Madden NFL 2002 Preview

Football season is nearly here, and so is the latest iteration of the venerable Madden series.

Plays are now letter-perfect, even in slow motion.

For more than a decade now, the Madden series of football simulations has defined sports gaming. Many sports gamers have grown up with this jewel in the EA Sports crown, which made its debut in 1989 on the Apple II computer as John Madden Football. Fans have eagerly followed the line of titles ever since, playing versions of the game on such disparate systems as the Commodore 64, Sega Genesis, Sony PlayStation, and, of course, today's modern PC. It has achieved near-legendary status, thanks to the national obsession that is the NFL and a level of programming quality that remains second to none...despite the grousing of a few hard-core types.

Classic Madden camera angles are back.

Adding to the mystique--not to mention the millions of sales--is Madden NFL 2002. The most recent edition in the series to be released for the PC is due to arrive on store shelves during the last week of the month. It's coming with all the glitz and gloss we've grown to expect from an EA Sports game, along with a wealth of added gameplay options. Recent builds make it clear that the overall experience has been greatly enhanced since last year's rather lackluster effort, which was panned by a few critics for AI miscues and wonky multiplayer support.

Sound good? It should, though some will undoubtedly be put out by the fact that this year's edition of Madden for the PC looks and plays a lot like last year's edition of Madden for the PlayStation 2. The two games are virtual twins, in fact. EA Sports reps at this past spring's Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles made no bones about the way that the "new" PC title reuses many of the elements that went into the PlayStation 2 football extravaganza that received so many accolades last winter. Sony addicts will be able to tell this from even the most cursory glance at the game.

Yet this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Critics and consumers universally lauded the PlayStation 2 version of Madden 2001 as better than its PC counterpart in almost every way, so at least computer owners are getting a title that is superior to what they played last year. Some even went so far as to call it the best football game ever made. While you might be justified in making a few gripes concerning the game being a port, you can't complain about this sterling lineage.

Dedicated computer gamers coming to Madden 2002 without experiencing its PlayStation 2 forerunner will find many improvements, both overt and subtle. Fitting into the former category is the new graphics engine. Last year's PC game engine has been completely replaced with the more powerful technology that powered the console version of the game. This might not have been absolutely necessary, considering the undeniable beauty of Madden 2001 on the PC, though few will make an issue of this since the new visuals are absolutely stunning. The NFL is showcased here with the detail and grandeur previously provided only by the good people at NFL Films.

Player Upgrades

It's become a stock-in-trade phrase to compare good-looking sports titles to television broadcasts, but in this case, it is absolutely true. The player models are almost exact replicas of their real-world counterparts, regarding size, shape, and motion. You'll never mistake Randy Moss for Tony Siragusa, because of girth, height, movement, and even changing facial expressions that go so far as to invest individual players with personality. The textures used on player uniforms provide remarkable depth and a TV sheen perhaps unequaled in computer sports games. Little touches abound, from helmet reflections and uniforms getting progressively dirtier to grass getting stuck in a player's face mask and sideline officials and players jumping out of the way when the action gets a little too close for comfort. The animations are far more fluid than ever before in a Madden game for the PC. Players pivot, run, juke, jump, throw, and catch in the same way as real gridiron pros.

Teams can now be fully customized.

The plays themselves look like they're supposed to as well, for the first time in the modern history of the series. Recent editions featured lots of "magic" plays, where wide receivers, for example, would somehow summon a thrown ball from their shoelaces to their outstretched hands. The results of plays seemed either predetermined or wholly randomized in a way that the graphical engine just couldn't reproduce in a realistic fashion. Thankfully, that's no longer the case. Slow the game down and advance through a passing play frame by frame and you'll see not a single violation of the rules of physics. This makes a huge difference in terms of suspending your disbelief. It also adds to the realistic feel of the game and somehow affords you more satisfaction when you make a great catch or pull off a daring interception.

This year's box cover star, Dante Culpepper.

Perhaps the most striking visual embellishment in Madden 2002 is the stadium art. The sterile surroundings of the recent past have been replaced by dramatic settings evocative of the real facilities that are jammed with fans on any given Sunday. Part of this is due to superior artwork and a greater focus on providing a football atmosphere, and part of it is due to the inclusion of a real-time lighting system. This noteworthy tweak allows for the passage of time during each game. Play during the day and you'll notice the sun moving across the sky with each series of downs, changing the angle of shadows falling across the field. This provides great eye candy, as well as added drama for those last-minute drives, mounted as the sun edges below the top of the stadium and the shadows grow long.

Oddly enough, the audio doesn't seem to be nearly as captivating as the video. Although the game bears the name of the NFL's best-known (and most lovable) loudmouth, John Madden seems barely there. Both Big John and his play-by-play calling partner, Pat Summerall, contribute little of interest from the booth during games played with our build. It's a real shame that EA Sports didn't record some new lines from the duo during the eight months that passed between the release of the PlayStation 2 game and this one. This seems like a total waste of the license in this regard. The in-game effects and crowd noise appear to be quite well done, however.

Changes in Gameplay

Of course, presentation values alone don't provide much in the way of entertainment. EA Sports hasn't forgotten the football foundation that everything must be built upon, and it has beefed up the gameplay in many areas. The most significant new wrinkle is a measured pace that provides the game with a much more realistic feel. This is detrimental to those who want their 350-pound linemen to zip around with the grace and speed of an Eddie George, but beneficial to those who want more of a simulation than an arcade game. All movement is further governed by a physics model that takes momentum into account and eliminates the unattainable moves and jukes that were such a huge part of recent Madden games.

Replay sequences are as detailed as a TV broadcast.

The emphasis on realism extends to other aspects of the game as well. Defensive play has been significantly tweaked to provide cunning human players with more of a challenge. This shows up most notably with a defensive line that seems to be more skilled at defensive blocking and a tightened secondary that appears to be a lot more adept at knocking down passes. At the same time, however, the ludicrous number of interceptions that plagued Madden 2001 were absent in the games we played. One-handed grabs from falling down cornerbacks seem to have completely, and mercifully, disappeared.

Another chapter in the storied rivalry.

The changes on the other side of the ball are just as noteworthy. Computer teams remain aggressive, though they aren't nearly as suicidal as they were last year. Take a sizable lead into the second half and the AI will be content with mounting a conservative comeback. This is in stark, welcome opposition to the way that the computer would throw everything but the kitchen sink at you in previous editions, trying such crazy stunts as fake punts from inside its own 20 yard line in serious deficit situations. There still seems to be a few clock issues, though these seem so common in football simulations that one practically expects them at this point.

All the main options from Madden 2001 are back for the new year, including the popular franchise play and Internet multiplayer modes. The latter has apparently been tweaked to provide faster, more stable online play. Added to the mix is a create-a-team utility that allows for the creation of a team logo and uniforms, the Houston Texans expansion club that begins play next season (albeit without authentic uniforms, since they haven't been finalized yet), and the ability to export franchise teams so that they can play in exhibition games.

Madden NFL 2002 could very well be the best football game ever released for the PC. That significant compliment will come with a significant caveat, though, as there will almost certainly be more advanced versions of the program available for play on the PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox, and Nintendo GameCube not long after the launch of the computer edition. Still, it should be hard to complain too much over what's shaping up to be an undeniably accurate and exciting depiction of NFL football.

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