It appears that reports of the birth of next-generation football on consoles have been greatly exaggerated. Yes, Madden NFL 06 has made its debut on the Xbox 360--but not in a form that could really be called next gen. Certainly this is a graphically impressive game that's far better than anything you've seen on the current roster of consoles. Player models, stadiums, tackles, catches, and throws have never looked this good before. But beyond the impressive technology backing EA's newest football game lies a number of holdover issues that stand out all the more blatantly when placed in direct contrast to the game's newest graphical components. Plus, there's really very little about Madden 06's gameplay that you haven't seen before. And for that matter, there's a lot you have seen before that's simply just missing from this edition. So, while the graphics of Madden have eked their way into the next-generation, the rest of the game still has a ways to go.
One thing that must be made clear from the get-go is that Madden on the 360 is not just a port of Madden NFL 06 as it appeared on other consoles. The game has been built pretty much from the ground up, though it still feels very much like a Madden football game. The controls are as responsive as they've ever been, making good use of the 360's controller. Passing feels tight; runs can be very satisfying (especially if you implement the truck stick, which was introduced earlier this year); and defensive stops and big hits are just as good as they've ever been. What's different is the way a lot of these actions look. Animations have been adjusted in a number of ways to make things seem more realistic. Jukes, stutter steps, wrap tackles, ball strips, tosses, bombs...All these things look just a little bit better than they ever have in the past. The fluidity of these animations is really quite impressive, even if the game doesn't exactly operate much differently from the way it has in recent years.
It's clear from the very first time you boot up the game that EA Tiburon spent the vast bulk of its time making Madden look a whole lot better. The player models and stadiums can be downright fantastic-looking at times. Up close, you'll really get to see a hell of a lot of detail in the players. Muscular definition in the arms and legs, shine off of helmets, and player faces--when done right--are phenomenal. Unfortunately, a lot of major players didn't get the full treatment. Big guys like Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick, Corey Dillon, and the like all look really, really accurate to their real-life counterparts. But there are lots of starting NFL players that simply don't look right. Take a look at someone like Brian Griese or Kerry Collins, and there's a pretty significant difference in accuracy. Still, even if the faces are off, the bodies look excellent. As for the stadiums, while the turf still looks a little funky in some spots, nothing else does. The crowds are great, and the sideline players and coaches are extremely detailed. In fact, in some cases you could argue that the coaches look better than a lot of the players, which is actually kind of weird. Incidentally, while Madden NFL 06 obviously looks its best on an HD setup, it also looks quite good on a normal TV. Some of the details are blurred-over, and you won't get the crispness you'd get from HD, but the upgraded graphics still look very much upgraded on a standard TV.
While so much work has gone in to the graphics, there are still a lot of little annoying things that detract from the visual experience. Shifting players around before the snap results in some stiff, jerky animations that seem well out of place in such a glossy-looking game. And in some cases, guys moved on defense will get stuck standing up, unable to get back in to a defensive stance after you move them. The old vibrating blockers issue is still just as prevalent as it's ever been, as blockers are still unable to avoid buzzing back and forth while trying to figure out which defensive players to block. This leads to some ugly-looking bunch-ups at the line, as well as during kick and punt returns. Running backs still get stuck on linemen; players will freeze on the ground after a play is over (and they'll stay there in the background during an injury cutscene if one presents itself); there aren't a ton of celebration animations (and you'll see a lot of them repeat over and over again); and you'll see some very abrupt transitions between cutscenes and gameplay. Many of these things are the types of problems that have existed in Madden games for quite a while now, and the ones that aren't seem like by-products of a shorter-than-average development cycle. Undoubtedly, Madden NFL 06 is an impressive-looking game, but you'll be hard-pressed not to notice its blemishes, as many as there are.
While there's clearly been a lot of effort put into the graphical end of things, the rest of the game, as a whole, feels pretty hollow compared to what we've grown accustomed to over the years. Many of the nifty gameplay and game mode innovations that the Madden series has introduced in recent iterations are either gone or have been stripped down. Defensive playmaker controls simply don't exist, so there's no way to change how an individual player on defense plays. You can shift around the defense to show blitzes, press or pull back, and align with assigned players--but that's about it. And the alignment feature is almost too good, since you can basically reposition your entire defense to hold down every single offensive player at the touch of a single button.
On offense, there are no formation shifts, though you can activate hot routes, call audibles, and/or send players in motion. The controversial quarterback-vision-cone feature from this year's game does make its presence felt in the game, though it defaults to "off." The computer player always uses it, so it's actually fairly easy to see where a quarterback is looking, but you yourself do not have to use it, except when you change a primary receiver before the snap. For some reason, the vision cone will pop back up, even with it turned off in the settings, whenever you do this.
