Madden NFL 07 REVIEW

Madden NFL 07 Review (Xbox 360)

There's no getting around it: last year's Xbox 360 debut of the Madden franchise was at best utterly underwhelming. A limited feature set, sloppy gameplay, and skimpy presentation left a bitter taste in the mouths of fans looking for some next-gen football. For those interested in the college game, that taste got washed out this summer by EA's excellent NCAA Football 07. Would the pro game follow suit? Was last year's debacle an aberration, or the start of a new generation?

I've been writing at Operation Sports long enough to know that many of our readers are already skimming, racing to get to the score and start arguing about it on our forums. Here's the short version of the review: though Madden has come leaps and bounds from last year's disappointment, there are some serious flaws and poor design decisions that leave it a frustrating title for simulation-style gamers. Though already very old news, the repercussions of EA's exclusive deal with the NFL are still coming into play. EA has the luxury of no competition in the NFL arena, and it's only now that the games are being designed with that in mind. Madden no longer faces competition from 2K Sports, but rather sees competition from mainstream titles like Gears Of War and Call Of Duty. With the hardcore football gamer following the NFL license wherever it may go, EA's new objective is reaching those gamers who might not otherwise pick up a sports videogame. In everything from sound design to new modes to critical flaws in simulation gameplay, this is "Madden for the Masses".

The major on-the-field push this year is a new commitment to the running game, under the handy marketing tagline "Run To Daylight". The Madden franchise has consistently favored the passing game over the ground pounders, and an outside running game over between-the tackles running. The two improvements that Madden 07 brings to the running game are the "Impact Stick" and "Lead Blocker Control". The "Impact Stick" maps various context-sensitive maneuvers to the right analog stick, and allows for backs to play much more like their real-life counterparts: the same move of the thumbstick will see Jamal Lewis lower the shoulder and Tiki Barber pull off a quick evasion. It's a wonderful system, and immediately feels more intuitive than the old face-button system ever did. Within minutes, you'll find yourself pulling off exciting running moves, and giving yourself more of a chance as defenders close in. If those defenders are getting to you too quickly, that's where "Lead Blocker Control" comes in handy, as you can take control of any blocker on a running play and try to make blocks as the computer controls the runner. While it helps offset the often dreadful run blocking of your CPU controlled teammates, it feels a bit like cheating to lay down a block while your computer controlled runner does the hard work. Give me computer controlled fullbacks that don't simply watch as the safety runs past them for a backfield tackle, and I would be happy to lose "Lead Blocker Control". Back-of-the-box bullet points aside, this renewed interest in the running game falls a bit flat, as the dreaded "Mario running" is still in full effect. While this is the best running game the Madden franchise has produced, it still falls apart on inside runs - where the back will too easily get caught on a lineman, unable to advance as he runs in place like that hammer-wielding Italian plumber of yore.

The major issue plaguing Madden 07 is this: at it's most basic, there is no fatigue whatsoever. After the excellent implementation of fatigue in NCAA Football 07, it's a mystery why this fundamental aspect of football is absent from the pro version. EA has made public statements that players are fatiguing correctly, but the game is not displaying it due to a flaw in the UI. As I've played with the game a bit, the fatigue is in place, but in such a minimal form as to be useless: run your receivers on "Hail Mary" routes play after play as you scramble as long as possible to stretch out the time they run, and you'll maybe see bars dip into the yellow. Regardless of EA's claims, it's not entirely the UI: it's simply a fatigue system that's been tuned for the casual gamer that wants to rush LaDanian Tomlinson for an NFL record-tying 45 carries without seeing him tire or, God forbid, get subbed out. EA has said a patch will be coming along, but it looks like there's not much to fix except a bad design decision that's bound to disappoint sim players everywhere. With this small issue, so much of football strategy goes out the window: there's no value to be gained from depth when every player can play every down, and there's no way to wear down a defense over a long drive when the players never tire.

What's truly disappointing about this fatigue issue is that undercuts an otherwise excellent on-the-field game. In particular, the run game has finally found an balance between inside and outside runs. You'll earn your pay between the tackles, but you won't often break a big one. The outside runs which in previous years have been the bread 'n' butter of the ground attack now more closely resemble their feast-or-famine NFL counterparts. You can bust a big one on a toss, but you can also get taken down in the backfield if you haven't set up for it. The passing game also gets a breath of fresh air, as the amount of touch you can put on the ball is phenomenal. The controls are so fine in the passing game that you'll see many a missed opportunity and know that if you had just put it a bit more outside, or with a bit more loft, that maybe you could've completed it.

