In one year, EA Sports has done more to right the wrongs of Madden's
gameplay past than in any time in the illustrious series' history. Play Madden NFL 2005
once, and you might notice the big hits and how aware all of the defenders are on the gridiron. Play it five times and you'll realize how defensive hot routes completely even out the field and that for the first time, maybe in any football game, it's not just fun, it's actually meaningful to D-up. Play the game 20 times and you really start to appreciate the brilliance behind the All-Madden engine. 2005's AI is by far the slickest, smartest AI of any football game ever put to polygons, period, and the main reason why Madden
is once again the single most dominant force in sports video games. The game might lack the presentation, the visual eye candy of ESPN 2K5, but more than makes up for it in the one area that counts the most, the reason you buy a game
This season, ESPN might have plenty of sizzle, but Madden is still the steak.
If you played last year's offensive showcase, the game built around Michael Vick and explosive offenses that only slowed down to fake a handoff, then get ready to completely relearn how to play Madden. Sure, keep it on Pro level and you can still run up the score and throw off of your back foot 40-yards to a streaking receiver. But play on All-Madden and try these same tricks and you'll be slapped with a reality that stings harder than a Ray Lewis spear. The developers at Tiburon have successfully implemented elements that ruin past football games for the simple fact that once you play with the Hit Stick, once you play with defensive hot routes, once you play with offensive formation shifts, then you try to go back to playing 2004 or even ESPN for that matter, you're left lost, missing the level of depth and ingenuity included in Madden this season.
The feature that seems to get the most attention, and is sure to fill the mind with some of the most devastating highlights ever seen in an NFL simulation, is the Hit Stick. When you first learn to use it, or even when you first start playing 2005, you'll probably miss-time the maneuver and watch as your defender stumbles past the ball carrier and gives up a big gain. You might curse the Hit Stick, even give up on using it, but that would be a huge mistake. The more you try it, the more you learn that, like everything, it's all about the timing, and in order to time the flick of the right analog stick correctly, you'll need to hit the Hit Stick a little earlier than originally imagined. Once you get the move down, however, it becomes one of the most lethal maneuvers in the game. Hit Stick tackles force more fumbles when timed right, smacking the runner down with a thud while the ellipse (or "oval of revolution" depending on your math knowledge) shaped ball bounces around the turf for your defense to pounce on. The Hit Stick also unleashes some of the most brutal tackle animations of any football game around. Players get launched into the air, take forearm smashes, and land with such force, gamers will grimace for weeks at the wreck of bodies left in its wake. Utilizing the Hit Stick is definitely a risk/reward proposition, though, because just when you think you have the timing down, the player with the ball will put on a juke that makes you look and feel so stupid as you slide head first down to the ground that you'll wish you would hold off the highlights every once in a while and do like coach said and wrap the player up. To increase the risk, when you try to Hit Stick a rumbler like Mike Alstott with a corner like Ricky Manning Jr., the tiny corner will bounce off the runner which may lead to a substantial gain for the offense.
And while the Hit Stick makes the highlights, it's defensive hot routes and defensive Playmaker that really change the way you play the game, essentially enabling you to eliminate any money plays. Here's how it works: Before the ball is snapped, the gamer on defense can cycle through each player and actually change their assignments on the fly by hitting the right analog stick (Playmaker style) toward the area you want them to defend. You can back defensive linemen off the line to plug up the middle of the field, drop linebackers back into coverage or send them blitzing toward the quarterback. You'll also be able to manually adjust the way the defensive backs play in coverage with hot routes. You can press your right corner to play bump and run while leaving the safety and left corner back off the ball. Combining the hot routes and Playmaker enables you to do just about anything you can imagine, from double teaming a receiver if there's already a safety playing in zone coverage, designating a defender to be the quarterback spy, or even dropping them back into a flat zone. This new found ability really adds to the chess game that has become Madden, as last year, there was so much the offense could do to send players in motion, audible, and call hot routes, that the defense was left watching all of these players run back and forth with really no way to counter the moves. This year, like I said, the game has changed, and it's the offense now that will have to watch out.
