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Just in time for NFL training camp is the latest edition of EA Sports' football juggernaut, Madden NFL 06. With last year's Madden NFL 2005 focusing heavily on improving the defensive game and overall presentation of the series, while not necessarily adding any grand, new game modes to the package, 06 shifts the other way, going out of its way to specifically work on the offensive side of the ball by debuting all-new passing controls. On paper, all the additions and changes sound like fine improvements, but the end result isn't nearly as impressive as it seems like it ought to have been. In fact, Madden 06 comes off as a somewhat unfocused and unpolished piece of work, which is sort of a shocking revelation for a brand that's ridden high on its level of quality for so many years. Ultimately, Madden NFL 06 is a highly playable game of football, but in comparison with the leaps forward the franchise has made in previous years, 06 feels like a false start.
For years now, the one aspect of Madden's gameplay that's barely seen an ounce of alteration is the passing game. That can be said for just about any football game of the last decade or so, too. Even with the additions of things like hot routes and formation shifts, the basic act still entailed snapping the ball, looking for an open receiver, and then pressing the button that corresponded to said receiver. Bing, bang, boom. But this year, the developer has completely changed the ebb and flow of how you pass the ball in a football game. Now, each and every quarterback is given a field of vision, represented by a cone of light on the field that highlights exactly what your QB can see. Quarterbacks with higher ratings (especially ratings higher in the "awareness" category) will get bigger fields to work with--like Tom Brady, Brett Favre, or Peyton Manning--whereas less-aware quarterbacks get a decidedly smaller field to work with, and sometimes can't see beyond a single receiver. When you first snap the ball, you'll be locked on to a primary receiver. But by moving the right control stick around, you can move your view to another receiver, should you need to. And trust us when we say you will.
Just like in the real-life NFL, reading a quarterback's eyes is a big part of playing defense. As such, the defenders in Madden 06 have the innate ability to see where your QB has his focus fixed, and they will predictably try to get a jump on the ball. To combat this, you'll need to look off defenders, either by moving to another receiver entirely or just by quickly flicking the stick back and forth to momentarily confuse them. You can opt to have the vision automatically snap to a specific receiver, rather than fumbling with trying to manually aim the stick, by holding down the right trigger button and then pressing the button assigned to that receiver. But then you have to let up on the trigger and press the receiver's button again. And you must do all this very quickly, for while the scope of things you have to do to get a ball into a receiver's hand this year has gotten more methodical in nature, the speed of the game has not.
And therein lies the folly of quarterback vision. While there's no arguing that the feature itself is realistic and adds complexity to the passing game as a whole, it doesn't exactly make it more fun, necessarily. The whole song and dance you have to go through to get the cone to switch to a receiver post-snap lends itself to you taking a whole lot more sacks than you might be used to, and even just trying to move the stick around manually is a clunky affair in the early goings. It's pretty much a necessity to keep the receiver you're throwing to in your line of sight, because if you don't, you'll throw the lamest of lame ducks, the likes of which you probably can't even fathom until you've seen it. So really, there's no room for error. By no means is the passing game unplayable now. Quite the contrary. There will just likely be quite a bit of practice time needed for the average football game fan to get accustomed to this newfangled cone, and some may even grow to enjoy it for its inherent complexity. Though conversely, others will have little more than utter disdain for it. So perhaps for this reason, the game has an option to turn off the passing cone altogether...though doing so will leave you with a game that feels practically identical to Madden NFL 2005 in every conceivable way.
To be fair, there are some other additions to the gameplay, most of which are relatively small, but almost all of which fare better than the QB vision. The other big quarterback-related addition is precision passing. Basically, by pressing the left control stick left, right, up, or down while passing, you can lead your pass ahead, behind, just above, or just below your targeted receiver's chest. This lets you lead your passes where the defenders can't get them. While it might seem a little odd at first, it's actually a pretty simple mechanic, and it works wonders when done correctly. Another neat addition is the smart route system. Here, by pressing a couple of buttons before the snap, you can tell a receiver to run past the first-down marker before breaking off into his assigned route. This is great for situations where you've got a perfect play picked out, but the ideal receiver is set to run a route that doesn't go past the marker. Though some routes seemingly can't be altered, most key ones can, and, again, this works great. For ball carriers, the big new change this year is the truck stick. It's like the hit stick on defense, but instead of tackling, you press the right control stick forward to try to bowl over a defender. Like the hit stick, it requires some good timing to be effective, and frankly, there are times when it seems like the stick isn't really doing anything at all. But then there are other times when you can see your running back knock a guy back flat on his ***. And that's damn satisfying.
