The exciting 1999-2000 NFL football season came and went. Steve Young played the final game in his illustrious NFL football career, Barry Sanders retired from the Detroit Lions, and the Rams unexpectedly won the Super Bowl. Now the start of the 2000-2001 season is imminent, and with it comes the latest in EA Sports' Madden NFL football series, Madden NFL 2001. But compared with the 1999-2000 NFL season, Madden NFL 2001 fails to generate as much excitement or deliver as many surprises.
The most apparent and much-needed change to the Madden series featured in Madden 2001 is the improved graphics. Madden 2001 uses player models that are significantly more detailed than those found in last year's game. Linemen now have sizable jiggling stomachs, linebackers are muscular brutes, and wide receivers are lanky. The players' facial features are now clearly visible, and some of the real-life players' faces are in the game. You'll also notice other minor details, such as reflective helmets. These details on the new player models are welcome additions, though Madden 2001 doesn't give you much of a chance to admire them unless there's a replay or a touchdown celebration.
The stadiums also look somewhat better than before because of the crisper textures and less pixelated fields. However, Madden 2001's upgraded visuals don't come without a price. Though it ran quickly on GameSpot's primary Pentium III test system, those with slower computers will have a difficult time getting a consistently smooth frame rate out of Madden 2001.
Unfortunately, there really isn't any new animation to complement Madden 2001's new visuals. The motion-captured jukes, tackles, first-down taunts, and back-foot passes are all taken from Madden 2000, and they seem out of place in Madden 2001.
The in-game commentary is equally disappointing. Pat Summerall does a fine job of throwing in some generic play-by-play lines interspersed with a few specific observations, but John Madden is nearly nonexistent. In a five-minute-quarter game, John Madden spoke only a few times. His lack of participation leaves much to be desired if you're a fan of John Madden's unique anecdotes and observations.
But the real appeal of the Madden series has always been its gameplay. In this respect, Madden 2001 is very similar to its predecessor. You can still choose from all the standard formations like pro-form, shotgun, and the weak or strong I, but with the addition of actual coaches and their playbooks, some teams won't have access to certain formations unless you change or edit the coach's playbook to accommodate the formations you prefer. As in Madden 2000, most formations in 2001 offer a number of different sets, so you have access to a wider array of plays within each different formation. It's not really new, but the user interface for play calling is still easy to use.
The running game in the Madden series has vastly improved over the past few years, and apparently an effort was made to refine it even further in Madden 2001 - but a few major problems prevent it from being completely successful. Thanks to the improved computer-controlled blocking on the offensive line, it's much easier to get to holes in the line or to recognize when a hole won't be available, thus forcing you to look for an alternate path to gain extra yardage. Unfortunately, there are situations that require you to get your running back through a nearly collapsed hole in the offensive line, only to find that he gets caught on a lineman and can't run in any direction if a new hole opens or a better route is made available. This wouldn't be a problem if linemen surrounded you on every side or you were attempting to push forward through the line, but it becomes very frustrating when you're trying to avoid a quickly collapsing hole and you're in a small-yardage situation.
Madden 2001's running game also suffers from some serious control issues. The difficulty of making a cut upfield without the use of the juke button is nearly unbearable on halfback toss or a similar play. When you call a halfback toss and you see that your receiver has the cornerback blocked on the inside, you want to be able to make the cut upfield to avoid the corner and beat the linebacker to the gap. It's just too hard to perform the maneuver quickly enough, so your running back will either run into his own receiver or get tackled by a linebacker as a result.
Even the passing game in Madden 2001 has a variety of problems. When you throw a ball far down the field to your receiver, the ball doesn't actually follow a trajectory that lines up with the movement of the receiver, but instead, the ball just magically appears in the vicinity of the receiver. This doesn't drastically affect gameplay and it'll be the least of your worries, but it shows that not much effort was put into the physics of throwing the football, and it makes some receptions look very awkward and ugly as a result.
A more glaring problem with Madden 2001's passing game is the overall lack of consistency with the passing. Oftentimes a receiver will be wide open six yards down the field, only to drop the ball when it's thrown to him when there are absolutely no defenders in sight. In fact, receivers running hail mary routes down the field in tight coverage seem to catch passes more often than receivers running short-yardage routes. Apparently, the individual attributes of each receiver do come into play, but when the inconsistency occurs on several different teams numerous times with both high- and low-quality receivers, it becomes frustratingly clear that it isn't a player-specific problem. This imbalance in the passing game can also take the fun out of a multiplayer game if an opponent abuses it.
For the most part, defensive play is the same as it has been in the past few Madden games. However, this year Electronic Arts has added a brand-new buzzword to its Madden marketing dictionary: read-n-react defense. This feature lets you quickly adjust to the offensive play set whether it looks like a run or a pass play. In essence, your linebacker either moves closer to or farther away from the line depending on which option you call - and that's it. Of course, you could avoid read-n-react altogether by taking control of the linebacker yourself or by choosing a defensive player near where you think the ball is going to end up.
Fortunately, Madden 2001 does have one major redeeming quality: its online play features. You can connect to EA.com's online gaming service by creating a screen name and password or by using a preexisting instant messenger account. You can then decide if you want to scrimmage, participate in the ranking system, start an online fantasy league, or just chat. The service works well, and it takes very little time to get a game going in either the scrimmage or ranking modes, though starting your own online league requires a little more time because the league commissioner must set up the fantasy draft and then build a game schedule.
If your connection is slow or often encounters problems, you won't get entirely disconnected from the game, which will give you a chance to reconnect. But the match will continue regardless of the status of your connection, so if you're on offense you should expect a few delay-of-game penalties. The online mode, or more specifically the online franchise mode, really gives a tremendous amount of replay value to Madden 2001.
All of the usual features found in previous Madden games can be found in Madden 2001. The single-player franchise mode from Madden 2000 is back, and it gives you the ability to draft players, negotiate contracts, and sign free agents. You can also participate in some of the greatest NFL games ever in the great-games mode, though you must win a game to unlock the next. Madden 2001 also includes the great create-a-player feature, where you can edit size, weight, skin pigmentation, jersey number, and more - but as with so many other Madden 2001 features, it's been done before.
Madden NFL 2001 makes it clear that EA wanted to improve on the last game in the series. Most notably, it offers the most complete online football experience available, as well as scrimmage and ranking modes. But many other parts of Madden 2001 seriously lack polish. The flaws in the passing and running game prevent Madden 2001 from being completely enjoyable or realistic, which will disappoint fans of the series as well as those who are experiencing Madden football for the first time.