Madden NFL 2004 Review (Xbox)
Madden. The most successful sports video game franchise around. Over the years, this franchise has revolutionized sports video gaming. My question is, has it gotten stagnant? Every year, we know that Electronic Arts is going to give us a game that is fun to play and will offer a few new features. However, since Madden 2001 (the first one on the PS2) the game hasn't progressed as much as its competitors. Now, some would argue that Madden has always been a solid game and hasn't had to work as hard as others to improve its game and I would have to agree with that sentiment. Madden has always been a fun and somewhat realistic version of football.
Still, has EA begun to rest on its laurels? They have had the highest selling sports video game for the last few years in Madden. They know that they have some fans that will buy Madden no matter what other game is out there. They know that when the casual fan thinks of video game football, they think of Madden. So what would drive EA to improve their game when they know people will buy it anyway? This year EA offers Owner's Mode and Playmaker Control as the reasons why this game is different than Madden 2003, but is it enough to warrant spending 50 bucks on a new game? Or is it just as some people have said, a 50-dollar roster upgrade with 2 new features.
Whenever there is a new version of Madden released, my biggest concern is always, have they improved the game, or merely updated the rosters, and added some fluff, knowing that people will buy Madden just because it’s Madden. I haven’t necessarily wanted to see a ton of new features, or a whole new game. I have always just wanted some gameplay and AI tweaks. I have just asked them to fix some of the minor issues that have hampered this franchise since it’s inception on the new generation of consoles. So is this year’s version the same old game with some fluff, or have they truly improved it, while adding some innovative features?
The player models have been changed slightly this season. Players' shoulders appear to be broader and the overall body seems to have less of a round look than previous years. Even with these changes. I'm still not a fan of the way the players are built. The broadening of their backs seems to give them an unrealistic look. This is something that I haven't been happy with in any of the other football games either (Fever's players torsos are too long and Sega's players entire bodies seem to be too upright).
The stadiums are well done once again. While Madden's stadiums are not exact replicas of the real life stadiums, they come very close. (Washington's FedEx Field and New England's Gilette Field are examples of stadiums that aren’t exactly like its real life counterpart). However, unless you really are nit picking about small things, Madden does a good job of making you feel like you are at Lambeau Field when playing Green Bay or 3Com when playing San Francisco. One minor problem I have with the stadiums is the crowd on every positive play for the home team; they reacts like the team just won the game on a last second hail mary. Here's an example: I'm using my five-time Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys in Franchise Mode and I'm playing the first preseason game of the year. Using Quincy Carter, I complete a 14-yd pass to Joey Galloway. Now I think that's a good play, but looking at the way the crowd is reacting, you would think I just won the Super Bowl. It's a small gripe but just something I have noticed while playing it.
The funny thing about Madden’s graphics and their player models in particular, is that people tend to either love them or hate them. I have always thought the player models looked pretty good. In the past, their heads may have been a little too big, but when they were in motion, I thought they looked great. I agree with Aaron, this year the models seem to have been tweaked a little bit. The heads are in better proportion to the body, there seems to be less roundness to their bodies. Overall I think the player models look better, and are very well done. They do get the minute details down. You can see the ventilation holes in their jerseys; dirt accumulates on their uniforms, etc. The reflections off of the helmets look very nice as well. One thing, for me at least that EA has always gotten right is the color palette for the uniforms. The colors of the uniforms have always been spot on, in my opinion. This year it’s no different; they get the shades and the richness of the colors of the uniform right on the money.
The stadiums are well done. There are some oddities to certain stadiums, but overall they are pretty accurate. The field textures are well done and you can really tell the difference between the stadiums that have Field-Turf, grass, or the old school Astro-Turf. Where I feel the stadium graphics really shine is in the day/night lighting and shadowing effects. If you’re playing a day game in a stadium, the stadium shadows on the field are where they are supposed to be, and they look great. While this is a minor detail to some people, it has always been a big deal for me for some reason, and Madden nailed it this year. Their lighting effects for night games are very well done. When I am playing a Monday night game, I want to actually feel like I am playing at night. In this year’s version, I actually get the feeling I am playing under the lights. Gives the night games, that are generally nationally televised that special feeling. Overall I think the stadium graphics, and the graphics all together are very well done this year. Nothing revolutionary has been added this year, graphically, but they didn’t need to. They took their already very good graphics, and tweaked and refined them so they look even better.
The game is named after John Madden not only a great coach but also a great broadcaster. So you would think that not only would the gameplay be on point but the commentary. That hasn't been the case in Madden over the years. Its has always seemed that Madden's commentary has always been limited to his short Maddenisms which can get repetitive after a short time playing it. This year seems to be more of the same. You would think after years of having Madden record his commentary that EA would have a limitless library of sayings but once again after a few games, Madden starts to repeat himself. Now, I'm not saying that Madden doesn't say anything new. It's just that the amount of new material seems small.
