Most sports gamers remember Madden NFL 06's debut on the Xbox 360 in 2005. It was tough to miss--from the dramatic "target"-footage video, which was released months before the game was due for store shelves, to its unveiling at the 2005 NFL Draft, everyone was curious to see what EA Sports would do with its most important franchise on the next-generation console. Arguably, the stakes are even higher in 2006, as the Tiburon development team has had a full year's worth of development time to devote to the next Xbox 360 Madden, as opposed to the shortened time line of last year's game. At a recent EA pre-Electronic Entertainment Expo event in Redwood City, we got a chance to see how well Madden NFL 07 is progressing toward its release later this year.
From the outset, it's clear that EA Sports is taking a different tact from its sports competitors--instead of packing everything from the PlayStation 2 or Xbox game into the Xbox 360 version, the company is striving to make each platform's edition of Madden a relatively unique playing experience. This is no less true on the Xbox 360 version--during the brief demo we were introduced to one of the game's biggest new features: the Madden gamer level. Madden NFL 07 will be keeping close watch on everything you do in the game--how many games you've played online, for example, or the amount of time you've spent playing in franchise mode or exhibition games--and all of this will contribute to your overall level within the game. For each level you attain, you'll unlock a new Hall of Fame player, such as Jim Thorpe, Barry Sanders, or Walter Payton, which you can then use in the game.
Just as coverage of the NFL's off-season has increased, and things such as pre-NFL scouting combines become regularly televised events (at least on ESPN and the NFL's own cable network), Madden NFL 07 has also increased the focus on practice drills, thanks to a number of new minigames that have made their way into the game. We got to see a number of these new drills during the EA demo. After picking Madden 07 cover star Shaun Alexander, the producer showed off the 40-yard dash minigame. The virtual Alexander crouched down at the start line, and we saw a close-up camera view revealing the accurate modeling and fine skin textures that will compose the NFL player models this year. At the sound of the gun, Alexander shot off the line, controlled by the Madden producer who was rapidly pushing the left and right analog sticks to make Alexander dash forward. A clever picture-in-picture display showed Alexander's face in the upper right corner of the screen, and as he sprinted the last few yards of the dash, his face was visibly straining with the effort. You can get "in the zone" during the 40-yard dash; as you run, the perimeter of the screen will blur a bit, and you might be able to knock off a few tenths from your best time.
Facial representation will pay bigger dividends with another minigame: the bench press. Here, the idea is to (obviously) do as many reps as you can in a single sitting--you'll get a good idea of how tired your player is, or how much pain you're putting him through, by keeping an eye on his face in the PIP screen. After all, you may want your player to progress, but overdoing it in the weight room is a quick way to land a long stay on injured reserve. Beyond these two minigames, Madden 07 will include position-specific drills such as running back versus defense, offensive line versus defensive line, wide receiver versus defensive back, and so on. As the producer told us, all of the minigames in Madden 07 for the Xbox 360 will be more than just excuses to get away from the playing field--they'll also be there to help develop your players or even nurse them back to health if they go on the DL.
Beyond the Xbox 360-specific features, Madden 07 will boast several of the new improvements that are finding their way into the other versions of the game--namely an increased focus on the running game. This is most evident in the lead-blocking controls that let you take control of a blocker--such as a fullback or tight end--before the snap of the ball, and then lead the charge through the defense, opening up holes for your running back. As you block, you can choose to take control of your RB at any time or wait until the game automatically switches you back to the runner once you've made the initial block.
Once you've got control of the runner and have a hole up the middle to streak through, you'll probably enjoy some of the new control tweaks that have been included in the game. Last year's truck stick (which let everyone from Warrick Dunn to Mike Alstott barrel over nearly any defender in their path) has been renamed the "highlight stick" and tweaked to better take into consideration the size and ability of the running back you control when flicking the stick in any direction. Big bruisers such as Larry Johnson will still be liable to roll over defenders, but smaller backs such as Tiki Barber will now be more apt to pull off stiff-arm or dodge moves to make the other team look silly. These control tweaks, coupled with smarter interior blocking from the offensive-line players, should make for a drastically improved ground game this season.
From a presentation standpoint, it seems the development team is still opting for a more "live and in person" point of view when watching the games. As in Madden 06, John Madden and Al Michaels are still out of the broadcast booth, replaced instead by an unnamed announcer who sounds a lot like every local sports-radio homer we've ever listened to. Graphically, Madden 07 doesn't look remarkably different from last year's game on the field, although we couldn't tell if the weird zombie-eyed-quarterback problem was still in the game. One thing we do know: you will be able to challenge plays in Madden 07, which is something you couldn't do in last year's 360 game.
Because we didn't get a chance to try out the game for ourselves, there are still many more questions about Madden NFL 07 than there are answers. Over the coming months, and beginning with E3, we hope to get most of those questions answered, so stay tuned.