The camera pans over an immense football stadium, teeming with rabid fans. We're looking at Super Bowl XL, the Eagles versus the Pats, and McNabb is pushing for a touchdown. The Eagles are 4th and 26, with no timeouts left.
McNabb brings his team to the line, and shouts off. The ball is hiked, McNabb pulls back, and finds LJ Smith just short of the sideline. He comes down in-bounds so the clock is still ticking. McNabb spikes it with one second remaining. He lines-up behind the center and eyes the defense. The tension is palpable as the screen fades and the announcer spouts, "Super Bowl Forty will come down to one final play, and this is what heroes are made of."
The cutscene ends, and all I'm left with is my craving for a game of serious football. There's nothing left to do but play the game and relive that highly suspenseful moment that that I saw in the intro movie. This is the next generation edition of Madden NFL 06, and it's all set to blow me away. This is what everyone has been waiting for.
Madden 06 does manage to shock me -- sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Let's face it, this is a next generation game playing on a next generation system, and I'm playing the game of football like it's never been played before. Let's get this out the way now: the game's visual feats are amazing. The Xbox 360 is a powerful machine, and Madden 06 demonstrates that. EA took the less-than flattering preview build and turned things around with a massive amount of bodies to make this game happen. The faces are rendered to the finest detail. EA rendered around 200 top NFL player faces, and the resemblances are chilling at times.
The quarterbacks from last year's Superbowl -- Donovan McNabb and Tom Brady, for instance -- look nearly identical to their real-life counterparts. Aside from the obvious players, EA has nailed down the likenesses of other players and coaches too. You'll instantly recognize coaches such as the Raiders' Norv Turner and pro linebackers such as Ray Lewis. Interestingly, players such as Kerry Collins received less detailed likenesses.
The animations that run between plays carry all the life-like character of a real NFL game. I'm talking scuffles, trash talkin', distinct celebrations -- it's all here. All of this, and a living, breathing stadium packed with spectators in full motion. This is undoubtedly the best-looking football game ever made.
Madden 06 was built from the ground up for Xbox 360, and that's apparent as soon as I see the menu screens. Navigating through Madden has become a next generation experience -- in two words, sliding windows. Using the Dpad to move around, you make your selections, and windows slide across the screen. The inactive windows dim and turn transparent in the background while you view other windows in the foreground. In Franchise Mode, you use the R-Stick to open-up windows and jump to the info you need. With this, it's easier to check out player bios, season and career stats, contracts, and schedules. That's just slick. And it should be, because after all, this is a brand new world of gaming we're embarking on.
In the sound category, there are subtle touches here and there that make this Madden worthwhile. When you go to instant replay, there's an orchestral football score that plays in the background as if you're watching documentary footage from an NFL film. It may not seem like much, but this detail helps maintain the belief that you're still a part of something monumental in the world of sports. The drama of hearing the bell tones from old highlight footage really got my blood flowing, and pulled me further into the game. It's thrilling to hear the roar of the crowd while seeing them fully animated in the stadium. It all adds to the drama of what's happening on the field. And having the opportunity to hear 18 starting quarterbacks call out signals during a game in their real voices is also a nice touch.
Some elements here didn't need the power of a next generation system for improvement. Make no mistake, this is straight-ahead Madden football gameplay, and that's a good thing. With the exceptions of a few missing control options (more on that later), you're getting the same experience of performance on the field. The game is fast and fluid, just the way most fans of the series like it. There were a few tiny hitches I saw when the defense adjusted on the line, but that's about it. And the final box copy is easily better than the preview builds we played just a month ago. The passing is quick, the tackles are hard and there are hundreds of news that affect the gameplay in subtle ways. Moves using tools like the Truck Stick, Hit Stick, Vision Cone and Precision Passing are all here. The only difference is that the Vision Cones are optional and turned off at default, but you can still use precision passing (throwing high, low, left, right) without the cones.
Kicking is different than in previous builds. When its time to punt or kick that game winning field goal, you have to stop a swinging arrow at just the right point for direction, and secondly, time the power of the kick by tapping again according to a strength meter. Those that are familiar with the 2K football games will recognize this, as well as the replay TV that streams on the play selection screen.
