Madden NFL 08 Review (Xbox 360)
I’m a fraud.
While that may not comes as a shock to some of the “fans” of my previous reviews, you have to at least be surprised to hear me admit it. You see, I’ve been living a lie for the past six years and change here at Operation Sports. Now, in my defense, I didn’t realize I was a hypocrite poser till just recently. You see, I’ve spent countless hours reading the message board here at OS and I’ve always gotten a good laugh out of those folks that took the time to complain about the little things.
The socks are too long.
The end zone is not the right color.
The suites at enter field name here are not pointed the right direction.
While these are extreme examples, those folks were always shouted down with cries of “it’s all about gameplay!”
And I believed that. I defended that notion many, many times. All that other stuff is meaningless if the gameplay isn’t there. Gameplay is the only thing that really matters. If the gameplay is solid, you have no right to complain about the rest of the package. It was the rare “substance over style” argument in today’s society.
That was my honest opinion. No exceptions.
So what happened?
Simply put, I spent the last couple of weeks with Madden NFL 08, EA Sports latest edition of the Granddaddy of all sports gaming. And with it I found a very solid game of X’s and O’s football that, after just a few games, I found very difficult to play strictly on the basis of fun.
Now, before you try to play the “maybe it was just too hard for you” card, that’s not my issue. I love the gameplay. Even on default settings (All-Pro difficulty) I found an appropriately challenging football experience that actually felt like I was on the field. I felt like I was rewarded for playing smart and punished for gambling. If my Middle Linebacker is supposed to be sitting in the zone and I manually send him on an all out blitz, nine times out of ten the AI was going to find that receiver in the open spot for an easy completion. When I went for picks when I should have gone for swats, I can’t tell you how many times I ended up burned for six. The game responds like it should. It plays a good game. But, to my surprise, that just wasn’t enough.
My biggest beef with Madden NFL 08 (and it’s not even close) is that the game simply defies both the John Madden and EA Sports credo of “if it’s in the game, it’s in the game” in one specific area – presentation. While I don’t have the stats to back up this statement, I would say that the NFL is responsible for the purchase of more big-screen televisions than any other specific medium. Watching an NFL game on TV is unlike any other experience. In fact, I would argue that the NFL is the only professional sport (amongst the four majors) that is better on TV than in person. Between the 27 camera angles on every replay, super-slow motion, mic’d coaches and every stat known to man being crawled, exploded and whipped across the screen at a second’s notice, the NFL is a constant barrage of sights, sounds and information that makes even that Week 13 game between two last place teams an event.
This year’s Madden gives you the experience of being that guy at the game with the AM transistor radio in his pocket and the secret service ear bud. Now, if that was intentional, kudos to the development team because they absolutely accomplished it. But, that begs the question, why would you choose that experience to simulate? I won’t even waste the bandwidth of the decision to bring back the Radio Announcer in the play-by-play role. I’m convinced that the folks at EA were sick of people complaining about John Madden’s commentary in the game so they are teaching us all a lesson and waiting for us to beg for John’s return. It’s the complete lack of anything visually interesting and relevant during gameplay that simply boggles my mind and really hurts my overall enjoyment of this game.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for a blown out halftime show, despite the fact that we know it can be done, just give me my QB’s stat line once in awhile. Heck, sell it if you want to. If it’s got to be the Gillette Fusion Close Shave QB Stats or whatever, I’ll live with it, but give them to me. It’s infuriating to me to be in the 3rd Quarter and to truly have no idea how my players are doing statistically without pausing the game and navigating the stats. Turn on a game this Sunday and try to go five minutes without being updated on the numbers of the game. That’s an unacceptable omission to me. I’m a huge Franchise guy and I am battling with myself to keep interested in this game for the long term because each game is a struggle.
Trust me when I say that I WANT to play this game. I really do. EA Sports has made so many of the right moves with Madden NFL 08 to make the gameplay some of the best we’ve seen. Not perfect by any stretch. I know I’m not the only one that is perplexed by the inordinate number of fumbles and interceptions in this game. Linebackers still seem to have springs for ankles sometimes and cornerbacks have the unfair advantage of eyes in the back of their head, but those are issues that can be dealt with (to an extent) with some slider tweaks. I don’t excuse them and, no matter what EA may tell us, I don’t think they were intentional. There are no free passes just because the sliders help.
