Madden NFL 06 REVIEW

Madden NFL 06 Review (Xbox)

“Now, in reality, the world have paid too great a compliment to critics, and have imagined them to be men of much greater profundity then they really are.” --- Henry Fielding

I had a dream the other night that I was standing on the shoulder of the famous Autobahn in Germany. There was no elaborate introduction on how I got there, why I went there, or who talked me into wearing the lederhosen. Just me staring across six lanes of Porsches, BMWs, and Volkswagens moving at speeds that would make Helio Castroneves tap the brakes. Three lanes going one way and three lanes going the other - and the only thing they had in common was that they weren’t paying attention to me. That is, until I took my first step out into traffic.

Being assigned “Madden 06” makes a video game reviewer’s job extremely tough. No, not coal miner or steel worker tough - heck, it’s barely fry cook tough. It’s different. I’m asked to be 100% impartial going into a situation, take in everything that there is, try to somewhat logically spill it out into words, and, finally, try not to offend half of our readers while doing the first three. When I was asked six weeks ago if I would do the "Madden" review this year, I’ll be the first to admit that I was hesitant. For whatever reason, the 3500 words that I type about this game have been deemed very important. There are people chomping at the bit to see what Operation Sports scores “Madden 2006”. In fact, I know most of you have already scrolled down to the bottom of the page to read the score first. Half of you then made the decision to read on based on what you saw. The other half, well, you’ve already started posting.

The "Madden Extremists" are fanatics. And, when I say fanatics, I don’t necessarily mean fans. The “Madden Haters” are a vocal bunch on message boards around the 'net as well. If you’re extremely pro-"Madden", you’ve already made up your mind. EA Sports can do no wrong. You would elect Madden President if given the chance. No, not John Madden, you would actually vote for the game to run the Oval Office. This game would be rated five out of five if it were nothing more than Donovan McNabb belching the "Star-Spangled Banner" in a loop.

On the flipside, the extreme anti-"Madden" element had their collective mind made up earlier this year. When EA Sports, or as they like to think of them - the devil - made the commitment to spend $400 million dollars over the next five years for exclusive rights to the NFL, you could almost hear the collective groan across the web. And, just for good measure, they locked up ESPN for 15 years for a mere $800 million. They were scared! They heard footsteps! They just did this to eliminate the competition!


I’m no Donald Trump, but I’m pretty sure that crippling the competition is taught in Business 101 at most community colleges across this great land. If you and I both own a home improvement business and I purchase the exclusive rights to paint, I would say I made a sound business decision. Sure, you can still stay in business, but you can’t use any paint. Wallpaper, laminate, pressboard, that’s fine, but paint is mine. And, just for good measure, I’m also going to procure the exclusive rights to the color blue as well.

No competition. Shrewd? Yes.

Rude? Maybe.

We’re all screwed? We’ll see.

Now that EA has the exclusive rights, half of the world is convinced that they are going to sit on their collective butt for the next five years and drop roster updates because they are the only show in town. The other half couldn't care less because they think "Madden" is already perfect. So where does that leave people like me? What about the football fan out there? What about the guy who doesn’t care about who is on the cover or in the credits? What if I just love football? Well, like it or not, that’s the guy who is writing this review.

I’m stepping out into traffic with nothing more than my opinions. MY opinions. If that’s enough to convince you whether or not you should spend the $50, well, I hope it helps. Just a message to both directions of traffic, when you start your posts about my thick skull, the location of my head and its proximity to my rear-end, or the invitation for me to go do things with myself that are illegal in 34 states, try to remember that video games are supposed to be fun. Stop taking them, and yourselves, so seriously.

Popular opinion had the team at Tiburon faced with a huge decision. With the exclusive rights deal in place with the NFL, do we need to take any chances or do we just put out an updated version of "Madden"? The skeptics screamed that with no competition, we’d get a rewrapped version of "Madden 2005" with a pretty new cover. What those people didn’t factor in was they were dealing with professionals. When you’re the player with the best hand, it’s the most critical that you play the cards right. Let’s take chances. We have a captive audience of football fans. The simmers and the arcade run-and-gunners, they’re all going to be looking to "Madden" for their football fix. Let’s give them what they want.

