Madden NFL 07 REVIEW

Madden NFL 07 Review (Xbox)

The real NFL has a way of reinventing itself every few years without ever really changing anything. The philosophies and styles of play seem to change a couple times per decade. West Coast, Run and Shoot, 4-6 D, Zone Blitzing, teams find ways to change the product without actually changing the game. The rules and execution at the core of football have been the same for years.

EA Sports and the Madden series have a very similar approach when releasing each new iteration of the franchise. At the heart, you’re dealing with a sport. A game with very specific rules and guidelines that must be adhered to in order to be real football – the requirement before coach Madden put his name on the box 17 years ago. So, like the real NFL, the team at Madden seems to focus each year on one of those philosophies. Last year they gave us the QB Vision Cone and made the passing game the centerpiece of this gaming smorgasbord. This season, Madden NFL 07 is setting their crosshairs on the running game with their Lead Blocker Control.

So is it more three-yards, or more a cloud of dust?

Let’s get this out of the way from the beginning – it’s Madden. Period. Your decision on whether or not you were going to purchase this title was likely made months, heck, even years ago. Madden, for 99% of the sports gaming public, is an automatic. Madden is safe. You know, at the minimum, you’re going to get a good game. Sometimes you get a great version, like I felt about the current-gen version last year, but you can usually bet a mortgage payment that it will at least be good. Playable and enjoyable for a good period of time for most anyone’s tastes.

So, there you go, four paragraphs in you have the answer for anyone looking for the simple “should I or shouldn’t I” debate.

For those who choose to read on, I’m not going to waste your time with Madden 101. You know what it is and what it does. I want to concentrate on what is new and that’s, most significantly, the Lead Blocker Control and the revised Superstar Mode.

The running game in Madden’s past has been more about directing the ball carrier on a path that will force the blockers to run into the defensive player. There wasn’t much strategy or realism to it. You’d run east to west, north to south until you could get the blocker engaged so you could speed around. Not really football, but, hey, who runs in Madden anyway, right?

With the Lead Blocker Control, EA has actually added a level of fun, reward, and replay-ability in running the ball. Before the snap, you take control of any of the players on the field that are designated to block on that play. You can go the classic route like an offensive lineman or fullback, or even think a little outside of the box and block with wideouts Chad Johnson or T.O. In fact, using a wide receiver adds a unique and surprisingly fun experience that I didn’t expect from this new option.

Specific lead blocking controls allow you to actually use technique when blocking instead of just engaging and riding it out. Go for the power pancake or hit them with the cut block – Broncos’ style – and help your back get that first down. And once you’ve taken care of your guy, you can even switch back to the running back to create in the open field.

While not nearly as innovative, in my opinion, as the Vision Cone to the passing game, I certainly applaud the effort. However, there really isn’t much of a learning curve like the cone, and I found myself losing interest in it after the initial novelty wore off.

Deserving equal recognition, but perhaps being under-hyped this year, is the vastly improved Superstar Mode. I had high hopes for Superstar Mode last year and came away mostly disappointed. This year’s mode is a lot closer to what it should be. You are your Superstar and, for the most part, only your Superstar. When he plays you play. Not when he plays defense, you play defense – you play him. If you have a tight end, you don’t play defense. If he’s not on special teams, you don’t play special teams. If the coach calls a 4-Wide set with no TE, you’re merely a spectator. You don’t even call the plays, the coach does. The biggest complaint about Superstar Mode for many last year was that it really wasn’t much different then just creating a player and adding him to a season. That, and the fact that the mode really was just a mechanism to become a stat junkie.

This season’s mode is actually as much about working hard in practice and being a team leader then it is about piling up the stats. The harder you work in practice, the more points you earn to disperse during the game. And, unlike the more “me, me, me Mode” of last year, the points aren’t necessarily simply to juice up your player. You affect your teammates. It's a very nice touch that added tremendously to the replay factor.

When you’re not on the field in Superstar Mode, the game modes in rapid time. It appears to be about twice the speed of the normal game, plus all of the screen transitions are removed. Don’t fret though, if you are controlling that stud middle linebacker, you do have the ability to play offense when your team has the ball. To me, however, that kind of defeats the purpose.

