Every year Madden comes back with a fresh new take on the sport and every year we're treated with an innovation of some sort that enhances the football experience. For the most part, this trend has continued throughout the years, hence why Madden is a million seller despite stiff competition from the NFL 2K series and its bargain price (which ceases to exist now thanks to EA's acquisition of the NFL license). With the competition gone and the next generation drawing ever so near, EA Sports has gotten lazy - or rather, decided to experiment with its beloved franchise.
The latest entry, Madden 06, is home to a number of additions that fall into that "looked better on paper" category, with the most notable feature-gone-awry being the QB Vision, which I'll get to shortly.
I'll give credit to EA for managing to pump out a solid grid-iron experience every year for the past decade, but we all knew it would happen - the series would eventually fumble (There, I've reached my one-clichèd-pun-per-review quota). Don't get me wrong, Madden is Madden and will always be a quality football franchise, but if there were one year you absolutely had to skip out on, it would have to be 2006.
Instead of focusing on its defence, EA chose to concentrate on improving Madden's offensive game - more specifically - the passing game, which has been left relatively untouched because, and I swore I would never use this clichè in a review, if it aint broke, don't fix it. Well, if the passing game wasn't broke before, with the inclusion of QB Vision, it sure is now.
'...as soon as you move the vision cone over to an open receiver, the defence will quickly scramble over to that player in an attempt to intercept the football ...'
The QB Vision works like this: As soon as the ball is snapped, a vision cone will appear over the field, which you can move towards any receiver with the right analogue stick. Then toss the ball and pray that the defence hasn't read your play already. The problem here is that as soon as you move the vision cone over to an open receiver, the defence will quickly scramble over to that player in an attempt to intercept the football, leaving you with only a few options. Option 1: Toss the ball to a player outside of the vision cone, causing either an interception, or the most frequent scenario, an overthrown ball (and when I mean overthrown, I mean nowhere near the receiver). Option 2: flick the analogue stick left and right to move the cone around and confuse the defence before passing to the receiver to make the play. Option 3: simply turn off the QB Vision. However, with the QB Vision turned off, you're basically playing Madden 05, so why bother with 06's Â£39.99 price tag when you can get 05 for half the price?
The QB Vision is also a problem during certain plays, for example: draw plays. The vision cone will always be facing straight ahead after the snap giving the defence the obvious signal to rush the QB for an easy sack. I understand the realistic purpose of this new feature but it just doesn't work here. It only serves to make passing more difficult, and hinders Madden's offensive game rather than enhance it. Add all of that up plus the absurd time it takes to execute a play (especially on the higher difficulty settings) and you've got yourself one heck of a frustrating football experience.
On the upside, EA has included a few other features worthy enough to be in a Madden title, most notably the truck stick (think hit stick but for offensive running), the smart-route system, and precision passing. The latter has been featured, to a lesser extent in previous Maddens, but this time the player has more control over the ball. By using the analogue stick, you can direct the ball to the front, back, left, or right of the receiver during a play and when used properly can produce some serious game winning plays.
The smart-route system is another feature that, quite frankly, I'm surprised has made its debut so late in Madden's franchise history. Basically if you're about to make a play and you need the extra few yards for a first down, you can turn the smart-route system on and your receiver will change his route to cover those extra yards, thus netting a first down.
Unfortunately that's about it for new gameplay features, as Madden 06 remains practically identical to the previous year's efforts, and not just in gameplay either. Player animations have been recycled, the graphics, while impressive, haven't changed one bit, and Madden's presentation still lacks any flair, especially when compared to last season's NFL 2K5.
Still, Madden 06 manages to shine with its robust franchise mode and the all-new superstar mode that lets players go from zero to hero by living the life of an NFL all-star. In this mode you can create your player and begin as an every day Joe Shmoe, living in a cubicle-sized flat with little-to-no money. The goal is to gain endorsements and movie deals (since when did NFL players get lead roles in summer blockbusters???), while participating in various tests to determine your player's stats. You'll even be able to choose your own parents, which in the end will have a profound effect on your player's overall performance. For instance, if you pick a father with a high awareness stat, you'll gain a bonus to your QB Vision. Eventually you'll be living comfortably in your mansion with enough money to purchase a country or two, while enjoying the spotlight as the NFL's most sought after player.
Superstar mode is more of a nice distraction than anything. Though it's deep and fun for the most part, once the initial 'wow' factor is gone it gets a little dry and you'll find yourself back to franchise mode in no time. Speaking of franchise mode, not much has changed there either, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Madden has always had one of the more fleshed out franchise modes in any sports title and this year continues the trend. Though franchise mode doesn't offer anything really new and exciting, it still contains all of the mini games from last year as well as the create-a-fan mode and Tony Bruno's radio show (with only one or two new callers unfortunately).
With no online play to be found and only minor improvements in gameplay, 06 seems like a step backwards from previous years - which is something of a surprise considering the series' stellar track record. However, despite all of its flaws, despite the fact that the developers clearly all went on vacation at the time of its creation, Madden 06 is still a well-rounded football experience worth a second glance.