Defensively, suction blocking is still the law of the land, as you'll often get thrown into a blocking animation if you're even in sniffing distance of an o-lineman. Other than that persistent problem, defense plays well this year as EA continues to make strides in letting defensive players make plays in space. Big hits have become more of a gamble, and you're often best served in pass coverage to go for the tip or the tackle, instead of the pick. The other defensive difference that quickly becomes clear is that the slew of new ratings that EA has added to create players actually make a difference. While it never unbalances the game, you'll find that big players make big plays and subtly alter the course of the game.

Though last year's game was feature-poor, Madden 07 brings a lot more to the table. Though still lacking any of the immersive add-ons that have been that hallmark of it's recent current-gen "Franchise" modes, Madden 07's "Franchise" is a lot more substantial than last year's edition. You're able to run mini-games before each game to try and give players a boost, and the draft adds a bit of ESPN content in the form of Mel Kiper's observations about each prospect. It's still pared down, but checks off all the basic features we expect a "Franchise" mode to include. The other big addition this year is "Superstar" mode, where you'll create a player from the ground up: hire an agent, run workouts for interested teams, try to establish yourself at the combine, and even pick your parents (and, more importantly, their DNA). Once drafted, you'll train and play from a very limited perspective that's new to the Madden franchise. Your camera is tightly focused, and you'll only play your position. You won't call plays, and when you're not on the field, you'll simply watch the action unfold in fast forward. It's an interesting mode, and will really please the type of gamer who has spent years creating themselves and compiling stats. The ultimate goal here is the Hall Of Fame, and since even mediocre performance in the combine mini-games will result in an highly rated player who starts as a rookie, it's not a goal that's too far out of reach. It's less simulation than wish fulfillment. While I personally don't have much interest in "Superstar", it's well executed and should prove popular mode among gamers coming from the environment of action games or first-person shooters.

The manual promises that "Franchise Mode" includes the ability to "start with your favorite team with their current-day rosters". This, of course, is nothing new to sim gamers, who have enjoyed franchise mode for years. EA's subtle tilt towards a more casual gamer is evident here, again, and that statement in the manual holds at least a bit of a white lie. This year's Madden includes unlockable Hall Of Fame players, and while a workaround is possible, the default is that legends like Jim Thorpe and Slingin' Sammy Baugh will be unlocked and end up playing at age 25 with a whole career in front of them. It's possible to keep them out of "Franchise" and "Superstar "rosters, but it takes a few extra steps and it's clear that the intent of the game is to provide the casual gamer with what they like best: a roster stocked with players rated 99 or better.

Online is a mixed bag that simultaneously dazzles with possibility and disappoints with execution. The first (and most important) issue is the lag on online games, which can range from only a slight slowdown to an atrocious, unplayable frame-rate. In my playing experience, it seems influenced by proximity, as I get lag-free gaming against those in my neck of the woods, and entire games in slow motion when playing against East Coast friends. EA insists on using their own servers, but it seems to be a disadvantage, as I can't recall seeing lag issues like this in any game hosted on the Microsoft network. Beyond the spotty performance, there are some great indications that Madden is finally catching up with premier online titles with a revamped website featuring "GameCast", where all online games are available to watch in a play-by-play web display. Though there are still a fair amount of glitches (games don't show, or scores are reported incorrectly), this holds great promise for the future of online play and - hopefully - online leagues.

Graphically, the game is excellent, with more realistic player models than I've previously seen in the Madden series and some absolutely jaw-dropping animations. The biggest visual drawback is the lack of any options for the camera. Not only is there no fully customizable camera, there aren't any options at all. The default view is decent, but seems designed for widescreen TVs, and if you're playing on a standard-ratio TV, you'll often have trouble seeing your receivers on short routes, and "WR Screens" become a true exercise in faith as you end up throwing blindly.

As with last year's edition, the commentary track emulates a one-man radio broadcast. Not only does it seem like a waste of the exclusive ESPN license, it takes away from the feeling of NFL football to have a one-man booth shouting out ridiculous homerisms ("Way to go, guys!"). Is there any team in the NFL with a one-man booth? Where the personality of the broadcast is about what you'd find in the broadcast of a high school game, somewhere on the nether reaches of the AM dial? The other sound issue is the (in)famous "shotgun" sound you'll hear from time to time. Most commonly heard on long bombs, it's a cartoony sound effect that feels more properly at home in the Blitz universe than in anything that's intending to represent NFL football.

For the second time this year, I'm faced with scoring a title that has a promised patch that has not yet seen the light of day. As soon as this posts, EA could release a fix to the crippling fatigue issue, and invalidate much of my opinion of the on-the-field game. I'd change about 250 words, and at least a point on the score. However, it's a week after release with the NFL kickoff looming, and at a certain point you have to either fish or cut bait. I certainly hope I come back in soon to revise this review of Madden 07 in light of a patch that gives this title back some simulation gameplay in the form of fatiguing players. Until then, this is a solid football game that unfortunately is held back from greatness by focusing on an audience that's more Maxim than Operation Sports.

Madden NFL 07 Score
out of 10