Review: Madden NFL 2006 - PS2, Xbox, Gamecube

Not quite the big step like 2005, but still a good game of football

The NFL season is upon us yet again, and what would it be without Madden? With its first year of NFL exclusivity, Madden '06 emphasizes the offensive side of the ball. Two years ago we were introduced to playmaking athletes. Then last year we saw how a real NFL team plays defense. With '06, EA attempts to bring the complexities of an NFL offense. Now you can experience the numerous hot routes, offensive line shift, formation audibles, the regular audibles, checking off receivers so the defense can't read your eyes and every other complicated detail that goes into an NFL offense. Sounds like a lot doesn't it? Well it is:almost too much.

To bring the utmost realism to the football field, EA has developed a vision cone passing system. Quarterbacks will now have to look at the receiver they are passing to in order to assure an accurate pass. The purpose of this new system is to add the realism of a quarterback's vision. For far too long has awareness for quarterbacks been meaningless because the player controls what they do. It didn't matter if your awareness rating was a 66 as long as you controlled what he did. With the vision cone, the quarterback's awareness determines how big that cone is. Passes that are thrown outside of the cone result in lofty, inaccurate passes that are easily picked off. Now quarterbacks such as Trent Green and Tom Brady have meaning. These guys are successful not because they have canons but because of their knowledge and wisdom on the field. They see and read everything. Younger and more inexperienced quarterbacks like Michael Vick or Ben Roethlisberger are difficult to work with because their cones are so small. This is very realistic, but almost to the point where the game becomes too realistic and just plain frustrating.

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The problem with the cone is that there's just too much button pushing for the simple actions that are going on. To use the vision lock on, players will have to hit the lock on button along with the button of the receiver they want to change their vision to. Then after that, they'll have to hit the receiver button again to actually pass it. That's just way too much button pushing for the simple action of rotating your head. EA does let the player use the right stick to move the vision. I tend to use this more as it is much simpler than hitting three different buttons to pass the ball. This does make things a lot better but it's still not as quick as it should be. Rotating the cone from one side of the field to the other is just a bit slow, so checking off receivers is still a difficult thing to do, especially with a blitz coming at you. Changing your vision in real life is much easier than in the game.

The vision isn't frustrating however. A lot of good things come out of it. For one, defense is much more fun to play, especially if you play any position besides the line. Now when you drop back into zones, you'll be able to watch the opponent's eyes and shade those areas. As mentioned, the added realism of how the awareness of quarterback's matters now and can either be loved or hated. If you enjoy the challenges of taking a young Eli Manning and developing his cone and his career over time, then you'll love the new feature. If on the other hand you're not looking for something quite complicated or complex, you can simply turn the feature off, which was a smart idea by EA to leave in.

EA has also beefed up your options before the snap. Nothing has changed on the defensive side as far as pre-snap goes, but the offense has a new arsenal of options. Back are all the hot routes and playmaker audibles along with the new smart routes, offensive line protection shift, and formation specific audibles. Both are great features and come in very handy. Smart routes simply let you tell a receiver to run his route deep enough in order to get a first down. So if that curl is just 3 yards short of the first, tell T.O. to extend it out for a first. You can also tell your line to either shift protection to the left, right, middle, or outside. It's a handy tool that gets rid of the likes of Freeney and Peppers. The formation specific audibles are exactly what it sounds. Instead of just using the 5 audibles you assign before the game, each formation has a set of 4 you can also call: quick pass, run, playaction pass, or deep pass. This way you stay in the formation you're in and can change the play. This means that each formation has its own set of audibles. So as you can see, there are quite a few things to check and read before you snap the ball. I think this coming year is when people will really start to understand and appreciate the 40 second play clock in the NFL.

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Controls even got the offensive emphasis. There are no new defensive controls and the offense gets two new moves. To balance against the Hit Stick, the offense has the Truck Stick. By flicking the right stick up, the offensive ball carrier will attempt to run the defensive man over. This move obviously only works well with strong running backs like Jerome Bettis or Jamal Lewis. Just like the Hit Stick this maneuver can backfire. There's a higher chance of fumbling the ball when the stick is used so be careful who you use it with. Not only can you juke left and right but now you can back juke as well. By flicking the right stick back, your player will hesitate and let any speeding defender fly right by. The overall control scheme is great considering the enormous amounts of moves that can happen on both sides of the ball.

