvenient to improperly constructed. It’s somewhat disappointing considering that this is essentially the same game as Madden 2005 with the lone exception of these two main features, and although you can somewhat deal with some of the hiccups that 06 presents, these tweaks aren’t as radical as those that have been made in previous years.
Note: The Nintendo DS version of Madden NFL 06 scores 75%. The Game Boy Advance version scores 73%.