On the defensive side, apart from a few obscure artificial intelligence tweaks here and there, nothing's really changed at all. All the customization aspects that debuted in Madden 2005 are back again, and they all work fundamentally the same. While it's clear that the focus of development in 06 was the offense, it might have been nice to have made just a change or two to the defensive system. But hey, at least the defense is still fun.
Unfortunately, Madden NFL 06 also has a few gameplay bugs and glitches on both sides of the ball that dampen the experience somewhat. Most of these are pretty minor things, such as draw plays where--every single time--your quarterback's vision will be focused straight ahead, as opposed to focusing in the direction of a particular receiver. This makes it blatantly obvious what you're doing, giving your opponents a great opportunity to come thundering after you. Finally, there are still some AI glitches here and there where running backs will get stuck behind offensive linemen, linemen will get stuck trying to block defenders, and so on. While no specific one of these bugs completely wrecks the game or anything, the combination of multiple issues like these makes Madden 06 seem sloppier than in recent years.
So, Madden still plays great, despite its rough edges. It just isn't much of a leap forward from the last game. Unfortunately, the same can easily be said of the play mode front as well. All the usual suspects--the franchise mode, minigames, quick play, online, create-a-fan--are back. And they're all the same. There are no new minigames whatsoever, and the franchise mode looks like it could easily have just been lifted right out of 2005 and plunked down into 06. Even the Tony Bruno radio dialogue that plays through much of the franchise mode seems largely lifted from 2005, and the parts that are clearly new don't come across any differently or any more interesting than the old stuff. Owner mode's been completely untouched, the free agency period still comes after the draft, for some reason, and you still can't sign more players past the maximum of 54, even if you put half your roster on injured reserve. In short, if it was in Madden 2005's franchise mode--even if it was buggy or broken--it's in this version too. Of course, we loved Madden 2005's franchise mode, and it's still great fun to play with here. But the fact that hardly a single iota of it was even tweaked or marginally fixed up is disappointing.
The online play comes across similarly unmolested. Apart from an egregiously long sign-up process on the PlayStation 2 that forces you to make the best of a no-win situation by making you choose to either pay $2 via credit card or agree to get spammed by ESPN mailings to register your account, the online works just as it did last year. You can jump into a quick game, create your own, or hang out in a lobby with other players, chatting about whatever while a sports ticker goes by. The online play is predictably smooth, functioning just how you'd want online competitive football to be on the PlayStation 2 or Xbox (the GameCube version is, unsurprisingly, lacking in the online department). The one addition made this year to the mode is the EA sports locker. It's a sort of hub area where your friends can access files you leave for them, and likewise, you can do the same in their lockers. One of those files you can upload is a franchise mode game. The notion here is that your friends will download your franchise games, play them, reupload them to you, and then you can insert them back into your franchise mode offline. Why would anyone want to go through such a convoluted process to play offline franchise mode games? Don't ask us. But hey, the option's there if you're into it.
With all that said, there's one big game mode debut in Madden NFL 06 in the form of the superstar mode. The premise here is actually a fairly ingenious one. In franchise mode, you can manage the day-to-day tasks of an NFL team to your heart's content. In the create-a-player mode, you can model a player after your own likeness or any likeness you prefer. Why not smash them together into one thing? The superstar mode is a way for you to take your created player and send him off into the gauntlet that is the NFL, free to develop your career however you choose. You can be a stand-up guy with a "go team" attitude, or you can be the me-first-minded egomaniac who's constantly complaining about coaches and guaranteeing Super Bowl wins. Hell, who wouldn't love to live the fabulous lifestyle of an NFL superstar? That's what makes the mode such a brilliant idea in concept...and such a colossal failure in execution.
