Well, it's August again, and that means it's time for the NFL pre-season to move over for the real season, but more importantly, it is time once again for the latest version of EA Sport's Madden NFL. With limited television coverage of the NFL over here in Australia, Madden NFL has always been the means of my NFL fix, and each year I have been relatively pleased with the experience EA has offered. Last year's version was particularly impressive, as compared to 2002, it offered so much more in almost every area. Can EA once again provide worthy improvements to the series with Madden NFL 2004?
Over the past few years, EA haven't experimented much with new game modes, but this year, we see the introduction of a brand new addition to the franchise mode, called "owner mode". As the name indicates, you now take ownership of your team's franchise, rather than just become the coach. However owner mode does not effect the basic elements of the franchise mode, everything remains the same as before if not better, just imagine it as an add-on that can be disabled or enabled.
Owner mode basically gives you control over everything, from marketing funds to how much a hotdog will cost at your stadium. For the front office gamer looking for more depth, owner mode will provide it, and despite its somewhat linear feel, it is even possible to, down the road, change cities and team names. On top of this, franchise mode/owner mode sees much more depth when making contract agreements with players, including sign bonuses and more. Rookie scouting has also improved, and so has trading, where you now have access to a trading block with offers from any interested teams. However, once again, computer trades are not present, and although EA claim the real NFL doesn't have enough trades to justify it, it is a feature I still feel needs implementing, even if it only ever occurs rarely in-game. To summarize, the new owner mode adds great new depth to the franchise mode of play, and there are loads of other minor yet very important features implemented as well.
However, it is in-game where Madden 2004 really shines. Upon witnessing the familiar game intro found in Madden 2003, I was a little worried about EA not paying any attention to the actual gameplay, and rather only beefing up the front office aspects. Oh how wrong I was.
From the very first snap it is obvious EA took giant steps into improving the already somewhat impressive gameplay found in 2003. For starters, on the offensive side of things, running with a back is now a much more realistic experience. One problem I had with running in 2003 was that a defender being blocked could take you down without even directly attempting to, even if you scraped his leg it was likely you would fall to the floor. However in 2004, it is now possible to squeeze through blocks and defenders, especially with highly skilled backs.
Another huge improvement on the offense, and depending on how you look at it, on the defense also, is the new blocking system. In 2003, if you were a defender attempting to blitz or attempting to pursue the ball carrier, and a blocker got you from the side or even in some cases from behind, you would be drawn to the block like a magnet, making it almost impossible to escape. In 2004, blocks from the side will now only usually push you rather than fully blocking you, and blocks from behind will actually draw a clipping call, which by itself, in my opinion, improves the gameplay experience vastly.
All these gameplay improvements are nothing without the corresponding animations though, and it is great to see EA really ramp up the included animations. Although it will be a long time before we see unique tackle animations every play, there are now many more ways to take down a ball carrier. The best improvement in tackling animations would have to be the dive, which has now again seen a tweak for the sake of realism, but honestly, it is hard to pick which aspect of the new tackling animations is best, there are just so many. Another worthy improvement to note is tackles from behind and from the sides, which are now not so generous in giving extra yards to the ball carrier.
However, the grand daddy of all improvements in the gameplay lies within the secondary, and the ever so popular topic of the DB AI. Madden 2003 did not convince everyone that EA had found the right algorithms. However any skeptics remaining will surely be pleased to see the huge overhaul of DB AI improvement in Madden 2004, which combines new animations and much better rating dependencies. For example, a lower rated DB will still struggle to cover Randy Moss, but someone like Sam Madison or Charles Woodson should prove very impressive against the pass. Along with this comes new animations to prevent the catch, and the general ability to cover much more tightly. Should the receiver still come down with the ball, chances are he isn't going far.
If there is one series on the PC that has always been beyond industry standard in graphics when released, it is the Madden NFL series. Last year I think I recall myself asking how on earth the visuals could get better, but somehow EA managed. With everything turned on to the max, coupled with some Anti-aliasing and Anisotropic Filtering, PC gaming doesn't get any prettier than this. Once again the models have been improved, specifically when portraying people of different sizes. Last year size and build characteristics were not distinguishable enough, but this year, Warren Sapp really looks like Warren Sapp.
On top of this, we have even more depth to the portrayal of unique players. For example, as promised, Ricky Williams tears up the field with his dreads spouting out the back of his helmet, and Jeremy Shocky does likewise. However, it seems the unique accessories like hair are only rendered in close views, as soon as the camera pans out a little, the hair disappears, which is reasonably disappointing for such a visually advanced game. Not only this, but the progressively dirty uniforms in muddy/dirty conditions are not present in the game at all, which is not what pre-release PC screenshots would suggest. Apparently it is said EA will fix this issue with a patch, but one can only take such rumours with a grain of salt.
Simple put, not only is Madden NFL 2004 PC easily the most visually appealing NFL game to date on any platform, it is also quite possibly one of the best looking games to ever grace the PC, atleast until Pixel Shader 2.0 DX9 HW fully integrates itself into the PC gaming market.
Madden NFL has always been a relatively complex game to master control wise, particularly if you are not an avid NFL gamer. Getting use to the controls is one thing, but when you have multiple buttons with similar functions designed for different situations (for example, dive tackle and burst tackle, swat and catch etc), it is very hard to know when to do what. Unfortunately, there is still no real inbuilt tutorial system to aid the new players, but it shouldn't take long for most gamers to get the hang of it when doing exhibition and training gameplay modes.
As far as the actual control system goes, most of the functions are identical to last years, except this year we have a new feature called 'Playmaker Control'. Like NBA Live and NHL 2003, anyone with a dual analog stick control pad could take advantage of more indepth controls. These were actually very handy for gaining the edge in gameplay, and EA attempt to do similar with 'Playmaker'. Basically, Playmaker can be used in four scenarios - before the snap on offense and defense, and after the snap on offense and defense. Before the snap, you can direct your team to change their route directions with the right analog stick (or coverage directions on defense), which can be handy for a quick attempt to exploit the opposing formation. After the snap, Playmaker does totally different things depending on which side of the ball you're on. For defense, pressing down on the right stick cheats everyone against the run, and pressing up cautions everyone for a pass. On offense, using the right analog stick, you can guide the nearest blocker as if you were controlling him. Despite being handy in some situations, none of these are vital by any means, particularly the blocker control, because controlling one person is hard enough without attempting to control the closest blocker also. If you don't have a dual analog control pad, then there really isn't any need to go get one, it is really just a luxury item.
Despite being an excellent game every version for atleast the past 3 years, Madden seems to have out done itself again. While many of the features in 2003 remain, Madden NFL 2004 has taken the PC's best NFL series to new heights. With the welcoming return of the playbook editor, complete with custom plays and custom formations, online leagues, the new owner mode, countless gameplay tweaks and the exceptional graphics, this is by far the best version of Madden NFL ever, regardless of the minor quirks. An absolute must buy for PC NFL fans, but hey, it's not like you have much choice anyway.