Another year and another Madden NFL hits the retail shelves. While it doesn't host the biggest fan base of the series, the PC audience has long supported the releases of EASports's most prized game, and while the Madden series will see much (atleast visual) improvement before the end of the year in the form of Madden Xbox360, the PC gamer doesn't have such exciting advancements to look forward to in the near future, which means Madden 06 PC is really the major release for these gamers. Lucky for them, Madden 06 is a significant improvement on 2005 in many regards, however once again we see Madden on the PC neglect to take advantage of its higher powered platform.
EA usually release a few major features per year with Madden and Madden 06 is no exception. This time around we see Superstar Mode, QB Vision, QB Precision and the Truckstick. What isn't usual about these features however is three; QB Vision, QB Precision and the Truckstick, are in-game additions which change the fundamental framework of how you actually play the game, but more on those in a bit, first up is Superstar mode.
Seeing as the PC doesn't have NCAA Football, you can't import your "Race for the Heisman" player into Madden 06 PC, which means right from the word go Superstar mode on the PC is somewhat of a bastardized mode compared to the consoles. What you can still do (Where "can still" = "have to") however is create your player, but this isn't done by normal "Create-A-Player" means as such - the way in which your player is given most of his characteristics is via your "parents". The game generated two parents for you, and based on their achievements and characteristics, Madden will generate your player. You can choose to regenerate your parents as many times as you wish until you get a combo you like. This is a relatively weird feature that doesn't really seem all that necessary - particularly when it is the only method on offer for the PC.
Once your guy is ready to go, you must then participate in a test, much like the NFL's "Wonderlic" test given to rookie prospects. This isn't a normal test though, because like in the real life test you will encounter many questions which don't have a simple correct/incorrect answer - rather, they're based on personality. Some questions will be factual though, although these can be so hard you simply end up guessing. In any case, once the test is over, you're given a score and then you are forwarded to such tasks as hiring an agent, and entering the rookie draft where you will be selected to a team. The game follows the real 2005 NFL Draft orders and picks until it reaches your player, which brings up an odd "feature" of this mode - it seems almost impossible to get drafted early, and on top of this, once you're drafted and you check your player's Overall rating, he can sometimes be up to 95+ OVR as a rookie, and often you could have been drafted in the 4th round or later. While I agree OVR ratings shouldn't factor into the drafting process too much, this is definitely too extreme for my liking.
Once all the setup phases are out of the way, the Superstar mode comes to life. This is where you take advice from veterans, deal with your agent, keep fit, land acting roles in movies, as well as prepare for your upcoming game via the practice field. Unfortunately, like RFTH mode in NCAA on the consoles, the actual in-game mechanics are identical to any other mode in Madden (unless you consider a red circle under your Superstar player a change to the in-game mechanics), which means the mode relies almost entirely on its "between game" elements to differentiate itself, and while it does execute these elements relatively well, the mode is definitely a work in progress - I like the way in which the mode puts you in the shoes of an individual player and not a team owner, but this only translates to the "between game" part - in-game, you control every player and the play calling like usual. With that said, it is a nice mode to attract some attention every now and then, but it isn't the "biggest addition to the series since franchise mode" - at least not yet.
Now that we've covered the Superstar mode, lets talk about these two other new passing related features - QB Vision and Precision. QB Vision introduces a "Vision Cone" system to the throwing game. As it happens, you can only throw accurately to receivers who are in your field of vision which you change in real time, and the better the QB's "Awareness" rating, the bigger his vision is. This will take some getting use to but if you're keen on realistic gameplay, this will be a huge improvement. You now have a real incentive to target rookie/FA QB's with good awareness, and it prevents unrealistic across field passes. If it's not your cup of tea, then you can simply turn it off.
As for Precision, this is basically the ability to place the ball where you want it. If you want to put it above a defender in front of your WR, simply hold up when you throw and he'll try to place it in a spot where only a jumping WR will grab it. You can also place the pass over certain shoulders on slants and streaks, and lead receivers in the direction of your choosing. If anything though, the Precision system only works because the receiver catch animation system has been revamped entirely - previously your receivers would try to run into the direction the ball was going to catch it at waist/chest level without leaving the ground, now they will run towards the ball and do whatever it takes to pull it in - jump up high, stretch low etc.
