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Madden 99 (PC) Review

Publisher: EA Sports
Release Date: Summer 1998

Background Info

Over a month ago, Sony's Kelly Flock fired a PR shot across the bow of the Madden juggernaut, charging that EA Sports' premier product was tired, old and outdated. Electronic Arts has responded, not with invective and bluster, but with Madden NFL 99 PC, the best action football game on any platform, ever. Super-slick new polygonal graphics and John and Pat's trademark TV presentation combine with a tough AI, a basic play editor, and a rudimentary career/General Manager mode that should satisfy any pad-wielding gridiron warrior.

Presentation/Graphics : 92
Lest I not take another chance to state the obvious, the most apparent change for this year is the graphics engine. Polygonal players and officials move and conduct themselves in a very convincing manner. The amount of situational animations used is impressive, covering such things as receivers looking over their shoulders for an incoming pass, to runners stumbling and having to steady themselves with a hand on the ground. "Idle" animations aren't obtrusive either.

The lack of an adjustable in-play camera is the most apparent drawback this year; and an odd one, given that the sprite engine—with its inherent need for preset angles—is gone. The given angles are sufficient, ranging from an overhead Blimp shot, to the Classic Madden Cam, to an in-your-face in-the-Helmet view. Yet since the automatic and manual replay cameras allow you to set, spin and zoom across the field to your heart's content after the action, why not allow us to set our own custom camera angle?

The details are numerous and mostly add to the environment, like players' jerseys becoming muddy in rainy conditions. On the flip side, some touches—like turning everyone into non-stop steam billowing machines when on a frigid field—border on going over the top. Off the field visuals give a pleasing backdrop to the activities, with some of the best looking stadiums to be found, plus a corny sideline cast complete with large orange water jugs and monomotional cheerleaders.

As good as the action looks, there are still flaws in the display engine. Body appendages can pass freely through other bodies, passes leave the QBs hands and "float" for a few frames before arcing towards their targets. These are only noticed during slow-motion replays though, and will not affect play at all.

A near-fatal graphics flaw was exposed on Usenet recently. Some users are reporting noticeable slowdowns in their games, as they progress into the second half. The effect appears to happen when playing on grass fields and not on turf, which leads some to speculate that it could be traced to a texture problem in the 3D cards, but be aware that not everyone is complaining.

Presentation/Audio : 85
The area of the game that shows the least improvement is the audio section. Better than last year's muddled mess, John and Pat speak clearly this time, though most of their dialog is incidental to the action on the field. Instead, the audio keys on background and color. If Steve Young makes a great play, John Madden might reel off an anecdote about him. Many key NFLPA players have a few Maddenisms, as do each of the stadiums. (Speaking of which, the stadium background noise doesn't appear to have been updated; it still sounds like juiced up white noise.)

Thankfully, there's a good deal of generic, "Did you see that? That guy almost had his head torn off!" quotes, because if you play long enough in Franchise Mode, the current NFLPA stars will fade away and retire.

Interface/Options : 85
Nothing special here. The play selection screens are standard Formation/Play/Flip trees, while the option menus are fast loading holdovers from the console version. To this point, EA was wise to leave everything alone, but the Front Office menu screens that you use to run your franchise are woefully inadequate for the job, and hearken back to the era of 40-column wide Atari and Commodore screens.

Gameplay : 90
So, it looks good, but how does it drive? Well, after both watching and playing many games, I'm fairly impressed—and I'm a hardcore simmer. I was never much of a Madden fan until the Playstation versions appeared, and try as I might, I'm still not happy with either Sony's NFL Gameday nor EA's own NCAA 99. When playing either of them, I don't get the feeling that I'm playing a game of football.

Player control (I'm using a Gravis Xterminator) is fine, and the number of actions to control (jump, dive, spin, handoff, swim move, etc.) is ample. The juke move itself is fun to watch; your player will duck, bob and weave, trying to avoid tacklers. Up to five receivers can be targeted by your quarterback, and spending time on the Practice field is well worth it to learn the combo presses in a frustration-free environment. You'll need the time to get accustomed to the semi-frustrating button assignments. With enough practice though, you'll have them down pat.

The one-button control mode is especially handy if you don't mind giving decision making to the AI. What it feels like is that you're timing the reactions of the AI controlling the ball carrier/defensive player. It's good for anyone who doesn't want to take time time to learn all of the keypresses, but if you plan on getting hooked on the game, learn the traditional control method. You'll feel better in the long run.

