The Madden franchise is one of the longest-running in videogame history. It began around the same time as The Simpsons (and looked just about as ugly at that point) and has since grown to become a national phenomenon. Like anything that manages to last nearly two decades, Madden has gained a near equal number of ardent fans and passionate detractors. No matter what developer Tiburon does with its football title, the fans will always support it and the haters will always cry foul. Fortunately for those who love Madden, the gang at Tiburon finally got its next-gen act together and created the best version of its seminal football series since Madden NFL 2005. In fact, Madden 08 feels in many ways a throwback to 2005. That's a good thing. Madden 05 rocked.
The biggest and most notable improvement this year is in the animation and tackling system. Gone are the majority of pre-canned animations. Just because you see Ray Lewis wrapping his meaty arms around Shaun Alexander doesn't mean the same overused tackle animation is about to kick in. The new branching animation system works in tandem with some new, more realistic football physics, to dictate the outcome of such contests. Depending on a player's skill, positioning, and momentum, a large variety of animations become possible. The end result is some of the most varied tackling ever seen in a football game.
Gang tackling is also a big part of Madden 08. While open-field tackles by competent defenders is certainly possible, it's more likely that the first only tackler will slow down the ballcarrier. Just hold up LT for a second so Asante Samuel can speed in and lay down a hard lick. In many ways, this creates a more organic and altogether more realistic version of football from what we've seen from Madden in the past. But it also allows for strong backs to fall forward and gain extra yards where, in real football, they often wouldn't. Playing with LT or LJ is always going to help you net some yards on the ground, but you'll see such talented players stumble and sometimes even slide along the ground for a few more yards than is reasonable. Three yard runs become six yard runs too often.
This evens out in the end, since running backs cough it up like the IGN Emphysema Ward. Fumbles are problematic. Even if you refrain from a juke or spin move and hold fast to covering the ball, it will still pop out far too often. Sure, that's something you might expect from the likes of Shaun Alexander or Tony Romo, but even sure-handed ball carriers such as LT and Chad Johnson drop the rock consistently.
Part of this can be attributed to Hit Stick 2.0. This evolution of the Hit Stick now allows defenders to choose to tackle high or to go for a cut block low. Low tackles go at a running back's legs, making it a great tactic to use against bulldozing backs too tough to take down square at the shoulders. And it often flips the back off his feet, which can lead to devastating mid-air collisions. Oddly enough, these types of plays don't usually result in turnovers. It's when a big hitter takes on the ball carrier high that the ball tends to squirt out. In the average game, you might see 8-12 turnovers between fumbles and easy picks. It turns runs after the catch into a game of Russian roulette. With a lead late in the fourth quarter, you may actually give yourself up with an open-field dive just to avoid the chance to having the ball pop loose.
Forgiving the propensity towards fumbles, the bulk of Madden gameplay is excellent. And yes, it's a far more enjoyable game than what we've seen in the past few years. The battle at the line of scrimmage is now more realistic and features (for the most part) intelligent blocking from your O-line. Get in a goaline situation and you won't see the classic pinball effect as big-bodied linemen stutter in repeated collisions while the running back bounces around like a pinball. Before, the goaline was a joke in Madden. Now it's the real deal. You better get Reggie Bush to leap over the pile or squeeze through a tight hole if you don't want him getting stuffed.
Receivers have also been given an upgrade. Chuck a ball near the sidelines and most receivers will actually try and stay inbounds for a legal catch. Imagine that. They'll drag their feet or try and pitter-patter just inside the line. A player's ratings determine how cognizant they are of the sideline, so don't expect your fifth receiver to suddenly show grace on the field. These sideline moves coincide with the addition of new spectacular catch animations. If a player has a swank rating in this attribute, expect to see the ghost of Lynn Swan on the field making mind-boggling one-handed grabs and other amazing acrobatic feats.
This ties in to the heavily-hyped new weapons system. The idea is that while there are many great players in the NFL, there are some who excel in very specific areas. Quick Receivers such as Steve Smith and Deion Branch are great at running routes and shaking coverage; Elusive Runningbacks such as Maurice-Jones Drew are more likely to slip out of tackles; and Smart QBs like Peyton Manning can read a defense in order to audible to a better offensive play. The weapons distinction is linked to specific ratings. Anyone over a 90 rating in one of the categories earns the weapon tag. While that does make the whole idea of weapons seem a tad artificial, it plays perfectly in the pre-snap chess match featured prominently in Madden 08.
For those who remember the last couple of Madden's from the previous generation, there was a frantic move-countermove element prior to every snap. All of that is back and in full force with Madden 08. On offense you have hot route options, as per usual. But on the other side of the ball, you gain a robust system of defensive assignments. See a hole in the formation that allows Shaun Merriman a clean shot at the QB? You can order Merriman to leave his zone assignment and instead blitz. Sure, you can adjust the entire D-line, linebackers, or corners in one stroke, but for those who want to micromanage a game, there's plenty of on-the-fly play customization available.
