I'm often asked why I like football so much. I always answer the same thing: math. Football is a game based on numbers and statistics. In hockey, a simple pass from Sakic to Tanguay will be considered inconsequential unless a goal is scored. This doesn't just stem from the fact that hundreds of passes are made in each hockey game, but also that so many games are played in each season. One little pass becomes a footnote in history. In football however, every action takes on a different meaning when you consider that there are only 16 regular season games and that each one lasts but 60 minutes. Add to that the running clock in the huddle and the defense and offense sharing the field and it's staggering to note that Peyton Manning threw for 4557 yards (and 49 TDs) in 2004. Out of 497 attempts, he connected 336 times. This means that every time he did connect, someone should've averaged almost 14 yards and every 7 throws was a TD. If that starts to seem amazing, consider that most offenses in the NFL split their run/pass ratios at around 40/60 percent. And add to that that every offense runs approximately 60 plays per game, only 40 of which are passes. So to repeat this feat, you not only have to consider the averages and odds, but mind the numbers every time you get the ball. To me, this is what makes football great (and some superhuman athleticism too!) and Madden 06 manages to capture all these numbers in a way that's never been done before.
Madden 06 for the Xbox 360 is not a port in any way, shape or form, of the console editions of Madden. Everything from the game engine, the animations, the audio and the graphics has been rebuilt from the ground up. This is both Madden 06's greatest asset and cause for its biggest disappointments. Due to all the rebuilding, Madden 06 drops a considerable amount of tried-and-true Madden modes and features by the wayside and in so doing, feels more like a work in progress than a true Madden entry. Gone are the mini camps, the player cards, the storyline central, the Tony Bruno Show, the Superstar mode, the play challenges, the yellow flags, the price of popcorn, the deep career mode, the cheerleaders, the alternate jerseys, the historical teams, the create-a-player, the create-a-fan, the Madden points system, the online trophies, the complete defensive tweaking at the line, the easy right-thumbstick hot route assignments, the TV style presentation, Al Michaels and John Madden, split-screen replays, the owner's box, the stadium building and remodeling, the create-a-team, the player import from NCAA Football 06 or from NFL Street 2, the mentors, the media, your agent, rushing attack modes, tournaments, practice mode, two minute drills, Football 101 with John, situation plays, etc. In short, everything that we were taking for granted while complaining that the series never made any major changes is gone.
What this Madden entry gives us though, as a first step into the next generation of sports games, is amazing graphics, perfectly balanced and realistic gameplay, improved controls and stat tracking the likes of which has never been seen before. Is that enough incentive for longtime fans to make a purchase? Is it enough to make them stop playing Madden NFL 06 on their old Xbox?
The first thing that anyone will notice about Madden 06 is how amazing it looks. Yes, this is what all next generation games seem to bring forward, but Madden trumps them all. All the players, coaches, stadiums and even the head referee are represented in painstakingly perfect detail. Gillette Stadium has its 3 Superbowl Pennants (each original and authentic) and the soccer markings on the field from Saturday's game. Each QB has the right gear on, the players sweat, the uniforms wear, the sky looks amazing, weather actually affects gameplay, arm hair and facial hair is recreated perfectly. Every face looks right. Every pair of eyes follows the action. The replays are mind-boggling. Madden is the best looking game ever made and the work that has gone into scanning the players (or rendering them in a few cases) and taking thousands of pictures of stadiums pays off. If the graphics aren't upgraded again for a while, this game will still look accurate.
But for all the glitz and beauty the graphics bring forward, the game doesn't use them to its potential. The first time a game begins and you see player introductions, you'll be in heaven. The tenth and twentieth time, you'll skip them. The problem with this Madden is that it has so much potential for a free-roaming camera with its graphics' engine, and instead forces us to sit and watch the same animations over and over and over and over again. Every time the opposing team has the ball, I know I'm getting a close up of their QB. And right before that, I know I'm going to get a pan of my defense as they stand waiting. It's nice and all, but the presentation is so rudimentary that even non-football fans point it out. And that's a problem.
This Madden seems to want to take the action to the field and distance itself from a TV-type presentation. Gone are the split-screen replays and overlays. Gone are the color commentators; I miss Al and John too (is that so wrong? The game bears his name!). Gone is the score in the top of the screen with the clear indication of yardage needed. Gone is the yellow dot that told you a penalty was on the play. Instead, Madden 06 wants to keep it all on the field and gritty. The camera for the action have been changed, though not drastically, to convey more of a sense of length to the field and in the process makes you feel more like you're part of the bubble instead of watching it from above. Now you have a Public Address announcer echoing your plays. You also have a commentator that seems to be talking to the spectators as opposed to you. These are all nice and fine addition/changes, but the overall effect is that the pizzazz seems gone. Make a great play; make an average play, the reaction all-around is the same. The game doesn't seem to highlight key moments or receptions. Everything is subdued and without magic. Yes, the graphics are amazing, but the bigger than life sense of being in a football game is nowhere to be seen.
In the audio department, John and Al are gone. Yes, John can still be heard chiming in on the Ask Madden play-calling screen, but it seems triter than anything. This is John Madden's game. For better or worse, I want him in it. I wouldn't be happy with a Tiger Woods PGA Tour game if Tiger wasn't the star, now would I? As mentioned, there's now a PA announcer and a "commentator" for the action. This isn't a bad set-up, but I found myself yelling "boom" and "too much mustard" and "not enough pop" and "a little less touch" at the screen out of auditory habit. What the commentator does bring is a little sense of levity to the proceedings since he'll refer to players by various names and make a few choice comments here and there that are truly funny. He doesn't always follow the action though and let's be honest; the inclusion feels a little tacked-on and unpolished. Bring Al and John back.
