IGN Review of Madden NFL 07
August means different things to just about everyone - for some, it marks the end of lazy days and the start of the school year. For others, it's simply the end to hot summer temperatures and the transition to into fall. But for football fans, it's the start of a beautiful holiday season, one that starts with pre-season games and culminates with the release of EA Sports' latest version of the venerated Madden series. Madden has always been a fan favorite, striving to overcome its criticism of merely being a yearly roster update with mini-games, franchise features and other elements. However, while these have been generally well received, the tweaks on either side of the ball have been much more contentious (vision cones, anyone?) This season, Madden NFL 07 virtually entrenches this debate, with two new features that push the concept of the series into the future, while virtually leaving the gameplay and Franchise mode in the past.
1st and Ten
Madden has always alternated its focus on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, trying to balance out both squads when they take the field (yet inevitably favoring the cover athlete's side and position). The selection of Shaun Alexander, last year's MVP record setting halfback and oft mistaken Barber sibling, set the stage for EA Sports to completely retool the running game. To a degree, it does just that. This year's game includes lead blocking as a major feature; although you could kind of do this in previous years, it was much more dependent on the AI controlled line and backs to lay some lumber on your opponent. For the most part, this wasn't 100% guaranteed, and more often than not, you'd find one of your teammates playing patty cake instead of clearing a hole for you to run through.
That's not so much of a concern now with the lead blocking feature. At the start of a play, you can switch away from control of the quarterback to control of a lead blocker, regardless of whether that's a tight end, fullback, halfback or lineman. Once the ball is snapped, you attempt to set a block so your AI controlled back has a chance to run to daylight. Once you've broken through the hole, you can switch back to the runner with a Matrix-like slowdown moment for a second or two and make a move for the end zone. Lead blockers have a variety of moves that can be employed to jam a defender: you can attempt an impact block, which will bowl your opponent over and count towards your pancake block stats. You can also try to take out their legs with a cut block or a diving tackle, which can also interrupt the pursuit of additional tacklers by forcing them to jump over your player. Finally, you can try to turn or pull a defender to the left or right, and if all things fail, you can hold another player and hope the refs don't see you.
There is a definite risk/reward setup with lead blocking that players have to be aware of. You can accurately set your block, which results in an icon popping up onscreen when you hamper a defender. However, blow your timing and you'll stumble badly around the field, resulting in a "Leadblock Whiff" icon. Even worse, you can screw up your assignment entirely ("Leadblock Fail"). Apart from any ineptitude on your part with holding back defenders, the AI will sometimes blow its job, not taking the hole you open for it (particularly if you make one that a car could drive through) and getting tackled in the backfield. You can also switch to the back with the ball and find that other blockers governed by the AI haven't done their jobs, or discover that your former lead blocker can't do his job without your personal help overseeing the position.
Veteran players of the Madden series will also notice that there are minor tweaks that have been made to pre-existing ball carrier moves. Last year's truck stick has been refined into this year's Highlight Stick. Now when you hit up on the right thumbstick, the game takes into account what kind of back you are for the specific moves: power runners will drop their shoulder and try to go through a defender, while faster backs will dodge incoming tackles. There are some backs, like Alexander, who have the designation of being both, so the specific move will vary radically from step to step. This tweak joins the familiar back juke and left and right jukes on the right stick. Speaking of left and right jukes, players can now use them to setup quick stutter steps to the left or right to evade tackles. If you do get in a clinch, an icon will now pop up on the screen directing you to pound on the sprint button to escape and gain additional yardage. The same icon will pop up on the defender's side of the ball, turning the event into a kind of button mashing mini-game. Finally, quarterbacks have the ability to scramble without having to pull down their targets, just like NCAA Football 07. Oh, and in case you were wondering, vision cones are still in the game, but you can turn them off if you don't like them, just in case you were wondering...
