As the best-selling football franchise on the market for an umpteen number of years, Madden NFL is a name that is known by the masses as representative of some of the best football you can get on a video game console. Last year's Madden NFL 2004, in particular, is revered as one of the best installments EA has ever brought out--which ultimately makes it a tough act to follow. For this year's edition, Madden NFL 2005, defense is the name of the game. Nearly all the additions and tweaks made to this year's game fall squarely into the realm of defensive football, and they're all great new features. The downside to this high emphasis on one particular area of the game seems to be that the remaining aspects of the game (of which there are many) are generally only slightly improved or altered, if at all. In many ways, Madden 2005 is just a bit too much like last year's Madden for comfort--but it's still a truly excellent game of football all around.
If you've ever felt that Madden was simply a one-sided piece of pigskin in favor of offensive play, Madden 2005 changes all that. The additions made to the defensive side of the ball are plentiful and all superb. The first and most entertaining addition is the new "hit stick." This feature, like the addition of playmaker control last year, will require PC owners to own a good dual-analog gamepad. Essentially, when on defense, tapping the right control stick in the direction of your opponent will lay a nasty hit on him. What the hit stick translates into is context-sensitive tackling that you can control. If you're just running alongside your opponent and tap it without getting much of a head of steam, then you'll just kind of shove him. Get up a good bout of speed, and you will absolutely waylay the poor ball carrier. Using the hit stick properly will also result in more fumbles and dropped passes for the offense. However, you have to be careful, because missing with the stick leads to a badly missed tackle, which consequently gives your opponent an easy way to dodge past you. While this sounds like it could be a little overcomplicated if not done right, in this case it is done right. As a result, using the stick becomes an immensely fun way to play the defensive side of the ball.
Another big-time addition is the new defensive hot route system. Similar to the offensive hot routes, you can now redesign a defensive player's assignment at the touch of a button. Want to push a linebacker into deeper zone coverage or bring a safety in for the blitz? Simply highlight the player and tap the right analog stick in the desired direction. You can also give better presnap assignments to your defensive backs now. Individual presses and pullbacks on receivers can be performed, and you can also lock a corner on to a specific receiver, thus preventing mismatches. Finally, you can now also adjust how a defensive lineman attacks the offensive line without actually having to shift your whole line. What all this amounts to is a far more user-configurable defense that actually makes playing defense much more enjoyable and strategic. The strategy works beautifully, since the defensive artificial intelligence is generally very, very good, and it performs your changes perfectly. If you're adept at defensive play calling and are able to make good reads, you should be able to dominate on defense--at least against the CPU.
On the flip side of things, Madden NFL 2005's offensive game isn't really all that different from Madden NFL 2004, save for a few, small changes. For one, you can now make formation shifts on the line. Formation shifts are essentially audibles that don't change the play. You can move your running back out of the backfield and into a better position for the reception, or you can overload one side of the field with receivers. You'll also notice some new option routes for receivers in this year's game. Option routes are typically highlighted on the play calling screen and feature dotted lines coming off a curl route, for example. These lines indicate the possible directions that a receiver may run, depending on that receiver's assessment of the current coverage scheme. The intelligence of the receivers who are running these routes seems to vary depending on the quality of the player, but, as a whole, the feature seems to work well.
However, aside from these few offensive changes, which ultimately don't amount to a whole lot more than nice, little touches, the offensive game feels almost exactly the same as it does in last year's Madden. This isn't a bad thing, by any means, but what it does mean is that anyone who played last year's version of the game shouldn't have a lick of trouble simply blowing up the game offensively on the default difficulty. All-pro and All-Madden difficulties are something of another story, but experienced Madden fans still shouldn't have a ton of trouble with either of them. Some of the old Madden money plays are still just as effective as ever, and there really isn't a whole lot of new "stuff" to get used to this time around. Granted, the AI defense has more tricks up its sleeve now, what with all the new defensive hot routes and shifts and such, so there is that to be taken into consideration.
