Madden 08 Review
In the world of gaming, there are always some constants. Any game featuring Mario, Luigi or the other Mushroom Kingdom characters is probably going to sell exceptionally well and have an absolutely gigantic fan base. You're going to see at least a few shooters set in either the World War II time frame or the Vietnam timeframe. Finally, each year is going to see a huge crop of shitty movie tie-ins while one or two manage to set themselves apart from the pack.
Of course, for sports gamers, there is a whole different set of constants, most of which revolve around the release of the new Madden game that year. A month or so before release, the year's NCAA game hits the streets. Football gamers across the country pick it up and play it, getting a whole draft class ready, on top of a few campus legends for Madden's Superstar mode. Then, sometimes around mid-August, the big daddy hits the streets. In a day called “Maddenoliday” in commercials, gamers flock to their local store of choice and pick up the latest iteration in one of gaming's longest running series, John Madden Football.
This year's Madden has seen, arguably, the biggest change in gameplay in the past five or six years. Playmaker controls were a neat addition a few years back, as was the passing cone. But this year's changes have already managed to polarize gamers. On one side of the ball, you have the Madden faithfuls. These guys are likely casual fans of the Madden series and pick up the game to play with their buddies, not doing much else. On the other side, you have hardcore football sim types – it is that crowd that this year's entry in the series appeals to the most.
Sure, you could make an argument that the much-ballyhooed “weapon” system makes the game more accessible to casual gamers. For those that are unfamiliar, this system shows areas where a player may be extra-talented and, in some cases, gives them a special ability. Take a smart quarterback like Peyton Manning. As the defense calls plays, a meter under his feet (these meters can be toggled to not show but still affect gameplay) will fill up, eventually allowing him to see the exact play that the defense is running. The impact this can have on the game is obvious – if the player finds out that a slow corner is covering a fast receiver, Peyton can chuck the ball his way and watch him run a long way, likely for a touchdown. Other weapons, like Big Foot Kicker seem to just say that a kicker has a really high kick power rating – in my experience (and that of others), these kickers kick just as well if the weapon system is on or off.
Of course, the whole kicking mechanic exposes one of the game's long-time flaws – special teams is still not all that important in the game. Take kickoffs, for instance. In the NFL, kickers don't always boot the kick out of the end zone and you often see return men like Devin Hester run the ball back, sometimes for a touchdown. Not here, though! In Madden 08 (like many of the past games in the series), special teams plays are near worthless. Your blockers don't know how to form a wedge to help break your runner free, the balls often fly out of the end zone and, in general, it just doesn't feel right at all. For a game that continually claims that “If It's In the Game, It's In the Game”, Madden 08 is still missing what can be an important part of every football game.
However, EA did put in a lot of time in other areas of the game. As I mentioned before, the weapons system isn't the biggest change in this year's game – it is the actual way the game plays. In years past, Madden had a somewhat arcadey feel to it. You could bomb out passes to fast receivers and, more often than not, see them caught and run in for a touchdown. This led to all of a couple of teams being played when some buddies got together for a game of Madden, and upset some fans of the series.
Well, in the 08 edition, this is no more. Now, you have to really get into the mind of an NFL coach to have any real success with the game. Where the long bomb to Chad Johnson before may have been a damn near guaranteed touchdown, it is far from it anymore. Defensive backs, especially on the higher difficulties, are damn smart. They'll follow a receiver's route damn near perfectly and, if you make one little mistake, will pick that pass off like nobody's business. Now, you have to be smarter than the backs – hit your receiver when he is about to take the break on his route and you'll quite possibly fool the D-back. Use short routes more often than long ones. Establish a running game and wear out the other team before you try to go for a big play. Lead your receivers if you see that they might be able to break away for the ball. I could go on all day about the ways that the game is smarter and requires you to also play smarter this year, but there's only so much space I can take up with this part of the review.
While I'm not sure if this is actually the computer AI or me just reading too much into something, I had a really neat experience with the game. Being from North Carolina, I often play as the Panthers in a franchise. You know, that front line with Julius Peppers on it? Yeah, I love it. Anyways, I was playing against the Saints, who had Drew Brees at Quarterback. Well, on one of the game's early plays, I got through the line and managed to lay a big hit on Brees as he was trying to find someone to pass to. Well, he couldn't and he went down – hard. Throughout the rest of the game, if I got anywhere near him, he would throw the ball out there, often to one of my defenders. Yeah, I intercepted the ball four times that game. This isn't the only time I've seen something like this happen, either. I've had quarterbacks throw an interception and then just start taking hits when they don't see anyone open, too. While I'm not sure if this is something coded into the game or just a coincedence, I'm really hoping that it is a coded part of the AI – I really enjoy that my playstyle seems to affect the way the AI reacts to the game.