You begin the mode by picking your family in something of a parental draft lottery. You're presented with a randomly generated mother and father, each with specific occupations, IQs, and hobbies. You could end up with a nuclear physicist with a penchant for macramé and a professional butcher who loves mountain biking. It's all very, very random. Some parents will obviously be more conducive to producing a top-tier NFL player (like a former NFL player, for example, or at least someone athletic). These highly conducive parents only come up every once in a great while, however, and if you happen to skip past them once, you won't see them again, most likely. Once you have a proper pair of parents lined up, you're on to the fun stuff--relatively speaking. You first meet up with former Broncos running back and current NFL Network mainstay Terrell Davis. He acts as your pseudomentor throughout the process. Initially, he just gives you a quick overview of what you'll be doing before you get drafted. One of those things is picking an agent. You've got several to choose from initially, each with strengths in the categories of negotiation, influence, and interview. If you don't like your agent after a while, you can always hire a new one. Next is an IQ test that's loosely based on the kinds of questions you'd find on the real-life Wonderlic test (the big exam that all prospective NFL rookies take before draft day). After that, it's a quick interview, where you answer utterly inane questions about what you like to eat and slightly more relevant questions like what team you'd ultimately like to be drafted to. Of course, no rookie gets to choose where he goes in the draft, so you'll be drafted by any of the 32 teams that has a need at your position. In most cases, we went between the late second and late third rounds. The only time we were picked later was when we created a kicker. Go figure.
Once you've got your team, it's off to training camp, the season, and, if you're lucky, the postseason. In between, you'll periodically get interview opportunities, and your agent will get you sponsorships with wacky companies, as well as offers for random movie roles. Like the interviews, movies are basically conversational minigames, though you're actually graded on these. You're given three lines to memorize and then four variances of that line when the camera's actually rolling. Only one is correct, but they all look nearly identical, so you actually do have to do some solid memorization to succeed. If movies aren't your thing, you can travel around town, visiting your agent's office to talk about your opponents, complain about your coaches, or even announce your retirement. You can also hit up the local barber shop and/or tattoo parlor to gussy up your player, and you can get to the performance institute to play some of the minicamp games to give your player a stat boost for the coming week.
OK, so there's a lot you can do in the superstar mode. But where does it all lead? The answer, unfortunately, is nowhere of consequence. Because the superstar mode is laid out in a similar way to the franchise mode, every little thing is handled with text menus, conversational minigames, and play modes--like the minicamp games, for instance--that exist elsewhere in the game. While this works all well and good for a management simulation like the franchise mode, managing the life of a superstar seems like it ought to be a flashier affair. And even within the confines of what the mode offers, it still comes across as hackneyed and not realistic in the slightest. Part of the problem is that there seems to be a gigantic disconnect between what your player does and how it actually affects him. Your player has statistics in things like visibility, popularity, and marketability, but what exactly makes any of these things rise or fall is terribly opaque. Obviously, guaranteeing wins and then following through with a victory seems like it ought to give you a good visibility and popularity boost, but even that often seems like it doesn't do as much as it ought to. And then later, your ratings will just take a sudden nosedive for no explicable reason. There's no decisive feedback either. You'll get voicemails and text messages from Terrell Davis, your agent, as well as from other random people throughout the mode. However, they never ever tell you anything of substance. If anything, they just repeat exactly what you already know, and that's assuming they even say the right thing, which isn't a guarantee. Sometimes they'll write to you about things like movie roles that never surface, and other times the game will tell you you've got new mail when, in fact, you've got no new messages at all.
That's not the only off-kilter aspect of the mode, either. For one, the game does an awful job of letting you know when new opportunities arise. You'd think that while you're simming through, say, the preseason, you might get some kind of notification if a movie role comes your way. Nope. Unless you sim day by day, you'll end up missing opportunities for interviews, movie roles, and the like. The game just skips right past them. Another problem is that the interviews you give and people you talk to never seem to have a clue as to what's actually going on. Let's say you're offered a role in a film about the American Revolution. Once the film comes out at the end of the season, you'll be interviewed about it. The interviewer will then ask you what the film was about. Your answers range from "I have no idea" to "evil alien creatures sent to destroy earth." This level of disconnect between scripting and the actual story is prevalent all over the place, and it completely takes you out of the experience. That is, assuming you even have much of an experience. To say that the superstar mode is geared toward very specific positions is an understatement. Unless you're an absolute knockout in terms of ability, the only positions that seem to offer you especially interesting careers are those of the quarterback, wide receiver, running back, and the occasional starting defensive player. Want to play a kicker? Prepare for the most boring experience of your life. Yeah, you'll still get to do things here and there, but the actual act of trying to play as your player and then building him up becomes tedious to the point of frustration. Maybe this is realistic, since, really, who ever pays attention to a safety, an offensive lineman, or, again, a kicker? But in this case, realism limits how much fun you can really have.
