The timeless franchise is here for yet another round, and this one has it all. Football fans everywhere are going to get what they paid for, and then some. Come on in and check it out.
By Ben S. Dutka
I can still remember hurdling my way to the end-zone on the old SNES with Madden '94, watching tacklers bounce off me and laughing all the way. Over the years, I became interested in other genres and types of games, but I can't forget that it all began with sports. And so, every year, I give the new Madden a try. Rarely do I go far enough to finish an entire season, given my gaming priorities, but times change...
After more than a decade of Madden football video games, I wondered how much more could possibly be done. Football was football, video game or no video game, and there were only so many alterations you could make before you began making a mockery of the sport. But after ripping open the package and diving into Madden 101, I realized that Tiburon/EA has once again proven me wrong.
Being a multi-platform game, it's basically essential that all versions be compared against each other. As is generally the case, the differences between all three versions are minimal, and beautiful detail and gorgeous player animations dominate everywhere. Madden has never really been a series to slack on the graphical presentation, and 2004 is no exception. From the players to the field to the stadium itself, the visuals are sharp and refined to near-perfection.
If you want to get picky, you will visibly notice clipping problems in some replays and immediately after a play has ended when the team is just kind of wandering around. Also, if you look closely, you will notice a slight grainy texture in the PS2 version that is virtually absent in the GameCube and XBox versions. But for the most part, neither of these little problems will be a hindrance to your enjoyment, and football fans across all gaming platforms will be happy with what they see.
The sound has received an overhaul as well, but not in the sound effects department. The new soundtrack, consisting primarily of alternative and rap, is huge. It isn't exactly necessary, but it's a nice touch, especially considering the amount of time one may spend fiddling with menu options. The typical hard-hitting sound effects have returned, with bone-crunching hits, taunting, and crystal clear football effects that really couldn't get much better.
The graphics and the sound is vintage Madden; both of the highest quality and right on par with what the fans would expect. But what could be done to the gameplay? What else can we do with video game football? Let Melissa Stark and Al Michaels tell you "what's new" in Madden 2004, and prepare to be amazed (by the way, Ms. Stark and Mr. Michaels really will inform you... themselves).
The first and most prominent change is the addition of the Playmaker option on both offense and defense. An ingenious mode of full game control, Playmaker allows you to command the field the way a great coach and quarterback should. How many times in the past have you picked a play, only to survey the defense and realize that you're in deep trouble? Well, now there's something you can do about it, besides calling an audible. The audible is still an option, but Playmaker tends to be more effective.
Here's how it works: say you pick a run play that busts through the weak side. When you come to the line of scrimmage, you see that the defense has stacked an extra player or two directly in your intended path. You also notice that, due to this strategy, the strong side looks awfully tempting. So what to do? Simple. Reverse the play by pushing the right analog stick in the opposite direction, the Playmaker icon will appear in the bottom corner, and a new yellow arrow will indicate the new route for the running back.
This works equally well during the play when passing. A linebacker busts through the line quickly and you're forced to roll out to your left. Your tight end is standing about ten yards away, but his route has him moving away from you, to your right. Push the right analog stick to the left, and the closest receiver (the tight end, in this scenario), will break off his route and run towards the sideline with you, thus creating a potential first down instead of a doomed play.
On defense, it operates much the same way using the right analog stick. You can change the direction of the defensive line rush, the assignments for the safeties, etc. Furthermore, you can shift the entire defense after you've picked the play by using the R2 and L2 buttons. Add in the "Hot Play" (an offensive passing option that allows for even more control of the receivers), and you've got an incredibly realistic and controllable football title.
It doesn't end here, though. If you participate in the Franchise mode, you will have two new options. The first option is the Owner mode, which allows you to quite literally take on the role of an owner/manager. You will create the stadium and the team from scratch, set ticket and concession stand prices, make coaching and trade decisions, deal with salary caps, injured players, and training camp... for the hardcore football fan, it's heaven.
