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Madden 99 (PC) Hands-on Preview

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: Summer 1998

Mark McGwire not only broke Roger Maris' single-season home run record this week, he's currently on his way to setting a bold new mark that could last for decades itself. I draw this (strained) comparison to Madden 99, scheduled to go gold this coming weekend to make a simple point: For everyone who bemoans the Sega versions from the early 90s, I have only one thing to say, "Get over it!" Madden NFL 99 on the PC is shaping up to be the best version of this venerable series in every aspect. It's one that will take a considerable effort to surpass.

First allow me to note that while I've played a few alpha & beta builds over the past month, I have not gotten the Glide version to work. All of my observations (and screenshots) were taken under D3D on a then-below-minimum-requirement system: a P200 with an 8MB Voodoo 1 board. EA is quickly trying to add 11Khz audio and a few more graphics toggles to help reduce the overhead, but face it, more and more games are forcing even the MMX crowd to look into a system upgrade.

With that out of the way, I'm still stunned by what I've been seeing. Tiburon's 3D engine generates unparalleled on-the-field graphics. The amount of in-play animations breathe new life into what have traditionally been stilted actions, although frame-by-frame instant replays will frequently show comical events transpiring. (Someone's limb passing though another's torso, a pass hanging motionless in mid-air for a few frames after leaving a quarterback's hand, etc.)

Even the best looking game would not be fun to play if it did not operate realistically. In this area, Madden 99's on field AI could wind up being the toughest (sans psychic cheating & attribute boosting) defensive opponent ever to hit silicon. Last year's maligned "Liquid AI" is ready-to-go-this-year-honest, and once you see the linebackers read a developing sweep and stuff it, you'll know that you're not playing a pushover.

Other areas under the "AI" umbrella such as playcalling and clock management are well handled, but even as I write this, are subject to tweakage.

All of the menus and displays of the PC version appear to be taken directly from the video game cousins, and for action gamers, it's ok. True GM mode devotees will not be pleased with the designed-with-NTSC-in-mind fat fonts and wasted screen real estate. Real GMs wouldn't be expected to guide a $250+ million franchise with Palm Pilot screen-sized chunks of data. If EA is serious about becoming a player in the GM-sim market, they'll have to come up with a better GUI.

Be A Suit
Still, Madden 99's Franchise Mode is a noble first step towards expanding what many people feel is a "dumb video game," into a true simulation, and for those who are expecting a Football Pro-killer, I'd like to go into detail about how it works.

After a Madden season is concluded, you're given a list of your players who are retiring, and a list of those about to go into free agency. The former are beyond your reach, but the latter have salary demands, and you can accede or allow those players to go into the open market.

Salaries are calculated very simply. They consist of a linear multi-year salary sans signing bonus. For example, your star quarterback may demand a $18 million deal, which inflexibly consists of a four-year contract at $4.5 per year. There's no option to front-load or back-load a contract, nor to do any sort of financial juking or stiff-arming. The quiet touch of an Arliss isn't needed. Heck, there isn't even a whiff of a signing bonus.

Other teams may offer you one-for-one player trades at this time. Then all teams begin a timed period of bidding on all free agents. It's a seller's market, and you'll see the asking prices of the good players climb quickly. The timed approach, with its counter-offers and counter-counter-offers, is poorly served by the lack of easily tracking whom you're bidding on. If you spend too much time trying to keep the high bid on Tony Gonzales, another team may trump your offer to Randy Moss.

Finally, a quick four round college draft commences. If you're playing with the salary cap enabled, be sure that you've enough cap money to immediately sign your rookies, or you'll have to release them into the free agent pool, while you try and free up cap money.

At this point a new schedule is generated, and you gear up for your first regular season game of the new year.

The Rest of the Game
Gamepad control is almost perfect. All the special moves look right and work well, and can be controlled in a traditional multi-button thumbfest or in an innovative "one-button" interface. One-button play is not for the padheads. Total control is given to the program to decide whether a button press should be interpreted as a stiff-arm, a juke, a pass to receiver 1 or 5, a hurdle, or a dive. I've yet to see a bad choice made, and overall, it's certainly a worthwhile option for those with pattern reflexes slower than your typical 25-year old.

Other notable options include an arcade mode (not being an NFL Blitz type, I haven't tested it yet), a practice mode, team playbooks, and of all things, a play editor!

The play editor starts by asking you to create a run/pass/defensive play. Then you choose formation, and your team lines up on the practice field where you cycle though each position and assign basic duties. (Block left or right. Drop back 3 or 5 steps. Run a 15-yard post pattern, or one of dozens of others in the route tree.) It's not as freeform as Sierra's, nor as detailed as Monday Night Football's were, but for the Once and Future King of the action football sim, it's more than enough.

A late summer vacation by yours truly means I've not been able to see the last beta builds of Madden 99. I hope to atone for that by scoring a gold master copy ASAP for review.

By: Fenric 9/11/98



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