For the past few years, each successive entry in the Madden NFL series has had a theme--an area of gameplay focus on which the development team spent the majority of their time improving. Two years ago it was the defensive game, with the introduction of the hit stick; last year it was the aerial attack, with the controversial vision and precision system. This year, the trend continues. Madden NFL 07 will boast improvements all its own, this time focused squarely on arguably the most important aspect of the real game of football--the running game.
For a long time now, the running game has been more or less status quo for the Madden series. Sure, each year, they've tinkered with the creation of running lanes in the offensive line or made minor improvements to the artificial intelligence of the lead blockers, but it's been a while since the ground game has received a major overhaul. Oddly, one of the biggest running-game features that the development team is working on is one that will pull you out of the shoes of your favorite running back altogether.
Blocking seems to always be the bane of video game football ground attacks. How many times have you been running a counter-lead run up the middle or a quarterback sneak toward the sidelines, only to have your fullback completely miss a block and leave the ball carrier open for a punishing hit? If you're anything like us, the answer is "too many times." Faulty blocking logic has been the bane of those who like to push the ball up the field (and eat up the clock in the process) for as long as football games have been around. Madden NFL 07's solution? Put the blocking in the player's hands by letting you take control of the lead blocker during run plays.
So how does it work? Because we haven't had a chance to actually play the game yet, we're not certain on some of the control particulars, but we do know that you will be able to switch between playing either a blocker or the ball carrier at any time. Furthermore, we understand there will be some specific block controls that will be available to you as you play the lead blocker, all controlled with the right analog stick. These blocking controls will also pop up in the new and improved superstar mode (more on that in a bit). As you control your blocker, your running back will follow behind you, taking cues from your blocks and finding the holes in the defense to squirm through. Push a defender toward the outside, for example, and your running back will attempt to cut on the inside to gain extra yards. The Madden team is focusing much of their development time on making sure the running back runs intelligently when you are controlling the blocker. The developers are also trying to give the player extra incentive for using the lead-block system--they have even considered offering a minor speed boost for RBs when the player is controlling the lead blocker; though whether or not that will make it into the final game is still up in the air.
Of course, you can only block for so long--sooner or later, the responsibility is on the running back's shoulders to make some magic happen on the gridiron. Last year's Madden gave RBs some extra moves with the introduction of the truck stick, which let runners bowl over defenders but, let's face it, it wasn't always realistic to the real NFL, especially when playing as smaller running backs such as the Atlanta Falcons' Warrick Dunn. The truck stick has been replaced, in a manner of speaking, with the "highlight stick," which gives backs much more appropriate moves based on their size and the situation on the field. A big runner like Larry Johnson will still be able to mow through linebackers, but flicking on the star stick with a smaller player like Dunn or Michael Bennett will let you pull off different types of moves to gain some separation between the runner and the defender. One example we saw showed Dunn ducking beneath the arms of a would-be tackler in a move that looked to be straight out of the slippery back's arsenal.
Beyond the vision and precision-passing controls, the biggest addition to last year's Madden was superstar mode, which lets the player step into the shoes of an NFL star and live out their on- and off-the-field exploits. While the mode had its moments, it mostly fell flat because it didn't feel that much different than the regular Madden game. That looks to change with Madden 07, as the revamps for superstar mode will tie you into your created character more than ever before. For one thing, the position you choose will be far more important this time around than last year. That's because, when playing actual games in superstar mode, your point of view will be directly tied to your player's position on the field. Play on the offensive line, for example, and you'll be opening up holes for your running back and providing pass coverage for your quarterback each and every game for your entire career. Fancy yourself as a defensive back, and you'll be knocking down passes and tackling the likes of Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison season after season.
Because you play individual games from your chosen position in superstar mode, you'll only be in control of your performance on the field. Furthermore, your point of view will be centered on where your player lines up before the snap. Play right tackle, for example, and the camera will be centered above your player to the right of the ball. If the play develops on the opposite side of the field, for example, you might not have much of an idea of what is going on.
No matter which position you choose to play on the field, Madden 07 will give you controls to keep you busy covering your assignments. The new blocking controls mentioned earlier will come into play when lining up as a fullback or an O-lineman, for example. There will also be specific controls and camera angles when playing on the outside edge of a play, say as a defensive back or a wide receiver. The build we saw of the game actually featured two distinct camera angles when playing as a wideout; the first is a standard perspective that you can use to run receiver routes, and the second will be behind the receiver and will let you follow the ball as it travels toward your player. Also, the game will provide assistance on the field based on the position you play; a wide receiver will have his route illuminated on the field, while a defensive back will have an illuminated line that is tethered to your coverage assignment when playing man or a colored oval on the field indicating your area of responsibility when playing zone coverage.
Of course, tying yourself to one position has some interesting implications. For instance, what happens when your player is on the sidelines, such as when your wide receiver is on the bench while your team's defense is on the field? Madden 07 will let you either make play calls or watch an accelerated version of the game and have the CPU do the play-calling for you. Furthermore, you can expect to spend at least a portion of your time on the field with the ball not coming your way. After all, even the best players don't get the ball on each and every down. While the revamped design of superstar mode seems to put more focus on the role-playing aspects of the game (at least on the field), it's unclear whether these design decisions will increase player's interest in the mode or not. After all, it's going to take a person of very specific interests to want to player 16 games a year at left tackle--and we're still not convinced the position-specific camera is that user-friendly. Still, we're curious to see how the changes improve a mode that holds so much potential.
Another new aspect for superstar mode is the idea of influence. Everyone knows a veteran like Brett Favre has more pull with his teammates than some fresh-faced rookie just trying to find his spot on the bench. That will be reflected in the game through influence points, which your created superstar will earn or lose based on his actions on the field. Making a great catch or a crucial tackle will earn you influence points (while missing either will lose points), and an indicator will provide you with immediate feedback on how your influence has changed after every play. The more influence you earn, the more times you'll see the ball come your way on offense. On defense, a cornerback or safety with high influence will even bring down the effectiveness of a quarterback or wide receiver--becoming more of a shut-down corner in the process.
A shut-down corner is one example of the kinds of roles that will play a bigger part in Madden NFL 07's franchise mode. In an effort to fix some of the logic problems that have cropped up in franchise mode in the past, especially with regard to trades between teams, the development folks have implemented roles for specific players that should tidy things up. An incoming rookie such as Vince Young or Matt Leinart might be tagged with the "quarterback of the future" role, a descriptor that will make whichever team that drafts him highly unlikely to let him go. The development team said they hope to implement between 25 to 30 different roles that can be attached to players to improve the realism of trades in franchise modes.
Other new features in Madden NFL 07 include team-specific defensive playbooks, new scouting drills, and a playable college all-star game, which you can use to further scout the upcoming class of NFL rookies. Obviously, we'll be diving deeper into the Madden 07 well in the coming months, so stay tuned for more information on the game soon.