Madden NFL 06 REVIEW

Madden NFL 06 Review (Xbox 360)

The 800-pound gorilla of sports gaming has settled in on the new Xbox 360. Madden NFL 06 has been built from the ground up for the next generation of consoles, and it provides a remarkable visual and auditory experience.
EA Sports, like a talented architect who would talk you through the site of a fabulous home being built while you're walking through the basement and frame, knows that they'll eventually build something special, and so there's plenty of reason to be excited for the future. But for now - it's still just a basement.

Make no mistake - Madden NFL 06 looks nothing less than spectacular. The player models have been drastically improved, and they have a weight and heft to them that didn't exist before. The stadiums are painstakingly rendered, and the lighting in each is excellent. The team's uniforms finally sport their correct lettering; something EA took pains to make sure you'll notice - the same fonts on the back of the jerseys will be displayed under the selected player on the field.

While some players' faces are spot-on, many aren't, and a great number of them have the unfortunate appearance of cast-offs from a George Romero film. Check out Denver's Jake Plummer or Oakland's Kerry Collins for further details.

However, I personally look at player faces in football games as "gravy". That's why NFL players wear uniforms with numbers on over them, after all. If EA hadn't focused on the faces so much during the game's presentation, I wouldn't find it to be much of an issue at all.

For better or for worse, there's a lot of "gravy" in the game's graphics department. EA raved about the details in it's game, especially in the game's stadiums, and they do indeed look very impressive. However, at E3 this summer, EA's reps boasted about the fact that every seat was rendered and even the speakers had woofers and tweeters. Of course, since you can't really see these things - the replay camera can't be positioned to take note of them - I assume that this was simply more "framework" for future releases. It certainly took development time to make these things, however; and as we'll see, one can't help but think that there were more important and relevant things to assign developers to rather then rendering speaker grilles.

It's also odd, considering the attention to detail, that some "rings of fame" that line the inside many stadiums were omitted entirely. NFL 2K5 had them included and rendered remarkably well. In Madden NFL 06; they're simply non-existent. As Madden is the only exclusively licensed video game product of the NFL, it seems unlikely that they weren't allowed to do so here, but who knows - there are plenty of litigious lawyers out there. Regardless, they're not in the game; and for a title whose developers spent most of their time in interviews and presentations discussing their hyper-realistic stadiums, it's a notable omission.

On and off the field, the game is - on the whole - a visual smorgasbord. Even the menus are pretty.
Players move fluidly and more or less realistically in most cases, with wonderful animations that capture the physicality of the NFL quite well. There are some issues - "vibrating" linemen, some noticeably herky-jerky animations, coaches that have Quasimodo-worthy back humps, frame-rate hiccups, the occasional clipping issue and an odd shearing effect that appears when the view swivels during kicks - but on the whole, these are certainly not show-stoppers.

The bottom line here? It's simple: Madden NFL 06 is the best looking football game ever made, hands-down. In high-definition, it's nothing less than breathtaking.

EA took pains to improve Madden NFL 06's audio package across the board, and they've succeeded. Player grunts and groans are better, hits sound more realistic and the crowd is much livelier than they've ever been. The surround-sound application is solid, and if you have a good system, the game's sounds will only bring you closer to the NFL action. Adding audio cues for some of the league's top quarterbacks - you'll actually hear them make those audible calls is a brilliant, if subtle addition.

There is, however, one major change. It's for the better, and EA deserves credit for trying something new - but it doesn't totally work.

John Madden has left the building.

Sure, you'll still hear his advice when you ask him for his help calling a play, but his days as an announcer appear to over. That's a good thing, and honestly - it's long overdue.
Madden and partner Al Michaels have iconic voices that instantly lend an air of credibility to any football game - or they would if they were utilized better. The scripts (or trips to the recording studio - only EA knows) for the two commentators were far too sparse for years, resulting in annoyingly stilted tones for Michaels and an over-reliance on Madden's "booms", "whaps", and "he's looking out his ear-hole" non sequiturs.

