• I should lay my cards on the table here. I am a Madden veteran, stretching back to Sega Megadrive days. Unfortunately, since those heady days of Madden 92 and EA Hockey – complete with blood on the ice – EA has become the dirty old man of video game publishing, appearing every year to flaunt his shiny wares and tempt kids in with the promise of better-looking sweets only to reveal the shrivelled corpse of a stagnant franchise.

    The FIFA series fell behind Pro Evo a long time ago, and in recent years the ESPN triumverate of NBA, NHL and NFL titles – ironically published by Sega – have shown that while they can’t produce a swanky menu system set to Franz Ferdinand – they do know how to get it right at the business end. And yet millions – including your humble reporter – fall for it every year and continue to buy EA’s licenced nonsense.

    Madden NFL 06

    So it is with some trepidation that Madden 06 on the 360 is approached. It is, after all, far too early in the year to feel dirty and sullied. I need a life-affirming experience that proves that EA are ready to grasp the next-gen nettle and show that all this new technology isn?t just going towards making Michael Vick look even more photorealistic.

    With Madden 06, EA gets its chance to steal a march on ESPN on our beloved new system and show that they have more depth.

    At first glance, EA have got their usual bit right. The opening sequence is a beautiful sight and a preview of the visual bliss that follows. Subsequent menus swish and swoop satisfyingly as you navigate the pre-game options. Meanwhile The Arctic Monkeys thrash about in the background and everything is lovely.

    In terms of gameplay, the options are as extensive as ever. There are more sliders to adjust relative abilities of players and frequency of rules that is a test of nerve to to keep tinkering with them every five minutes to find the perfect simulation. Stats freaks – that will be me then – are in their absolute element.

    But wait, what’s this. Or rather, what isn’t this? Where is the training option. Where are the Madden challenges, the cards to earn? Come to think of it, where is the Season option? Surely with all this extra memory, developers should be adding stuff to games, not stripping them bare? Unfortunately with Madden 06, that is exactly what has been done. All that is left is the big-assed franchise mode and quick play mode. Now while the franchise mode is very impressive, it does require a huge commitment in terms of running the team and er, franchise, compared to that of the traditional ‘Season’ mode, where the emphasis is still on getting it done on the field.

    Which is where we’re heading now and is also where the money shot is in terms of the £50 you have just spent on the game. The visuals are incredible. Jerseys stretch around fat centers and muscles ripple as wide receivers pick themselves up off the floor while the crowd cheer and bait the players and head coaches slam headsets on the floor in frustration. The animation when a player picks up an injury is particularly impressive.

    Naturally, gameplay is as it was since the Megadrive days, which means passing is a joy but linemen still stick to each other like they?re wearing crazy Japanese velcro suits. However the playcalling screen has received an overhaul and is now much more extensive and intuitive. You can still call the plays in the time-honoured fashion through the formation screen, but plays are also divided so that if you want to call a play-action pass, you can go to that section and all the play-action passes in your play-call book are there. Similarly, runs are divided into inside handoffs, outside handoffs, counters etc, while passes are divided into standard passes, quick passes, shotgun passes and play-action. There is also the option to call a play based on utilising one of your star players. Alternatively, you can ask Madden or the coach for a suggestion. It’s a huge improvement and probably the best new feature. Alright, it’s the only one, but still.

    So, the gripes. Well, you can’t challenge a play, which is a fairly major omission and there is no choice of camera angle. Once you have brought the camera out to look at the routes your receivers will be running and to check the defensive formation, the camera stays out there, wide as you like, before zooming back in as the play starts. A minor issue, but it bugs me. Madden’s commentary is also gone, to be replaced by someone I didn’t recognise who sounds like he’s speaking in an aircraft hanger through an AM radio. Humph.

    On the surface, Madden has made a good leap forward from the PS2 and Xbox versions of the same game, but scratch the shiny surface and it’s a huge disappointment.

    For now, Madden 06 feels like a taster of what is to come. Expect the full package next year.

    Score: 7/10

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