Madden NFL 06 Hands-On

We finally hit the field with a playable copy of Madden 06. And we're not giving it back.

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Though John Madden isn't playing as big a role in Madden NFL 06 for the Xbox 360 as he does on current console versions of the game, you probably won't notice much the first time you boot up the game. That's because you'll be spending too much time being wowed by the next-generation graphics and brand-new presentation tweaks that make Madden 06 look, at least on the surface, like a very different game. But how far do those differences translate after you get under the hood a bit? That's the question we had in mind during our most recent hands-on time with Madden NFL 06, playing on our brand-new Xbox 360 test units.

Some of the new ideas in Madden 06 we've written about before, including the number of different methods for organizing your team playbooks (by formation, star player, coach's suggestion, or the ever-familiar "Ask Madden" option, for example). You also know that the game has put the QB-vision feature--an illuminated cone that indicates the quarterback's field of vision--on the back burner, so to speak. It's off by default this time around, though you can engage the feature if you like by holding down the left trigger button.

On the field, Madden has made some strides in terms of game pace since our initial hands-on looks at the game at X05. We wouldn't necessarily call the game "speedy," but a big portion of the frame issues that we noticed in earlier builds of the game seem to have been rectified. It seems as though the more measured pace gave us some additional time to spy receivers as well, especially our second and third options. New player animations are noticeable, especially in the running game; and playing the game on a nice high-definition screen in full 720p makes identifying holes in the defensive line that much easier. Control mechanics, such as the offensive-truck stick, are here at your disposal, and just like in the current generation of Madden, you'll be using it to mow down linebackers as you make your way toward the goal line.

From a gameplay standpoint, you'll be surprised at how much the newly organized play-calling screens benefit the gameplay, especially in crucial short yardage, or third-down situations. Instead of having to fumble your way through formation screens, you can go straight to the player you wish to key in on--your Chad Johnson, your Randy Moss, your Terrell Owens (OK, just kidding on the last one)--in order to have your best shot at making a big play. Of course, your opponent will probably be watching your stars as well, so it's best to keep your play calling creative, no matter which method you use to call your plays.

Madden 06's other menus have been rebuilt, and the result is a much different look than what you might be used to. When navigating the play-calling screens, for example, the outer edge of the screen will feature the logo of the home team--a nod to ESPN's NFL broadcasting style, perhaps. Furthermore, the game mode menu tree unfolds in vertical sections across the screen. Not a huge deal, but different than what you might be used to.

Also different from what you're probably used to are Madden's player models, which look pretty darn impressive. Uniforms and helmets all benefit from a delightfully obsessive level of detail--even that trademark ridge that runs down the center of the Cincinnati Bengals' helmet is in place--and players' faces, more often than not, are quite recognizable. Specific touches, such as sweat and rain effects on skin, are more subtle than in EA Sports' NBA Live 06, but are still pretty cool to behold. About the only thing that doesn't look right with the players is the dead-looking and sometimes lolling eyes for some of the quarterbacks as they make their way to the line to snap the ball. The game shows these player models often, with dramatic closeups and broadcast-quality cuts in between plays that might make you forget about that pesky play clock as you admire the level of detail in the character models. There are also plenty of cool cutaways to different areas of Madden's intricately modeled stadiums, and each demonstrates a wonderful sense of scale to the environments. It's not exactly like sitting up in the nosebleeds with the rest of the scrubs, but it's pretty close.

When it comes to audio, it seems that the Madden 06 development team is going for a more immediate feel to the action on the field, placing you closer to the players as they head to the line of scrimmage in an effort to get you as close to the action as possible. This approach has resulted in a different approach to the game's sound as well, trading in the commentary from Madden and his broadcast partner Al Michaels for a sparser--and far more excitable--generic radio announcer, who seems to chime in mostly on big plays. Like most radio announcers, the guy is a total homer; he'll get pretty fired up when the home team is on the verge of scoring and will remain pretty unobtrusive otherwise. About the only time you'll hear Madden is when you access the "Ask Madden" play-call screen, when he'll offer some advice on the plays he's suggesting in any given situation. It's too early to tell whether the tweaked audio approach in Madden 06 improves the overall playing experience, but it's certainly a change of pace from the commentary rut that the series has been in for a while now.

It won't surprise us a bit if Madden 06 sells like gangbusters with the launch of the Xbox 360--it is Madden, after all, and it will hit store shelves just as the final push for the playoffs in the real NFL begins. Though some of the features from the Xbox and PS2 versions have been chopped for the 360 (notably, the superstar mode), a beefed-up and data-intensive franchise mode will give you more stats than ever before on your team and your upcoming opponents. Like other Xbox 360 games, EA Sports is working to make the online experience in Madden 06 more seamless than ever before, and the game will support receiving messages and invites in "offline" mode, as well as the matchmaking abilities inherent in Xbox Live. We'll have a full report on how all of these modes play--as well as how Madden for the 360 compares to its current-gen counterparts--in our full review of the game in the near future, so stay tuned.

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