It just wouldn't be a system launch without a Madden game to go with it, and lo and behold, Madden NFL 07 is on hand for the launch of the PlayStation 3. Feature-for-feature, this version of Madden 07 takes after the Xbox 360 version from earlier in the year, so if you already bought the game on the 360, there isn't anything here to draw you in. But if Madden on the PS3 is your first go at an NFL game this year, you'll be treated to a slightly less buggy game of football that has some neat features, great graphics, and a few trivial but reasonably amusing uses of the Sixaxis tilt controls.
Madden NFL 07 brings back practically every feature that was in Madden 06 (not a tough feat, considering how little there was to the package), as well as the superstar mode, which was heavily featured in the other console versions of Madden 06 but was absent in the 360 version. On top of that, a number of new gameplay upgrades have been brought to the table, the majority of which are available in all versions of the game. By themselves, none of these individual changes or upgrades is particularly game changing, but taken as a whole, they add a nice dimension of depth to the gameplay experience.
These features include 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 right analog stick 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 rather than making liberal use of the stick. But if you take the time to learn the stick and figure out how to use it and the button controls together, 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. Here, 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 whomever else might be blocking on a play. When blocking, you can just 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, as setting up the right blocks isn't always the most intuitive thing in the world. But after some time, this control method gives the running game a really interesting new perspective, and those who love finding new strategies are bound to eat this up.
The other changes to the gameplay are less significant, but they're enjoyable all the same. The new kick meter is probably the most accurate representation of kicking available in a game thus far. With this meter, you use the typical arrow to line up your angle and then press down on the right 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 accuracy is based on the angle at which you press up. If you press too far to the right or left, the kick will get away from you. If you land it within a set space, it'll go right where you want it to.
Much like NCAA 07 this year, Madden 07 gives you the option to try and jump the snap while on defense. Pressing a single button at just the right time lets your defensive player get a lead on the blocker in front of him and gives you an advantage while trying to get to the quarterback or runner. Of course, this is a risk-versus-reward situation, as opposing offenses will often try to lure you offside by using a hard count and faking the snap. The CPU tends to make very liberal use of this feature, and it tends to lead to far more encroachment penalties than are realistic for an NFL game. If anything, it ought to lead to more false-start penalties on the offense, since offensive linemen are notorious for jumping before the snap. Still, it's nice to see a key feature from the NCAA series find its way into Madden, and when timed properly, it gives a tangible advantage to the defense.
Snap jumps are just one of a few specific control mechanics that are now additionally mapped to the PlayStation 3's Sixaxis tilt controls. When on offense, you can fake the snap by simply flicking the controller upward, and when switching to lead blocker controls, simply pushing up and down with the controller will pull off your block moves. Defensively, you can jump the snap the same way you fake snap on offense, or by pushing the controller forward, you can effectively turn the controller into the hit stick, as you'll lay in a punishing hit. These control additions are interesting, though they really don't affect the gameplay experience in a particularly meaningful way, and some, like the blocking controls, just feel sort of awkward compared to simply using the analog stick controls. Moving the controller around doesn't immerse you in the experience any more than simply flicking the right analog stick or pressing a button would. Perhaps if there were more movement control options available, you might get a bit more out of what's here, but ultimately, though they're an amusing distraction for a short while, eventually you'll probably go right back to the usual controls.
Beyond these additions, the changes from 06 to 07 are mostly ancillary, and fundamentally, the game plays very much as its predecessor did last year. The basic feel of the game seems a little bit on the easy side, especially on the default difficulty. Namely, the defensive-back artificial intelligence doesn't seem terribly adept at handling certain types of routes, so it's possible to exploit those routes for easy gains on a regular basis. However, upping the difficulty to all-pro and all-Madden tends to fix that right up. On defense, there are a few more available options in terms of positioning your DB, LB, and DL corps, and you can commit your defense in a certain direction the moment the ball is snapped. But individual defensive-playmaker controls are still missing, which is unfortunate. The quarterback vision cone, which made its debut last year, is still available, though it's not a required feature. You can tap the right analog stick after snapping the ball, and the cone will pop on, letting you use it for a little accuracy boost. No, it's not any more fun to use than it was last year, but that's not altogether surprising.