This smarter play does cause problems in other areas, though. Take, for instance, the superstar mode. If you're controlling the QB, the game is still a blast. You have some control over the plays that are called via audibles and can work on making the smart throws. However, if you're playing as any other position, you'll likely be cursing at your quarter back way too often as he throws five or six picks per game, if not more. Don't get me wrong – I like the idea that, while playing in Superstar mode, I don't have control over my team. It really gets me into the game and makes me feel like I'm my player. However, when you consider that every single game I played in Superstar mode saw the QB throwing tons of picks or the running back dropping the ball frequently, I was a bit disappointed. Sure, I expect a rookie QB to throw a ton of interceptions or a 4th string running back to fumble the ball quite a bit. However, I don't expect to see Peyton Manning throw a half dozen interceptions in a game or see LaDanian Tomlinsin fumble the ball three times in a quarter. Sure, I get that players can have a bad day sometimes, but this is a little insane.
Though I do think I've found the reason for all the computer controlled running back fumbles – you have to actually use the cover ball option this year. In years past, fumbles weren't a common occurrence. You could watch some people play the game and mash the spin and juke buttons with a running back and still not put the ball on the ground. Not this year, though – try to spin and juke through a group of defenders and all that's going to happen will be the ball on the ground and a potentially hurt running back. Instead, though, you can cover the ball up and run through this group and, unless you are hit hard multiple times, you'll probably hold on to the ball. Yes, it seems that a ton of things go into figuring out just how well you hold onto the ball – if the incoming defender tries to strip it, how many times you are hit (if I covered the ball up, I only seemed to drop it if I was hit a few times and didn't go down), and how hard you are hit. While there is no way to scientifically confirm or deny the truth of this, it is easy to realize that covering the ball is essential this year.
All of this plays into one particular area that I've mentioned before – this year's game will appeal more to those after a true simulation of what you see on the TV on Sundays. Sometimes, players will just seem to be having a bad day. While a person after a more casual experience would get frustrated with the game, they need to get into the mind of an NFL coach. If your star receiver is repeatedly dropping the ball, what do you do? Bench him for a bit and bring in a backup, maybe. You could also just not throw the ball his way for a bit. Maybe your quarterback is having a bad day – you could pull a Carolina Panthers and just not use the QB for the majority of the game, instead relying on direct snaps to the running back. What I'm trying to say is that, in the world of football, there are a lot of ways to handle problems that may elude the more casual fans at first.
But that's enough on that – it is time to hit on something else that many fans have been wanting and finally get on the series' third entry in the next-gen world. The graphics in this year's edition of Madden actually run at 60 frames per second as opposed to the 30 frames of 06 and 07 (this doesn't hold true for the PS3 version). While it might not sound that big at first, it is actually a huge difference in the way the game plays. With the new animation system in the game this year, being able to play at 60 FPS is absolutely incredible.
The animations are another big feature everyone has been talking about. In the past, when an animation started, it played through until the end. This meant tat if you were being tackled, nobody running into you affected anything. Now, if a second defender runs into you, he'll join in the tackle. You can potentially knock someone off of you, or any other variety of fun stuff. Also affected is the hit stick – you can go for a tackle high or low with it now, with different animation results based on where the runner is when you go for the tackle. The new animation system also allows for a variety of catches and some neat slipping animations in the rain. In all, this new system really helps to make Madden 08 feel like real football and less like a video game.
In the end, Madden 08 is probably the most realistic feeling football experience ever, for better or for worse. If you're after another iteration of the series that feels and plays like the past ones with some minor tweaks, Madden 08 is going to feel foreign to you – you'll need to toy with the sliders to get a more familiar experience. If, however, you're looking for a realistic simulation of NFL football with everything that comes with it, take a look at this year's Madden 08. You have to think smarter, play smarter and try a heck of a lot harder than you have in years past. You have to protect the ball, you have to get into the mind of your quarterback and throw the ball when you should and, really, just act like an NFL coach actually would in situations that call for it. Sure, the game does have a few sporadic bugs that others have found (I never ran into them in extensive playing), and the special teams play is still off. The thing is, this version of Madden still stands out as the best simulation of that game that you can watch on TV on Sundays.
And that, my football fanatic readers, is a good thing. It is a good thing indeed.