Al Michaels does the play-by-play once again. Michaels, in my opinion, is not only one of the best football play-by-play announcers of all time, he is one of the best announcers of all time period. With that said, I don't think that his style translates well to video game football. He seems too low key and subdued when announcing even when big plays occur. I want to hear some excitement in the announcer's voice when I just kicked a field goal to win the game. In Madden, Michaels seems to react the same for a three-yard run as he does for a seventy yard TD run.
The play-by-play commentary in Madden has been disappointing to me for the last several years and this year is no exception. Aaron hit it right on the head. Maddens commentary seems pretty limited still. While they seem to have added some lines of commentary, it wasn’t very much, and for the most part it’s the same old Maddenism’s we’ve been hearing for years. Al Michaels is one of my all-time favorite broadcasters, but in this game, as Aaron said he’s pretty lifeless, no matter what happens during the game. I am pretty disappointed in the play-by-play as a whole.
In game sounds are well done, but nothing new here. The sounds of the players making contact with each other are pretty much the same sounds they’ve had for the last few years. They’re not bad at all, but there isn’t much variety, so most hits sound the same.
As I wrote earlier, in a lot of ways Madden is the same game it always is. So instead of wasting time focusing on the overall game, I'm going to focus on the new features, the things Madden successfully changed and the things it still needs to work on. First up, Playmaker Control. For those of you who have been in a cave, Playmaker Control is a new feature that gives the user more control before and during a play. Before a play, you can change receivers’ routes by using Playmaker. Playmaker Control can also be used by a runner to direct blockers in the open field. This can be very beneficial if used right, but there is one big problem I have with it. I DONT HAVE 3 HANDS! It may be just me, but I need one hand to direct the runner and the other hand to either hit the sprint, juke or spin buttons. When I try to use Playmaker with the right thumbstick, I can't use a spin move or a speed burst. I will admit that the more practice I had, the more comfortable I became with Playmaker Control. However, I still found it difficult to do. With that said, If you master it, Playmaker control can be a very helpful feature and does add something to the game.
Out of the three major football games (Gameday not included), Madden has always had the most complete franchise mode. From the big things like *importing draft classes from NCAA Football 2003 to the small things like backups playing in preseason games, nobody does franchise better. This year, EA added a few features to enhance the franchise experience. Training Camp mode is basically the Mini-camp game placed in franchise mode. You choose a player to control during one of the drills and as you successfully complete the drills, your player receives attribute points. Even though it's a small addition, it does add something to franchise and gives the mini-camp game a purpose.
Owners mode gives you total control over your franchise team. In previous versions of Madden, the user took the role of the general manager, handling roster moves and draft picks. Now with Owners Mode, the user can build new stadiums, change the prices of popcorn or parking, and hire and fire coaching and training staffs. When creating a new stadium, you can do pretty much whatever you want from choosing an open or closed dome to adding stairs or scoreboards wherever you want. I absolutely love this addition to the game. While I have been known to knock EA for being slow to make changes to their game, this mode is an example of EA being innovative. For franchise fanatics, it took years before we got bored with their Madden franchise. Now with this new feature, I see myself playing more of Madden's franchise mode.
One big problem I have with Franchise mode is the way CPU controlled teams handle their roster. The biggest issue was brought to my attention by some of the posters on the Forums. The CPU will bench highly rated starters for lower rated players. An example of this is the Bears and Kordell Stewart. Kordell signed a big contract with the Bears this past season to be their starting quarterback. In every second year of my franchise, the Bears always bench the highly paid Stewart for 2nd year player Rex Grossman, no matter how well Stewart played the year before and even if Stewart was rated higher. This also occurred in the WR and DB spots on other teams. Now I agree that teams should want to give their second year players experience, but that shouldn’t happen at the expense of better rated veterans in front of them. A few people have said that this problem occurred in previous versions of Madden, however this is the first time I’ve noticed it. EA must program the AI to factor in the amount of money made and the player rating when making roster moves.
Ok, enough about the new features. Lets get to the on the field action. One of the biggest changes EA has been touting is improved DB play. For years, users have been able to constantly hit their receivers on deep post plays and outs. This year, EA has made the DB AI a lot more aggressive. Cornerbacks play tighter coverages, attempt more knockdowns and are generally more aware of the play. I’ve heard some people complain that the new DB AI has created "Super CBs". I disagree with that. If you play smart football by throwing to the best WR - CB match up and by not throwing into double coverage, you can still complete passes consistently. The new DB AI makes players PLAY football. What I mean by that is, no longer can people pass successfully without reading defenses and making smart decisions.
