Most folks think John Madden is one of the greatest announcers to ever call an NFL game; personally, I think he's a pedestrian commentator who continually harps on the obvious and has an obsession with muddy uniforms and fat linemen. But that didn't stop me from playing Madden NFL '97. It had some problems, but its action mode was the best (or at least most playable) of any serious football sim on the market.
Now Madden NFL '98 is here, and even I've got it to hand to the big guy and the teams at Stormfront and EA Sports that worked on the game: Nearly all the major flaws in Madden '97 have been addressed. There are some glitches and oversights scattered throughout the program, to be sure, but the fun to be had makes them easy to live with - and that includes a 270MB chunk of hard-drive space for the "typical" install (other options are 75MB and 590MB - yep, 590MB!).
If I had to pick the one single area where Madden NFL '98 improves on its predecessor, it would probably be in the game's artificial intelligence. Computer-controlled defenses are much more savvy now, and unless you control a powerhouse against a patsy there's little chance of running the same play successfully over and over again. On the offensive side of the ball, computer-controlled teams aren't nearly as pass-happy as they were in Madden '97 - I was actually stunned by how closely the computer's offensive playcalling tendencies mirrored that of real-life teams. Take the Broncos, for instance. The emergence of Terrel Davis as one of the league's most dangerous backs means the offense is relying more on running plays and that John Elway is throwing more ball-control passes (quick slants, outs, etc.) to set up long balls - and that's pretty much how the Broncos play in Madden NFL '98.
Having said that, though, I've got to point out one gripe: the play clock. Computer-controlled offenses frequently manage to get plays off with between 15 and 20 seconds on the play clock - almost unheard of in the NFL except when Buffalo ran its no-huddle offense. What makes this annoying is that the play clock is running about twice as fast as real time, and you can expect to draw an inordinate number of flags for delay of game until you've memorized a core group of plays you can find quickly.
But once you get over that hurdle, you'll find the action has been enhanced to complement the tougher AI. Support for four-button gamepads and joysticks means you've got more control options on the field, especially on offense. Because buttons 1, 2, and 3 are assigned to receivers, there's no need to cycle through receivers with one button and throw with another. A timing route mode saves you the trouble of putting the QB in passing mode after the snap, and a bluff mode keeps your hot-seat opponent from knowing if you've activated it or not (it's indicated by a "bong" noise). It's now up to you when a ball carrier dives, spins, picks up a burst of speed, or high steps - a big improvement over Madden NFL '97, where the computer chose the special move for you and an attempted dive into the end zone could result in your player being snagged at the goal line because he started high stepping.
Graphically, Madden NFL '98 is a little disappointing. It looks better than last year's model, but the player graphics aren't nearly as good in other EA Sports titles like NHL '98 or FIFA '98 - and that's even if you play with the 3Dfx patch EA released shortly after Madden '98 shipped. On the other hand, you never see as many players simultaneously onscreen in hockey and soccer as you do in football; if the players in Madden looked as good as the ones NHL '98, you'd probably need a 233MHz to pull the plow. And while player graphics aren't as good as I'd hoped for, they're still better than in Legends '98 and ABC MNF '98 - and the animations in Madden '98 are much smoother than in those games. Receivers stretch out for catches, running backs spin and bounce off tacklers, and quarterbacks deliver the ball with a stunningly lifelike motion (this is with 3Dfx support, mind you...).
Madden's League Play has all the usual options you'd expect in a top-notch sim. You can create as many custom leagues as you like, aligning the divisions any way you like. One especially nice touch is that a custom team in a league can be used in exhibition play (I made my Vikings the "Minot Wildebeests" and decked them out in lime green jerseys with pink pants to stun my friends in hot-seat games). League, team, and player editors are all simple to use, and simulated seasons yield extremely believable scores and stats even though they take just a few seconds per matchup.
But it's in League Play that you'll find most of Madden '98's problems. The whole League interface - a file-folder affair with tabs for various functions - feels unwieldy and definitely will take some getting used to. To get individual league leaders, for example, you choose Franchise, then Stats, then switch to League/Season (or League/Game), a roundabout path given how often you'll track your star players. I'm glad EA put in a Trading feature, but it bears no resemblance to reality. The trades are always totally balanced affairs (a quarterback and a linebacker for a quarterback for a linebacker, a kicker for a kicker, and so on), something that rarely happens in the topsy-turvy world of NFL deals. And the computer-controlled general managers aren't the equal of their coaching counterparts: I managed to get the Cowboy's Troy Aikman and Vinson Smith for the Vikings' Randall Cunningham and Jeff Brad.
For me, though, the two most worrisome deficiencies of League play are the lack of a play editor and the inability to assign the 1997-98 schedule to a Custom League: Custom Leagues always use random schedules, and default to some weird round-robin format to boot (you can change it to the regular 16-game schedule, of course). Like the absence of a play editor, the inability to use this year's real-life schedule in a Custom League is inexplicable.
Madden NFL '98 isn't perfect - but it is, perhaps, the most well-balanced football sim on the market. It's too early to say for sure that it will be the best football game of the year - but it's definitely in the running.