As far as the overall feel of the gameplay, it's pretty much the same but with detailed improvements here and there. The punt returning game is still a joke. The chances of actually getting a return are slim to none. Offensive linemen are much smarter as they do a better job of picking up blitzes and knowing who to block in the open field. The receiving game has been improved with the new Precision Passing. Quarterbacks are now able to control where the ball will end up at the receiver, such as low, high, away, near, etc. Because of this feature, jump balls are easier to throw allowing Randy Moss or Mike Williams to use their size and leaping abilities. Last year the defense was amazing and that hasn't changed this year. In fact, it seems the defense is smarter than before; almost a little too smart. In my first three games of the season, my team ended up with 12 interceptions. That's a ridiculous amount; even the Ravens would have a hard time achieving that. This uneven balance is a result of the vision cone because even the computer has to use it and they goof it up as well by throwing out of the cone. Something I was very pleased and I'm sure most will be, is the improvement to the pass interference penalty. To put it simply, they actually call it this year. Not only is the penalty enforced, it is done realistically. I went back and watched the replays of the penalties and they were dead on from my eye.

Even though the gameplay is loaded with tons of new stuff, the looks and sounds of the game didn't get the same amount of treatment. Graphically the game is identical. Most of the new animations you see are all celebrations and the detail is the same. One animation that was a welcome was headtracking. You won't see blind catches anymore as receivers watch the ball come to them. The Truck Stick animations are a treat to watch too, especially if you pull it off. Overall the game looks the same though. Al Michaels and John Madden returned to call the games and they are still outdone by the crew that handles the NCAA games. It's not bad commentary, but it's disappointing because it seems Tiburon puts more effort into creating NCAA commentary.

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Paralleling the Race for Heisman mode in NCAA '06, Madden has the NFL Superstar mode. Here you'll attempt to live the dream of:well, an NFL Superstar. The first step to starting this mode is by selecting your parents. Your parents affect your ratings as a player. I found this feature to be very moot because if your dad wasn't a former NFL player, your ratings are going to be horrible. I'm talking a receiver with a speed of 80, agility of 80, and acceleration of 80. That's very poor and it gives the gamer no motivation to play him. So obviously people will find new parents until they have the former NFL player as one, which defeats the purpose of having a variety of parents. If you have a Legend player from NCAA '06, you can import him into this mode and continue his legendary career as well. The mode does a decent job of recreating the NFL life. You'll sign an agent who has their own ratings and that determines if you get into movies, endorsements, etc. You'll get interviews where you can choose to attack your coaches, comment about certain opponents, or even guarantee victories. It's a good first step with this mode and I can't wait to see how it develops in the future.

Franchise mode is essentially the same except for some changes to the weekly game plan. Now you'll be able to look at each starter and a detailed summary of them. After reading about their players, why not check out the stats on the plays they run? This way you can guess what they're going to do in certain situations. Lastly, you'll need to practice certain focus plays to get ready for the game. These are plays that will counter the main plays ran by the opposition for that week. If you practice these and score well, your players will have improved skills when you run that play during the actual game.

The online mode continues to improve. The interface is very user friendly and runs very smooth. EA has even taken advantage of the PSP, letting people take franchise games on the road and then transferring the stats of that game back into the franchise.

It's evident that Tiburon was really pushing the limit as far as experimenting with the vision cone and realism. The game might just take a tiny step over the line of being too real. There's a reason why only a select few are able to play in the NFL and make difficult reads and such. We gamers want to enjoy that thrill, just not with the frustration that can go along with it. The learning curve is higher this year, but once you get use to everything and become comfortable, the game really shines. EA hasn't disappointed with the exclusive license and that's definitely a plus. Keep in mind that Madden '06 is also set to debut with the Xbox 360. So if you plan on getting a 360, you might want to see what EA can do on the next-gen systems. This is definitely a great game to get your football fix for the real NFL season. Nothing beats it.

Graphics: B+

Sound: B

First Play: C-

Last Play: B+

Gameplay: B+

Overall: 89% B+

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