|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
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.
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.