Madden NFL 2005 Hands-On Impressions

We preview a near-final version of EA's handheld football game.

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Basketball season has just ended, and baseball is in full swing, but with NFL minicamps under way already, a lot of people are already beginning to think about football. As the makers of the Madden series, however, Electronic Arts is always thinking about football. EA recently sent us a near-finished version of Madden NFL 2005 for the Game Boy Advance. We took the game for a brief spin to check out all the new features.

The GBA version of Madden NFL 2005's most important feature is its new gameplay engine.

One of the criticisms leveled at last year's handheld Madden was that it wasn't all that much different from the previous version. One of the biggest weaknesses, in particular, with last year's game was that the engine was pretty slow and prone to momentary jerkiness. For Madden NFL 2005, EA has completely overhauled the gameplay engine. It actually does seem a lot faster than last year's game, with the frame rate remaining fairly stable over the course of a game.

However, those who are new to handheld football still shouldn't expect the same pinpoint precision control that console football games offer. The Madden series on GBA is very much akin to football games as they were in the days of the Super Nintendo and Genesis, where players looked and felt as though they were ice-skating over the field rather than running across it. Madden NFL 2005 on the GBA will be no different, because it takes a deft touch on the D pad to ensure your ball carrier doesn't get caught up behind his own blockers. It was also somewhat tricky for us to see what was going on when our player ran into a stacked line.

Despite these qualms, the game will offer all the trappings you'd expect from a football game. There's a large offensive playbook with basic formations and even alternate packages. For example, you can line up in a normal I-formation or go with the "big" package I-formation, which swaps out one wide receiver for a second tight end. The standard shotgun set lines up four WRs, two on either side of the line, but you can also change it out for the three receiver/two running back package. In all, there will be well more than 100 plays to choose from, for both offense and defense, but all teams seem to share the same playbook. You can also call audibles prior to the snap on both offense and defense, and you can even shift the line or the defensive backs. What's new this year is that you can call a hot route for individual receivers on offense. So if you see a matchup you like, you can tweak the route of any of your receivers by changing it to a go, a curl, an in, or an out pattern.

The presentation in Madden NFL 2005 is also much improved, with a television-like information window in the upper left-hand corner of the screen that tells you the current score and quarter. Prior to the snap, the window gives you the down and distance figures, as well as the game clock, while the play clock shows up in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen. Al Michaels and John Madden offer up a handful of one-liners as commentary, but these seem to get repetitive pretty quickly.

The season mode has also been improved a bit. You'll have to deal with a salary cap now, and you'll be able to execute trades and free agent signings. Stats are tracked for every team over the course of the season, and individual players will receive awards each week for offense and defense. The top performer in the Monday Night Football game will also receive the "John Madden Horse Trailer" award, which fans of ABC's venerable institution have become familiar with in recent years.

There are more than 100 plays in the game's playbook.

Perhaps the most interesting improvement is the addition of a couple of new modes. A practice mode will allow you to refine your play execution by letting you can run plays over and over again. The two-minute drill mode tests how many points you can rack up on offense inside of two minutes. You can gain points by gaining yards on the ground or through the air--and, of course, by scoring. The game is over when time runs out or if you turn the ball over. Rounding out the new features is the situation mode, which will allow you to set up a game in just about any situation. Set the teams, the score, the time left on the clock, down and distance, field position, and time-outs left, and you can relive moments from the past season. You'll be able to see if you can mimic the Saints' amazing near-comeback against the Jaguars in week 15 of last season. Or how about Donovan McNabb and the Eagles' conversion of 4th and 26 against the Packers in last year's divisional playoffs?

Overall, Madden NFL 2005 feels like it will be a step forward for the series on the Game Boy Advance, with a faster gameplay engine and the addition of new features and game modes. Whether or not it can rise closer to the level of its home console brethren remains to be seen. But for those who can't leave the house without bringing along a fix of video football, Madden NFL 2005 just might be the answer.

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