Both of these are arguably not even new to the NFL genre let alone Madden NFL series - in games like Techmobowl you had to select a target before throwing, and if you've played Madden PC with a Mouse and Keyboard before, you'd have experience a system which requires you use your mouse to aim in the general direction of a receiver before throwing (hence "Vision"), but that doesn't detract from the fact QB Vision is a very nice addition for realism gamers. As for the Precision, Madden has long had the ability to "lead" receivers in the direction of your choosing, but in 06 it now seems to be far more effective.
Last year we saw the Hitstick and it instantly became a must have feature for football gaming - a function designed to give the gamer the choice of laying a harder hit on an opposing player with the risk of missing entirely represented a realistic aspect in today's NFL - some players love to hit hard but it can fault where traditional wrap up tackling excels. Well, now the offense in Madden also has this option. The Truckstick is the offense's version of the Hitstick - it lets you lay a lick on the opposing players, which in this case are the defenders. Like the Hitstick, the Truckstick is best performed by certain players - bigger, stronger lads with power. Players like Jerome "The Bus" Bettis, Jamal Lewis, Steven Jackson and so forth. When executed, these players use their upper body to barge over defenders and like the Hitstick, it is a very cool addition to the game that works well, because there is a risk - take on the wrong guy, or try it at the wrong time, and your chance of fumbling is greatly increased. While it would seem the bigger guys are getting an advantage on both sides of the ball in Madden, this isn't necessarily the case, because speed and agility still pose as devastating qualities in Madden in their own right. With that said though, I wouldn't be surprised to see future Madden's pursue an "Evadestick" style feature which, when executed, allows smaller more agile players to avoid the big hits by either athletically dodging them completely or not taking them on squarely (remember, I want royalties if this becomes a real feature EA!)
However, outside of these major few feature additions exists a bevy of smaller, but arguably equally as important enhancements. First of all, while it isn't completely fixed, the blocking has been greatly improved - you won't see blockers miss key blocks nearly as often, and plays such as sweeps and counters actually work - at least, they work enough to make you keep wanting to do them. On top of this, you can now execute a feature called "Slide Protection". What this does is allow you to set a direction in which your Offensive Line pushes towards (i.e. Left or Right) - this is mainly to counteract the Defensive Line's ability to crash to the Left or Right, but it can be used as a proactive strategy too, particularly on run plays. This is executed before the snap, just like the defensive DLine/LB movement adjustments that have been in the series for years.
The in-game AI of the CPU has also been improved. Whilst it is hard to say whether or not play calling is better, I have noticed at least a small decrease in poor matchups between my offense and the CPU defense - it doesn't seem as often you'll see a OLB covering your 4th WR anymore. On top of this, the game's general coverage AI has been improved significantly to the point now where I can honestly say no one route is going to work every time unlike last year - at least, not on the settings I played with (All Madden, tweaked sliders).
There are more additions, too. New in Madden 06 is "progressive fatigue". What this means is the more you use a player during the game, the less energy he is going to have towards the end, so while everyone starts at 100% energy, by the 4th quarter a HB with 25 carries might max out at 93% energy. This could have been implemented with a little more impact (or, better yet, a user controlled slider), but even still it is clearly obvious that towards the end of a game some players just aren't as effective as they were in the beginning, and remember, with low energy comes more fumbles, more missed tackles and more injuries, so subbing players manually often or using sub friendly Auto Sub settings are now strategies to seriously consider.
But wait, there's more. One small addition is the ability to apply a "Smart Route" to a route of a receiver pre-snap. What this means is, say your slot WR is doing a curl route for 6y, but you need 9y for the 1st down. Well, apply a Smart Route (Hot Route > WR Button > Down on Right Thumbstick), and the receiver will now do his route but extend it to the 1st down line. The same can be done near the goalline too. This is the perfect example of a tiny feature that makes a whole lot of difference when done in the right situation.
And lets not forget the usual addition of new animations. Besides the above mentioned WR catch animations, some new tackling animations are present. For example, when delivering a stiff arm, sometimes you'll see the defender being stiff armed but still making the eventual tackle. On top of this, if a defender approaches the back of a ball carrier you may see one of the new "back tackle" animations, which portrays the defender dragging down the ball carrier from behind, giving a much more realistic flow to the game. Another very cool new animation is the WR "Head tracking", as seen in the NCAA series for some time. This basically means receivers actually look back at the QB for the ball as they run their routes - a small but very effective impact on the realism of the game. The amount of new animations aren't huge, but they are significant enough to see, and as I've always believed, if you don't think new animations make a difference, load up the previous version of Madden after a few days with the new version and see for yourself.
Perhaps the best of the "small" features is the fact the game doesn't appear to "cheat" as much when it comes to speed. Previously, if you had Randy Moss on a streak covered by a mediocre CB, and he blew past the CB by 10 yards, more often than not that same CB would catch up before the ball came even close to Moss - in fact, it seemed as if half the secondary caught up before the ball was even close sometimes. Not any more. In Madden 06, if your WR beats a DB, he beats him. Defenders don't all of a sudden possess the ability to move at the speed of light at convenient times. What this does is create a far more realistic feel to the game, and coupled with the new passing mechanisms, it really rejuvenates what was a previously boring and predictable passing game (when you look back at it now, anyway).
The franchise mode has not seen many improvements in 06, which is a shame, particularly when some glaring issues exist in the CPU's roster management AI (e.g. yay! lets draft a QB with the 1st round 1st pick when we have 1 year pro Alex Smith! Or how about we sign Chris Brown when we have Steven Jackson and Marshall Faulk!) and have done so for years. However, a few areas have been tweaked, one of which is the rookie ratings in the draft. In 2005, you'd often find HB's and WR's with 98 speed and 68 acceleration, rendering them, and almost the entire draft, somewhat useless. This year the rookie ratings are not only far more balanced but also far more generous - an 80 OVR player can be had late in the 1st round, and it also isn't unusual to see 70+ OVR players in the 7th round. This is fantastic because it creates real reasons to stock up on draft picks - even late ones, where the next Tom Brady could be had. Along with the rookie rating fixes comes a trend where a much lower "Awareness" rating amongst game generated rookies exists - say goodbye to franchises where, in 10 years down the track, the top 20 rated players were Kickers and Punters, because since rookies have low "Awareness" ratings and better physical ratings, they have loads of room for progression.
Speaking of progression, this has also seen some tweaking in 06. In 2005, progression was very generous, often leaving most teams with 90+ OVR players in almost every position in a few years. In 06, you can still gain ample positive progression, but now it is quite easy to gain negative progression - something you'll see very often with a poor performing team. On top of this, while in 2005 aging veterans could go down in attributes like speed and strength, young rookies will actually go up in these attributes now, which is a nice touch.
The only real addition to the franchise mode this time around is "Weekly Gameplan". Basically, you are given a briefing of your upcoming opponent, and the game suggests three plays from your team's playbook to practice that may become useful in the game. The better you practice the plays, the more points you generate, and the more points you generate, the better chance you have of successfully executing the play in the real game. While the actual influence it has on the in-game action is questionable, this is something you'll probably have to take EA's word for, and probably something you will find yourself not doing shortly into a franchise - it's a nice idea, but probably something most gamers will grow tired of quick enough.
One area which is a rather big disappointment in franchise mode however is the lack of custom team support. This was taken out in Madden 2005 and many PC gamers were annoyed by the decision, as it meant gamers could no longer create fantasy leagues with created teams. While I'm not sure if EASports received bags and bags of hate mail because of this, I'm sure the message from the PC fans made it across, and that message was "Put this feature back in!". Well, the message was ignored, because it isn't in 06. One has to wonder why, because it must only be a matter of a few code changes as users can still create teams for exhibition matches - are EASports really that uninterested in giving something unique to the PC audience?
Maybe asking for unique features for the PC is a little much - I mean, PS2 gamers don't get their very own features, do they? Oh wait, that's right, Madden 06 PS2 has the ability to link up with the Sony PSP (that was sarcasm by the way). Surely, though, the request for the PC version to at least identically match the features of the consoles isn't too much? Well, apparently it is. While all the major features in the Console versions are also in the PC version which has been this way since Madden 2003, again we see a few minor features missing from 06 PC. First of all, team captains haven't been added to franchise mode...still. The ability to edit players mid franchise is also missing...still. And the newly added "Injury Slider" for Madden 06 is apparently not possible on the PC - I guess that code simply can't be handled by modern day X86 processors (more sarcasm!). This is a shame, because, in my opinion anyway, the PC audience for Madden seems slightly more "sim gamer" orientated, at least perhaps in a percentage/ratio sense, and the Injury Slider finally fixes Madden's tendency to have far too few in-game injuries in comparison to the real life NFL - something a "sim gamer" would certainly appreciate.
