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PC Review - 'Madden 2004'

by GreyOoze on Sept. 15, 2003 @ 12:52 a.m. PDT

The latest installment in this long running football series from EA brings a ton of new features to the table, including franchise mode, playmaker control, and several options for custom teams. Yet the biggest question to ask about Madden 2004 is the same one we ask about it every year. Are the new additions enough to justify gamers purchasing a new version?

Genre: Sports
Developer: EA Sports
Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: August 12, 2003

Buy 'MADDEN NFL 2004': Xbox | GameCube | PlayStation 2

I remember the initial version of Madden for the Sega Genesis. The game seemed to cover every aspect of football, from the running and passing, to tackling and suffocating defense, everything about the game was covered. The game was also fun to play. The following year, EA released a sequel to Madden, again for the Genesis, and as fun as the initial version was, that second offering was even better, adding new features like individual player names, more animations and abilities, rating, stats, and plays. Despite the fact that the Sega Genesis, by today’s standards, is beyond primitive, those first two Madden games really helped usher in the gaming standards we are currently enjoying. New versions of the game brought jaw dropping graphics, amazing sound, and a presentation that was second to none.

It wasn’t long however before both the Madden series as well as EA Sports games in general began to receive a fair amount of criticism. Many players felt that Madden, along with the majority of EA Sports titles, sacrificed the realism and fundamentals of their chosen sport for the sake of flashy pyrotechnics and over the top play. While Madden looked good, it didn’t always play that way. Additionally, the AI was suspect, and with little practice could be easily exploited, with computer opponents rarely acting in character.

And so it has gone with Madden since then. Every year we are offered a new title, with a host of new features all proclaiming to make this newest version of Madden the best around, yet rarely addressing some of the games more fundamental issues.

For the most part however, this latest version, Madden 2004, seems to take things in many new and exciting directions. The new game offers a host of new features, including playmaker control, the ability to shift offensive and defensive formations on the fly, a much broader and more encompassing franchise mode, the ability to create your own teams and leagues much like Sierra’s old Front Page Sports stepchild, along with several other minor enhancements.

I want to start off with the playmaker control feature, as it stands out as being one of the bigger features of the game. Initially, this feature seemed little more than another method of calling an audible. Once you actually employ it however, the potential becomes immediately apparent. Playmaker control allows players to direct the action on the field after the ball is snapped, everything from directing a blocker, to changing a receivers route. When used in combination with the new audible and formation abilities, Madden now gives you more than enough options to avoid a busted play. Playmaker is incredibly well implemented within the game as well. It doesn’t usually allow for big plays, but seems instead to be designed as a preventive measure the player can use when faced with heavy pressure from a blitz or what have you. Playmaker is also usable on defense, where it is possible to shift your coverage when faced with a questionable look from the offense. The downside with playmaker control is that you need a gamepad with dual analog joysticks in order to use it. To be specific, a ten button gamepad with dual action joysticks, which is what the default control scheme is layed out on. The problem with this is that, well, there doesn’t seem to be too many options in this department for PC users. I was able to find gamepad’s with many of the variants, such as analog joysticks, two analogs but only eight buttons, and all of the other options in between. But nothing with dual sticks and ten buttons. Logitech supposedly does have a controller that falls directly into this category due out as we speak, and I believe their asking $20 for it, but I haven’t been able to find one in my area yet. I was able to finagle an old Saitek enough to at least see what playmaker is capable of, and that it was a worthy addition to the series. In any event, Madden 2004 has finally made me realize something I have dreaded for some time, that being that the old trusty Sidewinder has definitely fallen by the wayside. Call me cheap, but I loved it.

As far as gameplay goes, Madden 2004 has definitely tweaked some things as well. For starters, I have noticed that there doesn’t seem to be any guaranteed offensive plays, which is a switch. I’m by no means done looking, but after several games with different playbooks, I have yet to find a play that works every time, including last years little ten and post I used to throw to Troy Brown for an automatic first down. I would say that, based on what I have seen thus far, Madden 2004 now officially makes it a requirement to read the defense when passing. Throwing into coverage rarely achieves anything positive, and some thought is now required to be consistently effective. On the flip side, I was able to run the ball much more effectively with this version. Your mileage will vary depending on the team you play and how adept your offensive line is, but I was able to gain yards in game situations that would allow me to, and even against few defenses specifically designed to stop the run. I managed to beat a blitz against Baltimore using Kevin Faulk right up the middle and rambled seventy two yards to paydirt. Boy didn’t I think I was something.

But generally, the AI seems much improved, and in a lot of subtle ways. For instance, I find myself no longer getting away with running the same stuff over and over again. Those days are over. The tighter pass coverage actually makes you think a little more about who you’re going to pass the ball to, and I have actually gotten sacked while in the process of doing this. Boy is that a red faced, nostril flaring feeling. At the same time, I do have to say that I have been devising a method by which I can gain lucrative territory on the ground. It’s not always there, but I’m getting better at knowing when and where the computer will forget I have an offensive backfield and am able to exploit it. So it looks like after a few years of running just to break up the monotony and using the pass to win, I will be going back to running the ball for effect, which is the way I prefer it. Another notable area the computer seems much more adept at is its own play calling, which I used to be able to exploit at least three times a game. With Madden 2004, the computer has so far made decent play selection based on the current game situation. In one game against the Texans I was quickly up by three touchdowns, and suddenly their coming out with empty backfields and wide receivers everywhere. Every once and awhile however, they would use deceptive runs like draws and counters to try and throw me off.

