I'll make this one simple – if you want an NFL game this year, go buy Madden 06 – it's your only choice. If you want to know about the big changes to the game, the addition of the superstar mode, and whether or not it's worthy of a purchase if you own Madden 2005, the answer isn't so simple. The changes to the game are significant enough that some people will immediately dislike them, while others, mainly the hardcore, will embrace the changes, as it gives them new skills to hone, and new ways to dominate opponents.
If you've played Madden for any length of time, you know to not expect any great changes from year to year. New features will be added, money plays will be fixed, and graphics will be tweaked, but the basic formula stays the same. This year, however, a few additions shake things up a little more than usual. The biggest and most controversial change is QB vision control. It's essentially a highlighted area that spreads like a cone away from the quarterback. The amount of area that the QB vision covers is directly related to the QB's awareness rating. Someone like Peyton Manning or Brett Favre will be able to see a good chunk of the field, while less talented QB's, like Patrick Ramsey or Aaron Brooks will see significantly less. This is the biggest problem with the system. Lousy quarterbacks, like anyone on the Bears' or Dolphins' roster have a tiny cone, and it's very hard to maneuver. Of course, that's the point – lousy quarterbacks are bad at things like scanning the field, but this makes certain teams worthless if you're playing against someone with a good QB. The quarterback's vision is also diminished when he's on the run, which means it's tougher to get off an accurate pass while scrambling than it has been in previous years. One of the main benefits of this system is that it makes pocket passers more valuable, which means that you'll perhaps get to play against someone other than Mike Vick and the Falcons once in a blue moon. You can turn the cone off, thankfully, but that begs the question – if the feature was so great, why let people turn it off?
Precision passing is another tweak to the passing game, and it's designed to let you put the ball exactly where you want it. By moving the left analog stick in the direction you want to throw the ball, you can lead receivers on deep passes, and throw jump-balls to take advantage of a receiver's height advantage, allowing him to go right over the smaller DB to get the pass. This was intended to let some of the game's better receivers stand out from the rest of the pack., but it's tough to aim your pass while scrambling. Any time I was moving up towards the line, I ended up leading a receiver, instead of hitting in the numbers. This takes a little bit of time to get used to, but it's especially satisfying when you pull it off correctly.
Another small addition that is sure to please hardcore players is that receivers will now run "smart" hot routes. Instead of catching the ball short of the first down marker or goal line, receivers will now adjust their routes on the fly to gain the necessary yards. This is a great addition, but it's something that should have been in the game years ago. Offensive players also get the added bonus of the truck stick, which is essentially the offensive equivalent of the hit stick. You can jive and juke to your heart's content by flipping the right analog stick. This feels natural, and it's very satisfying to pull off a few quick moves before breaking off a long run.
There's not a whole lot new in franchise mode – it's as solid as ever. You can play a traditional season, where you act as owner/gm/coach, or you can focus on an individual player in superstar mode. The new superstar mode seems like a great concept, but it doesn't live up to expectations. You start by choosing your player's parents' characteristics, like occupation and intelligence – this helps determine what kind of player you'll be. After taking an IQ test, you'll be drafted and report to your team. For some reason, Terrell Davis is your mentor, and he'll guide you through the various facets of the game mode. You've got your own website, you can change your look, audition for movies, gripe about playing time, and yeah, if you want you can even practice a little bit and play games. The biggest issue with superstar mode is that it moves along at a snail's pace – there's a huge emphasis on practice, the interface looks neat, but is cumbersome, and it takes a long time to become a star. It's a very interesting concept, but it needs some work.
Online play is largely unchanged, except you now have the ability to upload a franchise game and have a friend download it, play their game, and send it back. Sure, not many people will use this, but it's a great way to play a season with a buddy across the country. The sign-in process is as convoluted as ever, except now you've got to agree to let EA market your email address, or you'll need to pay $2 for the privilege of playing online. You'd think that since people are shoveling out cash for the game every year EA could find a way to just make it painless and totally free, but apparently that's not the case. Irregardless, online play is smooth and enjoyable. Just be prepared to get your butt whipped by some of the hardcore people lurking online.
What else is there to say about Madden's visuals that hasn't already been said? It looks like last year's game, but with a little more polish. There are some new animations, and, uh, that's about it. The game looks fine, but with all of the Xbox 360 shots of Madden coming out, it's starting to show its age.
Like the graphics, there's really not a whole lot new to say about Madden's audio. Tony Bruno has got to go. His radio show was cool the first time, but he's had his run. Al and John seem about the same as last year, with no noticeable changes to their commentary. The EA Trax are a mixed bag, with some great songs, and some not-so-great tunes. The new songs that feature remixed themes from the old NFL Films are awesome – probably the best addition to an EA soundtrack in years. The crowds are dynamic, with plenty of team specific cheers, and the stadium music is solid as well. Rich Eisen is in the game, and as much as I enjoy Rich, it seems like his role was come up with at the last minute. Hopefully we'll get more of Mr. Eisen and less of Terrell Davis next year.
Madden 06 is either going to be a breath of fresh air or a huge disappointment – there's no way to know until you play the game. The developers should be applauded for trying such drastic changes, even if all of the new additions aren't that enjoyable. If you're tired of the same old thing, then give Madden 06 a shot. If you fear change, maybe some more quality time with Madden 2005 will suit you just fine.