In their place is a generic, "home town" announcer, who uses "we" with regard to the gamer's team, is excited when things go well and hopeful when things don't… and sounds like he's on AM radio.
It's a novel approach, and I applaud EA Sports' creativity when they chose to take this route.
The new announcer is a gigantic step up from Madden and Michaels (how odd does that sound?), but the AM radio-feel has an unintended consequence - over time, it feels low-tech.
Now, that's the point of course, but with all the whiz-bang graphics and Star Trek-styled menus about, the commentary becomes disconnected somehow from the rest of the game, resulting in the odd feeling that the game you're playing doesn't seem so "next-gen" anymore.
Perhaps with the ESPN license in their pockets, EA can tap that vein and use some of the more enthusiastic but credible performers who have displayed their talents on some of 2K Sports' finest games next year. Doing so would truly immerse the gamer wholly into the fictional broadcast.

On another positive note - EA Trax as we know it is dead and gone; thanks to the abilities of the Xbox 360. I couldn't be happier. Don't like the parade of homogenous indie rock and hip-hop that EA tries to annually shovel down your gullet? Shut it off and pick your own music instead. However, I haven't had any need to do so, because EA made one of the finest musical decisions on their history. While Madden and Michaels' voices have been removed from the proceedings, an even more potent football pheromone has been injected - the brilliant inclusion of classic NFL Films music.
Nothing, but nothing, screams "NFL football" more than these themes, and there isn't a football fan alive that doesn't want to at least sit down and try playing after hearing them bleat through the air. Turn off all the other songs and leave nothing but these classics on, and you're instantly transported to a different football world. Having them play while viewing replays is even better; so feel free to unleash your inner Steve Sabol.

You'll notice that there was much to discuss regarding graphics and sound. From here on out, it gets a lot more lean, and this is where Madden NFL 06 begins to stumble.

First, for those familiar with the Madden series, let's go over some of the notable features that have been removed:
- Mini-games
- Superstar mode
- Practice mode
- Owner mode
- Create-a-player
- Create-a-team
- EA Locker online
- Franchise mode's radio show, newspapers, e-mail and draft scouting
- Playmaker controls (offense and defense)
- Formation shifts
- "Smart" hot routes
- Challenging controversial calls via replay
- Every other camera angle save the default

Otherwise, it's all there.
Please feel free wipe off the Pepsi you just spat all over your monitor now…

There's "Play Now", Online and Franchise modes - and that's it.

The Franchise mode has been picked bare of it's flavor and style, and now primarily consists of a sequences of text menus that can be accessed between games. That's not to say that it's completely bereft of good ideas, however.
The Coaching menu's "Scheme" allows for an excellent amount of tweaking. Do you prefer your defensive ends to concentrate more on stopping the run or rushing the passer? Strategies like this can be set for every position on the field.
Auto-sub levels for each position can also be modified using sliders.
These are both nice touches, and they really allow the armchair Parcells to do his thing.
There's also a remarkable amount of data that can be accessed by drilling down, and that kind of depth and stat tracking is appreciated.

Beyond that, however - essentially every Madden franchise innovation in the last five years is completely absent.
Unfortunately - and shockingly - Madden NFL 06 is about as deep as a puddle.

Herein lies both Madden's greatest promise, and it's most distinct shortcoming.
I'm a firm believer that the game's the thing - if a game plays well on the field, then I can forgive almost anything else in a title. In any sports game, the game play must reign supreme.

The first time you play Madden NFL 06, you'll notice the magnificent play-calling screens. They're a great way to bring new and more casual players into the franchise, and perhaps that's exactly the plan.

Madden NFL 06
teases, and offers an entertaining game at first blush, but the more one plays it, the more one notices what's wrong - and in Madden's case, there's a few things that stand out as serious problems. First, the wonderful new play-calling menus are great, but when trying to change packages - they're entirely inaccurate. They simply don't work. You think you've subbed your backup halfback in - say Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis is coming in for a third-and-short late in the game, replacing Willie Parker. Now, in this case, it's extremely important to know that Bettis is coming in. Parker can't be expected to plow up the middle, into the teeth of the defensive line, and succeed. You check your package screen, and Bettis is listed as "in", so you call the HB Dive play and get ready to go. Unfortunately, when you line up, Parker's still there and Bettis is nowhere to be seen. If you don't have any time outs left - you may have just lost the game. This kind of problem should never, ever make it through the QA process.

