Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Sports
Release Date: August 14, 2007
Curiously, despite the popularity of American football in the United States — far and away one of the largest entertainment media consumers and creators in the world — the sport came late to video games. Tennis, if you could call it that, was first, running on a mainframe computer circa 1960. Then came baseball, and soccer soon appeared, followed by various niche sports titles — auto racing and boxing, as examples — but for quite a while, no football. Football video games are hardly new developments in video gaming, but in the grand scheme of things, they were rather late to arrive. You can speculate on a variety of reasons for this; one surely is that football was and remains a fanatic's game only in the U.S., catching on in small measures, mercurially, around the globe when some monied American or another launches a new international league — most of which muddle along a few years and then capsize. You can take the world out of soccer, but you can't take soccer out of the world.
Another factor delaying the advent of football as a sports video game almost as popular as its real-world inspiration is the same as a major strike on the sport itself: It's just too complicated. Contemporarily, an enormous amount of personal equipment is required to play. The brown leather, laced-up, bladder-filled ball is almost an afterthought. On the field at any given time during a game are 11 players per team, all playing at once. That's 22 people, and keeping a mere single understudy for each active player makes for a long bench. Then there's the field itself. One hundred yards length of fair ground, 160 feet wide, 10 extra yards tacked on as end zones at both terminal boundaries. Goal posts are more like engineered structures than sports equipment. There are a lot of rules, of course, but there are a lot of rules in many sports. Yet with football, you can't just learn the rules, go forth and play; you have to learn the plays, too. Thick tomes document the plays in regular use by each professional team. Really, it's a Byzantine nightmare of a pastime, but Americans are broadly passionate about it. Ultimately, we required a good football video game.
Around 1990, EA Sports, then just plain old Electronic Arts, did exactly that, redesigning a lackluster Apple II computer game, John Madden Football, for the momentary shooting star of game consoles, Sega Genesis. Released into the market, it was soon a runaway winner with gamers, easily one of the most popular video games ever created, let alone one of the biggest sports titles. Ask around; although the franchise, now called Madden NFL, retains a legion of devotees, many sports gamers will insist it was all downhill from there. The problem was, once you'd created a football game that was fun to play head-to-head or against a CPU opponent, and you'd included enough elements of the real thing for authenticity, where did you go from there? The marketing model in sports titles quickly became selling annual editions including updated rosters, new teams as the league expanded, updated uniforms and eventually the actual schedules planned for each team during the regular season. Still, this wasn't necessarily enough to keep people paying full price year after year for what was essentially only paperwork. Developers upped the ante with new features.
Football, complicated as it is, left EA Sports a lot of room to grow in the feature department. But as they added more fine-grained detail, the Madden franchise became not only more true to the real thing, but also far less accessible on a casual basis, more difficult to play well and, frankly, often frustrating gamers with "features" included only because they had some nebulous association, superfluous in video games, to real football. Competitors in the NFL-licensed football market came and went, Madden crushed them all and EA Sports was still on its way to serving gamers the goose that laid the golden egg for dinner. Soon enough, via Madden you could play all the real players on all the real teams with all the real plays, create a football dynasty to last a hundred virtual years, manage draft picks, player trades, salary caps and handle those important back-office affairs — didn't Madden have a "fire the owner's secretary" option a few years back?
Before long, there was nothing remaining to add if you wanted to call the game "NFL football"; the only thing left were enhancements and refinements of the existing elements. Here EA ran up against one hell of an offside tackle. While all the things you could do multiplied — many of things you'd never care to do, most of which you'd never have time to do — gameplay suffered. 2K Sports encroached upon EA's turf with their own NFL franchise, and, delivering a quality game at a bargain price, began grabbing territory on Madden's hallowed ground. Rather than innovate their way back to an unchallenged lead in NFL franchise games, EA Sports opted for another strategy as popular in America as football: They bought their way back to the top. EA signed a multi-year exclusive licensing deal with the National Football League, becoming the only legitimate creator of games featuring current NFL players and real NFL teams. Football gamers groaned. Now, they despaired, they were stuck with EA's deteriorating football franchise, and for years ahead, EA, spared any real competition, wouldn't do a thing to fix the game. Some sports gamers even quit playing football titles altogether.
