This year's Electronic Entertainment Expo falls in July, and as a result, game developers have a bit more time to tune their games in preparation for the show. There are few better examples of what that extra spit and polish can mean for a game than the most recent build of Madden NFL 08 we played at EA Los Angeles during the publisher's summer pre-E3 event. The game, due for release later this summer, felt even better than the last time we played it back in May.
Overall, the game felt more stable than the earlier build we played. Many of the graphical hitches that are fairly typical of work-in-progress software were few and far between in the build we played last week. The result was a steadier pace of play, and one that made the already sterling player animations that much more effective in the game. If it's been a while since you've played a Madden game, Madden NFL 08 might surprise you because player animations have improved--and not just in variety. Sure, this year's game is going to have more tackle, juke, and catch animations than previous games in the series, but thanks to a new branching system that determines how one animation transition into another, the variety of animations from one play to the next should be more true to life than ever before.
The weapons feature in Madden NFL 08 is new to the series and represents an attempt by the developers to separate the best players in the game from those who are merely good. Let's be honest, while any player lining up a running back in the NFL is a great athlete, there's a wide gulf between a player like Shaun Alexander of the Seahawks and Tyson Thompson of the Cowboys. That, of course, is why Shaun Alexander is one of the biggest weapons the Seahawks have and why Thompson will be fighting for a position on the team this year. There will be 24 weapons in the game, and all will have specific strengths. Players denoted as weapons will also have icons underneath them so that you'll be able to tell who the stars are, even if you aren't familiar with a particular team's roster.
In one exhibition game we played between the Seattle Seahawks and the Chicago Bears, we learned firsthand what a powerful weapon Shaun Alexander can be on the field; the former Alabama star bowled over our defensive line several times on his way to the end zone. As one producer told us, you have to go low on Alexander, which means you should tackle him low by pushing down on the right stick. This will cause a defender to attempt to take out a power runner's legs. For smaller backs or receivers, pushing the stick high will cause your defender to hit the ball carrier high, possibly resulting in a forced fumble. However, raw power isn't Alexander's only asset--the improved inside running game had Shaun dipping and diving between linemen as he looked to take advantage of even small holes to gain some extra yards.
Just as weapons in Madden 08 have their specific strengths, the game also provides counters you can use to offset those talents. For such power runners as Alexander, you can take out their legs, but receivers also have their weaknesses. For example, a big play receiver might be vulnerable to a big hit; you can even choose to "spotlight" a receiver who's tearing you up during a game. To do so, you pull the right trigger before the snap, press the face button corresponding to the receiver you wish to focus on, and your team will automatically put extra coverage on him.
Rewards for good play in Madden NFL 08 will always be under construction. This is because as you reach new milestones, such as passing/rushing a certain number of yards or gaining a certain number of sacks in a single game, you'll be constructing trophies. These trophies will eventually live in your trophy case in the game's front end, which will also be decorated with your favorite NFL team's colors and logo, as well as video clips from the team. You'll also be building championship rings, one level of bling at a time, as you progress. Each ring will consist of five separate components, which you will earn over time.
Another bit of presentation fun we saw in our time with the game was the inclusion of Marshall Faulk providing pregame and postgame commentary on games. Faulk is the former St. Louis Rams running back, current NFL Network commentator, and surefire Hall of Famer who will have a big presence in the presentation. He'll even go so far as to make pregame predictions on the winner in some cases.
With the tangible improvements made to the animation and gameplay, there's a lot to be excited about with Madden NFL 08. This is considering we still haven't had time with the updated NFL Superstar mode or the new franchise mode. Rest assured, we'll be bringing you much more on these modes with our continuing Madden NFL 08 coverage in the coming months, so stay tuned.