There’s so much right about the gameplay. The new Weapons System, which essentially categorizes players by their abilities in areas like Smart Linebacker, Brick Wall Defender and Elusive Back and actually has a physical display during gameplay, is solid addition and implemented perfectly. I was concerned during early discussions about this edition because I was afraid it would be over done. What I think it actually does is forces you to be a smarter player. If I’m playing the Broncos, that little logo reminds me that throwing in Champ Bailey’s direction is a bigger gamble than it might be looking the other way. It’s not to say I can’t throw on Champ. My concern was that it would make these players excessively superior to the competition making it almost a cheat. To me, I equate the Weapons to scouting. In the real NFL, I’m going to have the dossier on every player in the opposite uniform; this system simply saves me the 100 hours in the office watching game film during the week.
The new branching animation system goes a long way in removing the old “stuck in an animation” feeling that was so common in previous games. The days of merely being a passenger during key moments of the game has been drastically improved with this system of short linking animations that do not have a predetermined ending. This allows for things like mid-air collisions and defenders adding to a tackle to happen in a natural and pretty visually appealing manner. More importantly, skill with the old joystick actually has some advantage than it might have in year’s past.
I could go on and on about the things that are right about the gameplay, but it does me no good when I can’t stay interested in the game. That’s something that could be easily rectified if the Franchise Mode (including the return of the Owner Mode) or the Superstar Mode were at all interesting. The Franchise Mode available in Madden NFL 08 is one that we could have easily seen in Madden 98. Sure you can track a couple of financial aspects of the game and even move your team with the highly uninspired Create-A-Team feature. Trades and Free Agency are there. There’s even a very clumsy scouting engine to check out prospects for next year’s NFL Draft during the season. Of course the interface is cumbersome, boring and completely lackluster, but it’s there. Don’t worry though; the draft itself is just as illogical with team after team drafting the best player available instead of by team need. I saw Arizona, Tennessee and San Francisco all take Quarterbacks in the first round in the first off-season while Minnesota picked up another runner.
There is nothing fun, interesting or revolutionary about the mode. And this is coming from a diehard Franchise Mode guy.
Sadly, Superstar Mode is no better. Yes, they reworked a few of the camera angles for your Superstar and allowed the ability to play as one of this year’s class of rookies, but everything else is the same and, to be blunt, boring. I still don’t understand why your Superstar defaults to the top of the depth chart and can not do anything to lose that spot. I made a Tight End that performed so poorly in the Combine and individual workouts that he ended up with a 54 rating in-game. Of course that didn’t stop him from being scooped up in the 7th Round by the San Diego Chargers and starting the season as the #1 TE on the depth chart above Antonio Gates! Don’t get me wrong, I understand that I’m not necessarily the audience that Superstar Mode is for. But, once again, Madden is shown up by its “younger brother” with the huge strides that NCAA Football 08 made with the Campus Legend Mode.
Like the other modes of play in Madden NFL 08, the multiplayer online experience is just kind of there. While the idea of online leagues has been greeted with the familiar cry of “maybe next year,” at least gamers can feel some amount of confidence with the addition of leagues in the new release in the NHL franchise. Probably a good choice not to break the seal on the new mode with Madden when you try to imagine the 8,000,000 potential guinea pigs pounding EA’s less than reliable online servers. Instead you’re left with your basic one on one online game against a buddy with the only notable addition this season being the overdue inclusion of the online challenge.
When all is said and done, perhaps I owe a debt of gratitude to the folks behind Madden NFL 08 for helping me expose myself on the internet.
Err…well…you know what I mean.
Poor choice of words aside, I’m proud to say that I can finally admit that great gameplay alone does not necessarily make a great game. While some will argue that a few sketchy AI issues make any positive aspects to the gameplay moot, I can confidently say that Madden has some of the best overall gameplay available in a football games today. With the new branching animation system creating some of the most natural feeling controls on the market, a host of pre-play options both offensively and defensively, the new Weapons system and the inclusion of football musts like gang-tackling, double-team blocking and smarter coverage AI, this game should be considered one of the best in the series history and one of the best releases of the year. Unfortunately, that’s simply not enough for me to excuse the things that it is missing. From the completely lackluster presentation to the utterly uninteresting modes, Madden NFL 08 is a great game for a very short time.
But, what do I know. I’m a fraud.