For the "sim" fans, the Vision Cone was born. To bring more realism to the passing game - similar to what the "NFL Fever" team tried to do with “Read and Lead” - “Madden 2006” would make your quarterback actually have to look at his receiver in order to throw an accurate pass. No more running right, spinning twice, and throwing a 50-yard strike off the back foot. They decided to not only make playing QB a challenge, but, for the first time in the series, ratings like Awareness and Accuracy actually would mean something. For those of you that haven’t seen the screens or movies yet - first off, that’s a lovely rock you live under - a quarterback’s ability to see the field is now displayed with a pie-shaped light extending from the QB to represent what he is looking at. The better the QB’s Awareness rating, the larger the slice will be and the greater his ability to find and hit a receiver will be. Whereas Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Trent Green can see most of the field at any given time, young guns like Alex Smith, Kyle Boller, and Rex Grossman have a very limited field of vision. It’s a great concept that brings more of the feel of real NFL football into this football title.

Like all good things, it will still have its detractors and issues; the first of which will be the more complex control scheme now required to play QB in “Madden 2006”. No more will you simply drop back and pick a button. Now, an accurate pass will require you actually get your receiver into your line of vision. This is accomplished one of three ways. First, you can choose your primary receiver before you snap the ball. Snap it, and you’ll never lose focus of that receiver. Second, you can use the R-Stick to scan the field and position your Vision Cone where you want it. This has a bit of the old “Read and Lead” feel to it, but can be very difficult with an average or below average QB. The third option is to hold the R-Trigger and choose the receiver, and then after your Vision Cone moves to that receiver, release the R-Trigger and press it again. Tough? Sure, at first, but, so is playing quarterback in the NFL. Isn’t it nice to actually have a game with a learning curve?

Once you’ve found the receiver, “Madden 2006” also uses Precision Passing to get the ball in his hands. Precision Passing allows you to lead or throw behind a receiver based on their route or the coverage. It's not a revolutionary concept in football gaming, but it is well implemented in “Madden 2006”.

My favorite part of the passing game - in keeping with the more realistic approach - is the ability to quickly dump the ball off to a RB or safety valve without using the Vision Cone. Now when you go through your progressions and can’t find an open man down field, dump it to the flat to keep your QB vertical.

Perhaps the nicest offshoot of the Vision Passing is that defense actually becomes more enjoyable to play. The “eyes have it”, so to speak. QB’s can actually look you off of a receiver or draw attention away from their real target. Some may view the presence of the cone as almost a cheat; but it plays like a challenge if used properly.

So, the "sim" fans got their slice of the pie, but what about the arcade guys who love "Madden" as it is? Well, you’ll be happy to know that Vision Passing is an option in “Madden 2006” and can be turned off for human-controlled players. This is a relief to many, I’m sure, but my personal experience showed that it still played a much more "sim"-oriented game - even with the cone off - then any "Madden" game in the series.

EA Sports didn’t forget about their old-school fans that love the game as is and don’t feel the need for new gameplay tweaks. All your favorites are still there in Franchise mode; including Owner’s Box, Training Camp, Newspapers, and EA Sports Radio. And they have added depth this year that allows for actual weekly preparation for an opponent. Learn what they like to do and how you can counteract it. Hit the practice field. Franchise mode is deeper than ever and you will lose countless hours building the next great NFL dynasty.

What if you’re not a “team guy”, though? What if it’s all about you? What if you’re a little more Terrell Owens than Barry Sanders? Then welcome to NFL Superstar mode! Whether you start from the DNA randomizer to choose your parents or import a character from "NCAA 06's" Race for the Heisman mode or from "NFL Street 2", this mode is all about you. Hire an agent, take an IQ test, get drafted, demand a trade - you control your career. I loved the concept of this mode. Unfortunately, the execution left a little to be concerned with.

