Like it’s done with countless other virtual sports — hockey and golf, to name just two — EA Sports has so dominated PC football for so long that it’s not only beaten down the competition, it’s eliminated it. Such is the power of ungodly licensing deals and EA Sports. The good news is that the latest in the storied Madden franchise — Madden NFL 07, the 17th iteration — is a stupendous title that’s so versatile and so challenging that it will undoubtedly be a staple on your hard drive for many months, or years, to come.
But do you need it? If you’re anything like me — a big-time PC sports fan who simply hasn’t visited the Madden series in awhile — the answer is a resounding “yes.” I dusted off my copy of Madden 2002 for comparison’s sake, but I realized immediately that detailed comparison was futile. Today’s game looks better, sounds better, plays better, and has far more potential for longevity.
As expected, Madden’s presentation is ridiculously beyond reproach. Interfaces are sophisticated and deep; menu transitions are smooth. The application loads and exits quickly, as does each individual game. The only real quibble, given the variety of controllers in today’s marketplace, is that just one pad (Logitech’s Dual Action Gamepad) is mapped out in the printed button assignment chart. Coordinating Xs and Ys with 1s and 2s simply isn’t fun, especially considering the game’s stupefying number of control options.
But it is this glut of control variables that makes Madden 07 so appetizing. Suffice it to say that if you’re new to Madden — and even if you’ve come from a background of other EA Sports titles such as NHL and Tiger Woods — you’d best prepare to dig in and educate thyself. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to execute a dozen play-calling, motion, shift, and audible button-presses before the ball is even snapped.
Returning Madden-ites will appreciate the game’s renewed emphasis on the running play, spearheaded by a wide range of manually controlled shifts, ducks, spins, and highly (and perhaps unrealistically) effective cuts that really help propel Madden away from the aerial festival it’s been in the past. Longtime fans will also appreciate the availability of real-life team-specific defensive schemes to stop these runs.
Returning for a second appearance is the oft-discussed “vision cone,” wherein a section of the field is highlighted during passing plays to represent the quarterback’s field of vision and ideal passing zone. You can, though, deactivate the vision cone if you don’t like it. If you do, perhaps you’ll instead want to activate the new Lead Blocker feature. When you do this, you’ll assume direct control of a lead blocker (whom you choose in advance of the snap) and attempt to smash a path through the defensive line for your ball-carrying back. Whether Madden himself, a fervent fan of the trenches, had anything to do with this is anyone’s guess, but the fact is that it’s both gritty and innovative.
Madden 07 delivers an astonishingly authentic sensory experience that absolutely blows away older versions of the game — which now look grainy and stilted in contrast — and even ups the ante on the 06 edition. That Terrell Owens now not only looks like Terrell Owens but also makes TO-styled maneuvers that are clearly distinctive from the personalized moves of Madden 07 cover boy Shaun Alexander will hold much appeal for serious players. Audio, conversely, is unremarkable. On the field, the sounds are on the money. But up in the booth, where Al Michaels seems withdrawn, the news is not as good; Madden is absurdly obvious, and the stadium announcer consistently interferes with both commentators.
Is that enough to deny the game? Not on your life. This is quite probably the only hardcore PC football game you’re going to see this year, and it’s a very good one.