It's not an easy task for a development team to make enough improvements to a yearly sports game series to warrant a purchase every year. However, EA Sports has not only managed to add enough features and gameplay tweaks to make Madden NFL 2004 a more than worthy purchase for those who bought last year's game, but it has also created one of best football games to date. Madden NFL 2004 covers nearly every facet of professional football, but what makes this year's entry in the series so special is that it ties all its components together seamlessly. Even the new gameplay features have been integrated incredibly well, and the result is a game that models the sport of professional football much more intricately than any other game before it.
A perfect example of this is the playmaker control feature, though a gamepad with a dual-analog stick setup is required to actually use it. While it initially seems like nothing more than a quick audible option, playmaker control is actually much more than that. Before the snap of the ball, if you don't like what you're seeing on the defensive side of the ball, you can adjust the offensive play to compensate without calling an audible. For example, if a linebacker appears to be blitzing on the side you're about to run a halfback toss to, you can change the direction of the run on the fly by simply pressing the right analog stick in the opposite direction.
Similarly, after the ball's been snapped, you can direct teammates on the field to block opposing players in front of the ballcarrier by pressing the right analog stick in the appropriate direction. There's a little bit of risk involved in doing this, since its effectiveness depends on the speed of the teammate running over to block. In fact, when calling for a block in this fashion, you may be tempted to head for the teammate once you've told him to throw a block in an attempt to put him in between you and the defensive player more quickly. But you'll quickly discover this rarely ever works and almost always results in an appreciable loss of yards. In any case, the playmaker controls for directing your blockers prove to be quite valuable when used in the correct situation.
Running isn't the only facet of the gameplay in which playmaker control can be used. When using it on a passing play before the snap, playmaker control can quickly change the route of a receiver if there appears to be a gap in the secondary. When the ball is snapped, playmaker control can then be used to have a designated receiver break off his route and go in a variety of directions--even back toward the line of scrimmage. Again, there's a fair amount of risk involved, since the defensive line and linebackers are constantly gunning for the quarterback, but if it looks like you have enough time and it appears that you can get a receiver open by having him change direction, you can use this technique to pick up a few extra yards.
Defensively, the playmaker mechanic isn't quite as prominent. Essentially, if you see a key receiver lining up one-on-one with a cornerback that you don't have too much confidence in, then playmaker can be used to shift your coverage over to that side, making it a little more difficult for the receiver to get open. If the ball has already been snapped, then playmaker control can be used to shift your overall coverage to run or pass. It's these subtle nuances created by the playmaker control scheme that make Madden NFL 2004 that much more strategic and fun to play than its predecessors.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to modify plays on the defensive and offensive sides of the ball. On defense, you can shift the defensive line and the linebackers to compensate for any possible gaps that may appear in the line or to cover the outside better in the event of a toss. Offensively, audibles are still incredibly useful, and you can modify them in the coach's area in the menu.
The fundamental gameplay mechanics in Madden NFL 2004 have also been slightly tweaked. Like in NCAA Football 2004 for the consoles, play-action passing plays are much more effective against opponents, especially those controlled by human players, since the camera briefly follows the running back--making it seem as though it's actually a running play--before panning back to the quarterback. The running game in general feels much better, especially when you're running the ball up the middle, since the offensive lines tend to be a little more adept at opening holes when linebackers and safeties aren't shooting the gaps--in other words, getting stuck behind the ample posterior of an offensive lineman is much less of a problem than it was in the previous game. Running to the outside is also executed quite well and requires you to determine the best angle to take after your fullback has blocked a linebacker or a lineman has pulled from the opposite side of the line to make a block downfield.
Having a successful passing game in Madden NFL 2004 requires much more thought than you might initially suspect, especially since the defensive backs are much more adept at stepping into zones and going after balls. Setting aside the playmaker controls for a moment, if you see a receiver in relatively tight zone coverage, then the chances for a successful completion are relatively low--even when running a quick out route, something that would usually guarantee a few yards. Conversely, if you see a receiver in tight man-to-man coverage running a streak, then you can try to lob the pass and hope for the best. But for the most part, a successful passing game requires you to identify the defensive coverage in the secondary, as well as that split second in the receiver's route when he'll be open.
With all these slight refinements and changes, even blitzing seems to have much greater risks and rewards. Audibles and the playmaker control can negate the effects of a blitz, but the playmaker control also requires the offensive player to think just a little bit more than he or she normally would, giving the defense one or two more precious seconds to hit the ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage. This is especially true for human opponents, though the AI for computer-controlled opponents is pretty good about not cheating when it comes to reading a blitz.
