Madden NFL 2005: The Offensive GameAs one of the video game industry's biggest franchises, there will always be a lot of buzz about Electronic Arts' Madden NFL. This year's edition, Madden NFL 2005, has picked up considerable attention because it will be the first time the series will be playable over Xbox Live. PlayStation 2 owners will also have the option of picking up a special edition version that includes special videos and classic editions of Madden. Recently, Electronic Arts invited GameSpot over to its offices for a brief play test of an early version of the game on both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox.
Though Madden is the best-selling sports game year in and year out, the developers at Tiburon have put in a good deal of effort to upgrade the game's graphics. This is particularly noticeable with player models, which have much-improved shading on uniforms and skin. In close-ups, you can easily spot added creases on jerseys, obvious musculature on arms, and shoulder pads that pop. Stadiums and skies look great, with nice details included such as Tampa Bay's pirate ship. The lighting has also seen an overhaul, giving the game a cleaner overall look. In games played at dusk, for example, you'll notice players casting long shadows. Furthermore, for those who like playing in messy conditions, Madden NFL 2005's weather effects won't disappoint. They include precipitation that falls in the direction of the wind and player steps that cause splashes on the ground when it rains or snows. Players will even slide a good distance along the ground after being tackled on a wet field. You can select your weather and time-of-day preferences prior to a match via a series of slider bars.
There have also been some tweaks made to the game's presentation. At the playcall screen, you'll sometimes be treated to a replay of the last snap, which is shown in a horizontal slice window above the playbook. It's sometimes difficult to see the action with the exaggerated widescreen aspect ratio of this slice, but it certainly offers a stylistic effect. You'll also see a different kind of replay after particularly good passing plays. In these cases, a split-screen replay comes up with two vertically-aligned windows side by side. One shows the quarterback dropping back for the pass, while the other window shows the receiver running his pattern--and ultimately making his catch. The game will then switch to a full-screen replay to show the run after the catch. On the audio side of things, Monday Night Football veteran Al Michaels will be back in Madden NFL 2005 to anchor the play-by-play announcing, with John Madden, of course, handling color commentary. Jill Arrington joins the mix this year, as the "sideline reporter," giving injury updates and other reports during play stoppages.
The first thing experienced players will notice in the game is a change to its kicking setup. The game still requires three button presses to perform a kick, but this time around you'll be given numeric ratings on how well you executed it with regard to power and accuracy. If you manage to mistime the last button press badly and miss the accuracy window completely, the meter will report a "bad kick," and your kicker or punter will shank the ball out-of-bounds.
Once you're at the line of scrimmage and are ready to take the snap, you'll now be able to call a formation shift. Formation shifts are like audibles, but they don't alter the upcoming play. Instead, players simply move from one position to another--before the snap. For example, you can choose to empty your backfield and have your back line up as a receiver so he can get out into the pattern faster. Want to take the tight end off the line to put him into the slot? You can do that too. You can also put any receiver you like in motion to further analyze the defense or take advantage of overloads on one side.
When you finally have the ball in your hand, you'll notice that the ball carrier seems to have more weight to him. Tiburon has added what they call "momentum-based running." Basically this means that the faster you are running in one direction, the slower your cuts will be to change direction. In practice, what you see onscreen is your running back or receiver taking an extra half step or so to slow his momentum before cutting to the other direction. The faster you are running, and the more drastic the change in direction, the more this feature comes into play. If you try to make a really drastic cut or try to run in a circle, you may even see the ball carrier lower an arm to the ground to maintain balance. This change will give a better chance for the defense to make a solid hit, and it requires the offense to use the button-based jukes more to try to shake defenders.
On the passing side, new plays with option routes have been introduced this year. You'll be able to spot these in the playbook because certain receiver routes will sometimes have a pair of dotted lines extending from the end of the primary route. Usually these option routes come off the end of curls, so the receiver can alter the pass pattern into a corner, post, or go route after the end of his curl. In practice, you don't have control over which option the receiver will take. Tiburon explained that the artificially intelligent receiver will decide for himself which option route he'll take, if any, based on the type of coverage applied to him. In our brief play session, the receiver chose not to use any of his option routes and just sat down in the curl route every time.
Before our play session ended, we took some time out from the game to try out Madden NFL 2005's new create-a-fan feature. This feature allows you to build a fan who will appear in crowd shots during the game. You'll be able to tweak aspects such as headgear, tops, bottoms, face paint, and what your fan is holding in his or her hand. Each pro franchise has team-specific special gear, so it's possible to create a Raider fan with spiked shoulder pads, a skull mask, and a shield in hand. Special Viking fan gear includes horned helmets, plate armor, and a cape, while fans of the Redskins can create a Hogette, complete with beauty queen sash, pig nose, and a turkey leg in hand.
From our time playing early versions of the game on both the PlayStation 2 and Xbox, Madden NFL 2005 seems to be shaping up quite well. Stay tuned to GameSpot in the coming weeks for further details on the game, which will include emphases on the myriad changes on the defensive side of the ball and additions to the franchise mode.