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Madden 2004

Developer: Tiburon | Publisher: Electronic Arts
Players: 1 to 2 Player Game | Release Date: 08/12/03 | Genre: Sports

It’s that time of the year again: leaves falling to the ground, annoying younger siblings headed back to school, and the melodic sound of crunching pads blasting through the surround sound speakers in my living room. Football season has finally arrived.

Once again I have donned my beaten-up fleece Steelers shirt for another year of dominating the NFL. With new features at our fingertips, such as the new Owner Mode, on-the-field “Playmakerâ€? reads, and the ability for online play, gamers everywhere should be salivating to get their grubby mitts on the newest installment in the Madden series.

Plenty of features returned from previous games, including the Madden Cards for accomplishments in games, optional gameplay tutorials, and options to customize your playbooks and the artificial intelligence for your players. EA hasn’t gotten complacent, though, and there are several new features to give 2004 a fresh feel. Owner’s mode is the biggest new feature for those of us without a network adapter. Owner’s mode builds on the franchise mode of 2004’s predecessors. This mode is a godsend for players like myself that enjoy the off-season as much as the regular season. You can customize the amount you charge fans for tickets, parking, and merchandise, hire and fire coaches, hire your training/medical staff, plan upgrades to your stadium, or even create a plan with another city to relocate, where you customize and build a new stadium. And of course, many features are returned from last year’s franchise mode, such as rookie scouting and drafts, player retirements, and a free agent market. The normal franchise and owner modes have a shared new feature though--training camp. Training camp is another great idea from EA. Before the beginning of each season, you may select nine players to participate in nine different training drills. Depending on your performance in the drills, you can win attribute points for your players. Not only does this feature help you to develop your favorite players, but I also found it challenging and fun. Once you get the hang of the drills, you’ll be eager for your season to end so you can try for more points the next season.

During the games, the player will able to use the new “Playmakerâ€? feature to make subtle audibles or adjustments on the fly. Fortunately, the addition of this feature didn’t cause EA to change the control settings that players have gotten used to. Playmaker functions are performed with the right analog stick, and are done quickly so that you can return your eager thumb to its buttons. Playmaker functions include shifting your safeties’ zones or changing the direction of a running play before the snap, or after the snap, calling out “runâ€? or “passâ€? to your defensive teammates or controlling your lead blocker on a run to engage the defender you want plowed.

I noticed some other new features in the gameplay as well. Play action and draw plays have become much more useful. For the first few seconds of a draw play, the passing icons will come up, and for the first few seconds of the play action pass, the runner will be highlighted as having the ball. This is a huge difference from the play action pass plays of the past, which should have all been named “Take Sack and 9 Yard Lossâ€?. Also, players will quickly notice improved pass defense in the game. Interceptions are much more frequent on errant passes, both for the player and for the CPU. The AI for blocking assignments has clearly been bolstered as well, with lineman pulling on sweeps and screens when they should. There were a few noticeable bugs still, such as a lineman charging before the pass on a screen to block a safety without getting flagged for being illegally downfield. These bugs were rare, though, and did not detract from the overall experience.

Once again, the sound atmosphere for the game is fantastic. You feel as though you are inside the stadium, with realistic crunches, grunts, and crowd atmosphere. Defenders call out “runâ€? and “passâ€?, and sometimes verbally threaten the offense. John and Al, however, are more or less the same, with John’s commentary quickly becoming repetitive and annoying. The announcers fail to pronounce many of the names this year, and seem to single out relatively few players with individual profiles or bios in the pre-game warm-ups. However, John, as always, makes an ideal target to curse at after you’ve just thrown an interception on a key drive and he throws in his two cents.

Graphically speaking, I didn’t notice too many changes. The stadiums have been improved, and some new tackling animations, especially for group tackles, seem to have been added. The player animation still looks great. The sidelines look a great deal better, and I recommend running over the guy who carries the markers at least a few times. He doesn’t mind; it’s all in good fun. If I were to nitpick though, sometimes the catching animations look a little screwy. The ball sometimes rotates in a way that denies physics before seemingly being magnetically attracted to the player’s hands. You almost have to examine the replays to notice any of these flaws, however.

And, of course, Madden 2004 supports network play. Players can compete online in regular games or tournaments, and can talk trash via USB headsets. I don’t doubt that this is going to be the future of sports games, where players will one day be able to set up their own leagues similarly to Fantasy Football, compete for their own Super Bowls, run their own drafts, etc. EA Sports has made a leap in the right direction by getting players hooked now.

In conclusion, Madden 2004 has done it again. EA Sports continually sets the bar for competition in football games. With new features like Playmaker, Owner’s Mode, and online play at your disposal, I highly recommend purchasing 2004, even if you own its predecessor. It is much more than a roster update; it is possibly the soundest football game ever made.

By Farmer Monkey - 10/17/03
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