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 pattycake 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, blow your timing and stumble badly and even screw up your assignment entirely. 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 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. Speaking of left and right jukes, players can now use them to setup quick stutter steps to the left or right to evade tackles. Finally, quarterbacks have the ability to scramble without having to pull down their targets, just like NCAA Football 07.
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 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. 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, although the game loads and plays much faster - unlike last year's game that would take up to a minute to load, this year's Madden easily starts in half the time.
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. Now while the running game bug that ruined NCAA Football 07 isn't in Madden, the fatigue bug is, which will let anyone play indefinitely without the effects of exhaustion. Something like this should've been fixed before it was released, but for some reason it still seems to be in the game.
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 some additions, which particularly happens during the off-season. The first one is an expanded set of options as far as the draft is concerned. You'll 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 12 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 being able to pick the assistant coach feature from last year is helpful, 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. Fortunately, you can sync up your PSP and PS2 games to take your franchise on the go. While you may accidentally copy over your profile on your memory card, and you won't gain any points for Madden Cards, it's an excellent way to take the game on the go.
One new feature is End to End, which lets you turn your PSP vertically to play a mini-game that pits your reaction times against that of a series of defenders. By pressing any one of the four directional buttons, you can spin, duck or jump any tackles. Get the timing down perfectly three times in a row, and you'll earn an impact token that you can use to truck a nearby defender whose timing will be more off than yours. Depending on your score, you'll unlock new teams and music tracks. Another new feature are the level of mini-games. There is a new multi-player competition where you can pick and choose between any one of 19 mini-games to test you luck at. Apart from that, there are three exclusive videos to be found on the disc, including a quick glimpse into everyone's favorite coach, John Madden.
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