Gamers on defense will also need to watch out, though, as one annoying occurrence that occasionally transpires is when you're pressing the right analog stick to change an assignment and the offense hikes the ball. If you pressed the stick too late, your player goes into the motion of the Hit Stick (same controls) and basically falls flat on his face taking him out of the play. It doesn't happen too often, but when it does, it can really cost the defense a big play. Aside from user error, football fans will really be surprised by how much smarter the players are on the field this year, as I can't remember a time when a sports game made this much of a leap in terms of upgrading player intelligence. You really notice the upgrade in terms of defensive backs and linebackers, especially on passing plays. The days of sending everyone deep and jetpacking to make the catch are over. First, the corners jump routes, swat balls down, and make more interceptions than in the past. You'll see safeties running over to help double team the streak, and even linebackers jumping up to deflect passes thrown over the middle of the field. Far too often in the past, and even in ESPN this year, you'll throw a spiral over the middle and watch the linebacker just stand there as it whizzes by his helmet. That doesn't happen when playing All-Madden.
On offense, blockers also do a better job of getting out and pancaking defenders. It's unexpectedly satisfying when the replay flashes and instead of showing the run or the touchdown, they show the block that opened up the play. It's also great to see that defensive player who has been Hit Sticking you all day finally get knocked flat on his ass.
But that's not the only improvement made to the offense. You still have the ability to call hot routes and audibles (although now you can't audible until the quarterback reaches the line of scrimmage), as well as use Playmaker to switch plays before the snap. This year, though, you're also given the new wrinkle of being able to change your formation at the line ala the Giants or Bucs, moving players all over the field. What this does, essentially, is let you run the same play, but from a different formation, changing the big set into a normal or sending a tight end outside to make a three wide receiver formation. What this also enables you to do is change the formation, then hot route the receiver to take advantage of a mismatch you might have just caused by moving the players around. Luckily this year, the defense actually has a chance to hot route on its own in an attempt to adjust. This again goes into the new theory of Madden, a theory where every play counts because the games are so close, the defensive pressure so great, that one mistake can really break your back (which in turn can cause you to break your controller).
Also adding to the greater depth of gameplay are black routes, or quarterback containment, on defense, and orange routes, or option routes, on offense. Black routes are used to stop players like Michael Vick from running outside the pocket and taking off for big yards or scrambling around until someone gets open. The defensive ends shoot out to each side and then stop their pursuit, waiting to see what the quarterback does next. If the quarterback tries to escape the pocket, they then react and try to take him out before any advance is made. Back on offense, the option routs are routes receivers run depending on the coverage. When you drop back to pass, the receiver actually reads the defense and on the fly decides whether to run an in a fly or an out for example. These two additions really come into play in subtle, yet meaningful ways, because even though you might only need to call them a few times a game, the options are both tremendous additions, especially if you play against the Falcons.
Last year, gamers were introduced to the finer art of raising the price of popcorn, relocating their teams, and the marketing of players for profit. This year, living the life of an NFL owner is still part of the franchise, but it's more about managing the personalities of your players than how much salt you want on your peanuts.
The first thing you'll notice is the fact that the franchise interface has been completely revamped. All the info you're looking for now is found in Storyline Central, complete with local and national newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle and USA Today to detail all of the player gripes and highlights, while at the same time there is a sports talk show taking place in the background hosted by Tony Bruno. The Tony Bruno show comes complete with player interviews, trivia, and news from around the league. Some of what is said is actually insightful as before my game against the Bengals, Bruno went on to talk about how upset Jon Kitna was at being benched and how the Bengals just put him on the trading block. Sure enough, there was Kitna on the block. There are also some cool interviews with players like Edgerrin James, but they come up at weird times. I guess since it's supposed to be a national show, he talks about all the teams, but it would've been better if he talked more in depth about your team, your games, have more interviews with your players. It's cool how it is, but disappointing when compared to the SportsCenter shows put on by ESPN. Madden needs to incorporate more of the TV style presentation, especially the in-game highlights and postgame interviews if it wants to keep pace and provide fans what they now expect from their football games.