I can’t help but be excited about the direction of this mode and the future that it could hold in the game. I would love to see things become even more deep and realistic. Things like a learning curve for a playbook. If I get traded in the middle of the season, I should not be able to play immediately or, if I do, I should only know a handful of plays. I’d love to see conditioning programs in the off-season. Benchings for bad plays. Suspensions. Maybe during the create portion, there could be some factors about how your college career was. If I was a stud for Penn State and won a National Championship, my draft status and abilities could be higher then being a sleeper from a small MAC school. Make me win my starting job; don’t just give it to the player with the best ratings. How about Coach and Philosophy changes from season to season?
Can you tell that I’m excited about the potential for this mode? I’d hate to see EA abandon it. Hey, it could actually be a stand-alone game if done right. (Note to EA: For this and more ideas, make checks payable to CASH).

Franchise Mode has gone largely unchanged from September through January. It is still a good experience and one of the better franchise experiences available in the sports genre. Where the Madden team decided to tweak and bulk up was during the off-season. Again, perhaps a testimony to EA listening to the cries of the more “sim-based” client list.

The thing that stands out the most during the off-season is the difficulty. It is simply not as easy to stack your team for a Super Bowl run like it was in year’s past. The Franchise AI actually factors in a player’s importance to their team, which makes it increasingly more difficult to snag a Ladanian Tomlinson or Chad Johnson for meaningless draft picks, forcing you to actually, as strange as it sounds, build a team in Franchise mode. No shortcuts. It’s still a little too easy to load up on free agents, which thankfully has also been corrected in the game in terms of when it takes place, but then again, every off-season there seems to be a team that loads up on free agents, so maybe that AI does work.

I know, I know. Modes are modes. What does it mean if the game doesn’t play well? Well, the game does play well. It plays…well…like Madden.

The controls are largely the same with a few noticeable changes. For one, the Vision Cone no longer defaults to "on". So, if you’re like me and enjoyed the challenge of the cone last year, it’s still there, you just have to turn it on. The Lead Blocker Controls we touched on earlier. They, like all of the position-specific moves in Superstar Mode, have been placed on the right thumbstick. In fact, the thumbstick itself has been tweaked and renamed the Highlight Stick instead of last year’s Truck Stick. Players still truck with the stick, but it is reserved for the power backs now. No more Warrick Dunn trucking over Ray Lewis in the open-field. With the Highlight Stick, the Dunns of the world will try to evade a tackler with the flick of the stick versus trying to run him over. That’s a huge improvement over last year and, again, adds a nice level of realism.

The AI, to me, felt slightly improved from last year on Default settings. I know the slider fans of the world have already got the game tweaked to their version of “gaming perfection”, but straight out of the wrapper, you get a nice challenge depending on your level of choice. Passing is still much easier than running the ball, even with the Lead Blocking Control, but I’ve always enjoyed my sports games with a learning curve, so it was fun to work on pounding the rock.

But, if whoopin' up on the AI gets to be old hat, you can take Madden global through Xbox Live. More of the same here, with nothing new or groundbreaking. I was seeing what has become somewhat typical lag on the EA servers during the first month of release, but where Madden always blows away the competition is in availability of challengers. There's no time, day or night, that you can't find a game to your liking.

While I feel like I have to at least use the words "graphics" and "audio" in most every review, there’s really not much to say about Madden NFL 07 that hasn’t been said. The Xbox version is largely unchanged from the 2006 release. It’s still not the prettiest game and the audio, at times, is tough to keep the volume up on, but it works. It has the same Madden look and feel that has worked for a long time. And, for me, as long as those two components do not detract from my gaming experience, they are small potatoes in my gaming experience. What good is a pretty birthday cake if it tastes like cardboard, right?

When a franchise has been around for 17 years, you start to measure it in a, sort of, “good year/bad year” scale. Did they advance the series? Did they fix shortcomings from previous versions? Are they resting on their laurels? To me, I’d definitely vote on the “good year” side of the debate when speaking about Madden NFL 07. The EA team made their off-season adjustments and released a solid product. Maybe not groundbreaking or innovative, but certainly a step forward. And, hey, sometimes it’s more about the prevent defense then the all-out blitz.

Madden NFL 07 Score
out of 10