X05: Madden NFL 06 Hands-On

We get our first hands-on look at the next generation of NFL football.

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AMSTERDAM--NFL games aren't really the first choice for sports gamers at Microsoft's X05 event in Amsterdam this week, as they're much more liable to hit the plentiful FIFA 06 booths before ever approaching that other football. This meant it's all the easier to get to the biggest name in American sports video games here, and for our first hands-on with the game, we had the luxury of no lines and plenty of time to check out the game.

In many respects, Madden NFL 06 for the Xbox 360 looks like a much different game from its current-console-generation ancestors. The most obvious change comes in the form of the drastically redesigned presentation aspects of the game. The game's menu design has undergone a significant change, most notably in the play calling system but also through nearly every aspect of the game. Menu choices have shifted around, and some much slicker stadium-style graphics seem to permeate the background of every options menu found. It's too early to tell whether these presentation changes result in an easier-to-navigate game--although we didn't have much trouble moving around--but the fresh change of pace is welcome. The change is also notable on the field, as a variety of new camera angles really show off each of the intricately detailed NFL stadiums. After you call a play, for example, you'll notice new camera angles that focus on the quarterback's while he makes his call behind center. This new assortment of cameras is designed to convey to the player a sense of being down on the field and part of the action.

The audio part of the game follows suit, and as such, you won't be hearing the traditional play-by-play and color commentary you're used to in the Madden series. That's right, John Madden and Al Michaels are out in the Xbox 360 game, and a generic sports radio announcer is in. Despite this curious choice, at the very least it's a nice change of pace to hear the radio guy getting excited when the home team makes a big play (like many real-life sports radio announcers, the guy is a total homer). On the field, you'll hear the QB calling the plays and audibles, and, yes, that actually is Peyton Manning's voice you hear calling that third audible in a row on a 2nd-down-and-5 situation with a 28-point lead. He's one of 18 NFL quarterbacks who lent his real voice to the game. You'll even see a picture-in-picture window pop up in the right-hand corner of the screen during audible calls to show how key players on the offense are reacting to the change in play. On the other side of the ball, the EA Sports team went to the trouble of recording the voices of defensive leaders, like Ray Lewis, and you'll hear him call plays on defense as you go through the game as well.

Play calling looks a lot different in the 360 version of the game. Essentially, the Madden team has sought to give the player more options than ever when deciding on the correct play to call. You can still go by formation, or you can ask John Madden to suggest a play for you. But you'll also get a few new options: play type, ask coach, key player, and last five plays. Play type is just what it sounds like, plays organized by general type (such as fullback run, slot pass, and more). Ask coach is a variation on the ask Madden option. Instead, you'll get play options specific to the situation on the field, and you can run through a filter of your coach's real tendencies. For those who may not be too familiar with the nuts and bolts and X's and O's of the game but who may know the Shaun Alexanders from the Justin Fargas's, the brand-new key-player play-call option organizes your playbook according to the key skill positions on your team. On third and short, if you want to get the ball to Cadillac Williams, all you'll need to do is pull up his set of plays and pick and choose accordingly. It's a pretty cool feature, and it's one that puts your team's star players at the front and center. Finally, the last five plays option is an easy way to either review your last few plays (to make sure you aren't repeating yourself) or provide an effective method for keeping up the pressure on your opponent with a quick-strike offensive attack.

In terms of controls, Madden 06 for the 360 has some changes in store. For one thing, the quarterback vision system has taken a backseat. It's still there, but instead of the illuminated cone being engaged by default, you have to turn it on using the left trigger button on the Xbox 360 controller. Thanks to some more-sophisticated lighting techniques on the 360, the color of the cone looks slightly less yellow and a bit less ostentatious. When playing against the CPU, your artificially intelligent opponent will use QB vision by default. The slightly more successful half of the new Madden passing game--precision--is still intact in 06 for the 360, but now you'll be able to use precision passing outside of your QB vision cone. The kicking meter has changed a bit as well, so before the kick, you still aim your arrow as before. But once you've begun the kick, you use the arrow to determine both kick power and accuracy. There's still a lot of timing involved, but it just looks significantly different.

If you'd been wondering about it, we can confirm that Madden 06 for the 360 will feature a franchise mode--one that in some ways is much deeper than its predecessor. For one thing, when simulating games, every play in every quarter in every game is fully logged. By scrolling through previous weeks' games, you can press down on the right thumbstick to get a massive amount of player and team stats, as well as detailed breakdowns of scoring summaries for any game you wish. For players who love spending time poring over stats and scouting opponents, this feature should be right up your alley.

In terms of play and overall graphics, Madden is shaping up slowly but surely. Some graphical highlights--such as detailed and accurate facial modeling for players like Brett Favre and Brian Urlacher--were impressive. In addition, the sheer amount of detail in player uniforms is notable, so if you zoom in far enough you can count the stitches on the back of the jersey or read the warning label on the back of a player's helmet, for example. Overall, though, the game seems like it was still running a bit on the slow side. The running game especially seemed to get things chugging a bit. Still, with more development to go, there's still time to iron these issues out in time for the release.

As this is EA Sports' first foray into the next generation of sports gaming, hopes are running high that the game will deliver the same kind of rock-solid football action that has come to be the series' trademark, along with enough presentation quirks and gameplay tweaks to make it worth purchasing for the next generation of consoles. We'll be keeping a close eye on this game throughout the coming months, so stay tuned.

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