All these changes are great, but perhaps one of the biggest single reasons to buy Madden NFL 2004 is the owner mode, which is directly tied to the game's franchise mode. The owner mode gives you an entirely new perspective on the sport by portraying it as a business where you have to do everything in your power to ensure not only that the fans are happy, but also that you're making enough money to support the team and the stadium. If your team is doing well, then it won't be necessary to constantly adjust the prices of tickets (which are broken down according to the different sections in the stadium), merchandise (programs, hats, jerseys, bobble heads, and foam fingers), snacks (such as beer, soda, and popcorn), and parking. You can also decide how much money you want to spend on promoting the team through advertising, but that depletes your overall budget, which may make it difficult to go for a high-profile free agent in the off-season. If your team is performing poorly, compiling a losing record or missing the playoffs a number of years in a row, then fan support will wane, forcing you to constantly adjust prices in an effort to get the fans to come back.
Fortunately, you'll have plenty of information and advice at your fingertips to figure out what's wrong with your team from a business perspective. Not only will you have advisers who give you basic information on what you can do to quickly improve fan support, but you'll also have access to graphs and charts that will show you how the team has done over the course of the season financially. In addition, at any time during the season, you can access a balance sheet to see how much income you have and what your major expenses are. You can use this information to determine if you want to hire a new, higher-profile coach (though it's also possible to promote offensive and defensive coordinators if you don't particularly care for your current head coach), go after a talented free agent, trade for an additional draft pick, or save your money and lower prices for the next season. The owner mode offers a surprising amount of freedom to do what you want--you can even rebuild your stadium or move the team to a completely different city--but if you're careless with your money or in your decisions, your team's chances of being successful will be quite low.
If you don't feel like dealing with the business side of the NFL, you can simply turn the owner mode off, and the game will automatically change to a more standard franchise mode. However, there are some slight differences from last year's franchise mode. The training camp mode has been integrated into the franchise mode, and it now has a direct effect on players. For example, in the passing drills, you can select any quarterback on your roster, and if that quarterback happens to perform well in the drills, you'll receive a certain number of points to upgrade that player's attributes. All the other modes in Madden NFL 2004 are pretty much the same as in last year's game. You can create players, teams, and playbooks. There are also tournament, minicamp, two-minute drill, practice, and situation options.
The graphics haven't been changed all that much from last year either. Some minor enhancements were made to the player models, but they still have the somewhat generic look that the series has been known for the past couple of years. The sideline detail has been improved slightly, and the stadiums are incredibly accurate. Some cool minor details from last year's game have also returned--if you're playing on a grass field, for example, the quality of the field will degrade over the course of the game. Likewise, players' jerseys will get progressively dirtier if they're constantly being slammed into the ground. The already great animation also looks like it's been improved with more tackling animations and general bumps and shoves. However, the lighting in the PC version looks a little odd and occasionally tends to give the game a washed-out look.
As for sound, the commentary in Madden NFL 2004 has been slightly improved--at least for Al Michaels, who has plenty to say on just about every single type of play. Unfortunately, Madden continues to be a weak spot. John just repeats himself far too often, and his comments can often be a little too generic. However, the interaction between the two sounds much more natural and less like a bunch of lines that were simply pasted together. The soundtrack is bolstered by licensed music from a variety of artists. The soundtrack covers a handful of genres, and most players will probably enjoy the wide range of music that's been selected for the game.
What ultimately sets the PC version apart from the console versions of the game is its online play, which is simply far more robust than anything the PlayStation 2 version of the game has to offer. Not only can you set up tournaments, but you can also create leagues (and schedule games for participants in that league) and clubs. Though there's plenty to do in Madden NFL 2004's online mode, online league play may be too enticing for some fans to pass up.
In any case, it's obvious that this year's Madden was designed primarily for consoles, and as such, some features, such as playmaker control, were designed with dual-analog-stick-equipped gamepads in mind. In fact, one of our dual-analog gamepads didn't even work properly with the game, and other users have reported similar issues. There's also an added fee for the online mode if you want to play past the trial period, but if you're a football fan willing to make such an investment, you'll find that all the new features have been integrated so well into the preexisting framework that it seems like they've always been there. Indeed, you might wonder how you even played previous games in the series without the playmaker controls. The console route may be a better one to take for those who want all that Madden NFL 2004 has to offer, including online play, but if the PC version is your only alternative, then you certainly won't be disappointed.