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Madden NFL '99 (PSOne)
MSRP: $49.99
Number of Players: 1-8
Developer: Tiburon
Publisher: Electronic Arts

Rating:
*****
out of
*****

I've been a Madden fan since the halcyon days of the Amiga, when the game didn't even have a year in the title. It was simply John Madden Football back then. The gameplay was quite a bit different too. There were no NFL licenses -- just player numbers, no NFL team names -- just city names, passing windows, and a generic set of playing fields (snowy, dry, rainy, etc). It looks primitive today, but it was the best game of its kind in 1992.

The series has definitely improved since then. Even so, there have been ups and downs, with the lowest point being Madden '96's "no show" for the PlayStation. A game by the name of NFL GameDay was responsible for EA's absence on the PlayStation field that year. Ever since then, Madden has been unable to shake its nemesis free. The game is seemingly upstaged every year by Sony's GameDay series and last year was no different. Madden '98 looked to be the best football game for the system in terms of its TV-style format and in-game announcing. However, GameDay '98 introduced a polygonal graphics engine into the mix and, as a result, Madden's sprite-based graphics and flashier presentation withered by comparison. No matter how good the gameplay eventually turned out, Madden '98 still found itself playing catch-up to Sony's effort in many player's eyes. Even I found myself playing GameDay more than Madden. A lot more, in fact.

This year, Electronic Arts and Madden's developers, Tiburon, decided they were going the extra mile to beat GameDay. A polygon graphics engine was included, which spawned a myriad of benefits to gameplay almost automatically, including as a vastly improved running game. A one-button option for beginners was introduced to allow virtually anyone to pick up the game and play against the computer or a veteran player without much hassle. An icon-based, analog controlled passing interface was introduced to compete with Sony's Total Control Passing system. Practice and franchise modes were included, which allowed the player to rerun plays to perfection or take control of the team's front office work, such as managing the salary cap, trading players, and signing free agents.

So, Madden NFL '99, finally, is on the same level as GameDay in terms of gameplay, graphics and options. Now, with that aside, I'd like to concentrate on Madden NFL '99's assets at face value. Most reviews at this time of year compare the two games feature-by-feature. I'm going to concentrate on Madden alone.

The first thing I noticed was that this year's cinematic intro features a commercial for Electronic Arts' other 1999 sports titles. I think EA's feeling some pride about the recent turnaround in their sports software. Last year's efforts were a step above the previous year's, which, while not horrible, could have been a bit better all around. This year, I think they've really listened to the fans and improved what they could in their sports software lineup.

That aside, Madden '99 features a slightly different interface than last year. The plays are presented with the formations first (one at a time, rather than three), then three plays side-by-side. The offensive player can press the R1 button to flip the plays' orientation. The defensive player, unfortunately, doesn't have this option. However, the defensive player can shift players around in the backfield by pressing L1 or R1 while their formation is at the line of scrimmage waiting for the play to begin. This is a nice touch that's carried over from last year's game.

The player can choose quarter lengths as short as one minute or as long as 15 minutes. There are player profiles that can be saved to memory card, which include your win-loss record and other stats, including passing, running and receiving records, to name a few. Several different camera angles are available, including a Madden classic view, blimp cam and side-to-side view. For most players, I'm betting the Madden classic angle is the one which will get the most use, since it allows a bit more receiver visibility than the default camera option. The other camera angles may look good during replays, but aren't really to conducive to actual gameplay.

As for the graphics on the field, the addition of polygon-based players is a huge shot in the arm for the Madden series. The motion capture techniques used to make the player animations allows for incredibly life-like wrap tackles, jumps, jukes, stumbles and other moves. For the first few games, I would continuously use instant replay to view the nuances of each animation. It's that good. The offense walks up to the line of scrimmage with a distinct swagger. After a play, the offensive players have a tendency to stand up and stare off into space as other players move around them. It's a little strange to see someone like Jerome Bettis complete a 10 yard run, stand up, and stare at the opposite end of the field or directly into the face of another player. It's a minor flaw, but one that occurs so often that it gets a little annoying. Other glitches are noticeable (like the quarterback running to kick off, only to suddenly texture-swap into the kicker's jersey and skin color before actually kicking the ball). However, nothing ruins the atmosphere of the game. Even the famous "skating players" are gone. The players now seem to move at the appropriate rate over the field.

The famous "Maddenisms" have been improved this year. There aren't as many per game, and those that do come up are sort of insightful. Madden will make comments about specific players this year, rather than making inane comments and sound effects. Pat Summerall's announcing is much better than last year's too, but it still is a bit stilted and unnatural sounding. The crowd sounds much the same as last year, but gets a little more enthusiastic on 3rd down situations and when the home team's defending the red zone. Strangely, though, the home crowd goes silent immediately following an extra point. The tackles and hits are appropriately loud and solid. Players grunt and groan with realistic intensity. Instant replays are devoid of either music or on-field sound effects, which is a bit odd.

The game's artificial intelligence seems pretty good this year. I've never been one to look for and abuse money plays, but I experimented a bit by calling successful plays over and over. I found the computer would defend differently in most cases. I'm not saying there aren't money plays, but if there are, they're not as blatantly obvious as in Madden '97.

The running game is now much more realistic. Runs over 10 yards aren't impossible anymore and, with the addition of the polygon engine, the holes in the defensive line are easier to find and exploit. Merely touching an opposing player won't cause the runner to immediately fall over. A runner can now also stumble a bit and stop himself from falling. This adds so much to the game, it's hard to adequately describe. Seeing Ricky Watters run for 4 yards, spin, stumble and still move forward for 6 more yards before being gang-tackled is a lot of fun. When a situation like that happens on a 3rd and 1, and the runner breaks free for 30 yards, it's hard not to get excited.

Passing is still a little on the generous side. Receivers sandwiched between two or more defenders still can come up with the ball. There also seem to be more interceptions this year, but not a ridiculously high number of them. Most games, on 5 minute quarters, seem to yield an average of 2 to 3 interceptions total. (5 minute quarters still result in the most realistic statistics. 10 minute quarter games have quarterbacks passing for 500-600 yards and running backs carrying for over 175-200 yards.)

Injuries and penalties occur at a fairly reasonable rate. If you're unsatisfied with either one's rate of occurrence, you can adjust the probability with a slider bar from the settings menu. Penalties include pass interference, encroachment, holding, false starts, roughing the passer, running into the kicker, delay of game, and face masking (both 5 and 15 yard determinations.)

I have yet to discover a serious flaw or problem that hinders this game from being the best Madden game ever. All the good things from last year are back and all the major flaws from last year have been fixed. The only thing the game lacks is a bit of graphical polish, but I think that's nitpicking a bit. If you pick only one football game this year, choosing Madden NFL '99 isn't a mistake. This year, it's the right choice.

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