The newspaper articles work better in terms of helping you not only understand what's going on with your team, but helping you do something about it. If there's an article about Ray Lewis and his contract status for instance, you can quickly click on the link for contract negotiations, check out his interest in rejoining the team, his morale, how much cap room you have, and you can even make an offer to him if you're so inclined, and if you're the Ravens, you better be so inclined or it's going to be a long tenure. To add to the mix, you can also check a player's interests in various aspects about your team, from talent and head coach to staff, stadium, fans, market, money, weather, mentoring, and team success. It's not just a matter of money for some players, so if you keep losing and the player only wants to play for a winner, you can throw all the money you want at this superstar and he probably won't sign. When reading the paper, you'll also see players go to the press complaining about playing time. In one instance, Adalius Thomas told reporters that he was furious for being benched. "When I don't play, we lose," he said. "It's that simple." From there you can check the depth chart, release the player, move him back into the starting lineup, or even place him on the trading block. All communication with your team, coaches, and PR people is now handled through an easy to navigate PDA system that quickly enables you to cycle through and read what's important and skip what isn't. Players will e-mail you to thank you for being named team captain or for getting the starting nod, while others from your organization will fill you in on what it means to play a rivalry game and how long a certain player will be on the injured list.
The depth of franchise beyond presentation, however, is undeniable, and even at times, somewhat staggering. Like I said, you can relocate teams, change the uniform colors, build a new stadium, change the turf to natural grass and all of the other options you had last season. What's new this year is the fact that based on your wins and losses, based on your team's prestige and what you do, not only on the field, but off the field in terms of acquisitions, trades, signings, and cuts, your players will actually be affected. You'll watch as players demand trades or start to perform poorly because their morale is low. Maybe you just traded Steve McNair for a younger player or some draft picks to try to rebuild the Titans, and depending on his stroke within the team, you'll watch as everyone's morale rating dips by a point or two. Rivalry games also weigh heavily on team prestige and player morale, and for the first time, your players will actually progress during the season. Play Kyle Boller more and his awareness will go up with experience. But it also works the other way. Throw too many picks or run a player into the ground, and no, they won't retire so they can smoke some more weed, but their ratings will take a hit.
Also added to the game is the ability to change player positions. Ever wonder how Ray Lewis would look in the backfield blocking for Jamal Lewis? Well, here's your chance. This will enable gamers to keep their teams more current throughout the season as the real coaches experiment with their lineups on Sundays, gamers will be able to keep up and adjust their lineups on Sunday night. Player ratings will take a hit when they are switched, even when switching a player from left guard to right guard or left tackle to right tackle. Not every player is prepared or able to switch and perform as well, and this will be reflected in their stats.
One aspect that has been completely overhauled is the NFL Draft. Before the draft begins, you can select 15 prospects to scout, then you can watch as the numbers from the rookie combine come back and you can find out everything from their time in the 40 to their shuttle speed. When you advance to the draft, it's pretty damn cool as you'll hear the announcer say "Now on the clock, the Arizona Cardinals" and you can set the speed of the draft. As things transpire and players are picked, the CPU will actually offer trades during the draft to each other like the Titans sending their first pick, number 15 overall for the Chargers second and fourth round selections. You can move up spots to take the hot prospect, check the breakdown of position players selected so far, and even see the draft board to check who are the best players still available. You even hear the fans cheer or jeer when you make your selection. To up the ante of the draft even more, the players you pick actually affect the morale of the players already on your team. Playing as the Ravens, I selected a quarterback with my first pick to see what would happen and Kyle Boller's morale rating didn't take a dive, obviously confident in his status as starter. But when I simulated a season with the Lions and did the same, Joey Harrington's morale did take a hit as he was feeling the pressure of another losing season and the strong young arm waiting in the wings.
