SAME OLD SAME OLD: You’ve played this one before.
With its virtual monopoly on video-game football in place, the Madden franchise has become less essential with each successive iteration. The games haven’t necessarily been worse from year to year, they just play, look, and feel mostly the same, save for updated rosters and player ratings. Yet it’s hard to blame EA for its lack of ambition: Madden 07 sold 1.8 million copies on the PS2. Madden 08 may not buck the trend on sales (even with all the other big draws releasing this fall), but, once again, it fails to improve significantly on its predecessor. Hell, if you haven’t made the jump to a next-gen console, you probably won’t notice much difference between this version and the one you were playing back in 2005.
Yes, if you just want to play a quick game of football, Madden is fun, particularly if you don’t mind putting up with some occasional silliness. You still have to put up with wonky AI, useless commentary (would EA dare to curtail further Madden’s participation in the game which bears his name?), and the unsightly “QB cone” of vision. Madden 08, moreover, has incorporated one of the most obnoxious things commentators do on-air: relaying their conversations with coaches and players to the viewers.
The new on-field feature is the “weapons” system, which allows players with a particular skill to use it to their advantage, like making an amazing catch or blowing by a speedy defensive back. There’s also the new “read and react” system, which allows you to detect certain opposing players’ skills and adjust your game plan. Nice, but not exactly groundbreaking. And could we have teams behave like real football teams at the ends of quarters? Why do I have to keep calling plays when I’m up by 24 with 1:15 left? The play-call screen shouldn’t even come up with under 10 seconds to go until the fourth quarter, and only then if the score is close.
The problem for those who “just want to play a quick game of football” and maybe do a season or two with your favorite franchise (I’d imagine this title will have particular appeal to Atlanta Falcons fans, as video Mike Vick is free to play for them here) is that they still have to buy the whole game. Some might enjoy Franchise Mode, where you can set the prices of your concessions and build a new stadium. But it’s hard to imagine anyone deriving much joy out of Superstar mode, in which you compete in such events as “the bench press.” Hyping customizable championship rings on the back of the box as a new feature just shows how hard up for innovative ideas EA Sports is.
The logical solution would be for EA to halt the annual releases and instead offer downloadable roster and gameplay upgrades — particularly as we move toward the current generation of consoles and their on-line marketplaces. Brian Crecente of Kotaku posed that idea to EA producer David Ortiz and was met with a polite rebuff. Madden’s sales figures probably mean it won’t happen. But maybe EA could market two games: one that focuses on straight-up, frills-free NFL-licensed football (and be updated through downloadable content), and one that bears the Madden name and all the bells and whistles that signifies. As it stands, we’re playing a game that’s acceptable but hardly worthy of the attention it keeps getting every year. To say nothing of the price tag.