But wait, there's more:
- I can't count how many touchdowns I've thrown to receivers who have run out of bounds - and at that point, their defender correctly stops covering them - and then the wide-out comes back in uncovered 40 yards downfield… as an eligible receiver. No penalty has ever been called.
- Break a run to the outside, and watch the safety stop pursuing you, instead turning into a blocker who's actually behind you. It happens all the time.
- Safety play is especially poor, and it makes the middle of the field a stroll in the park for receivers. Call a delay route to a halfback or fullback. The odds are excellent that even a safety in that zone will simply freeze or even turn away from the receiver, letting him waltz downfield unimpeded.
- Using the "Hit Stick" with a 190-pound defensive back will knock a 250-pound fullback with a head of steam backwards five feet with regularity.
- "Suction blocking" is back in full force. If rail-thin Eagle Todd Pinkston tries to take on a hitting machine like Dallas' Roy Williams, all he needs to do is touch him. Williams will stick like glue to Pinkston for the duration of the play. While speedy edge rushers like Indy's Dwight Freeney can occasionally impact a play, power rushers from the inside have almost no shot thanks to the overly powerful blocking model.
- This is Oakland owner Al Davis' dream game. EA Sports took the time to render and record lines from NFL referee Ed Hochuli, but not to worry - you won't see him too often. Penalties are almost non-existent.

The game has been, for lack of a better term, "dumbed-down" dramatically, and all the strategies that Madden has encouraged players to gradually improve upon have vanished.
In it's place is a game that encourages sweeps galore and quarterback bootlegs, with a little flick of the stick here and there to vacuum up pursuers into the "suction blocks" for huge gains.
Watching Michael Vick lead the league in rushing season after season doesn't exactly scream "NFL authenticity", and I highly doubt that this is what the league had in mind when it granted an exclusive deal to Electronic Arts earlier this year.

That's being a wee bit harsh, perhaps - certainly, there are "sim" players out there that can get more out of Madden by playing more realistically and tweaking sliders, but by the game's very nature; as Gertrude Stein famously wrote, "There is no there there".

Playing Madden NFL 06 is like playing in a beautiful time capsule. It looks great, sounds great, and plays like Madden... circa 2001.

On the bright side, four years after that, Madden reached its apex on the Xbox and PlayStation 2.
Here's hoping that EA Sports gets the next generation of Madden to the same lofty perch much, much faster.

Madden NFL 06 has all the basics here; Quick Match options, the ability to find custom matches (read: Optimatch to the Xbox Live crowd) or create your own, and a full complement of lobbies and leaderboards.
The game plays well enough online, though I've experienced more than a normal amount of lag. This may or may not be Madden's fault, however, as many other Xbox 360 releases are having similar issues.

One thing that deserves mention is EA's laudable commitment to online roster updates. So far, there have been two updates since the game's release already, and both of them have been pretty darned accurate. Let's hope this becomes the rule rather than the exception.

Quite frankly, even reviewing Madden NFL 06 is a classic no-win scenario - let alone turning a critical eye upon it. I'm fully aware that the game has legions of fans that would accept just about anything EA published on a disc with the name Madden on it, and swear up and down that it was the greatest game ever created by human hands. That's OK - these are exactly the type of people that reviews like this are trying to protect. Since that's what I'm faced with, I'm simply going to stand on my principles and defend the consumer.

Madden NFL 06 is not an awful game, but it's a jarringly incomplete and unforgivably buggy one. Obviously designed to look good first, foremost and last, Electronic Arts has sold out the game's soul - along with it's loyal customer base.
Now, I understand that this is likely temporary - there is a beating heart deep down inside Madden NFL 06 that undoubtedly will come to the fore over time.

However, charging $60 for what amounts to a promising tech demo is unconscionable - doubly so given that other versions of the game in the same model year are distinctly superior to it in nearly every other quantifiable way.

If you absolutely must have a football game to show off the graphical punch of the Xbox 360 to your friends, and have money to burn, then Madden NFL 06 is for you. For anyone else, I'd suggest that you stick with the Xbox or PS2 versions of the same game, and wait until next year - when the game might be closer to finished - before spending your hard-earned money.

Madden NFL 06 Score
out of 10