At this point, it is somewhat trite to bring up the exclusivity deal between EA and the NFL, but its impact within the industry has been so great that it is impossible to discuss the newest Madden NFL game without considering the matter. Much of the hubbub concerned the question of whether the series’ quality would plummet with EA’s new monopoly, but realistically this worry is likely to be mitigated by the pressure of maintaining a good relationship with the NFL and especially the need to recover the huge financial sum invested in the exclusive license. Still, concerned fans will be glad to know that Madden NFL 06 is another strong installment in the series, although some of its changes and additions may not appeal to all of its audience, especially the more casual players.
“Year of the Quarterback” reads a loud blurb on the back of the case, and this is where the most significant change to the gameplay lies. Each quarterback has a field of vision, graphically expressed as a highlighted cone emerging from the quarterback’s location. Throwing to a receiver inside the field of vision is the most successful way to deliver the ball downfield. Passes thrown outside the field of vision tend to veer from their destination point in unpredictable ways, similar to somebody throwing a football in one direction while looking the other way. The field of vision can be controlled by the right analog stick, but most plays move fast enough that it’s more prudent to cycle through primary receivers while the field of vision follows the quarterback accordingly.
Some Madden players may be frustrated with the learning curve of the field of vision feature. There is a video tutorial which mainly serves as an introduction, and a couple of passing mini-games, but a number of better interactive teaching tools for this feature should have been included. For players that don’t give up early, though, the field of vision feature can be a pleasure to use. The passing game in Madden NFL 06 delivers perhaps the most varied and interesting strategy in the series, as one has to learn their playbook in depth and quickly read defense formations in order to figure out which receivers to have the quarterback focus on. Not all football gamers are interested in this level of depth, however, so the cerebral style of play may not appeal to more casual Madden players. In that case, there is an option to turn the field of vision off.
Something else that the field of vision affects is the balance between a quarterback?s passing ability and mobility. It is now more difficult for a big, agile quarterback to dance around in the backfield until a receiver staggers into open coverage ? this fixes an annoying issue with previous versions of Madden where such players as Michael Vick were near unstoppable. It somewhat reduces the cheapness of play in the online mode as well, helped by the fact that the vision cone also makes long bomb money plays less effective. Online play is marred by some issues, though. The server stability on EA’s end seems somewhat suspect. When the other user quits a game prematurely, it’s not a given that the correct end result will be stored after the AI takes control, which is especially a problem since there is a disappointing number of online players who don’t seem to respect the concept of sportsmanship. Once again, the happiest online players will be mostly those who play with people they already know.
Quarterbacks have a new Precision Placement ability as well, which allows them to lead a receiver in any direction based on how they hold the left analog stick when the ball is released, in an attempt to keep the ball away from defenders. This is a welcome feature, but seeing as this was in Sega’s first NFL game on the Dreamcast, it is long, long overdue. Ball carriers also get a new feature to work with. A companion of sorts to last year’s Hit Stick, the Truck Stick allows a ball carrier to evade tackles by delivering a preemptive hit on a defender and bouncing up-field. There isn’t a direct negative effect when the Truck Stick is timed incorrectly, as there is for mistiming the Hit Stick which then takes the player out of the action, but the other team is usually close enough and ready to swarm the player who missed the maneuver.
EA must be confident with Franchise mode, as nothing new has been changed or added since the previous release. NFL Superstar mode is the new addition to the simulation aspect of Madden. At times, it functions as much as a role-playing game as it does a football sim. It begins with the player randomly generating possible parents for their superstar until the right pair is found, which is a simpler variation on the initial loop of dice rolls in a Wizardry game. Shortly after this is an IQ Test to determine ranking and attributes, calling to mind the character-determining questions at the start of some of the better Ultima games. There are a fair number of other things to do like practicing specific plays before games, signing and firing agents and conducting interviews with limited interactivity. There is a fair number of unique things to do outside of actually playing football and Superstar mode feels like it might be the start of a good idea, but right now the long-term value of this mode is sadly lacking and is essentially a glorified curiosity for now.
The packaging touts this version as having the best graphics to date, but to my eyes the graphical improvements are negligible, if they?re really there to begin with. This isn’t much of a bother since Madden NFL 2005 already had impressive visuals, though in one respect the new version is worse: the colors in the Xbox version of Madden NFL 06 seem more drab than expected. Much of the soundtrack is forgettable, but at least custom soundtracks are available, even if the 35 song limit from the start feels confining.
Madden NFL 06 is no different from previous versions in terms of having much more pre-existing content than new, but the features introduced in this version make it worth a serious consideration from football game fans. There is still work to be done to improve the series – the learning curve for the quarterback’s field of vision could be smoother, the NFL Superstar mode has a bit of ways to go before feeling truly unique and inspired, and for some reason the punt return AI remains disastrous. Hardcore fans will buy this game regardless, but casual fans should try before they buy – the revamped gameplay might be too convoluted for their liking, and the easier-to-pick-up Madden NFL 2005 can be found for a fraction of the current version?s price by now.