What NFL 06 does get points for is the inclusion of NFL historical themes and archived material. Hearing these songs will pull you right into the fray of the action from time to time. Also, having over 20 of the QBs calling out their own numbers and such is a great touch of authenticity. Now when you hear Brady calling an audible, it's actually Brady calling it. Very nice.
As any real football fan knows though, graphics, presentation and audio will only fool any die-hard for so long. It all really comes down to what's under the hood and in this respect, Madden 06 shines. I'll admit that I was turned off initially by the gameplay, mostly due to the lack of "magic" and presentation. But after a few games, there's something about this version that feels very Madden and also very, very right. The new animations and controls seem to convey a much smoother game of football and the running game has never felt so right; with excellent blocking, even when you're running it up the gut. The biggest change, for veterans of the series anyway, is the new layout for the controls. Though not overly different, there are enough changes to make the game feel and play differently. It doesn't help matters that EA is trying to break records by making their manuals as short and unhelpful as possible.
The biggest change comes from the sprint button which has now been intelligently (and intuitively) assigned to the right trigger. This just seems to simplify things, especially when scrambling with your QB, and allows you so much more freedom. The typical passing interface is still intact and you "can" still use QB vision if you are so inclined (it's actually better implemented here than in the Xbox version). Running still allows you to dive, spin, cover up, stiff arm, juke and even use the truck stick to plow through defenders. Defensively, not much has changed either, you still have the Hit Stick, the ability to commit your defense to the run or pass in the first few seconds of the post-snap, intercept, strip ball, strafe, swat and diving tackles. What's missing defensively are the gang tackles that were so prevalent in Madden on Xbox.
Most of the major changes happen before the snap takes place. Defensively, many adjustments to the lines have been removed and also the ability to use defensive Playmaker, but you can still initiate defensive line shifts, LB shifts, coverage audibles and shade safeties. Offensively, you can still flip plays, send players in motion and call hot routes. Unfortunately, calling a hot route isn't as fun as it used to be. You now have to cycle through your eligible receivers (unless he's your go-to guy) using the B button, then initiate a hot route call using the X button and then use the right thumbstick to select your pattern. Madden 06 does offer a nice little picture in picture audible animation which is neat, but you can't help but feel that things are taking a little too long to resolve.
One of the most welcomed additions to Madden 06 is the new play-calling interface. You now have, on both sides of the ball, six different ways to call your plays, all with the appropriate stats for each. You can now call plays by Formation (I formation, from the gun, etc), by asking John Madden, by Play Type (quick throw, handoff, shotgun yardage, etc), by asking your Coach, by Key Player (which is possibly the best new method) or by scanning you last five plays. The play-calling screens are all very clean, easy to navigate and read and just not as intimidating as previous Madden (or NFL 2K) screens of past years. It's also easy for non-fans to feel like they're in control of what's happening in the huddle.
Other new additions to the gameplay department are the new kicking meter (which plays a lot like the 2K series now) but also adds a second of delay before you can switch players on defense. The game also seems to have progressively better AI than any previous Madden effort and you actually feel that the CPU players are learning from you as you play. You actually feel like you have to script your plays a bit, establish the run and then blow them out with a long-ball. At the very least, don't expect to take Vick and run him every play because the AI will catch on quickly and shut you down. On the highest difficulty levels, Madden's AI just plain becomes scary. But it's still a thing of beauty to watch (although a little frustrating).
Madden 06 doesn't offer too many modes of play, which hurts it terribly. While you can still play a single match, the only other option (besides Live which only offers quick and custom matches - no mini games or tournaments) is franchise mode. This mode feels a little bare-bones at first since it just throws you into week one of the pre-season, but once you've completed your game, you see what makes this franchise mode so good; stats, stats and more stats. Every stat you could ever want to keep track of, whether it involves you personally, a coach, a team, a game played or a player will be tracked over the course of 30 seasons. As a fan of numbers, this was more worthwhile to me than setting the price of popcorn or having a fan appreciation day, but this won't be the case with everyone. While you still have control over your rosters, depth charts, coaching strategies, etc, this franchise mode never comes close to anything we're used to on the Xbox. The inclusion of History Books was a nice little touch, but on the flip side, the fact that there is Player Moral in the game and it seems to really have no effect on anything, is a real downer.
Scoring Madden 06 for the 360 is quite the task when all is said and done. Its benchmark quality pretty, plays smoothly and realistically and keeps track of so many little stats that real fans will just love. On the flip-side, the presentation is mediocre both in the audio and video departments, the modes are slim pickings, there's hardly any replay value for those who couldn't care less about numbers, the online modes basically just offer head to head matches, a lot of the little things we expect from Madden have been removed and the game really feels like an incomplete effort. Regardless of the score, no football fan should be parting with his old Madden 06 game for the Xbox as it still stands head and shoulders above this version. Die-hard fans should give this one a try though as it really shines in the few key areas that really matter. Madden 06 is worth a look for its graphics alone, but Madden 07 will need to re-introduce many of the modes we love if it plans on regaining its sports title crown. And please bring back Al and John.