The weapons become a key component to this system. Holding the left trigger, you can search for a weapons mismatch. It's then up to the defender to try and compensate quickly before the ball is snapped. At the same time, the player on offense can audible, call a hot route, or put a receiver in motion to try and create a mismatch situation. If you just don't give a crap and want to play Madden like a brute, you can. Those who want a deeper experience will find it this year.
This dynamic plays better against a human opponent. The computer AI, while tighter than in recent iterations, still makes some dumb mistakes. There will be bonehead calls on both offense and defense that really open things up for a skilled player. Just don't get too cocky. On the default Pro difficulty, the AI has a tendency to catch up quickly, making the perfect call against your defense and performing some extraordinary plays late in the game. Be a stud and kick the difficulty up a notch and these issues fade a bit. The AI still makes some bungles, but the rubber band issues snaps away. Of course, you're also playing on probably the most challenging version of All-Madden to date. Hope you've got the stones to cope.
One area Tiburon neglected to improve is special teams. Once again, this is abysmal. It's simplistic in comparison to every other aspect of Madden on the field. You still can't choose to do a reverse, your blockers don't know the term "wedge," and every kicker has to ability to boot a kickoff out of the endzone. There are only three aspects to football: Offense, defense, and special teams. Failing at one means you fail at a very significant portion of the game. Coaches will tell you that special teams often decide the game. In Madden 08, special teams decide next to nothing. If you want to be the best football game ever, then you have to do it all. And Madden 08 (once again) takes a pass on doing anything worthwhile with special teams.
Also in need of some refurbishing is the lackluster presentation. No game has come close to matching NFL 2K5 in re-creating a TV broadcast. I don't expect Madden to suddenly burst out and become the most astounding representation of broadcast football of all time, but at least Tiburon could make some effort. As with last year, we are forced to suffer through a cheap radio broadcast. Yes, I know, nothing says gridiron like a radio broadcast from inside a bomb shelter. Despite having the ESPN license, Madden 08 gives us a very vanilla experience on the field. There are some great ESPN broadcasters (and the Monday Night Football license), why not use them to offer a more immersive experience?
Though Tiburon shirks its duty on special teams and presentation, it goes all out in every other area. Along with the gameplay improvements, Madden 08 sports a robust offering of gameplay modes. In Franchise, we see the return of Owner Mode. Only now it's called Finance Mode. Sounds about as exciting as doing your taxes, right? Unlike most owner modes, you don't get to adjust ticket or concession prices. You can view those in a lovely flow chart, but you can't directly change them. [Insert audio of this reviewer booing.] During the season, you can scout college players to allow for better draft-day decisions and twirl your cigar like a good ol' blue blood. It's fairly skimpy unless you stumble on to some of the offseason options.
In the offseason you can purchase a significant number of stadium upgrades. These don't change the visuals of your stadium, but the new amenities can affect your income. Sponsorships are also back, though all offers come from advertisers that have already infiltrated the field in Madden 08. Does Snickers satisfy you? It will by the 176th time you see it advertised.
The one function of Finance Mode certain to garner some interest from fans is the ability to relocate your team. There are dozens of potential locations for your NFL franchise to move. You'll have to propose a new stadium (which is built with the help of a fairly meaty creation system) and find funding. With luck, your proposal will be approved and you can give the finger to your loyal fans and move somewhere more profitable. You can even change names, logos, and uniforms once in your new city. That's how the San Diego Chargers became the Anchorage Asshats.
Superstar Mode is similar to Madden 07, but with a couple of key changes. You can now important your superstar from NCAA 08 and play them in Madden. And (perhaps more importantly) you can choose to take the role of any member of the 2007 rookie class. Do you have what it takes to turn Adrian Peterson into the man in Minnesota? Can you make Calvin Johnson a Hall of Famer in Detroit? You'll have the chance to test your mettle with improved camera angles at every position. You still only play the single role, so you will end up as observer for a lot of plays. The training elements (which can be used to boost your Weapons ratings) are almost all identical to last year. But at least the camera no longer sucks.
Personally, I was most excited about having a Fantasty Draft option in Franchise Mode that included every unlocked Hall of Famer. Surprisingly, there are more actually Hall of Famers (not just retired NFL players) in Madden 08 than in All-Pro Football 2K8. Toss in the fact that you're playing with NFL teams and in a 30-year dynasty and you have a fans dream come true. Finally, Joe Montana can become a star with the Anchorage Asshats!
For those who want to take their game online, they'll find a solid system that is a little slim on features. The lobby and ranking system are excellent and every game I played online ran without a hitch. Unfortunately, while the offline game allows up to four players at one time, online is strictly a 1v1 affair. And for some reason Tiburon hasn't figured out that people want online leagues. The online game is good, but it's amazing that we're several iterations in to Madden next-gen and it still lacks a competitive league system. There's an old saying I learned growing up in San Diego: "Maybe next year." At least Tiburon didn't draft Ryan Leaf.
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