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Madden NFL 2004 (PlayStation 2) artwork

Madden NFL 2004 (PlayStation 2) review

"As a matter of political correctness, itís somewhat taboo to talk about religion in reviews these days, but bear with my tangential introduction, because I have recently come to an important revelation. You see, I was raised as a Christian, which means I worship Jesus Christ, a Jewish preacher out of Nazareth, as my Lord and Savior: the embodiment of God on earth. Other religions revere inestimably holy prophets or wise men who have pointed the way to salvation -- for instance, Mohammed for Musl..."

As a matter of political correctness, itís somewhat taboo to talk about religion in reviews these days, but bear with my tangential introduction, because I have recently come to an important revelation. You see, I was raised as a Christian, which means I worship Jesus Christ, a Jewish preacher out of Nazareth, as my Lord and Savior: the embodiment of God on earth. Other religions revere inestimably holy prophets or wise men who have pointed the way to salvation -- for instance, Mohammed for Muslims. But these worldviews are from a bygone time. In fact, today they lie shattered in the dust along the side of the highway of history, exposed as fraudulent by the coming of a new prophet, the lovably tumid John Madden, bearing a new scripture -- Madden NFL 2004 -- and a new Messiah: the divinely inspired #7, miracle worker Michael Vick.

I canít really discern how much my faithful reader knows about football. But most quarterbacks, in leading their team, remain in the so-called ďpocket,Ē commanding like a naval captain safe on the armored bridge of his ship, dispatching the ball to his subordinates. While video games reflected this, playing them felt too mechanical and mathematical: sit there, examine the field, and choose the most open target for the pass. Boring, in a word. But Vick, or at least his virtual incarnation, represents a new paradigm: commanding with all the personal force of an Erwin Rommel, Vick uses his mobility to touch every part of the field, sliding out into empty space to find open receivers, forfeiting the protection of his offensive line to join the perilous fray. Perhaps the best part of this is that Vick plays for the Atlanta Falcons -- not a very good team, otherwise -- so playing with him often feels like a one-on-eleven experience, challenging but also thrilling because your one is so incomparably gifted as to be competitive with a whole team. The opportunity to play as Vick is almost by itself justification for Madden 2004. Yet in the words of Ron Popeil, ďBut wait, thereís more!Ē 2004 takes the depth of previous Maddens, which might be said to represent a Death Valley sort of depth, to a new, unprecedented, shore-of-the-Dead-Sea kind of depth.

Itís been noted truthfully by ESPNís Bill Simmons that Vick in Madden 2004 is the most dominant video-game athlete since Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Super Bowl for the NES. Vick brings Madden a certain flair, his fearless naked bootlegs and the long gains he makes on them representing the playful spirit that has always existed at the crossroad of videogames and football, but itís the producers of this series who have an even more stunning talent: keeping this elderly franchise fresh with each new edition. (The folks making updates in the graphics department help of course, and indeed Madden looks better than ever this year: heís lost a few pounds and that ruddy glow is back in his cheeks. The new edition of his video game looks really sharp too.) But it seems that every year, a new Madden release greets us with new gameplay features, increasing the complexity of the game, enhancing the strategic matchup of wits -- the careful and creative offensive coordinator against a wiley, resourceful defensive commander -- that is such an important part of the pleasure of football.

This year, Madden brings us the Playmaker feature. Here, while controlling one player with one thumb -- the ballcarrier or quarterback or stalwart defender -- we can guide and command teammates with the other hand. This might be used to send a receiver into unguarded space on the field, or to order blockers to force a certain path for your runner. The effect is rendered beautifully: when I take Mr. Vick on a bootleg rollout, releasing him into the exposed enemy flank, and I see the defenders sneak up to guard against the deadly threat of his legs, I fire off the Playmaker feature, and I see Michael raise his arm and point upfield, ordering his receiver to take advantage of the defenseís cautious hesitation and break for the big play: itís a long touchdown pass. Orchestrating these complex plays is not only challenging, adding a rewarding level of depth to gameplay, but it also makes one feel in control of a team rather than just a single player. Simultaneously, it adds a level of strategy and planning to the game, but also a level of physical skill and coordination -- controlling two different players with the two analog sticks requires practiced dexterity.

Rarely has a brand-new feature been implemented so well right off the bat as Playmaker is. Such achievements might be a trend for the Madden team, though, because the other highly touted new feature, Owner Mode, is also well-executed, though it adds far less to the game. Drafts, off-season free agency, contract signing, salary cap management, stadium financing: all are faithfully recreated for the gamer who loves to wallow in front-office details. But unlike soccerís Championship Manager series, which relies on much the same formula, Owner Mode is just not very compelling. One might play through a few seasons, drafting and improving players, but thereís not enough here to keep one interested over the long term. Madden 2004 fails where Championship Manager succeeds precisely because Madden is a football game and not a management sim; what players you sign and how well you finance your operations is reduced to irrelevancy when skill on the field guides you to annual Super Bowls in any case. Iím not sure Owner Modeís effort to combine football gameplay with management had much of a chance. Each waters down the other, and the two, frankly, seem incompatible.

Two things that arenít incompatible, however, are the visual glory and unassuming splendor of a Madonna on the Rocks, and the visceral brutality of a tough sport like football. Madden 2004 makes this abundantly clear, with attention to realism everywhere, and little touches of emotion -- like Vickís upraised, authoritative arm -- that add hugely to the realism. The game is moved along by reducing the usual degree of replays and instead allowing replays and celebrations to play as a backdrop to the menu for your next playcall, a welcome departure from TV-style presentation that was unwieldy and time-consuming. Generally, itís safe to say the series only improves on its legacy of cutting-edge visuals.

The sound, on the other hand, remains uniformly average, although thereís a healthy selection of songs from major artists that help brighten your time the menus. Nevertheless, while Iím not going to lash out at John Maddenís color commentary skills, Iím prepared to contend that they donít lend themselves well to a video game. Johnís boisterous banter during his ABC broadcasts is filled with unique stories and crazy anecdotes, drawing upon years of experience with the game and the players. Itís something that canít really be reproduced in taped sessions for a game: it only works as improvisation. Even allowing that this game couldnít possibly match live TV commentary, however, the Madden series which has done so much to revolutionize sports gaming in other departments continues to be stymied in solving the perennial question: how to make video-game commentary anything but mind-numbing.

Sometimes, it seems that thereís not much to say about a sports title. After all, what it does is obvious, what it looks like follows pretty closely from the structure of the sport in question, and features tend to be much the same across the board. The Madden series is different: it takes the factors that make any game great, and tries to apply them to football. 2004 has more depth, more speed and pace, and more of a certain unquantifiable flair -- perhaps due to Mr. Vickís dynamic presence -- than any other football game on the market today. In the same way that the public continues to demand more and more Jenna Jameson videos to slake its lust for sex, in the world of sports games the public demands from EA one thing each year, a new edition of Madden to slake its thirst for brilliant football action. And just like Jenna, EA has delivered. Pricelessly.

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Community review by denouement (April 16, 2004)

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