There are a ton more animations here, and they're dazzling at times. The receiver alone is reported to have 140 catch animations, and seeing them in action makes for some exciting moments. I won't forget the first time I saw a receiver jump to catch a ball, land, and stutter step to shake the defensive back. The back bit on the juke, and the receiver took off down the field. Hit animations have evolved as well, and their jarring effects help to bring Madden football one step closer to the game we see on Monday Night Football.
Some of the amendments EA has made specific to the Xbox 360 version are simple, but cool nonetheless. Borrowing a little from NFL Street, the new play selection options are more accessible than before. Before, plays were classified by formations, which was true to how real coaches lay out their plays, but not so helpful for novice Madden players. Now, users can choose plays by play type, which makes things a hell of a lot easier when it comes to strategizing. If you want to establish your running game early on, just select the inside or outside hand-off plays, which are all neatly laid out for you to choose from. Get the defense scared of your run, and then choose a quick pass to really throw them off. You can even choose plays according to key players. So if you're playing with the Raiders, you'll see a selection of Moss plays, Jordan plays, and Porter plays. Again, this makes it a lot easier to use your most dangerous weapons when needed.
The Franchise Mode and Online Mode are straightforward. They're both a little light on features, but deep enough for the hardcore fans to sink their teeth into. For franchise play, it's easy to wade through all the information with the new navigation functionality. You can look up everything, from your coach's job security to depth charts, schemes, and records. Along with all of this, the game saves all the data throughout your 30 years of playing. So you can go back and check individual player stats from year eight of your team's history, which is sweet.
Online mode is set up well, so that it's easy to find competition when you want. You can either set-up a quick match where the service automatically seeks out an opponent for you, or you can customize things to find people based on your preferred settings. This way you can have the engine look for people based on how many times they quit their game, their skill level, or match types. Players can create their own sessions where they choose their own settings for a game, or hang-out in the lobby to chat with potential competitors.
Missing in Action
After your head stops buzzing with excitement over the gorgeous graphics, animations, and atmosphere, a harsh reality comes to light about Madden 06 on the Xbox 360: there are missing features. When Madden 06 first loads up and you're looking at the aforementioned great-looking cutscene, none of this is immediately apparent. Everyone's first inclination is probably to just hop into a quick game and bathe in the next-gen beauty. But as that game is played, the holes start to pop up.
Here's a rough scenario: you pass to your receiver near the sideline. He jumps up to catch it, comes down, and gets pushed out of bounds. You don't get the yards. It looked to you as if he came down on the field with both feet in bounds before he got pushed. So, as you would do in the current-gen Madden game, you hit pause and go to challenge the play. The only thing is, there's no challenge option.
Features got cut in Madden NFL 06 for the Xbox 360. One of the most notable is the ability to challenge play calls during the game. This may seem minor, but when you consider the fact that entire football games are won and lost on decisions made by the refs (ahem, tuck rule, what the hell), this is huge. And if that fictional reception above means the difference between converting on third down or going 3 and out, the lost ability to challenge plays becomes even bigger. Making a challenge is a gamble -- it's the game within the game. You can come up big if things go your way, or lose a valuable timeout with nothing to show for it. Missing this vital feature takes away from the game's ability to be a well-rounded football simulation, and it's sorely absent.
There's more missing than just call challenging. All the mini-camp games are gone. The saying goes, "you can't miss what you never had." As it turns out, introducing mini-camp to Madden was a real treat, so I missed it terribly. When I wasn't playing an all out game, mini-camp was where I went to sharpen my skills. Ask any Madden guru what they do to get so good, and they'll tell you "mini-camp, mini-camp, mini-camp." But with this gone, the game loses some of the richness it had before. This also means no online mini-games to toy with when you want a break from the longer football games.
Additionally, pre-snap defensive playmaker controls have been scaled back. In previous titles, if you saw an opportunity to send one of your guys on an individual blitz, you could select and re-assign him on the fly to exploit your discovery. Well, that feature didn't make it into this version of Madden either. Also consider the fact that Owner Mode is gone as well, and things start looking a little bleaker.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved