EASport's massively popular Madden series is back once again on the PC this year but this time around, change is in the air. While EA have decided to delay any port of the Next Gen engine to the PC for at least one more year, a new team in HeadGateStudios - responsible for the Tiger Woods PC series - is at the helm for Madden PC development and while not a whole lot has changed since 06, all signs are pointing towards that things are looking much brighter for the fans of the PC series.
As with most Madden's, EA have added few new main features to the game for 07. The first main addition is an extension to 06's 'Superstar' mode, now termed 'Superstar: Hall of Fame' mode. The problem with Superstar mode in 06 was, once you got the off field activities out of the way, the in-game action was exactly the same as any other mode. This has changed in 07's Hall of Fame mode, as you can now choose to control your superstar, and only your superstar, on the field. For example, if your created superstar is a Left Tackle, the camera is changed to give you a close range third person angle and you'll only control him in his duties protecting the QB and closing the edge on running plays. You can play at any position, and each position has its own functions involving the right analog stick. As with last year's Superstar mode though, Hall of Fame mode probably won't appeal to the realists in the NFL gaming community - stats are a little crazy and the CPU tend to throw a lot of Interceptions when you're not controlling the QB. HoF is probably going to be more of a sub-mode for the PC crowd to occasionally mix up how you play the game.
The other two major additions, Lead Blocking Control and the Highlight Stick, are built to enhance the running game. With lead blocking, you can control any blocker on any running play to create a hole yourself, and either switch back in real time to the HB to run through it or let the CPU do it. This is a pretty cool addition to the game as it's very rewarding and quite difficult to master. Perhaps the best part is Lead Blocking is completely under your control regarding whether or not you want to use it - if you feel it gives you too much of an advantage over the CPU, you can easily not use it by not pressing the lead blocker selection button before the snap. The other running feature, the Highlight Stick, is an extension to the Truck stick featured in 06. This time around, only the big bruiser backs can perform the truck animations, while the smaller and more agile backs have a massive amount of agility based break tackles at their disposal. If you're using an exceptionally quick footed back like Reggie Bush or Warrick Dunn, you can even string multiple Highlight stick animations together to produce some truly amazing runs.
However, despite EA's format of adding a few key features in each year to sell the game, if you ask any Madden PC gamer to list their priorities in their NFL gaming, chances are you'll see "franchise mode" high up on the list - a mode that has been in the series for years but still doesn't seem to get the attention it deserves features wise. Madden 07 PC, while remaining largely similar to 06, improves upon a few key aspects in the franchise mode. First of all, they have added the ability to edit players mid franchise in-game, assign team captains and change the injury sliders for in-game and simulated games - all three of these features weren't "officially" in 06 PC, but were available if you downloaded user made editors. The PS2 and Xbox versions have had most of these somewhat minor yet vital features for 3 years now so it's about time they picked up the slack for the PC version.
Outside of adding stuff that should have been in the PC version years ago, they have added a new feature called 'Player Roles', which define specific capabilities or influences a player can have. For instance, Vince Young has a "QB of the Future" role, while Chad Pennington has an "Injury Prone" role, which means the CPU will never sign him to a deal longer than 1 year. There are many more roles varying in positive or negative effects, ranging from "Team Distraction" to "Fan Favorite", and each player can have a maximum of two roles, although most of the lesser known players have none for the first season in a franchise. Roles are added and subtracted each offseason depending on what happened the season prior - for instance, for a player to retain the "Pass Rusher" role, he'll need to actually rack up some sacks or it will be stripped from him. Speaking of the offseason, Madden 07 PC finally features a Free Agency period before the Draft, and a new draft scouting system that lets you check out rookie prospects in a College All-Star game and in mini-games. I think some more work needs to be done to make the rookie period feel authentic, particularly in the CPU AI area which seems untouched from 06, but it is finally getting there after years of the same thing over and over.
However, while a few key additions and changes have been made to franchise mode, a few key issues from 06 remain. Once again there is no official support for custom teams in franchise mode, so you'll have to explore user created utilities to address this. On top of this, again the simulated stat engine is unfixed featuring too many 2000+ yard rushers and too few (i.e. usually none) 4000+ yard passers. Once again, user created utilities come to the rescue here with automatic coach slider adjustments that help distribute CPU stats better in simmed games. Finally, still on the simulated stats, the bug in 06 where players failed to fatigue during simulated games leaving backup players with very little action is still here in 07, and this unfortunately can't be entirely fixed by any user made utility *cough* patch please EA? *cough*.
As far as the actual in-game gameplay goes, to the untrained eye 07 plays pretty much the same as 06, but keen followers of the series will notice quite a lot of small yet important changes. First of all, AI has seen enhancements all around - CPU QB's are smarter, CPU HB's are far more aggressive and use the tools they are given, blocking is a little more reliable and actually seems more relevant to ratings, and the DB AI has been given a more realistic make over. In 07, if your WR is open and you have a capable QB, you won't see the CPU DB's close in on a perfectly thrown ball as easily as they did in 06. One of the coolest parts about the DB AI is it actually seems you can pick on weaker defenders, but when you go up against a Champ Bailey or a DeAngelo Hall, you might be better off going to the other side of the field. Of course, it all really depends on what difficulty and sliders you use, but there are definite improvements in 07 when it comes to DB AI. It's still not perfect, but they've got to have room for the randomness that is the NFL. After all, NFL DB's aren't perfect either, it is a position with a lot of yearly staff turnover for a reason.
