People like to complain a great deal about how sports games frequently fail to change significantly from year to year, especially in this period where publishers are slowly but steadily moving developmental focus from current-gen systems to the next generation of consoles. However, it's unlikely that anyone will be accusing Madden NFL 07 for the Wii of any such wrongdoing. Admittedly, Madden for the Wii looks very similar to the Xbox, PlayStation 2, and GameCube versions of Madden released earlier this year, but by taking advantage of the Wii's controls, this version looks to fundamentally change how you play football games. The question is, is that change for the better? If our time spent with the game earlier today is any indication, it very well could be.
When you first boot up Madden on the Wii, the game presents you with the option of using the standard control stick navigation for the menu screens or the Wii's pointer to select options. We found using the control stick a bit easier, but for those all kooky for Wii functionality, the option is there. This is indicative of how the game itself is laid out. Though gameplay controls are built strictly with the Wii's motion sensing in mind, there are a lot of subtle design differences in this version built to tone down the learning curve of this new play style. For one, the play-calling menus now feature a new submenu for easier play calling. You'll still have access to the usual play menus, which are broken down by formations and types, as well as the Ask Madden feature, but with this new menu, you can select using base-level descriptions of the play types, like draw plays; short, medium, and long passes; inside and outside runs; and so on. These sections don't contain the usual hundreds of plays available, with closer to 80 or 90 plays total, but for those who aren't necessarily accustomed to the ins and outs of how Madden has played over the last few years, it makes for a nice, easy introduction to the system.
This is the audience EA is banking on for Madden on the Wii. Though all the typical depth of the standard football engine is there for the usual fans, the new gameplay design is geared toward the new FreeMotion controls and creating a unique new football experience that's relatively easy to get into. For the sake of easing people into the controls quickly, EA has included a tutorial system that gives you the basics on passing, running, kicking, and tackling. These tutorials are based within the types of minigames that Madden fans will instantly recognize from the minicamp mode. When learning passing, you throw to dummy receivers that light up, depending on who you're supposed to throw to, and with the running and tackling game, you either play as a running back, who fights the defense to get to the end zone, or a linebacker, who tries to stop the runner.
Doing these actions with the Wii controller initially feels counterintuitive, since experienced players will likely be going for their usual button assignments that simply don't exist here. Instead, all the basic actions are mapped to quick, easy movements that after a time become very easy to handle. For instance, passing requires a quick flick forward with the Wiimote to pass to the intended receiver. However, if you want to create a speedier bullet pass or a slower lob pass, you flick faster or slower to designate appropriately. You can also switch receivers simply by pressing the button assigned to the receiver you want to throw to and then flicking forward. It might sound a little complicated, but after a few plays, it becomes a breeze.
Kicking is similarly easy, as you'll simply press the A button to start the kick and then flick the Wiimote upward to set your power, as well as the slice of the kick. Tackling works fundamentally as it has in the past, with basic options to side strafe, dive tackle, and such. However, you can do a power move to take a ballcarrier down by holding down the Z button on the nunchuk and pressing both the Wiimote and nunchuk forward. Perhaps the most complex action to get used to is the new running controls. Though you can still pull off button-based spin moves and ball-cover moves, jukes and stiff arms are mapped to the nunchuk and Wiimote respectively. You simply move either controller left or right to perform the desired move in the desired direction. Timing can be tricky--if you're too late in performing a move and get tackled, a display will pop up onscreen telling you that you registered a late move. Similarly, if the game recognizes movement but isn't pushed far enough to pull off a move, it will intuitively recognize this movement and do the move for you. It's a tough adjustment from the usual running controls, but it isn't so complex that you won't be able to figure it out after a time.
There are plenty of advanced moves that don't come up during the tutorial, as well. By moving both controllers upward while a ball is in the air, you can try to catch the ball manually with a receiver or with a defender. Simply waiving the controller in the air will let defenders swat at passes. You can even use the controllers to block via the lead-blocker controls introduced earlier in the year. For actions like hot routes and sending players in motion, you simply point the Wiimote at the player you want to select, and a menu pops up giving you a myriad of options for what you might want to do. As you play games, little tutorial invites will pop up over time, asking you if you want to be shown how to do different actions. It's neat how many different actions are mapped to motion controls, and you'll undoubtedly want to take advantage of some of these tutorials.
What's especially cool about the game's controls is that they don't require exaggerated movement. We were able to pull off all our moves with simple flicks and twists while sitting comfortably in our chair. You can do more exaggerated movements and get the same effect, but you don't have to overexert yourself playing Madden on the Wii. We can also comfortably say that the game does a very good job of registering all your movements. We didn't fumble around trying to get movements to register or the pointer to point to the right item. It seems to work how it should at this stage of development.
As far as content goes, Madden 07 for the Wii will include every feature found in the GameCube version of Madden from earlier in the year. Obviously, that means no online play, but you'll get the full franchise mode, minicamp mode, superstar mode, and even some new four-player minigames, which unfortunately we weren't able to check out yet. The visuals seem comparable to Madden 07 on the Xbox. The game runs in 480p, and you may notice some more distinctive shadows and player-model details than you would find in the other console versions. However, this is functionally the same engine as the current-gen console versions, and for the most part, the game looks very much like it did on those versions earlier this year.
It's about time that something inventive came out of sports gaming that didn't involve right analog sticks and prettier graphics. It certainly remains to be seen how well Madden on the Wii holds up over time, as we've only played it in short bursts thus far. But if our time spent with it today is any indication, EA may have something very cool on its hands with this version of Madden. Madden NFL 07 will ship alongside the Wii launch on November 19. We'll be sure to bring you more on the game, especially its multiplayer functions, in the coming weeks.