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Madden 2002 (PS2) Review

Publisher: EA Sports

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When it comes to games, I'll be the first to admit when a game strikes at my very core. Some games are time wasters while others are truly landmark titles. For the longest time the Madden football series has been pretty good, but it's fallen just short of being what I personally consider to be a first class, top-of-the-line football game. Yes, Madden fans, I was won over by the inaugural effort of Visual Concepts and their superb NFL2K series on the Dreamcast.

But with Sega exiting the hardware business and concentrating solely on software, that left Visual Concepts free to develop the NFL2K series on other platforms. As consumers we will never know if the threat of serious competition (sorry Acclaim and 989) scared EA into moving Madden to the top, but the fact of the matter is that Madden 2002 for the PS2 is quite simply the absolute best football game I have played.

Of course, you know the basics of the game. This year EA gives us some of the missing features from the first PS2 version. Besides the usual exhibition, season, and franchise modes, you'll be able to practice in a useful tutorial mode or play an arcade style 2 minute drill mode. All NFL teams and stadiums are there, including the Houston Texans (a year early). Throw in some graphical improvements and some positive AI tweaking and you've got a game that's not just another recycle of the same thing. This is a major upgrade.

Presentation/Graphics : 93
Nearly every review of Madden 2001 latched on to the zombie-like appearance of the players. The huge black saucer eyes of the players reminded me more of the cartoon strip character Nancy than a real person. The players also seemed a little on the squatty side. This year players look normal and come in the appropriate sizes. Between plays the camera often shifts to a television style presentation and you can almost recognize some of the faces under the helmets. What are easily recognizable are the jerseys. Jerseys have correct logo and name schemes, and some kickers will even be spotted with one black shoe and one white shoe. EA has paid particular attention to recreate graphically today's NFL experience. The appearance upgrades don't stop with the players. I noticed the stadiums look more natural this year. Grass is more realistic, and in the rain grass fields turn to a muddy hue.

Perhaps the biggest improvement is with the animations. Recall in Madden 2001 the typical pass reception - the one-handed grab. The catches nearly cheapened the game. Diversity is now the name of the game. While you'll still find the occasional one-handed catch, they are mixed nicely with other catch animations. On defense, the DBs break up passes with two hands or dive in with one. Likewise linemen perform swim and spin moves to break through the line. While the defensive line has more motion this year, it still has a way to go before it reaches the more realistic style of NFL2K1. On offense tight ends in motion run down the line or run sideways facing upfield. A big positive is the quarterback play. In Madden 2001 every one of my passes was perfectly thrown. In the 2002 edition, if the QB is hit around when the ball is released, the ball will have varying trajectories and animations. I've had everything from perfect bullets to wounded duck passes and dribbles to the ground. As a bonus animation, every now and then you'll watch a helmet fly off and bounce downfield.

The collision detection has certainly improved. It's better than both Madden 2001 and NCAA 2002. However, there are still a few problems. While I haven't experienced the elbow tackles of years past, there are a few mystery tackles every now and then. Sometimes your back will go down if he touches a lineman engaged with a defensive player. Fortunately the annoyance is limited.

The camera work continues to be good. I like to play with the default camera, but as I get more adept at the game I'm finding it has limitations. I like it for the closer view it provides, but I'm finding out that the limited field of vision is hurting my coverage of running backs in the flats. Fortunately the game offers plenty of camera options to suit just about anyone.

Presentation/Audio : 80
Perhaps it's the more intricate play, but the booth calling by Summerall and Madden isn't as annoying this year. I honestly think I'm mentally blocking them out, and listening to the sounds of the game. With all the good talent these days covering the pro game, EA should make an effort to get some fresh blood in there. Madden's antics were funny to me a decade ago, but now they are old. Heck, I'd even take Dennis Miller. The one thing positive you can say for the booth is that the dialogue is kept fairly fresh. There's not much repetition during the course of the game.