In terms of features, Madden NFL 07 brings back the franchise mode and online play from last year's game--literally. The franchise mode is practically untouched in most every way, with only a basic off-season menu list to mess around with and none of the presentational pizzazz of the other console versions--no Tony Bruno radio show, no newspapers, no e-mail dialogue with your roster, no owner mode. It's certainly functional as is, but that's about all that can be said for the mode. The online play hasn't evolved terribly far, either, with the usual list of EA Sports features included, such as the usual head-to-head play, lobbies, the EA Sports locker, and such. One new feature that sounds very cool on paper is the live franchise game. While in the franchise mode, you can opt to play one of your franchise games against an online opponent by switching on a toggle in the team-select menu. This sends an invite to players sitting in a live franchise game queue in one of the online lobbies. This feature seemed a bit broken in the Xbox 360 version, as we were never actually able to get one of these games to connect. On the PS3, we had better luck, though there were definitely still some issues with clunky search menus and a couple of random disconnects. As always, your mileage will likely vary with the online play.
The big new addition to the feature roster this year is superstar mode. If you played the Xbox, PlayStation 2, GameCube, or PC version of Madden last year, you're probably already familiar with this feature in its basic form. You take a fresh rookie player, of any position, through his NFL career, facing the various trials and tribulations that are typical for an NFL player. The version last year suffered from some annoying quirks and interface issues. Some of those problems still exist in the other console versions of Madden 07, but less of them appear on the 360. You no longer hang out in a cheesy hub area modeled after a player's house, nor do you have to worry about taking on movie roles or getting haircuts, and so on. Instead, the sole focus of the mode is on making your player one of the greatest NFL players of all time and eventually getting him into the Hall of Fame.
All throughout your superstar's career, a meter will depict how far along your player is toward establishing his legacy as one of the best of all time. There's no specific list of things you have to do to become a Hall of Famer, but obviously you want to have the most storied career possible. Apart from throwing a lot of touchdown passes while playing as a quarterback or intercepting a billion passes as a defensive back, you have to interact with your team and establish a personality. You do this through various interviews, which give you specific answers that gear you toward a team-minded player or a Terrell Owens-like brat, as well as through a new influence system. In this system, every superstar has the ability to play certain roles on the field, and these roles range from, say, a field general for a quarterback to a possession receiver for a wide receiver to a rookie for, you guessed it, a rookie.
These roles give you tangible bonuses and control over players on the field. A quarterback using the field-general role, for instance, can upgrade his passing-accuracy rating, as well as the blocking ratings for his various offensive linemen. Another role he can take, the team leader, lets him upgrade the awareness, injury, acceleration, and agility ratings for all the other offensive players on the field. You gain these points by upping your influence rating. This rating goes up or down based on what you do on the field. Make a huge completion for a first down, and you'll get a nice bonus. Throw a lame interception that's returned for a touchdown, and it will drop through the floor. It's a great and addictive system that makes you want to play through superstar mode games, rather than just simulate them.
This system is the reason you'll want to play through the superstar mode. The other big feature to make its way into this year's game, the training minigames, sadly isn't all that great. When you first create your superstar, you put him through a number of workouts with teams and at the combine. In this mode, you run a 40-yard dash, do a number of bench-press reps, and do one position-specific game that's somewhat similar to the minicamp games from the other versions of Madden. The trouble is that none of these games are anywhere near as good as the classic minicamp games. The 40-yard dash and bench-press games are very awkward at first, and the instructions for each game use some confusing language when explaining how to play. With some practice, you'll get the hang of it, but even when you do, the games aren't much fun. The same goes for the position-specific games, which don't feel especially fleshed out. You can play any of these games throughout the superstar mode if your agent has access to the performance institute, and there's also a separate minigames mode that includes all of these, as well, but odds are, you'll never much want to bother with them outside of the requisite superstar-mode workouts.