Another reason to use one-button control is if more than one gamer wants to play on the same computer. Up to four gamers (I believe) can each guide a player, and having to use a two-button mouse as a traditional arcade football input device can have its own drawbacks, as I'm sure you can well imagine. (There's no, "Press L-R-L-L-R to pass to receiver 1. Press L-R-L-R-L to pass to receiver 2." to master, thank goodness.)

Where does the gameplay break down? Well, turnovers (a.k.a., "Another damn interception!?!") seem to come in bunches, perhaps too much for simmers' tastes. Fumbles are rare, but appear during bad weather, and strike CPU and human equally. I've played games against the CPU where both Young and Farve ended the contest with six (6!) INTs each. Ouch. Don't try sitting in the pocket to improve your QB's reads. Sacks are way too plentiful.

It appears that the CPU will have tough times mounting a rushing attack, and coach-only games can often find both teams with poor-to-negative rushing yards. It has to be a gameplay consideration, so take it as a small blessing and run with it. With enough practice (and judicious usage of your special moves), it's possible to take an ordinary back (Donnell Bennett, for example) and establish a respectable ground game. You will have to have a good rushing attack in order to open up the defense to the pass.

As good as the defensive AI seems to be, offensive playcalling doesn't appear to be that intelligent. Oftentimes, if you can get ahead of an AI controlled team, you can drop back into a dime defense and key on the pass. Too bad there's no way to adjust a team's run/pass ratio, either globally or in response to game situations.

Penalties are still assigned randomly. I've seen clear cases of defensive pass interference (impeding a receiver's path) that just aren't called, etc. There's nothing you can do but adjust the default penalty levels upwards if you're looking for a more realistic number of fouls in a game.

Finally, the clock management is good for a video game; though only tolerable when judged against real life. I have seen some quite intelligent usage of timeouts at the end of a half by a CPU-controlled team, but I've seen almost as many mind-bogglingly stupid actions as well, such as a team which should be trying to stop the clock, lining up to punt and waiting 10-15 seconds before calling timeout. This is a personal nit with me though, as I'll never be satisfied until a game can come close to simulating what happened at the end of the Raiders / Cowboys game two weekends ago, where the Raiders took a safety at 0:05 of the game rather than punt from their own end zone to Deion. (The Raider's punter didn't allow the clock to run out before running out of the endzone though, forcing a 0:02 safety kick to Deion, which precipitated a game-ending lateral fest.)

A CPU-guided offense will not spend too long in their huddle, so look for their teams to average 10-20% more offensive plays than human-controlled teams. Perhaps this was meant to compensate for the poor CPU rushing control, perhaps not. It makes tweaking the quarter length to achieve realistic results a slight challenge, although not as difficult as in years past. All in all, Madden 99's fun to play.

Options
Which is a nice segue into the biggest new option in Madden NFL 99: Franchise Mode. Engage a session, and you'll play a full 16 game season (plus playoffs, if you're lucky) as General Manager, drafting, signing and trading players. (I detailed this process in my earlier Madden NFL 99 preview.) There's been quite a spirited exchange on Usenet a week or so ago about the limitation of fifteen seasons which you can play in. Hardcore simmers sneer at the restriction, and while my heart agrees with them, it's only been through judicious usage of saved games, that I've managed to struggle through to my seventh season as GM without getting canned. It seems that only a couple of sub-.600 seasons is enough to get my owner to pull the plug, so by the time I make it to my fifteenth season, I'll be ready to walk out on the old tyrant. Does that sound like a cop-out? Well, it is; I'm joking. I'll be disappointed when/if I reach my last day as a GM. I don't know if there's a technical reason behind the limit, or if fifteen years was just a number pulled out of a hat, but I have to acknowledge that this is EA Sports doing this, and despite the silly limit, just adding this is a positive step.

Other modes include Exhibition, Season, Custom Season, Tournament, and Fantasy Draft, where 4, 8 or 16 gamers can form their own teams using NFLPA players. Play style can be in the traditional "press button 'X' to pass, then press button 1-6 to select the receiver" model, or EA's new One-Button play, which puts all the control into the AI's hands, while you press wildly on the aptly-named one button. Practice Mode puts you on an indoor practice field where you can spot the ball, choose a offensive/defensive/kicking play, and run it to your heart's content. (While following large and helpful arrows that appear on the turf.) You can do this either against your own first string defense, or la carte, with no John Randles or Derrick Thomases to disturb your offense's bonding time. Finally, there's Arcade play, which I refer to as the Big Dumb Defense mode. Offenses will pop longer plays more often, and tackles seem to have a lot more oomph.