If you listen beyond the booth, you'll hear dynamic crowd effects. The crowd will cheer or stay silent depending on your performance and will make appropriate chants. I've heard calls from the stands to go for it on fourth down and calls for "defense." The award for best audio goes to the PA announcer. Barely audible compared to John and Pat, he makes realistic and not-so-realistic comments. If you listen carefully he'll call out things like in-game contests for the crowd and more.

One area I'd like to see improved still is the onfield chatter. Madden is lifeless in this area. I love the back-and-forth debate between sides in the NFL2K series. It adds to the realism of the game and I'm sure the same effort in Madden would make it special. It would definitely be better than an overused Maddenism.

Interface/Options : 90
As mentioned earlier, Madden comes ready to play in a variety of modes. Without a doubt most gamers look forward to the extensive Franchise mode within Madden. And for good reason; the Madden multi-year franchise option is probably the best feature to appear in any sports game on the market. Year after year the franchise mode excels (rivaled only by the equally amazing recruiting sessions of the NCAA series). In the franchise mode you can sign free agents, cut players, select by position in the draft, and more. During the entire process you have to juggle your needs with the pocketbook. The management part of the off-season can be just as fun and challenging as the on-the-field action.

Away from the front office, Madden has an option for just about everything. Besides the standard audio and visual settings, you can set parameters of the football game. Sliders are included to adjust various penalties as well as customize the AI. The penalty sliders seem hit or miss. At first I cranked them all to the max due to the lack of penalties being called. With time I've been backing off of a few. The refs seem to get zealous with the face mask calls. Following suit are a fair, but realistic, amount of holds. Despite the sliders set to the max I have yet to see a realistic number of offsides, illegal motion, or pass interference calls. Some of the replays look like receivers are mauled but no call is ever made.

Another set of sliders exists for the human and computer tendencies. Both offensive and defensive parameters can be set. I have seen some sensitivity to the sliders but nothing to really hang your hat on. No matter what you set the AI pass blocking to it seems like their line is virtually impenetrable. Conversely, the AI defense blows by your line at will even when set to the max. On the positive side, the secondary AI doesn't need to be tweaked at all. A constant complaint of mine for the last few versions, I'm happy EA fixed the defensive passing game (though give me some more INTs).

While you can create your own team in the game, I was disappointed by the lack of a play editor. Playing as the Broncos, the play selection gets old after awhile. There are some pass or run routes I'd like to exploit for various defenses but have no way to sketch them up in the game.

Another area where the game excels is in the stats engine. Using 8 minute quarters you can generate realistic stats for the game. This provides a great comparison of your players to the rest of the league. You can view stats team-by-team or look at the leaders in individual categories. After each week you can also view the players of the week and news from the league. As the season progress the Pro Bowl voting gets underway as well as John Madden's selections to his All Madden team.

Overall Madden 2002 for the PS2 has approached what we expected out of the box with the 2001 version. The feature set is similar to the PSX version, and EA should be applauded for bringing almost all of the PSX options to the PS2 version. Even the Madden cards make it back.

Gameplay : 96
I admit I've been critical of Madden in the past. In my heart of hearts I felt like NFL2K and NFL2K1 for the Dreamcast were the console football frontrunners. With the 2002 releases piling up, the other football franchises will have their work cut out for them. Madden 2002 for the PS2 really is the cat's meow when it comes to gameplay. There's so much good in the game that it has replaced NFL2K1 as the best football game ever made. The whole package excels, starting with the gameplay which has been tuned up.

The biggest improvement has occurred in the secondary. In Madden 2001 I could march down the field using the exact same pass play down after down. The secondary never adapted or tried to make a play on the ball. The secondary was always playing too far off the ball and was consistently behind the receiver. In 2002, the DBs are much smarter. I have found myself having to sit anxiously in the pocket for my receivers to break free. Passing over the middle in zone coverage is particularly taxing - the middle linebacker sits back just waiting to swat down a pass. What's really wonderful is that cornerbacks and safeties make a break for the ball once thrown. While it sometimes causes them to get beaten, more times than not they make a realistic lunge and knock the ball away at the last moment. Sometimes they'll even scoop a ball just before it hits the turf for an interception. When going deep defenders try to tap the ball away as it hits the receiver's hands. On offense you have to strategically pick your receivers as passing into anything other than single coverage is no guarantee of a reception.