Astoundingly, EA Sports has fooled us all: Even with that NFL license tucked in their pockets to stagnate, exclusive at least for the next couple of years, they've reworked the Madden franchise into the powerhouse of pure fun and deep gameplay it was in the past. Madden NFL 06 (for obvious reasons never released in a PlayStation 3 version), the first iteration of the game post-exclusivity, did not bode well. A couple of significant features were introduced — notably "QB vision," a system for more accurately controlling pass plays, and also right analog stick action for breaking tackles — but they weren't particularly well implemented, and otherwise the franchise remained overly complicated. Madden NFL 07, on the other hand, promised a light at the end of the tunnel. In addition to adding small bits here and there, EA refined what they already had to some degree; it was not perfection, but the general movement for the franchise was again onward and upward. The PS3 version of Madden NFL 07 both looked and played reasonably well, especially for a launch title.
With Madden NHL 08, EA Sports has deservedly returned to dominance in football titles. Granted, it's not entirely fair to compare a game to other nonexistent games — we don't really know how they'd fare against other official NFL licenses — but judging by the wreckage of 2K Sports' All Pro Football 2K8, intended as an NFL game in every way but name and licensed teams, Madden NFL 08 doesn't require their arrangement with the NFL to excel in football titles. They've added a few features that advance overall gameplay and accessibility, but, more importantly, EA Sports has continued refining the existing features so that this year's Madden title may easily be the best ever of the long-lived franchise, even the best football video game ever.
On the powerful PlayStation 3, graphics and animations are outstanding. Player models are as realistic as I've seen in any sports title for any platform. Stadiums and crowds are superior. The field is sublime and displays the effects of weather and play on natural turf over the course of four quarters of hard-fought football. There are more player animations than ever, and they're prompted from the controller in such a way you feel as if you are indeed making moves on the field, not merely triggering a switch rolling a canned animation in the computer brain of the PS3.
Much has been made of Madden NFL 08 running at 60 frames per second (FPS) on the competing Xbox 360 console, while chugging along at a paltry 30 FPS , an unstable 30 FPS at that, on the PlayStation 3. Indeed EA Sports has issued what is tantamount to an apology for PS3 fans of the franchise. Well, it's an apology if you count asking PS3 owners to give them a break on their first outing on the console — a first outing if you count second outings as first outings, or you've forgotten Madden NHL 07 for PS3 ever existed. At any rate, it's an unusual move when a juggernaut games publisher like EA apologizes for a shortcoming in a game they would typically defend in knee-jerk fashion as the pluperfect version.
With all that said, honestly, it really doesn't matter. Sure, in crowded situations in certain animations, especially when you first begin playing Madden NFL 08, you'll notice some hitching or skipping. Sometimes. Occasionally. And then you'll stop paying attention — it's as if the game magically starts running at a better frame rate. Indeed, just in the course of preparing this review, I stopped noticing the graphical issues related to the slower frame rate. It's not a significant issue unless you're the kind of gamer who enjoys agonizing over purely technical quibbles in otherwise excellent titles.
The in-game audio is all around very good, from EA Sports' ESPN Sports news updates in the menus presentation of their titles, to the realistic, believable, perfectly timed chatter between players on the field. Indeed aggregating the appropriate but not overwhelming crowd noises, the resounding crunch of helmets and pads on player contact, the satisfying "oof!" of a hard hit, the frenzied shouts of audibles, players grumbling over iffy penalties and the randomly overheard exclamations of indignation or triumph uttered by players after remarkable plays, the audio environment lends fully the experience of a top-dollar network television sports broadcast, save one thing: the wholly inadequate radio announcer commentary during games. No, your eyes do not deceive; you indeed read "radio announcer commentary."
John Madden and Al Michaels' energetic, eminently professional if sometimes repetitive, commentary is of course long gone from the current console generation of Madden franchise titles, although they can still be heard calling games on versions of the game for PlayStation 2 and the original Xbox. This all has to do with contractual arrangements negotiated far above the heads of us humble football fans. Honestly, Madden's commentary in a video game or on an actual televised football broadcast is something you think you'll miss until you actually do without it for a while, discovering you're either ambivalent over the loss or feel something akin to relief. But radio announcing?