Some of the issues with the original superstar mode rear their ugly head here, too. Mainly, there's no particularly good sense that your agent, wealth, or status really make much difference beyond the Hall of Fame aspect. You could hire the best agent available, sign a gigantic free-agent contract, and never notice a difference save for the change in uniform. There's not much flash to the life of an NFL superstar, and trudging through menus on a constant basis doesn't give you the right kind of vibe. Another issue is that, like last year, some positions just don't play very well. The game uses a zoomed camera angle during the mode that effectively limits your vision to the area immediately surrounding your player, and for some positions, like defensive back, it makes playing it a huge pain. In fact, the camera angle kind of makes all positions a bit more of a pain, but with some positions like quarterback, running back, and linebacker, it doesn't hinder your ability to play properly terribly much.
Also, the superstar mode doesn't run as well as the rest of the game, especially when you're playing actual games. Since you're not controlling anyone but your own player, sequences on the other side of the ball from where you play are sped up and played solely by the computer. You'll see some wonky aspects during the sped-up simulation, including a liberal amount of encroachment calls as the CPU-controlled offense goes nuts with the hard counts. If nothing else, the PS3 version of the game does seem to load up menus and play-calling screens in this mode with less choppiness than the 360.
Some of the bugs and issues from the Xbox 360 version of Madden 07 are fixed in the PS3 version, but some aren't. One that hasn't been fixed pertains to the game's Madden gamer level and the connected Hall of Fame feature. As you play through the game, your profile has a level associated with it that increases as you perform specific tasks. It's similar to the whole Madden card system from the old console versions. Upping your level unlocks classic NFL players that are currently enshrined in the Hall of Fame, both as video reels you can watch and as players that hit the free-agent pool in the game. Neat as that is, a problem arises when you start a new franchise or superstar mode after unlocking some of these guys. They appear in these modes' free-agent pools, too, and quickly get snapped up by various teams. If you're the type that wants to keep your roster pure, you essentially have to save your default roster when you boot up the game for the first time and reload that roster every time you start a new franchise or superstar. A simple on/off toggle in the options menu for the Hall of Fame players would have gone a great distance toward eliminating this issue. On the plus side, the fatigue bug that prevented any players' fatigue meters from dropping even after extended play on the field is fixed in this version.
The PS3 version of Madden, perhaps unsurprisingly, looks near-identical to the Xbox 360 version. On an HD display cranked to the game's maximum resolution of 720p, you might notice some subtle upgrades to things like player helmets, jerseys, and skin textures. It's very minor stuff that the majority of people won't notice, but even so, the game looks great. Apart from the player models, the arenas are huge and detailed, with nice-looking crowd and sideline player graphics. The animation is mostly excellent. You'll see a few clumsy transition animations and run into some random clipping problems now and again, but the big hits look painful, the jukes and spin moves look very natural, and the beautiful diving catches look, well, beautiful. The frame rate holds about as steady as it did on the 360, as well.
The audio presentation hasn't changed to any notable degree. John Madden is still relegated to Ask Madden play-calling scenarios, and commentary is handled by an unknown EA Sports radio announcer who delivers 10 times the enthusiasm his predecessors ever could. On-field audio is a delight, with some really top-notch player banter and plenty of bone-crushing hits. The soundtrack is once again made up of a mishmash of popular rock and hip-hop, and just like every other year, it's a wildly varied mix that doesn't gel at all. Not to mention that some song choices, such as Spank Rock's "Backyard Betty," seem a little seedy for an E-for-Everyone game, even with lyrical edits.
As was the Xbox 360 version, the PS3 version of Madden NFL 07 is a very good football game that doesn't quite live up to the full potential of the latest console hardware. And while the game looks and plays quite good on the PS3, the added Sixaxis control support isn't really that impressive, nor are the visuals all that much better than what the 360 version offered back in August. Still, the improvements, though small, are there, and for football fans buying a PS3 at launch, Madden's worth a look.