Madden NFL 2005 Review
Frequent readers of "The Sports Guy" on ESPN.com's Page 2 no doubt remember his recent plea with society to make the annual release of Madden a national holiday. It sounds silly, but take a look at how many twenty-somethings stayed up too late the day it was released and were unproductive at work the next day, add them with the ones that didn't even bother going to work, and he just might be on to something. The unquestioned king of the gridiron (at least from a sales standpoint), EA's challenge with Madden is to keep it fresh, fix money plays from the year before, and give gamers a reason to shell out $50 every August. This year, most of the changes are on the defensive side of the ball, and there have been several improvements made to the game's franchise mode. The defensive changes work well, but people that don't fiddle with their D too much and those that don't play the franchise mode might be left scratching their heads wondering exactly what EA did to improve this year's iteration of Madden.
In Madden 2005 there are a variety of play modes, including: quick play, mini-games, online, franchise, and some practice modes. The mini-games are the two-minute drill where you get points based on completions, yards, and how many times you can score, and a running drill game. In the running game you control a linebacker or a DB and take on the computer, trying to keep him and his one blocker from putting the ball in the endzone. Points are awarded for user tackles, and the runner gets points for touchdowns, long runs, and big points for consecutive touchdowns. After the computer has taken its turn, you've got two minutes to score as many points as you can. It's very simple, but it's a great training tool and lots of fun to boot.
This year the franchise mode adds additional focus to the off the field life of your team. A feature called "Storyline Central" lets you browse local and national papers to see what's happening around the league, and you can even check your pda for emails from players, coaches, agents and the press. This feature is first used in training camp when you've got two players battling for a starting position. You might get an email from an agent, imploring you to start his guy, and you might get a message from one of the players just thanking you for giving him a shot. You can even check a "position battles" page and see exactly where the heated contests are taking place. This shows player ratings as well as their performance for the pre-season. The pre-season numbers can often be a bit skewed, however, as your starting defense seems to play the entire game, while you first-string offensive guys play only a half. This may be because the computer plays its starters the whole game on offense, but it's a little odd regardless. Once the regular season begins players will gripe about playing time, the owner will chide you after a loss and the scouts will report in with semi-weekly player progressions.
The other addition to Storyline Central is radio host Tony Bruno, a real life radio host with a fake show that plays in the background between games. Tony will interview real players and coaches, talk about things in your league in vague detail and take phone calls from horrible callers. The main problem, other than having to listen to fake idiot callers is that the news isn't that interesting, and you're only half listening to what Tony is saying. Once you realize that he's got very little to add, you'll probably want to just switch over and listen to the game's music. After seeing ESPN 2K5's amazing halftime show and weekly Sportscenter, the radio show pales in comparison.
On the field, at least on the offensive side of the ball, things are largely unchanged. You can now switch the direction of a play by flipping the right analog stick left or right, which allows you to exploit a stacked defense without notifying them of your plans by putting a guy in motion. With the computer's run defense so tough this year, it's a necessity to learn how to read a defense and figure out which players are going to go back in coverage and which ones are going to blitz and ruin your play. Another key addition is the option route on some pass plays. The option route is run by one receiver, and based on what coverage he receives, he'll adjust his route. For example, your receiver is set to run ten yards, turn and catch the ball, but he's single covered with no safety help, so instead he'll head for the endzone. If you're a competent quarterback, the adjustments aren't hard to deal with and often result in big plays, but if you're in a short-yardage situation and timing is key on a play, it's often times not worth the risk of looking to throw to a guy that's not where you expect him to be.
Since Raven's linebacker Ray Lewis is this year's cover boy, it's no surprise that the defense has received the most noticeable changes in this year's Madden. You can now control individual assignments for every player, you can double team receivers, patrol a zone, press at the line with a db, or send one of your linebackers in on a blitz. These tactics are somewhat effective against the computer, but they can be absolutely lethal when playing another person, especially one inexperienced with Madden. The turnover ratio seems to have been improved as your computer players will intercept passes more regularly and they'll pursue fumbles like their lives depend on it. Overall the improvements add a lot of depth to playing defense, but players that stick to the basic levels aren't likely to ever take full advantage of them.
Here's a quick list of my gripes with the gameplay in Madden 2005. The game's challenge system is still flawed in that plays that are clearly meant to be called one way are often called another, regardless of what the video shows. You'd better be quick on the fair catch button this year as the computer will absolutely blow up the punt returner if he catches the ball with them nearby. I gave up 3 touchdowns in a game, all on fumbled punts. That's never happened in the history of the NFL, and according to John Madden's logic, it shouldn't happen in his game. Run blocking seems to be a lot worse this year. Perhaps it's in response to people running at will in the past, but I'm no rookie and when I average 2.7 ypc on 39 carries, something's a bit off kilter.
Madden 2005's online play has been spruced up with league support this year, which is great if you've got a good group of people to play with - not so great when you join some GameFaqs league that peters out halfway through the season. As usual, the online experience is smooth and lag free, provided both players have decent connections.
When compared to Sega's ESPN NFL 2K5's gorgeous visuals, Madden is clearly second place. Though certain details in the players have been improved in close-ups, the game's default view looks bland and dated. Weather effects are also sub-par, particularly the rain. I played an entire series, oblivious to the fact that it was raining, before Al Michaels pointed out that I may have dropped a ball due to the precipitation. Sure you can create your own fans this year, but perhaps a little more time prettying up the rest of the game would have been a better use of resources.
Al Michaels and John Madden are back in the booth this year, and like their NCAA 2005 counterparts, their commentary is largely unchanged. There are some new sayings this year, and the commentary does seem to flow better, but after hearing Al talk about ripping off John's "boom" line several times a day for two weeks I'm convinced there could have been a little more dialog added this year. The game's stadium music and crowd chants appear to be unchanged, which sticks out like a sore thumb after the great experience of customizing your own music on the Xbox's version of ESPN NFL 2K5. Sure you can't rip your own music on the PS2 yet, but if where there's an HDD and a CD player, there's a way. It would have been nice if EA had figured out that way. The obligatory EA Trax are back, and while it's still a matter of taste when it comes to liking the songs or not, the bands are of a high quality this year and the variety of genres and styles included is nice.
Most of the problems pointed out with this year's game are just nit-picking. It's a fine effort, and the additions to the game generally improved the overall experience - but it just doesn't feel like enough. Hardcore Madden fans, the ones that play the game daily, year round, will likely be happy with the changes and not miss anything new, because the game never gets old for them. Other people, the ones that buy the game every year but get burnt out after a few months will probably find that this year's game gets old a lot sooner than last year's. For your reference, there's a special collector's edition of Madden 2005 this year, and it's got a couple of classic Madden games from the Genesis and PSone era, but it sold out the first day and I was unable to get my hands on it to review.
9/9/2004 Aaron Thomas