One gameplay addition made to Madden on the 360 that is definitely an improvement over anything found in the last few Madden games is the new play-calling screen. It still works mostly the same as any other play-calling screen, but it's sorted out into multiple categories. There's the Ask Madden section, where John himself tells you what you should go with. There's the coach section, where the team's coach gives you some advice. And then there are sections broken out by formation, play type, and key player. If there's a go-to receiver whose hands you absolutely want to get the ball into, now you can jump on it quickly. Just want to select a quick pass? Now there's an easy menu to find one in. There's another added feature, albeit a far less impressive one, in the form of the new kick meter. It's not too dissimilar from the kick meter 2K Sports used in its football games, where you try to nail down a moving arrow to set your accuracy and then hit a moving power level to set, of course, your power. It's not an altogether bad addition, but it also seems like just about the most unnecessary thing to mess with in a game that's rife with missing features.
The biggest omission of all in Madden's gameplay is the ability to challenge plays. This is a fundamental part of modern football. There is nary a game on the schedule that doesn't involve at least one challenged play of some sort, be it a first-down play or a touchdown that simply wasn't. Well, you can forget about it in this game. That fumble your quarterback dropped that was picked up by the defense for a touchdown--the one where you're absolutely sure your quarterback's arm was moving forward, thus making it a tuck-rule scenario? Too bad. It's a fumble. Maybe this is just a case of John Madden getting his way (he's always hated replay, and he frequently laments about how "a fumble is a fumble"), but the total absence of such a big part of real football, and one that's been in multiple football games for years now, is simply mind-boggling.
Those missing features extend well beyond the basic gameplay, as well. There's no minicamp mode in Madden NFL 06, no practice mode, no minigames, no create-a-player, and no superstar mode. While nobody's likely to be singing any elegies for the loss of the superstar mode, all those other components were highly useful and enjoyable parts of the Madden experience. Minicamp has been such a mainstay of the series that without it, the whole game seems to suffer. Franchise mode, for instance, just isn't the same without the option to play the minicamp games during training camp to build up your players. That's not all the franchise mode is missing, either. The whole EA Sports radio thing with Tony Bruno is gone, as is the news tracking and e-mail stuff, with the licensed newspapers and players talking about how they want more contracts or more playing time or whatnot. You can't even scout rookies prior to the draft. So, basically, what you're looking at is a franchise mode circa 2001, where you can do all the basic management things in a series of text menus--and you can do them fairly well. However, all the personality has pretty much disappeared.
The online play is the only other feature in the game. It's online play the way you've come to know it in recent years. You can challenge players, and they can challenge you to ranked and unranked games. It's purely functional, and again, lacks anything beyond its core components (such as the online minigames found in the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions). The online play is solid, performance-wise. Our testing on prerelease servers yielded no lag or other such unpleasantness. The one thing that might put a few people off is that all ranked games seem to be set to the all-pro difficulty, and the kick meter on that difficulty goes some kind of crazy. It just moves really, really fast for any kicker that isn't up to Adam Vinatieri level, and it's kind of off-putting if you haven't spent a great deal of time playing on that difficulty level in the offline game. You can get used to it, but it's really a bit much.
Interestingly enough, John Madden is also absent from Madden 06--at least from the commentary booth. Madden still provides plenty of glib, generally uninformative comments in the Ask Madden feature, but commentary is handled by an EA Sports radio announcer, which is probably some code name for "guy whose name we don't actually know." Surprisingly, though, he's mostly really good. He really nails that sort of radio broadcaster overenthusiastic delivery by shrieking "He's at the 30! The 20! The 10! Touchdown!!!" and things of that nature. It's the kind of enthusiasm you just don't get from Al Michaels, you know? The rest of the audio mostly sounds the same as it did in the other versions of Madden 06. The soundtrack is exactly the same, and the sound effects, while maybe slightly different, aren't noticeably so. Incidentally, you'll hear more in the way of player dialogue on the field, but it tends to fade in to the din of the crowd noises.
Madden NFL 06 on the Xbox 360 has the look, and it plays fine. But beneath its lambent sheen is a skeletal game of football that's lacking many of the things that football fans have grown accustomed to in recent years. Pretty graphics are great to have and all, but everything else about Madden on the 360 feels like a step backward--and one that makes its higher price tag very difficult to justify. Undoubtedly, many (if not all) of the things missing from this game will be implemented next year, perhaps in addition to a new feature or two. But that still leaves us with a game that just doesn't compare to what Madden has been in recent years. 360 owners ought to at least give Madden NFL 06 a look, if only to see its great graphics and to take a peek at what next year's NFL game will have to improve upon. However, this is not one of those must-own 360 launch games.