If you are looking for some gigantic change in Madden’s game engine, then you will be disappointed. For the most part the on-field part of the game is largely unchanged. But if you’ve had the success Madden has why fix what’s not broken? They did make some key tweaks, and added some little things. The in game animations are for the most part the same. There are a few new ones added, but not many. The one thing I did like is the infamous ‘shot in the back’ animation, while still there, is far less frequent. Overall I think the animations are well done and varied, but too often you get locked in an animation, and lose control of the game. The playbooks have long been a gripe of mine. They don’t seem very team specific, and feel limited and generic. While there have been some team specific formations and plays added they are few and far between, and I am again disappointed in the playbooks.
While not a whole lot has changed in the game engine there have been some key tweaks and additions. The top two questions from hardcore Madden gamers in the off-season were whether or not the DB AI was improved and whether or not pancake blocks were fixed. The answer is sort of, and yes. The Defensive Back AI, made huge strides this year, especially in zone coverage. This year the DB’s actually try to stay on top of your receivers when in zone coverage. This makes it much tougher to complete what used to be easy deep routes. Also the Safeties in 2 deep coverage are no longer anchored to the hashmarks, they get their proper depth and width making the corner and fly routes, which used to be almost automatic, much more difficult to complete. In previous versions of Madden I never felt like I had to read the defense. This year the coverages are much tighter and you now have to actually read the defense. That’s not to say the defense is perfect. Madden has always had some issues trying to cover the inside WR’s in the 4 and 5 WR sets. This year, while it’s better, it is still sometimes too easy to exploit the cpu using the spread formations. So while the DB AI is far from perfect, it is night and day better than past versions, and pretty well done for the most part. I am also happy to say that the pancake blocking stat has been fixed. This has been the bane of my Madden franchise existence for what seems forever. In the past when playing your games your offensive linemen never accumulated pancake blocks making it next to impossible for them to improve in franchise play. This was a huge fix for me, and I think a lot of other long time Madden gamers.
While gameplay remains largely the same, that’s not to say they didn’t add anything on the field of play. EA’s added their new playmaker feature to the game engine. There are playmaker options for both sides of the ball, and they have separate features pre-snap and post-snap. On offense before you snap the ball with the flick of your right thumbstick you can flip the direction of your running play, or change your WR’s route in a passing play. On defense before you snap the ball you can use the playmaker feature to rotate your safeties to cheat to one side of the field or the other. These pre-snap features are very handy, very well done and a great addition in my opinion. Offensively post-snap with the playmaker feature if you are running with the ball you can direct your blockers on whom to block. In the passing game while you are scrambling around with your QB you can direct your WR on where to go to make a play downfield. While all this sounds good in theory, I had an awful tough time controlling my player with the left stick, and using the playmaker on the fly with the right stick. I don’t see this feature being all that big of a deal except for all but the best of the thumb jockeys out there. Defensively after the snap you can use the playmaker feature to commit to the run or the pass. It works well if you guess correctly, but if you say, guess run on a play action pass, be prepared to give up a big chunk of yards.
The franchise mode has been for the most part re-done. This year EA added owner’s mode. It puts you in the role of the owner, where your goal is to not only win championships but to make money. Many of the features will seem very familiar to the Front Office Football players out there. You can hire and fire coaches, and not just Head Coaches but offensive and defensive coordinators as well as special teams coaches. The skills of these coaches have an effect on how your players play on the field. You can also re-locate your team and upgrade your stadium. But all this has a cost affect on your bottom line, so you must choose wisely. On the player personnel side, they added signing bonuses and back loaded contracts. All in all I think Owners mode is extremely well done and is my favorite part of the game, especially when you add in the ability to *import players from NCAA.
If you are looking for a HUGE difference between Madden 2003 and Madden 2004, you will be disappointed. The game plays like Madden 2003 with a few gameplay tweaks. But you know what? It doesn’t matter. Madden was the best game last year and they had less things to fix then the other games. So EA played it safe and put out a game that they knew people familiar with the series would enjoy. With that said, there are a few things that EA still has to improve particularly the commentary, the presentation, and continue to improve the CPU's AI.
So here is the problem I faced when deciding what score to give the game. Madden 2004 is a definite improvement over last year’s game so I cant justify giving it a lower score (Last year OS gave Madden a 94). However, even with the new features, the game just doesn’t feel new to me so I cant justify giving it a higher score. So, I’ll give Madden a score of 94.
I have always believed if something is not broken then don’t fix it. Apparently the Madden team thinks like I do. While they really didn’t do anything revolutionary, they did fix some of the problems that I for one have dogged Madden for over the last several years, and added some nice new features. With the tightened game play and unbelievably deep owners mode I honestly believe this is the best version of Madden yet. Only some stale presentation, and at time funky CPU roster management hinder it for me, and even these issues are pretty mild.