Another area that has been improved for the better is the AI playcalling. No more do you have to worry about the CPU turning to a pass oriented offense as soon as you score. If the game is close you'll find the CPU mixes up the plays fairly evenly between the pass and run. Only when behind by a several points does the CPU sway towards a pass attack. Furthermore, my run defense totals are no longer the cream of the crop. The CPU backs run for realistic averages.

At first I was having difficulty with the offensive running game. I was having flashbacks to 2 and 3 yard runs from NFL2K. But then I realized that Madden has become more of a thinking man's football game. When running up the gut you simply can't call a dive in the I-formation. You've got the ability to put men in motion, and it's only when you implement football strategy that you'll succeed in the running game. Bring the tight end in motion and have your back follow him through the hole. Likewise, gains to the outside are more effective when you bring a tight end or receiver across to block an outside linebacker or cornerback. Even on pass routes the motion play is essential. First and foremost it tells you if the defense is in a zone or man coverage. You can use this knowledge to exploit the secondary before the snap. And trust me when I say you'll need the info. Depending on the team, the pocket can collapse quickly so quick decision making is a must.

Madden swiped the updated kicking game from NCAA. The kicking interface is similar to a golf game interface. A three-click method is used to kick the ball. The first tap starts the meter. As the meter increases the strength of the kick increases. The second tap sets the strength and starts the meter back down to the accuracy section. Depending on the qualities of the kicker, the safe zone for kicks and punts may be narrow or wide. If you miss the safe zone, you'll hook or slice the ball.

Now I can't be completely happy with Madden now can I? Well, I'm not. Fortunately though my concerns this year are more benign and should be easily fixed. First, the punt return game is as busted here as it is in NCAA 2002. When you receive a punt, your blocking is pitiful. At least in NCAA you could cheat a bit and call a punt block formation, bring a defender back, and have him throw an effective block. No such luck here. Most of the time you'll fair catch or get tackled after one or two yards.

The other area I feel needs work is the momentum-based physics. I think at times the momentum is exaggerated, mostly in the passing game. When receivers cut or hook back towards the line of scrimmage, their momentum after the catch throws them back at least 3 yards, even on short hooks. I don't expect players to stop on a dime, yet if they can cut quickly without the ball, they should be able to cut equally well with the ball. In the running game tackling based on momentum can be hit or miss. I've seen a few instances of a back bouncing off a linebacker or lineman who's stood him up only to be tackled by another lineman moving parallel to his path.

Still, the positives in the game make Madden 2002 for the PS2 the best yet. I can imagine EA put most of their effort towards the PS2 version since it sells the most. The effort definitely shows. This is one awesome football game. It's more difficult than in years past and requires more thought and strategy than ever.

Replay Value : 95
Last year I was hooked on the Madden cards. Those cards alone were enough to make me play game after game of Madden. For some reason, though, I have yet to exploit this feature of Madden 2002. I am totally engrossed with the gameplay and am completely satisfied with the franchise mode. The depth of the management duties coupled with the enhanced AI has me looking forward to each game.

Overall : 95
The back of the game case proclaims this game is "#1 for a reason." Well, this year I think they can certainly lay claim to that title. The package touts the enhanced defensive pass coverage. Usually publishers put buzzwords like this on packages to fool the consumer into thinking they are getting something new when in fact the same old garbage is recycled year after year. EA must have been hanging out in newsgroups, forums, and review sites listening to consumers complain about the passing game as the secondary AI has definitely improved for the better. While there are some minor nagging issues with the gameplay, overall the game is vastly superior to previous editions of the game.

By: James Smith 9/10/01

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