Those of us who have been playing games for longer than the majority may have become a little jaded with respect to the industry's placeholder franchises. We have often suffered from shelling out for games that turn out to be little more than a roster update of the previous year's game. Just a couple of years ago you could find people walking away from sports video games for good. Unfortunately this made little impact on the likes of EA, as they could recruit new up and coming gamers as fast as they lost those at the more mature end.
However, last year saw the arrival of some proper competition for EA Sports. 2K showed that they could deliver a game that, whilst not fully fleshed out or well licensed, was competent, enjoyable and ultimately an in-store success. Market forces proved their worth as EA could do nothing but respond.
This year we have another Madden release, but now in an atmosphere where it is not a foregone conclusion that it will succeed. Because of this, the EA Sports team appear to be trying to discover what made their games so popular all those years ago. We can imagine their teams entering darkened rooms, being handed strange three button controllers and going head-to-head on the Megadrive's John Madden Football. This was before the likes of real team rosters and player stats, 3D player models or proper commentary voice-work. Before the franchise was more famous than the commentator. Before they dropped the 'John' from the title. But this old game had the spark that proved console 'football' could be not only entertaining, but something of a sport in its own right.
The result of all this head scratching is a real return to form for the Madden franchise. Being from the other side of the pond, I hadn't picked up too many Madden games since those heady Megadrive days. But I quickly found the years roll away as I was hooked back into the action. Once I had reminded myself of the language and pacing of the game (so alien to us soccer lovers) things started to click back into place for me. After a few hours I was glad I had made the effort to investigate the game further.
There has been a substantial effort by EA to return to the simplicity of the earlier editions in the series. With all the extra options and plays, things had moved away from those intense one on one set pieces that would develop over an evening's play. The cunning employed as you tried to out-fox your opponent. To this end they have introduced a clever way of helping the player make sense of the on-screen action. They place icons over different types of players so you can put them to their best use during the run of play. Different icons are used for different types of players. You can quickly identify whether you are throwing to a 'possession' or 'big-play' receiver, or whether you are controlling a 'strong-arm' or 'accurate' quarterback, or 'press-coverage' or 'shutdown' quarterback.
This 'weapons system' (as it is called) really does take the game back towards a tactical battle rather than all-out brawling. Careful attention enables you to build a much more detailed picture of the on field set-up. Your interactions and decisions take on an almost chess-like quality as you edge your way through a particular play. Unfortunately, this innovation has been targeted at the high definition consoles and the related artwork of the icons suffers when rendered on the PS2's standard definition output. It's a shame that a set of lower resolution icons weren't designed for the older consoles as this minor investment would have turned what is an interesting feature, into something really great.
The innovations don't stop here, however. The PS2 controls have also had something of a rework. Again the feel is something of simplifying access to the advanced features we are used to in Madden, but previously have only been taken advantage of by the more advanced players. A simple button press now enables you to focus your defense on a particular receiver. The second analogue stick also simplifies control of tackles; a simple mechanism lets you specify where your tackle lands. Choose to hit high and you have a chance of knocking the ball free, whilst hitting low gives you better odds of bringing the player down. Apart from these innovations the controls are happily kept familiar and follow the same pattern as previous Maddens.
As seems obligatory these days, and probably in lue of the success of last year's Wii version of Madden, EA has provided a slew of mini games. These provide ample distraction from the main game particularly if you don't have the time or inclination to play a full game of football. This being Madden, the games are all painted with a football theme, though in situations that range from the ridiculous to the bizarre. The fantasy challenge game was one of our favourites. This challenges you to build a dream team without needing to worry about the ins and outs of contracts, injuries and the like. Once you are all set up you play through a Blitz: The League style affair in which you work your way through a four-tier league.
The main game provides all the usual modes and options that have become staple fare of Madden over the years. It is good to see the inclusion of an online mode for the PS2 although we still await the provision of proper online leagues. The online experience was pretty solid, but as in previous outings on the PS2 you still need to account for lag issues when performing set-piece timing-critical plays.
Graphically, we are all pretty familiar what Madden looks like on the PS2. This time around is much the same. There really isn't much more that can be squeezed out of the little old PS2 performance wise. Still, that is no excuse for the still oddly squat player models. That said, everything is pretty solid, and one can only imagine the smugness of the PS2 team's avoidance of the frame rate issues that have dogged their older sibling on the PS3. It just goes to show that graphics are still not the most important aspect of a sports game, as long as they don't get in the way of gameplay.
The game is backed by the same quality soundtrack and voice work as seen in previous Maddens. And again, if it's not broke why fix it, is the order of the day. EA has refined this aspect of the game over the years and their steady hand in delivering solid voice work from TV presenter types is telling.
Overall, this is a confident game from EA that makes some good moves in all the right directions. Whilst this is somewhat hamstrung by the PS2's limited power, one would suspect that this bodes well for the 360 and PS3 version. It will also be interesting to see how the Wii version compares both in terms of performance and features. If you already own previous Maddens then take a moment to think before buying this one, if you haven't dipped your toe into the Madden lagoon for a while then now is as good a time as any to take the plunge.