Electronic Arts and Florida-based Tiburon Studios' Madden football franchise has become one of the cornerstone's in EA's sports lineup and a leader in the sports genre. The combination of cutting-edge graphics, deep, accessible gameplay, and Tiburon's attempts to build on the solid core of each entry in its subsequent releases has kept fans returning to the games on a regular basis. Given the regularity with which the games have hit the market, the franchise has often been dinged for not always offering enough change. However, a recent visit to EA's Redwood Shores offices let us both take an early look at the latest entry in the Madden line on the PlayStation 2 and also hear about Tiburon's plans for the 2005 game, which offers some unique changes from last year's entry.
For this installment in the series, Tiburon has revisited the gameplay from last year's game and has fine-tuned and tweaked it for 2005. One of the main focuses for this year's game is defense, which critics have said is traditionally not as fun as offense in the game. The revamped gameplay system in Madden NFL 2005 is aiming to mix hardcore and novice elements to provide a new feel for how defense is played. While playing offense in the game has always given players a fair set of options, defense has lagged behind, to a certain degree. This year's installment in the franchise expands on your defensive options with hot routes you can select from that let you tweak individual player's actions via coverage audibles. The resultant tweaking of your defense lets you do so without messing up your safeties, which is quite cool.
Novice players will find that it will be possible to switch-on a number of assists to help make catching and executing plays easier. Once players get comfortable with how the game handles, the various assists can be turned off. Artificial intelligence in the game is also getting sent to school, with the ultimate goal of having players on the field exhibit better pursuit behavior while also coordinating movement better and more aggressively. Amid all the fine-tuning to playing defense, Tiburon has also managed to throw in a little something extra for more-seasoned players to master in the form of the hit stick, which is a move assigned to one of the analog sticks that lets you hit players.
However, this handy move will have a price attached to it to ensure that games don't devolve into smacking matches. You'll have to line up your player with an opponent to land a blow that will increase the chance for a turnover (but not for an injury risk) if you connect. While this is all well and good if you connect, you're pretty much up a creek if you miss. While the exact look of the mechanic is still being ironed out, Tiburon is planning to have an onscreen icon pop up to keep you informed as to when you can line up for the move. As far as modes go, the EA and Tiburon reps on hand mentioned that the online mode in this year's game would contain new features and that its franchise mode would offer some surprises as well.
The graphics in this year's game are getting a number of upgrades and refinements that help the game's visual presentation stay in tune with its gameplay. Character models are being improved and sport enhanced detail, with their upper torsos displaying much of the work done. You'll notice improved definition in player pads and arms, which gives them a much more muscular appearance. Lighting is also being beefed up so that game players will better see the character models, and stadiums will be better lighted, thanks to effects such as light blooming. Subtle touches, such as a redone sky and refined stadiums, are being tightened up to offer stronger visuals. Furthermore, animation is being kicked up a notch by adding new bits for the success and failure of hit-stick moves. While the version of the PlayStation 2 game we saw was pretty early, it was already looking sharp, albeit with a sporadically inconsistent frame rate that will obviously be fixed by the time it ships.
Our brief, early look at Madden NFL 2005 finds the game headed in a promising direction. The visuals are well on the way toward living up to the high standards of the franchise, and the work being done to the gameplay should make for a compelling experience. Given the game's position as an institution in the sports genre, it's nice to see that Tiburon is still trying to tweak the formula. Madden NFL 2005 is currently slated to ship this fall for the GameCube, PlayStation 2, PC, and Xbox. Look for more on the game in the coming months.