For my Superstar, I choose a solid set of parents. My dad was an NFL player who liked to play chess; my mom a paramedic who liked to cook. Both moderately intelligent and I’m sure, darned handsome people. So after naming my 6’4”, 236 pound tight end out of Eastern Michigan University, I immediately started getting stalked by Terrell Davis. I know retirement can be boring, but a couple more voicemails and I’ll be seeking a restraining order. "TD’s" actual function is to act as my mentor (or to put it simply - tells me which screen to go to next). He told me to take the pre-draft IQ test, a non-copyrighted version of the famous Wonderlic test given to NFL-bound players. I score a 60%. I’m not sure how or why. I didn’t realize that there were right and wrong answers to “would you rather be a dog or cat?” Oh well - there's a MAC education for you.

The NFL Draft comes and I get snatched in the third round by, of all teams, my very own hometown Detroit Lions. Great for me; I’ll learn from Marcus Pollard for a few years then take over the starting TE spot. I was very impressed that the game actually drafted for need. But just to be sure, I tested it.

This time I created a QB, scored better on the IQ test and got taken by the Bengals. The Bengals! Why do the Bengals need a QB? Better try again. I’ll go RB this time. Draft comes and I end up in Nashville with the Titans…behind Travis Henry and Chris Brown. Yikes. Maybe the logic that impressed me the first time through was actually a fluke.

Back to my tight end, once I was officially a Lion, the interviews started coming in. There’s not much middle ground here. You either have to be a complete arrogant schmuck or a choirboy. I hit the map to look around a little. The map shows an aerial view of the city - it's a great touch. I hit the Tattoo Shop for some fresh ink and the Barbershop to shore up the locks before heading off to practice. Here’s the problem - I committed about 90 minutes to this mode already before I really got into some game action. And, once I did, my Superstar only saw about five plays on offense. EA should consider a “fast forward” feature next year where you only play the plays where you are involved.

So it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I’m sure a lot of people will dig it - especially all of the folks who have spent a ton of hours on their Race for the Heisman character in "NCAA 2006".

So once you have found your way onto the field, you'll find that EA seriously beefed up your offensive options before the snap. Returning from previous versions are the standard Hot Routes and Playmaker controls. New - and welcome additions to say the least - are Smart Hot Routes, Offensive Line Protection Shifting, and Formation-based Audibles. Smart Hot Routes are great. How many times during a telecast on Sunday do you hear the commentators talk about how a receiver has to know where that first down marker is? That’s basically what the Smart Hot Routes do, they tell your wide receiver to extend his current route deep enough to get the first down. Great idea!

The ability to slide your O-Line protection is just what it sounds like. You can now, hopefully, negate the pass rush by sliding protection to the left, right, middle or outside based on the defense presented. The formation audibles are pretty self-explanatory, as well. Now each formation has four audibles (play action, quick pass, deep pass, or run) that can be called at the line. I still wish they took a page from the competition and displayed the play on the screen when choosing audibles; but it’s a nice feature nonetheless.

Once you have the rock, you need to take it to the house. When "Madden" introduced the Hit Stick during it’s defense heavy ’05 edition, skilled players were at the mercy of the big hit. Well this year, they fight back with the Truck Stick. Lower those pads and initiate the hit. Sure, it sounds a little too "Blitz"-esque on the surface, but the "sim" gamer can find solace in the fact that Truck Stick abusers will become frequent fumblers. Jukes, dives and stiff arms are still there, but the Xbox control scheme is a little fruity. Why can’t I have my left and right juke on the R-Stick with the Truck Stick and back juke? Either commit to using the R-Stick or don't, but don't go halfway. Online, you'll mute your opposition with a click of the left stick - but you might notice that one - you use that to move; and two - the Xbox Live Communicator already has a mute button built-in. I know that EA ports from console to console, but geez…

As huge as the steps I feel have been taken are, I have to mention a few notable gameplay issues that still exist. Punt returns are awful. They were bad last year, but they are even worse this year. Tell the "Madden 2007" team to start there. Also, even with Precision Passing, I still don’t get any feeling of size advantages. I want to be able to throw fades to Moss or "T.O." and have them out-jump the DB in the corner of the end zone. Although pass interference is far better this year, only PI and face mask penalties seem to be called in most games. To be fair, though - these are small issues that are far outweighed by the overall good.