Visually Madden 06 looks fantastic if you have the right hardware, but then again, so did 2005. As it would seem, there have been very, very few changes made to the graphics engine at all. As a matter of fact, I can't honestly say I recognize any one significant improvement. As I said though, it already looked great, so this isn't a huge issue, it is just odd to see as usually a few graphical enhancements here and there make for some easy feature marketing, even if the enhancements were trivial. This is likely linked to the fact the console versions of 06 have seemingly hit their visual peak (whether it be for technical or marketing reasons, i.e. to make the approaching XB360 version look even better in comparison), however with that said, I still feel there would have been room for the PC version to see some enhancements, considering it won't be seeing the next gen engine any time soon.
As far as controls go, again we see the lack of true PC support; it seems as if someone slapped up a poor excuse for a control mapping system in Madden 2002 and it hasn't been updated since. I mean really, this would have to be the worst implementation of button mapping I've ever seen on the PC. First of all, if you don't have an officially supported controller (Logitech Dual Action, Logitech Rumblepad 2, Gravis Eliminator Aftershock, Thrustmaster Firestorm Dual Analog) you'll be lucky if the buttons default to a scheme which is even slightly useable. On top of this, the actual remapping screen imposes so many insane restrictions it's shocking - you can designate whatever button you like to, say, "Dive", however this elected button also has to be "Throw to Receiver X" and "Tackle", so you're basically choosing one button for a preset Passing, Running and Defending function. This may not sound all that bad reading it, but trust me, it takes first hand experience to appreciate how frustrating and limiting this pointless system is, because not all functions on the same config "line" may suit the button chosen. I really don't think a button mapping scheme which allows you to set a unique button for every function without any linking restrictions is too much to ask - it is practically a given standard in PC gaming these days.
Audio wise we see the same sort of music track we've been seeing for a few years now - mostly commercial hiphop with a few pop/rock songs. However, with the NFL exclusive license in EA's palm, this year we see some great "NFL Films" audio tracks that, in my opinion, are far better than any of the "I Think I've Already Heard This Song 5000 Times" commercial tracks in the game. So much better in fact I simply deleted all the music files from my harddrive bar the NFL Films ones, so only they play. Nothing gets you more into an NFL gaming mood than a classic NFL audio track. However, while the audio track is a positive for this game, the in-game audio is yet again lacking. Not so much the sound effects, but more the commentary. I've heard John and Al's comments so many times now I either play with no commentary at all, or with no sound at all. It isn't just the repetition of statements that I've probably been hearing since Madden 99 either, it is also the general all round sloppiness of the commentary - I know John isn't as sharp as he use to be, but saying stuff like "what a great TD in the redzone" when the ball was thrown from the 50, and "One of the best runningbacks in the league goes up against one of the best defenses" when it is a game between the Rams and Colts just isn't excusable. The commentary in this game is just down right bad.
The Madden franchise on the PC is a little hard to predict right now. Does Madden 2007 PC merge over to the new next gen engine? Does it continue to use the current engine for the years ahead, allowing the next gen console systems to attract the PC audience across? Does it ever see a release at all? The question of the PC version's future is as much in the air as a Daunte Culpepper hail mary, and EA aren't exactly helping this with their lack desire to market the PC version in any significant form - you'd think with the PC platform being so "mod" friendly EASports might find it appropriate to make Madden PC a little more "tweakable", like the FIFA series is on the PC, but this doesn't seem to be the case.
While this fact may be unsettling to some PC loyalists, Madden 06 PC atleast brings the latest EA branded NFL action on offer over to the PC, and while the game remains similar to 2005, there are quite a few impacting changes that add up, mainly in the "realistic gameplay" department, which is excellent to see. However, with that said, again we see some features missing from the PC version and you really have to wonder why considering it was yet again released after the console version - surely allowing plenty of time to add a few minor missing features. The simple fact is, besides the ability to change some visual quality settings such as detail and resolution and custom playbook/team options, EA aren't giving many reasons for gamers to continue playing Madden PC, and there hasn't been a "PC Only" feature added for years now. Considering the Madden series is going to undergo a huge change in the coming months, one has to wonder if the PC platform remains in EA's plans at all as we jump into the future of gaming. Madden 06 PC remains a great option for NFL fans now, but for how long the PC is a realistic option for the latest in NFL gaming technology is anyone's guess.
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