Now, veterans of Madden are probably thinking, "So what? That's been in the game for a while now." They're exactly right, because the stutter step and the sprint button escape has been around for sometime now; apparently, it's been codified into the game system. While it's nice to see the acknowledgement, it would've been much better to see something different for gameday situations. Similarly, you'd hope that there was greater depth to the defense, but there really isn't. The addition of team specific playbooks is nice, and fleshes out various schemes for defenders, but that's a minor addition to play. Similarly, the other defensive tweak is the ability to commit to either the run or the pass, giving your defenders a chance to blow up a play if you guessed right, but getting your defenders completely out of position to make a play if you were wrong. Something that Madden NFL 07 could've really benefited from would've been the ability to jump the snap to get into the backfield. While NCAA 07 features this potentially series changing move, the pro game lacks this move, which isn't realistic. There are plenty of defensive backs and linemen that attempt to anticipate and jump the count, and this year's game could've seriously used it. As it is now, it's essentially the same game as last year. Oh, and by the way, vision cones are still in the game, but you can turn them off if you don't like them, just in case you were wondering
This means that many of the bugs and glitches that you've probably become accustomed to from last year are still around. Cutscenes still have a stuttering hitch every now and then during playback. Players will still have blatant animation issues, like having the animation of a quarterback's arm throwing to the right side of the field and the ball accurately being thrown to the left. There's also what I refer to as the "Electric Slide," where a receiver will sometimes stop their animation, slide to the ball and then make a jump for a pass. Apart from the visual issues, there are still AI problems, including the lack of tackling in some games. Other times, the number of injuries present, particularly on big name players, feels completely unbalanced and unrealistic.
Entering the Feature Draft
Just like the gameplay, the Franchise mode of Madden NFL 07 is pretty much the same as that from last year with a few minor additions, which particularly happens during the off-season. The first one is an expanded set of options as far as the draft is concerned. This year, you have the option to scout upcoming prospects through the College All-Star game to get a sense of their individual performance. You'll also have the chance to run your top draft picks through your own "mini-combine" with the new scouting system. Just like training camp, where you can improve the statistics of players, you'll be able to see how well prospective players will do in different skills; the better you do, the more information you receive on that player. The other is the addition of two new phases in the off season, raising the total number to 11 steps that you can oversee with your team, hopefully leading them to success. However, if you actually compare the two new steps with last year, you'll note that these new phases are both roster management sections slotted after the retired players phase and the draft. While handling the number of players on your team is important for GMs, coaches and owners, and you will have the option to designate some athletes with Franchise Player tags now, you'd hope that there'd be a little more this time around.
One feature that is new and has a lot to offer football fans is the NFL Network mode. Thanks to Sterling Sharpe, NFL Pro Bowler and analyst for NFL Playbook, fans of the sport will be able to get a better understanding of their favorite teams and even some of their rivals. The Network mode breaks down three offensive and three defensive plays beyond the simple X's and O's on the field, explaining when a specific play would be best used in a game situation. These aren't random selections for each team either; EA Sports tried to isolate plays that best represented those franchises. After you go over the explanation, you have a chance to practice that play as well, giving you an idea as to how that play might be best run, or when you face off against the other team.
Last year's Superstar mode was based around the concept of making a player the most popular player in the NFL, with endorsements, movie deals and a successful career. This year's Superstar mode has a much more ambitious focus: reaching the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Similar to last year, you have the option to import a player from NCAA Football 07 or create a new athlete, balancing your positional needs with the genetic makeup of your in-game parents. However, there are a couple of changes this time around: for one, you only control your athlete this time around. For example, play as a wide receiver, and your only goal is to run your routes and perform your blocks. Go in as a linebacker, and focus on stopping the run, shutting down the middle of the field and rushing the quarterback. You can even play as a punter or kicker, potentially launching the game winning field goal. Creatively, you won't have to play the other side of the ball if you don't want to; Superstar mode has a fast forward option so you can quickly get back to your position.
You're not in control of the plays you run, either; the computer will select the best plays for that particular point in time, letting you concentrate on the position that you've chosen. Since you're only supposed to perform your role, you're only evaluated on whether or not you do your assignments in each play. Do your job right, and you'll be rewarded with influence points that you can use to boost your stats or the stats of your teammates. Perform consistently, and you can receive a variety of roles based upon the position. For instance, wide receivers that establish themselves as a deep threat can get the role of a Burner, while solid defensive backs can get the Shutdown Corner role. You're not necessarily guaranteed that you can keep these roles either; don't play as well, and you might even lose these character traits. These can also be manipulated based upon your athlete's ego. Depending on how you answer interview questions, you can get a positive or negative ego, which will affect how your character's influence works. Act like a nice guy, and you'll find your influence gets boosted faster. Pull an ego trip, and you'll find that mistakes will sink your pull on the team.
While the remake of the Superstar makes the game extremely unique (in fact, it's probably the biggest change made to Madden in years), there's a significant issue with the influence system, which really governs the whole mode: You can perform your assignments perfectly, but if one of your teammates screws up, you get penalized for it, which doesn't make sense. For example, if you're a lineman and you block for a running back who fumbles the ball twenty yards away, the coach doesn't yell at you on the sideline for his weak hands. Since there are plenty of things that can be out of your control, your level of influence can unfairly vacillate from play to play. I know that there is no I in team, and the fortunes of one player are tied to the squad he plays with, but the mode isn't called Superteam, is it?
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