“Madden 2006” is visually superior to previous releases in the franchise. As it should be, right? Of course we expect each successive year in a series to improve graphically. "Madden" does. I think the player models are improved and look and move more lifelike than in years past. The animations are more fluid. They’ve added some really nice receiver animations this year to compliment the focus on the passing game. Hit Stick and Truck Stick visuals come off as brutal and crushing as they do on a Sunday afternoon. They even took their first real steps in forcing automatic animations to mask the infamous “Mario running.” There’s no doubt the game took solid steps forward this year.

That said, "Madden 06" still feels incomplete. This year’s game felt like they were finally learning from the competition and wanted to make presentation a focus in “Madden 2006”. But it almost looks like they ran out of time. They added the “3rd Down Cam” for a slightly more dramatic lead-in to a crucial play. Last-second field goals are taken from a different camera angle. They added a few cut-scenes like disgruntled offensive linemen on the bench at the end of a game or a shot of the team’s box with the offensive coordinator calling down a play. They're nice little touches, but not nearly enough to immerse the gamer. The stat overlays are nearly non-existent on the player level. There’s no way my back should have 27 carries for 165 yards and two TDs and it never appears on the screen during gameplay. Maybe they are saving some of their bag of tricks for the ESPN license next year, but they need to get the memo - presentation counts!

I love John Madden on a lot of levels. I loved John Madden as a coach. I loved John Madden in his heyday with Pat Summerall. I love John Madden for telling Trip Hawkins and the boys “if it ain’t 11-on-11, it ain’t football.” He was a revolutionary on more than a few fronts. That’s why I try not to blame Madden for the continued lack of quality in the play-by-play in the Madden series. It may be time to pack up the Cruiser and go the 2K Sports route of using voice actors. I simply can no longer listen to the commentary tracks on this game. When I press Save at the end of this review, the thing that will make me most happy about completing the review is that I no longer feel the need to keep the volume on when playing this game.

Presentation, presentation, presentation. If it’s in the game, it should be in the game.

So what’s different in “Madden 2006” that seems to be shaking the gaming world, press, and gamers themselves to the core?

Maybe Madden isn’t “arcadey” enough anymore?

Wow! There is a statement I never thought I was going to have to make in my lifetime. File that somewhere between “did you see Justin Timberlake kick that guy’s butt?” and “I loved the Martha Stewart spread in this month’s Maxim!” But as I sit here somewhat dumbfounded by what is in my console, I have to say that “Madden 2006” is a lot more Vince Lombardi than Vince McMahon. It’s a huge first step in building the football game that "sim" and arcade players have been clamoring for. "Madden" is actually less, well, "Madden".

People want to say that they have to buy “Madden 2006” because “it’s the only game in town”. Others will buy the game because, and only because, it’s "Madden". Still more will refuse to buy the game for the exact same reasons. To each their own.

However, as expected, the two camps have stayed divided pre and post-release. Only it’s different this year. I think the "Madden" faithful, while still swearing blind allegiance, are a little disappointed that they were robbed of their old 20-yard drop back, button-mashing, every back runs like Walter Payton's and Barry Sanders' love-child days. Someone got some "sim" chocolate in their arcade peanut butter.

On the same token, the 2K-Heads have popped their faces up from their black crying towels long enough to nit-pick every little detail they can find, instead of giving EA Sports an ounce of credit for actually learning from the competition. I understand that you miss your game. I miss it too. But burying your head in the virtual sand is only going to cause you to miss out on a good game.

Better than last year? For sure.

Best in the history of the franchise? Definitely.

Best console football game available? It's too soon to tell, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

“Madden 2006” is a great game of football packaged inside a solid videogame. Say what you will about EA and their checkbook. Say what you will about the NFL and their decision to sell the exclusive rights. Say what you will about the merits of competition. But please, don’t say the guys and gals at Tiburon rested on their laurels this year. They don’t control EA’s money or the NFL’s rights. They handled the one thing they had control over…the product. No matter what you think about the other players in this game, tip your helmet to the folks at Tiburon. They did their job and they did it well.

But then again, that’s just my opinion.

Madden NFL 06 Score
out of 10