The last, and perhaps biggest problem, is simply that you never ever really feel like an NFL superstar while you're playing this mode. Maybe it's because in reality, NFL players rarely take on movie roles until after they've retired (deodorant commercials seem to be about the extent of their non-football-related filmed appearances). Maybe it's because no matter how much money you make and no matter how many endorsements you get, nothing tangible ever comes of it, save for a different hub level to look at (you go from a lousy apartment to a loft to a mansion, but you never get to do anything with any of them). Maybe it's because you spend practically all your time participating in dull practices that only have a minute degree of impact on your playing ability, while you don't spend nearly enough time doing anything flashy or cool or superstar-like. Ultimately, your career feels more like a silly scenario to give your created player some modicum of context rather than a marginally interesting or accurate depiction of the life of a real NFL player. Football fans should certainly at least try the superstar mode, just to see what it's like. It's worth a single play-through just to experience it. But considering how scattershot and screwy the whole thing is, it's unlikely anyone will ever want to mess with it a second time.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Madden NFL 06's presentational elements really haven't changed much this year. The graphics have remained especially the same, from the player models to the arenas to the animations. In fact, there's barely anything new on the animation front, save for a couple of new tackles and the ability to knock the helmet off a ball carrier (which actually happens a lot more often than it should). The game still looks great as a whole, but it's just not terribly different from 2005. Once again, the Xbox version is the clear-cut visual winner. The GameCube version looks like a blurrier, slightly lower-resolution version of the Xbox iteration, and the PS2 version is another tier down, though it does look a bit crisper than the Cube version.
Al Michaels and John Madden return to provide commentary yet again, and in fact, this might be the last year we get this particular pairing, what with John Madden headed to NBC and Al Michaels on his way to ESPN. Sadly, the always reliable Michaels will likely be the one lost amid the shuffle, so we'll be getting more of Madden's consistently droll and painfully obvious color work. This year's game is no different, with Madden continuing to offer up remarkably noninsightful comments throughout every game. There does seem to be a bit more in the way of player-specific commentary featured this year, but it's rarely all that interesting. Additional voice work is provided by Terrell Davis and his NFL Network cohort Rich Eisen, but Eisen only shows up once in a great while to deliver a hysterically overwrought line or two, and Davis literally phones it in, only showing up on voicemails left to your superstar and providing dialogue that actually sounds like it was recorded over a phone.
The rest of the audio is mostly the same as last year's game. THX surround sound is available in this year's version, and although the sound effects are practically identical to the previous entry in the series, they sound really good coming out of surround speakers, if you've got the setup. The soundtrack is made up of yet another mishmash of artists-of-the-month, like Funeral For a Friend, the All American Rejects, Memphis Bleek, Disturbed, Finch, Stat Quo, and Hot Hot Heat. However, the soundtrack also contains a number of remixed musical tracks taken directly from the NFL Films library. While names would likely be unrecognizable to you, you'd certainly recognize the music if you've ever watched any NFL Films highlights. The remixes--unlike the smattering of pop music--actually make contextual sense in the game, and they aren't half bad to listen to while you're playing.
For as great as Madden NFL 06 is overall, you can't help but be at least somewhat disappointed by the game as a whole, if only because of how frequently superb the franchise has been in recent years. Many of the things that make Madden consistently enjoyable are front and center yet again, but the justification for buying this newest Madden--if you already own last year's game--is tough to find. The new passing cone can be enjoyable, though it's definitely the kind of thing that will certainly be better and more refined in the years to come. It's a bit of a pain as it is now. And the superstar mode, while excellent in concept, simply fails to deliver an engaging experience. And in the absence of these two things, what you effectively have is Madden NFL 2005, with a few very subtle changes and some problems that weren't originally there. The Madden diehards will undoubtedly enjoy Madden 06, just as they have most every other installment of the franchise, and anyone that simply wants a new and thoroughly playable football game with updated rosters will get exactly that from Madden 06. Anyone looking for more, however, may find the 2005-2006 season to be the one they went through without buying a new football game.