Another small but important enhancement to do with the gameplay is that most animations are executed when two players are closer to each other compared to 06. This may sound like a really small insignificant tweak, but when you've got 11 defenders after your HB, the distance in which animations are executed can make a huge difference - anyone who plays NCAA on the consoles will know this first hand as that game creates a sense of "big play on any play" due to the fact animations are only executed when players get very close, creating more open room, therefore producing more big plays. While Madden 07 doesn't go as far as NCAA in this regard, it has definitely been tweaked since 06. What this does is it helps separate the Reggie Bush's from the Kevin Barlow's, particularly when coupled with the Highlight stick. Don't fret though, it doesn't really make ball movement easier as defenders move more freely and fluently also. What it basically does is it separates the playmakers from the regulars on both sides of the ball with a bit more consistency than before, giving players with exceptional ability more room to showcase it.
As usual, we also see a bunch of new animations for 07 but this year it seems EA went further than the norm as there really are a lot of new tackles, catches and jukes. Outside of the cool "get skinny" situational juke animations, the most impressive of these new animations are definitely the new tackles, which seem to mainly be a collection of realistic feeling wrap-up tackles, as well as a few dynamic "tap the button now to break this tackle" type tackles. However, despite the impressive and superior tackling system which featured years ago in the now dead ESPN NFL 2K series, EA have still failed to introduce any real gang tackling to the Madden series, but it has got to be coming up on their list soon, right?
When it comes to the graphics, Madden 07 PC is still a mixed bag. Compared to 06, right away you will notice the enhancements done to the grass/turf - the texturing is very, very nicely done, almost to the point it out does everything else in the game visually. While the grass doesn't have any actual 3D effects going on like in the 360 version, it still looks great. Outside of this, the lighting has been tweaked, as players and stadiums appear slightly darker with more vibrance. To cap it off, it seems HeadGateStudios have done a good job optimizing the code in 07 PC - in 06 PC, even with X1900XTX Crossfire I experienced some minor frame rate chokes at times, but so far on a much more modest Radeon 1800XL I have experienced nothing but smooth sailing with the frame rate on 07's highest settings. I would think even lesser gaming PC's will play 07 PC quite nicely with max or close to max visual settings.
However, outside of these minor tweaks, the game still could use a graphical overhaul - perhaps the fact the system specs are so low (800MHz CPU, GF3 grade videocard) is proof of this. Don't get me wrong, it looks pretty good, but the models and textures have been like this for years now - where are the PC's new higher poly models and higher res textures? Where is the SM3.0 implementation? The visual settings section of Madden 07 PC is so dated, it doesn't even have Anti-Aliasing or Anisotropic Filtering toggle available in game. I see no reason why the PC can't enjoy some content from the 360 version, as the only reason the PS2 and Xbox versions can't feature the new graphics is because of their hardware limitations - limitations not shared by the common PC. Most new PC games these days require a SM3.0 capable videocard, it's time Madden PC was brought up to standards - the Madden series used to be the pinnacle of PC visuals, but now it is falling behind. It requires you install DirectX 9.0C before play, but I have serious doubts Madden 07 PC uses any extensions introduced to D3D with DX9.
As far as the controls go, unfortunately 07 still suffers from a very rigid button assignment system, where one button has to be tied to multiple functions - for example, whatever button you want for 'dive' on offense has to be the same as 'dive/tackle' on defense. However, this year the keyboard and mouse controls have been revamped, by using the 'WASD' system of movement, and holding down the shift key to simulate the right analog stick. If you ask me though, anyone wanting to play in 'Classic' mode and not 'Coach' mode with a keyboard and mouse would have to be nuts, as 07 features native support for quite a few nice controllers, including Microsoft's USB Xbox 360 controller. You'll need a wired one for this (until MS release wireless PC controller support anyway), but it is well worth it. Not only is this, in my opinion, the best controller out there, but the actual "A", "B" etc icons show up in Madden 07 PC in the game, so it feels like you're playing an Xbox in this regard. You'll never have to learn which is button 1 and which is button 8 on unlabelled PC controllers again.
The future of Madden on the PC is up in the air. Do EA eventually kill it off with the PS2 and Xbox versions? Do they port the 360/PS3 game over? Or do they let HeadGateStudios keep the current game and introduce the next generation content at their own pace? After all, does the PC really need a new engine, why can't they just tweak and add the new stuff to the current DX9 engine? In any case, that's looking down the track, what happens in the future has little to do with 07 PC, which I can happily say is the best Madden PC yet. It's not without its problems but it is good to see EA outsource a new proven PC team in HeadGateStudios to do the behind the scenes work as the game was in dire need of some attention behind the scenes. Features PC fans have been requesting for years have arrived, making 07 PC a very well rounded game. In fact the array of small features and enhancements, particularly in the actual gameplay, have really summed up to create a very playable game. It's a shame it has taken EA so long to finally give the PC gamers something to be excited over, but hopefully 07 is a sign EA are becoming a little more serious about their PC audience.
However, last year EA left the PC community completely out to dry when it came to after sale support - i.e., late roster updates and no patches at all. Whether or not this changes for 07 PC is anyone's guess. If we see a patch soon to address some of the mentioned bugs and an on time roster update to start the NFL season, consider the 4/5 score here for Madden 07 PC a 4.5/5.
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