Speaking of training camp, that is the other new option in Franchise mode. Training camp consists of nine drills that can (unfortunately) be run by only one player each season. Depending on how you do, you will be able to add points to your attributes, permanently raising the stats of the player. There are kicking, passing, running, tackling, and even trench drills for a lineman/linebacker to choose from, and three difficulty settings; the harder the setting, the more points you can earn. You will also play in a full preseason in franchise mode, even though the computer can simulate the games quickly if you just want to move right into the regular season. Once the season is over, you will move on to the next one with the same team. It's basically like a dynasty mode, brought to beautiful fruition through the new options that add significant depth. There are also tournaments to set up and the ever-popular Play Now mode, perfect for instant multi-player fun.
The control you have over a player is excellent, and it's clear that the developers have been working on that "sliding" problem that plagued Madden 2001. At the time, the Sega football series (NFL 2k1/2k2) actually sported the best possible form of control, although football purists like to maintain that Madden still moved more realistically. Well, no more arguing folks. They've gotten it right this time.
When sprinting, it is difficult to quickly change course, but otherwise, an agile player can turn on a dime with ease. Spinning, juking, stiff-arming, hurdling, jumping, and diving are all moves that can be executed relatively easily, but it will take a while to master the timing, just like any good simulator. The single best part of the whole deal is that the statistics of each player seem to be perfectly represented on the field, and you can easily pinpoint a player's strengths and weaknesses.
Of course, nothing is perfect, and there is still a few programming flaws that need to be ironed out. The first is the annoying "catch-up" phenomenon that is apparently too big a problem to get rid of completely. When behind at the end of the game (or the half), the computer seems to hit another level of capability, finding receivers that had never been there before in any previous series, and exploiting holes and breaking tackles like supermen. However, it's not painfully obvious, and doesn't happen all the time, which is a little bonus for the development team.
But it's still a problem. There is also another little problem involving the hurry-up/no-huddle offense. After a play, the computer will rush everyone to the line, and there are times when a player will get caught off-sides; a player you had no control over, and only in the backfield because he had made an outstanding play before. I once had Warren Sapp sack the quarterback from behind... before the ball was even snapped. Yeah, that's a penalty. Also, try catching a punt with a defender right there waiting to pop you. Yes, that's not a good situation, but fumbling 100% of the time when you're hit? (7 hits, 7 fumbles in tests I personally conducted).
So there are a few programming errors, but I don't think any of these should deter you. They may annoy and frustrate you at times, and you are thoroughly convinced that it wasn't your fault, but those are the breaks. The rest of the game is so polished and well produced that you'll most likely just learn to live with them, as I have. Football really doesn't get much better than this, and if it did, it would finally be worthy of near-perfect score.
I don't think that anything more needs to be said about the depth, so we'll move right into the presentation. The menus are clean and easy to read and cycle through, Al Michaels, John Madden, and Melissa Stark are heard more clearly than if they were on your TV live, and the soundtrack and create-a-player/create-a-team options add a lot of atmosphere to the game. There are nearly 300 Madden trading cards to collect as well, earned from completing "Madden Challenges" during gameplay (4 points for sacking the QB, 12 points for running back a kickoff for a touchdown, 6 points for a 300-yard passing game with one player, etc.). The crisp presentation of Madden 2004 is one of its best features.
Overall, Madden 2004 is deeper, more controllable, and more appealing than ever before. For the very first time, I feel as if I have true power over my team, and I'm the one that determines exactly how my team performs. Outside circumstances that can be outrageously frustrating will get to me, but for the most part, everything falls into place nicely. There are four difficulty levels, but even those can be tweaked by going into gameplay, custom gameplay, and AI options, moving the bars left and right in the categories of QB Accuracy, Break Tackle, Interception ability, etc. Don't completely disregard those programming issues, because anyone who plays often enough will see them, but you need to see this game for what it is: a fantastic football simulator.