On the features side of things, Madden NFL 2005 is as robust as it has ever been, though not all the preexisting modes have seen too much in the way of changes. We'll start with the franchise mode, which has seen the most work. The big change to the mode's presentation is the addition of sports radio host Tony Bruno. Billed as EA Sports Radio, the Bruno-hosted show actually plays at the start of each week, and by listening to the show, you'll hear interviews with players and coaches, hear Tony take calls from irate and occasionally idiotic fans, and hear little tidbits about things happening in the NFL. For example, we encountered one scenario where quarterback Mark Brunell was benched early on in the season in favor of Patrick Ramsey. Of course, Brunell was not pleased with the decision, which Tony was quick to report. The dialogue is occasionally a little jittery when Bruno discusses specific stuff related to your league scenarios, but the more generalized bits, like the phone calls, are pretty entertaining.
The Tony Bruno stuff is actually tied into a larger franchise feature called storyline central. Storyline central is essentially your way of keeping track of the media coverage of the NFL and the morale-based grumblings of your players. There's a newspaper feature where you can look at both the national and local papers to see what the big stories are. The local papers actually feature the licenses of real big-city papers. So, for example, if you're the New England Patriots, you'll be reading The Boston Globe. There is also a new e-mail system that lets you read e-mails from your staff, players, and agents. Players will usually thank you for opportunities or complain when things aren't going their way. Agents will basically do the same.
Your players' morale revolves primarily around playing time versus rating, it seems. If you have a good player who is riding the bench, he'll quickly become despondent. Doing things like shifting player positions around can also adversely affect morale if a player doesn't want to be moved from his current position. Furthermore, losses of big-star players will pretty much send your entire team into a funk if you aren't able to find a suitable replacement. Some players also just seem to have a natural tendency to become problem children, such as the always entertaining Terrell Owens and the periodically whiny Ty Law. Player personalities also play into contract negotiations, because sometimes teams will have certain intangibles that simply appeal more to a certain player, like preferable weather or greater prestige as a franchise. All told, the storyline features seem to fairly accurately represent the sort of media hoopla and personality-driven drama that surrounds the NFL year after year, and though not everything it has to offer is especially useful, it's very cool nonetheless.
The draft is another area that has been overhauled. You'll get offers for trades during the draft itself, and you'll be able to scout up to 15 different prospects during the combine, with varying degrees of scouting-report quality depending on how much time you spend with each prospect. The one nice thing about the draft is that your players' morale will actually be affected based on who you draft. So if you have a quarterback who isn't performing wonderfully as a starter, and you draft a top-rated QB, the incumbent's morale will be negatively affected.
Aside from these changes and the addition of a basic practice mode, there really isn't much else new in the franchise mode. Owner mode is back, and, aside from a few little tweaks--like more graphs and adjustable options--it is largely the same feature it was last year. The trade and free-agent-signing logic throughout the CPU-controlled league is a little better, and player development is about as accurate as it's ever been. On the PC, the franchise mode does feature a completely different interface when compared with the console versions, giving you a much more point-and-click-friendly interface, and much more statistical information on your players. All told, this year's franchise mode isn't a gigantic step forward, but it is excellent enough to provide you with hours of team management bliss.
Another mode addition to Madden NFL 2005 is actually sort of an offshoot of the minicamp mode. Essentially, EA Tiburon has added a pair of minigames, one of which is actually a score-based version of the running-back minicamp game. This is a competition for one to two players where you will each have a turn at playing offense and defense. The goal on offense is to score as many rushing touchdowns as possible within a certain amount of time, while on defense, you must prevent touchdowns and try to lay down some big hits that force fumbles for bonus points. The team with the most points at the end wins. The other minigame is called two-minute drill. Here, you have two minutes on offense to score as many points as you can. Once that's done, the other team will conversely have two minutes of its own, and it's up to you to stop them on defense. You earn points offensively through big completions, runs, and scores, while on defense, you earn points by dishing out some big hits and breaking up passes. While these games don't amount to much more than a simple distraction, they're pretty fun.