One option that I have sadly yet been unable to test is full joypad-over-the-Internet play. I suspect that the feel won't be as tight as in a daisychained controller game, but if you can ping your friend in less than 200ms, you might be able to squeeze out a short game.

Surprisingly, the most unheralded option—and one that's just as important as Franchise mode—is the ability to create your own plays. The play editor uses the Practice field & arrow visuals, and is very effective and fast. Receiver and rusher routes are selected from trees, and blocking angles are generic, and should get the job done. Yet I found myself craving more control; there's no way to design anything resembling a gadget play, and you are limited to the  formations provided. (I also couldn't find a way to automatically set a man in motion, but that may be my own failing.) This is a powerful option, and will either finally kill or totally usurp the dreaded "money play" syndrome. Because in including a play editor, EA is, after all, hanging a good portion of their AI out for what could be a public bashing.

The standard EA Sports "kitchen sink" approach to customizing gameplay is intact. You can toggle Injuries, Auto Replay, Salary Cap, Directional Passing, and lots more. Replays can be saved (and swapped, I've heard there may be a replay viewer made available), along with all other pertinent data. Yes, games can be saved in progress. With an adequately speedy CD-ROM, you can opt for a sub-30 meg install, or go the whole hog and plop over 450 megs on your HD platter. Polygon detail level, weather, shadows, audio quality, and the sideline graphics can be adjusted to maximize your system's response.

Now we arrive at what may be the biggest bone of contention for the pro- and anti-Maddenites this season: System Requirements. Simply put, if you don't have a system that can equal the bit-slinging power of a Pentium 200 with a Voodoo 1 card, you're going to be facing some choppy play. Even at this measly level (hey, that's my rig!), the game may pause itself to inform you that you need to trim some graphic excesses to improve framerate. Welcome to Wintel hell, friends; you're on the perpetual upgrade path and you don't have time to look back.

Difficulty : 90
There are three modes of difficulty: Pro, All-Pro (default) and Madden. If this is your first time at playing with the Liquid AI Madden, you'll probably feel frustrated during your initial bouts on All-Pro. You won't be able to run sweeps around the DL all of the time, nor launch bombs or swing passes at will.

Switch to Pro level, and hit the practice field without facing a defense. Learn to follow your blockers when running. Don't just hit the speed button and try to outrun everyone on the field; the defenders will stuff you into the turf much too often. Once you're able to run the ball, try tossing passes to each of your receivers (you'll have to disable One-Button play to be able to specify your receiver). This is a perfect way to learn directional passing—which I am horrible at—as you can quite literally sit in the pocket all day undisturbed and try, try again. It's too bad that there isn't an option to face only DBs in practice, so you could also work on "touch" passing without facing a rush.

It shouldn't take too long for anyone with determination to master Pro level, and All-Pro steps up the tempo enough to be moderately challenging for most gamers. Don't even think about challenging Madden level until you can take a weakling team and crush your reigning champion. Madden level play offers a vicious defense that will give most gamers fits.

Overall : 89
I was pleasantly surprised to find that EA Sports made so many general improvements in this year's version of Madden, albeit at the cost of leaving weaker CPUs behind. It was only two years ago when an (nameless) EA executive said to me that Madden will probably never sport a play editor, yet here we are with that milestone achieved. In recent conversations with EA, I'm finding a desire to do what just last year, many football sim fans thought impossible: produce the perfect video football game, a blending of simulation and action.

Madden NFL 99 isn't that perfect game. Hardcore football simmers will feel uneasy at giving up so much control to what will be described as "Football Pro Lite." Action gamers, on the other hand, will rejoice at the best game they've ever played. Don't get me wrong, there's still room for improvement here, and so as I rate Madden NFL 99 as an action game—and feel justified in calling it the best action football game ever—I wonder if the once-slumbering giant from San Mateo will surprise us all next year by further closing the gap that separates the two football gaming camps.

Madden NFL Mogul 2000, anyone?

By: Fenric 10/7/98



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