EA's Madden NFL franchise made its PlayStation Portable debut last year, not long after its console counterparts had launched. Though it was encumbered by some bugs, control issues, and painfully long loading times, you couldn't help but be impressed with the game. 3D football on a handheld system had never looked so good, and that EA was able to cram in just about every notable gameplay feature and game mode found in the console games was even more impressive. With that much on offer last year, it's not surprising that this year's game, Madden NFL 07, feels a lot like last year's game, but with a fresh coat of paint. There isn't much in the way of new modes or features, but some of the major issues, like the overly easy running game and the onslaught of loading times, have definitely been improved. However, the tradeoff is that now there are some new bugs and quirks to contend with, some of which are less pervasive than those in last year's game and some of which are more so.
Madden 07 on the PSP includes just about every gameplay feature that was added to this year's console games, such as the highlight stick, a new kick meter, and lead blocking controls. The highlight stick is a new version of the truck stick used for runners on offense. Here, you can use the analog stick (while pressing triangle at the same time) to pull off the sorts of crazy jukes and steps that star running backs are so well known for, and on top of that, depending on the type of back you're playing, you can opt to use more-powerful moves or more-finesse-based maneuvers. This feels like the natural evolution of last year's truck stick, though most experienced Madden players will be able to get by just as easily using the button-based moves. Besides, the implementation of the feature on the PSP is kind of clunky. For moves that require precise timing, having to hold down a button and use the stick at the same time doesn't work particularly well for those who haven't practiced relentlessly. But if you take the time to learn how to use the stick, you can be a very hard runner to stop.
The new lead blocking controls are likely to inspire some new tactics from all types of players. While on offense, you can opt to switch your controlled player to any of the available blockers during a running play. This includes offensive linemen, tight ends, fullbacks, or whoever else might be blocking on a play. When blocking, you can do standard blocks, or you can even get dirty and do some mean-spirited cut blocks. This is an interesting mechanic, because it stops you from having to rely on CPU blockers, which, as any experienced player will tell you, are not always the most reliable players on the field. You can also quickly switch back to control the running back once you've laid down your block, which is good, because the CPU running back doesn't always manage to find the holes you're creating. At first, you may find yourself unable to effectively use this feature, because setting up the right blocks isn't always intuitive. But after some time, this control method gives the running game an interesting new perspective, and those who love finding new strategies are bound to eat this up.
The new kick meter is probably the most accurate representation of kicking available in a game thus far, though the PSP version of it is simplified compared with the console versions. With this meter, you use the typical arrow to line up your angle and then press down on the analog stick to set up your power. The meter quickly fills up, and then you press forward on the right stick to set the power as well as your accuracy. The difference between this meter and the console one is that here, you don't have to be as precise with the angle at which you press up to set the accuracy. It's not quite as realistic as on consoles, but it's perfectly suitable for the PSP, especially given how sensitive the analog stick can be.
Most of the other changes to Madden 07 involve making the game feel a bit better than it did last year. The running game is no longer the breeze it was in last year's Madden. You can't turn in a completely opposite direction right on a dime, as you could before, and there seems to be a bit more momentum to your running. The running game is still notably easier than it is on consoles, especially with the addition of the new running controls, but you can't completely slice and dice running defenses at will this time around. Loading times have also been improved in several key areas. Getting through play-calling menus and basic game menus is a quicker process than it was last year. That's not to say it's always instantaneous, but you'll generally find yourself waiting around less than you would in last year's game, especially when you're actually playing a game.
Unfortunately, these corrected issues are counterbalanced by some new problems. Bugs, specifically, pop up in some key areas of the gameplay. One issue of note is that some pass plays simply don't have the right button icons assigned to certain receivers. When you zoom out to view the routes your receivers will be taking, slot receivers will have one button icon associated with each one. When you snap the ball, those icons effectively reverse, so you're basically getting the wrong information prior to the snap. Again, this is only on certain pass plays, but we noticed it multiple times throughout every game we played. Another issue involves artificial intelligence quarterbacks. Every now and again, an AI quarterback at the beginning of a drive will just sit behind center and let the play clock run down. This will happen over and over until you decline a delay-of-game penalty. After that, he goes right back to normal. While this issue obviously can be worked around, and if you're attentive, you can get around the incorrect passing icon issue too, these are the sorts of things that should have been picked up on and fixed before the game hit shelves.
It's also worth noting that not all the pacing problems of the first game have been fixed. The franchise mode, in particular, still suffers from a very slow-going pace. For the most part, the franchise mode is identical to last year's, with just a couple of more basic options added to the offseason menu. You don't get all the snazzy little bells and whistles from the console versions, like the Tony Bruno radio show or owner mode, but what's here is functional. The problem is that simulating seasons or offseason tasks still takes a painfully long time. If you ever want to simulate an entire season, be prepared to leave your PSP sitting somewhere for a good long while and find something else to do in the interim, as the process tends to chug along at a snail's pace. There's also one dumb interface quirk that was a problem last year and that should have been addressed this year but wasn't. Specifically, it still takes forever and a day to tweak contract offers to free agents. Like last year, you have to tap the directional pad repeatedly to up a contract amount by $10,000, and often you'll be trying to increase salaries by millions of dollars at a time. There's no option to hold down the button and speed it up, nor is there any way to see exactly what other teams are offering contract-wise, meaning you'll have to start all over again if your offer isn't high enough.
Aside from those quirks, the franchise mode is a fun and fairly deep mode. In addition to franchise, all the minicamp games from last year have returned, including all of the PSP-exclusive games. Of course, not all of them are great, but there are more than enough fun ones to take part in. The game also includes a new minigame called End 2 End. Here, you rotate the PSP 90 degrees counterclockwise so the D pad is on the bottom. The concept here is that you're a ball carrier who has just caught a kickoff at the end of the field. The game automatically starts the run back for you, and in your way are a series of would-be tacklers. You use the D pad buttons to go up, down, left, or right of the tackler, depending on what type of tackle he's going for. For example, if a guy is going low, you should leap over him. Game speed and the number of tacklers increase with each level, and you earn points based on how quickly you read and react to the upcoming tackle. It's kind of a neat game, though it's hardly worth spending lots of time with. But for a pick-up-and-play amusement, it does the job.
Graphically, Madden 07 is a touch smoother than last year's game, but fundamentally it's almost exactly like Madden 06. Tackles and running back moves look a little less jerky this year, and generally the flow of a game looks closer to the PlayStation 2 version than its predecessor ever did, but the player models, arenas and other various visual elements are basically carbon copies, so don't expect any big new visual flair. Audio is similarly untouched. Sound effects are still good, the soundtrack is the same oddly mixed emo rock/rap combo from the console versions, and Al Michaels and John Madden still provide commentary. However, we noticed some occasional weird inconsistencies between what the commentators would call versus what was happening on the field.
As much as Madden NFL 07 is a better game than 06 was on the PSP last year, it's still saddled with too many annoying problems to make it wholly recommendable. That's too bad, because with the fixes this version does have, as well as the new gameplay features, it generally plays a captivating and engaging game of football. But with the random gameplay bugs and interface quirks, it's not as good as it could be. For the serious Madden enthusiast who demands a handheld version of the game, Madden NFL 07 is worth checking out, but be prepared to put up with some irritations.