The last mode addition made to Madden NFL 2005 is an equally unnecessary, but still cool, little inclusion. This new feature is the create-a-fan mode, where you can create and design fans who will show up during in-game cutscenes. There is a fairly wide variety of options to choose from, so you can create fans who range from the mildly obsessive to the out-and-out crazy--like those lunatics who don Viking helmets and big, old Legion of Doom spiked shoulder pads. The one downside to the mode is that, aside from the cool design stuff, you can't really do anything else with your fans. They always pretty much just run through the same few cutscene animations each time, and you can't do anything to make them particularly stand out beyond their visual appearances. Still, if you're one of those people with a special place in your heart for the truly insane football fans who paint their bare chests the colors of a team and stand out in 20-below-zero weather to support it, this is a nice feature.
In terms of online features, the PC version of Madden NFL 2005 is set up a lot like last year's PC iteration. Leagues and clubs are once again available for registered users, as are online versions of the minicamp drills (which are played against the CPU, but ranked online), two-minute drill, and the standard head-to-head play. The interface is reasonably intuitive, letting you move between various lobbies to find players. Playing the game on a standard consumer-grade cable connection worked just fine, with only minimal lag. However, we ran into a couple of "sync errors" while playing against other users, resulting in a loss for us once we returned to the game lobby. A little investigation into various Madden 2005 online forums dug up a tidbit that attributed this phenomenon to a cheat being used by our opponents, which we were able to verify by testing the reported steps to cause this error. The good news is that the games we played through to completion worked fine, but it seems as though there are still at least a couple of online cheating issues--which can hopefully be addressed.
Graphically, Madden NFL 2005 looks pretty much like, well, Madden. The Madden series hasn't really made any significant leaps forward in visual design in recent years, and 2005 isn't much different. Yes, things are improved. Some of the new tackling animations are especially awesome and give you a pretty incredible sensation of how hard the hit is actually being delivered. Other animations, however, don't really look all that different. In fact, a few animation glitches do rear their ugly heads from time to time, such as when some rather nasty clipping presents itself during between-play cutscenes and when runners occasionally get hung up on offensive linemen when trying to hit holes. The player models have basically the same sort of generic look that they've always had. Little details, like player jerseys and body builds, have been improved quite a bit, but the faces all have the same sort of glassy-eyed look. The faces of some of the more prominent players definitely look like their real-life counterparts, but the other players could have stood for a bit more detail in this area. The player models actually look even worse on the PC, as the high-resolution display of a high-end PC just makes their flaws stick out a lot more. The models are generally very blocky, and the faces look stranger than they do in the console versions of the game. On a more positive note, the different arenas, playing fields, and such all look really great, though a couple of little things, such as the sky textures, look a little low in resolution when inspected closely.
Madden NFL 2005 delivers an improvement on the presentation of last year's game. The menus, stat screens, and so on all look great and are extremely easy to navigate. The in-game stuff isn't quite as impressive, because the replays aren't typically all that exciting. Furthermore, there isn't much to the various cutscenes that present themselves from time to time, save for a bit of cheering and gallivanting here and there. The commentary is still a weak spot for the series, because neither John Madden nor Al Michaels is especially enjoyable to listen to. All around, their dialogue is pretty wooden and repetitive. As mentioned before, the Tony Bruno stuff is quite cool, though it isn't quite up to the level of ESPN NFL 2K5's TV-style presentation. It still holds its own, though.
The remaining portions of Madden NFL 2005's audio are similarly unspectacular. Most of the in-game sound effects are quite solid, though if you were to listen to Madden NFL 2004 and Madden NFL 2005 side by side, it's unlikely you'd notice any major differences between the two. Once again, EA has trotted out a number of licensed artists as part of its EA Trax service, including the likes of Green Day, Franz Ferdinand, Midtown, The Hives, and Faith No More. While the songs themselves are all perfectly fine, they don't always feel quite right within the scope of a football game.
If you passed out on the console versions of Madden NFL 2005, or have specifically been holding out for the PC version, it's unlikely that you'll be disappointed by what this version of Madden has to offer. The roster of online features is still more robust than what's available on consoles, and all the excellent gameplay and features have been translated wonderfully to the PC. It's a shame that the graphics haven't really seen much improvement, and the online cheating issues are certainly a problem, but on the whole, these quibbles shouldn't stop any Madden fan from running out to purchase yet another highly accomplished game of football in Madden NFL 2005.