From there, it's on to signing free agents, and once again, everything from your fans to the overall team talent come into play. There's a meter at the top showcasing the particular player's interest in signing with your team, what the best offer he's received has been, how many current offers he has, and the top three teams in contention for his services.
Once the season is ready to get underway again, you can select opponents to face in the preseason, players to run through mini camps, then it's on to your next season of championship dreams and to see whether or not the moves you made in the offseason will help you advance to the Super Bowl. This year, you'll be happy to know that there is an actual Super Bowl celebration after the game, complete with the Gatorade splash on the head coach.
Playing through franchise, you'll also notice how different each team plays and how they really each do play to their own personality. Playing against the Chiefs and playing against the Cowboys are two entirely different experiences and you actually have to prepare for them differently if you hope to win, especially on All-Madden, which may just be one of the toughest CPU modes football gamers have come across to date. You also really notice the difference in players based on their ratings. Trying to throw on Champ Bailey is completely different than throwing on Mike Rumph, and it should be. Bailey is a shutdown corner, can handle anyone and everyone from Moss to T.O., while Rumph will have a hard time against Steve Smith, probably give up a big play to the biggest playmakers. Adding to the excitement, there is also more defensive pressure on quarterbacks this year, rivalry games up the intensity of play, defensive backs don't let you throw deep (especially into double coverage), and if you try to run the same play over and over again, they'll make you pay. In one game, I could hit Muhsin Muhammad all day with the curl. Anytime I needed 5-8 yards, it was the curl. But with the game on the line, second and goal from the four, I tried to go back to it and the ball was picked by the corner in the endzone and returned all the way back, over 100-yards for the score and my crushing defeat. Create-A-Fan
The game maintains features from last year like the ability to create teams, players, and playbooks, while at the same time adding in a new mode entitled Create-A-Fan. This mode enables you to dress fans up in your own Raider Nation-esque gear, paint their faces and body, give them foam fingers, then watch as they show up in cut scenes root-root-rooting for the home team or booing your last interception. A cool novelty to have as an extra and nothing too spectacular, but it sure beats getting a call from Steve-O in your crib.
Graphics and Sound
When you hit the replay and check out close-ups of players, you'll be amazed at the improvement in the player models, from the chiseled biceps to the detail of the shoulder pads underneath each jersey. Overall, however, the graphics are still not even close to the triple-pass rendering provided by ESPN. Then again, when the players are in motion, the animations are a lot smoother in Madden than ESPN this year, and the addition of the Hit Stick animations really take the game to another notch, and jaw to another level of dropping. You'll see low tackles actually flip the player with the ball onto his head while other times you'll witness a double team tackle that looks to take the life right out of your poor polygonal runner. Another nice touch is the addition of more player specific touchdown celebrations. It's worth it to play as Kansas City just to see Priest Holmes sidestep into the endzone in his trademark fashion. Other additions include weather and lighting that actually change throughout the game, and possible the ugliest group of cheerleaders ever to hit a video game. It's not like anyone turns on Madden to watch a bunch of cyber chicks shake their pom-poms, at least, I hope not, but at the same time, where did they recruit these girls, FUGLY University?
Speaking of Ugly, Al Michaels and John Madden provide about the same level of commentary as last year and some of the sentences that are pieced together really just sound unnatural. You would think a game built around an announcer would have the best sound of any sports game, or at least the best commentary, but in fact, it's the opposite. The two really don't provide anything insightful about the games, and even when you're playing the Super Bowl, they really don't seem to care. The funniest line was in a game that was 35-3 with about a minute left. Al Michaels said: "If the offense gives up a turnover here, this game is over." Gee, Al, you think?
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