I love as much as anyone else the delightful sort of low-tech ambience of a sporting match, any kind of sporting match, called on the radio, but radio commentary in Madden NFL 08, with its near-photorealistic graphics, hammering glitz and pro sports high-life glamour is completely incongruent in context. Possibly, there's another contractual deal at work here, or in a meeting some new hire on the title's development team said, "Hey, why don't we do radio announcing this year?" and everyone else in the room forgot to say, "Ah… No." In any event, the radio commentary is the only detracting factor from the in-game presentation, and it's a minor flaw.
Overall gameplay in Madden NFL 08 has been improved to the point I'm almost tempted to use the word "revolutionary." But I can't. The Madden franchise has grown for years by adding new features and revising existing ones, for better or worse on both counts; by now, should EA Sports continue in this vein, it's unlikely I'll ever label future versions of Madden truly revolutionary. And, further, although some of the superficial effects of the changes are immediately obvious, the deeper natures of the improvements aren't readily apparent. You have to play the game for a while, at least through most of a season with a single team, for the full feel of the enhancements to sink in.
That's another thing: It's been a long, long time since a Madden title could be considered a pick-up-and-play game. There's a learning curve, brief for annually loyal players, steep if you're picking up the franchise for the first time or returning after a long hiatus. In general, the formerly valid indictment that Madden games are "too hard" has been dismissed in this year's offering. The game is still overly complicated, but they've struck a balance; spend some time with Madden NHL 08, and you can make something of a pick-up-and-play football game out of it, yet herein remains more than enough depth in franchise mode, superstar mode, online mode, modes ad infinitum, to satisfy even the rabid football lunatic who won't leave his sofa from August 'til January of the new year.
Chief among the playability improvements is what EA Sports terms the "read and react system." It's nothing new to Madden for individual players to have specific skills influencing their performance on the field; it is entirely new for the gamer to discover in-game at the push of a button the exact nature of those skills. EA Sports has slapped some pictograms beneath specially skilled player, and the icons define the best use of each team member. Bear with it, because it initially looks likes the silliest thing you've ever seen in a football simulation, but play some games using "read and react," and you'll take to it like a religious convert. Madden veterans will love it for its real-time play adjustment feel, while neophytes and less talented gamers will likewise embrace it, as the feature confers the power of executing satisfactory plays resulting in highlight-reel quality performances. Also greatly improved is the CPU player AI. EA Sports has sent the line toughs and tight ends back to school. This knife cuts both ways, but it's a lot less frustrating to turn over the ball on downs when your CPU opponent did something smart rather than because your team's CPU-controlled players did something stupid. If you're certifiably insane or otherwise permanently trapped in your house for some reason, the front office mode for managing franchises will keep you busy for most the rest of your life.
The only significant complaint with Madden NFL 08's gameplay mechanics is an apparent lack of controller responsiveness at some moments. You pressed the snap button well in advance of the play-clock winding down, and still the whistle blows for a delay of game penalty at your expense. You hit the button for rocketing the football at your most sticky-fingered receiver far ahead of the oncoming blitz, but there you are at the bottom of the pile, ball in hand, sacked for a seven-yard loss. You'll experience this once or twice at most during a game, and it's really just a matter of adjusting your timing to what the game expects. It's mildly frustrating.
With great satisfaction I can declare I believe, even if Madden NFL 08 had a couple of officially licensed NFL competitors this year, the title would stand head and shoulders above all others. My love of football is based on my childhood's rainy, cold autumn days sitting in the stands at West Point watching Army play, lazy Saturday afternoons following Bryant's Tide as they frequently decimated their competition and, no matter where in this country we were calling home, sitting at the edge of my chair, eyes glued to a black-and-white set perched on the kitchen counter as Landry's Cardiac Cowboys secured, against all odds, a wild-card playoff berth inside the second half's two-minute warning during the last game of the regular season. In other words, my love of the game comes from my love of the game, not the micromanagement of statistics, salary caps, player trades and other fantasy football-esque elements of the Madden franchise. Madden NFL 08 again serves football gamers on both sides of that fan fence.
Oh, there are still too many bloody fumbles. It's a football, son, not a loaf of bread.
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