Another great new addition to the series is a very well done franchise mode, where you select a team and are responsible for every facet of its business development. Everything from ticket prices, concessions, to fan happiness, it’s all there, and it’s fun as all get out. Keep the fans happy and they will continue to come to your games. Fail in this department, and you will lose money. The better you do with money, the better chance you will have of signing better players to your team. There are charts and graphs showing how your funds break down, and even a team of advisers to help you out. What’s more, you now have the option of creating your own leagues and teams, complete with uniform colors and logos. You simply select the colors you want, the play style of your team, where they play geographically, what their stadium looks like, and the computer will generate the names and stats for you. This hearkens back to the Front Page Sports days, and is something I really enjoy doing. Using this custom mode in conjunction with the franchise options is sure to be a lot of fun, and something that I have been waiting for a long time. It’s truly fun to play around with the real NFL teams, but everything gets a personal touch when you created it. I really like this aspect of the game, and it is the mode I will generally be playing in. I would say that I would like to see EA develop this part of the game further, but from what I have seen I can honestly tell you they seem to have all the bases covered. Both the franchise and custom team modes are remarkably robust and well done.

There is an online mode for the game, and obviously, online play. While I did experiment with this, and generally liked what I saw in terms of interface and presentation, I have to admit I have a slight beef with the fact that there is a fee involved with this service. I realize that the first month is free, and there is even something in the box proclaiming a way to get this service free for a year, but the sheer fact that it could cost money really turns me off. The game alone is $40, and I’ve already covered the notion that you’re going to need a specific, $20 controller to use all of the games features, not too mention the fact that you need a $1500 computer to play the thing on in the first place, with a fairly fast graphics card to boot. On top of all that, now it’s going to cost us if we want to play against other people. As if that wasn’t bad enough, if I’m not mistaken, the whole thing goes by the wayside once next years version comes out. That’s another $40 to get the new version, plus whatever fees are necessary to play that version online. With that little soapbox tantrum said, I do have to admit that playing online is a lot of fun with this game, and no doubt the sheer excitement of doing so will bring a lot of fans to it, regardless of the fee. I’m simply looking at it from a value standpoint, and the fact that as much as I like to play computer games, I like to do other things as well, like eat, pay the mortgage, and be able to own and maintain a decent automobile. Nothing major, just life.

As far as graphics go, Madden looks a lot like last years version, except for the stadiums, which all appear to have been redone and look really good. I have been to Gillette Stadium in Foxboro MA and can testify that the Madden version is dead on exact. Little effects like the players uniforms getting dirty and grass fields getting dinged up really add to the overall effect. Certain players wear additional protection, like elbow pads and such and this helps players of one position stand out from others. Everybody doesn’t look the same. Individual sounds are well done, but one area that I would like to see improve is the crowd noise. Despite all of the advancements this series has made over the years, the crowds still seem a little tame compared to real life. There are good moments, but they are few and far between, and don’t last very long, which makes it seem all the more generic. Crowds at football games don’t go from a frothing roar one minute to dead silence the next, at least not in most circumstances. A little tweaking in this area would definitely bring a little more realism to the mix. Overall however, both the graphics and sounds are very good.

The commentary from Al Michaels and John Madden has improved somewhat, but still lacks for variety and circumstance. Al sometimes sounds like he doesn’t want to be there, and Madden himself usually overstates some mundane aspect of football we’ve all known since Pop Warner, but at least there does seem to be more of it. One neat little twist here is that individual coaches are spoken of now, and even modeled in the game. At the start of a contest, Al usually goes into a little capsule of what each coach has achieved since being in the league, and how he has done with his current team. Other subtle effects are things like injury reports and sideline commentary. It’s good enough, but isn’t nearly as well implemented as it is in EA’s own NHL series.

I do have to report that, unfortunately, I have had some issues with Madden 2004 that indicate bugs. I did experience a crash to desktop twice during the games initial load screen. That seems to have worked itself out since, but a much more ominous bug seems to arise at the end of a contest, where the whole game seems to freeze while trying to load the main screen. What makes this issue all the more scary is that the standard Ctrl-Alt-Delete method doesn’t seem to work, as the desktop comes back, but the game is still running in the background. Not only were these issues annoying, they also woke up the scars I have on my brain from my old DOS days of dealing with crap like this. I was having flashbacks all over the place, walking around the house asking people if they’ve seen my autoexec.bat and config.sys files. I was all screwed up. A patch is currently scheduled for release sometime at the end of September. There are workarounds for these problems until the patch arrives, and can be found on any of the numerous forums this game has strewn all over the internet.

Aside from the bugs, the only other thing I can really gripe about with Madden 2004 is that, despite additions and improvements to the contrary, the game is still very much an arcade experience. The new tweaks go a long way towards minimizing this effect, but it’s still there, and as I said before, I’m already on the cusp of devising an unstoppable running attack. I just need to figure out how to get around the whole fumbling thing. Stupid rules of football. But anyhoo, yeah, it’s still arcade, and the reason for that, in my humble opinion, is because Madden 2004, and the Madden series for that matter, is first and foremost a console title, and every corner of the game exudes this.

Despite that fact however, Madden 2004 is hands down the best football game currently available for the PC. I don’t know how it would stack up against other console titles because I don’t have a console system, nor do I have any plans on getting one. But it is the best PC football title currently available, and arguably the best ever available for the PC as well. The game has come a long way, and EA does seem to be taking things into several new directions. All of the new improvements are well implemented into the game and perfectly balanced as well. So despite the fact that it is a derivative title, and is really the only football game available for the PC, the average player won’t be disappointed with it. It’s a good upgrade, and worthy of your attention.

Score : 8.7/10

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