EA Sports' Madden series has always been a cornerstone of sports gaming. Madden was last year's best-selling football game by a wide margin, and yet fierce competition from Sega Sports' excellent NFL 2K3 apparently made the developers at EA Sports sit up and take notice. As such, Madden NFL 2004 is looking to be much more than just a roster upgrade, and it will make a number of significant enhancements to last year's game. Are they just adding bells and whistles? In an early demo of the game's new features, the developers expressed to us that the design of Madden NFL 2004 is squarely focused on improving gameplay and adding depth.
For example, the game will feature what's being called the owner mode, which is an even more robust version of the franchise modes that sports gamers are familiar with. Owner mode is a like a full-fledged strategy game, in which you have an extremely fine level of control over all aspects of your franchise--not just signing new players, but being responsible for hiring a full staff, setting prices for tickets and merchandise, and more. The object of the owner mode is to build a successful franchise--one that makes money. As your franchise grows more lucrative, you'll be able to hire more proficient coaches, and even move your team to its own stadium in the city of your choice. You'll be able to customize your own stadium, and essentially build you football franchise in any way you could imagine.
On the field, the developers are adding what they call "play maker control," which will allow you to tweak plays on the fly. You'll be able to flip the play, control the receiver, focus your defense, and more. Madden NFL 2004 will also be a faster-paced game in some ways. For instance, as soon as a play is dead, the screen splits to allow you to call the next shot and keep the momentum going. The playbooks are also being totally retooled, and you'll now see team-specific playbooks that should make the AI teams even more authentic--in part because EA Sports is claiming that much work was done to improve the AI itself.
The series is undergoing visual enhancements as well. Players look noticeably more lifelike and now can be seen with graphical details like tattoos, different hairstyles, half-sleeve shirts, different helmet styles, and more. All-new blocking animations have been added to the game, as well as new catches, tackles, gang tackles, stiff-arms, swats, and pushes out of bounds. You'll even see receivers tracking the ball in flight.
Online play will be undergoing numerous improvements also. EA would not comment on Xbox Live support, but the PlayStation 2 version of Madden 2004 will have Xbox Live-style features such as buddy lists, chat, and voice chat using a USB headset. The developers have apparently gone to great lengths to better balance the game and mitigate the possibility of online cheating, and they will also offer more extensive online stats tracking for those who like to have bragging rights.
We've seen an early build of the PS2 version of Madden 2004 in action, but the game is also headed to the Xbox, GameCube, PC, and even the Game Boy Advance (though the latter version will understandably be different from the others). Stay tuned for more information on what's looking like a significantly overhauled version of an already great game of football.