Still Pretty Good. Still Pretty Much the Same.
The most obvious non-change/improvement in the game this year is the graphics. In the 4 years (5 games) that Madden has been on the "next-gen" consoles, the look of the game hasn't changed much at all, and that becomes clearer than ever in this year's iteration. There are minor enhancements, but not anything close to standing up to the competition. The jerseys still look like they're painted on. The coaches and cheerleaders tend to look like the undead. And the ice-skating effect is unforgivably still present. Sometimes the players feel like they're playing a couple inches off the ground. The framerate is solid and the player models are a bit better thanks to more variation in size/shape of their bodies. The overall presentation is still solid, but obviously not the same quality as a full-on ESPN integration. In a way, EA is handicapped here since John Madden is employed by the company that owns ESPN, so even though I'm sure they'd love to integrate everything from Monday Night Football, they can't. But even so, they do a good job with what they have.
Gameplay is where most of the additions were placed this year, but sadly they were all added to one side of the field. The "Fear the D" campaign is true to its word, because there are a lot of new options on the defensive side of the ball. The biggest addition is probably the Hit Stick. This allows you to attempt tackles that would truly make Madden say "BOOM!" It works fairly well (although it's not as responsive as one would hope) and has an inherent risk vs reward attached to it. Time it right and you have a very good (probably too good) chance of forcing a fumble, but miss the timing and the ball carrier is going to burn you. You can also give individual players presnap assignments now with the Defensive Playmaker. Just highlight a guy and tap the R-stick in the direction you want him to go at the snap (down=blitz, up=spy, etc). It works about the same way as the Offensive Playmaker did last year, which is good.
Speaking of offense, not a whole lot has changed since 2004. The only real alteration is that you can now make formation changes without actually changing the play. This is a good way to confuse the hell out of online players. Another thing I do like is how some receiver's routes have options, which the AI of the individual receiver uses to get open. The play might be designed for a curl, but if the receiver notices the zone defense isn't covering the post pattern, he'll go deep and be left wide open. It's a great idea, but only your best receiver(s) will utilize it.
Overall, the game isn't as immersive as it once was. 2K5 gives you the feeling that you (the player) are an integral part of every play, while Madden sometimes makes you feel more like a insignificant cog in a large machine. Madden doesn't offer the same amount of control that the competition does, and while the Hit Stick is very cool, it takes your thumb away from the main face buttons, which makes it an even bigger risk to use. The gameplay is solid and the customizability (is that a word?) is amazing, but the actual time spent playing football is not equally amazing. The D is indeed improved in regard to your options, but in my first game I lit up the Titans secondary with 442yds with Jay F'n Fiedler.
Other than the "In 2004, the <insert team/player> did..." comments, the commentary is almost completely rehashed from last year. As someone who has had to listen to a PS2 and an Xbox play the demo mode of 2004 for 3 weeks prior to the 2005 release and then a week now with 2005 playing in the background, I can assure you that they are almost identical. The EA Trax music is good, although you'll probably want to import your own songs since the amount of EA Trax songs is strikingly small. EA doesn't offer the same customization that 2K5 does in the sound, but what it does offer is EA Radio with Tony Bruno. It's kind of like listening to Lazlo in GTA3 except it's all football. EA Radio is part of franchise mode and consists of about 5 minutes of showtime each week. Bruno talks about current league news, takes calls from players and coaches, and takes calls from fans that can best be described as...interesting. It's a cool addition, but will probably get looked over by most. Pair that with the lack of any improvement on the commentary and you get a disappointing score for the sound in 2005.
The game shines in this department. As with most top tier sports games, this one is overflowing with stuff to do, but again not much has changed from last year. The Franchise and Owner modes are still here. The addition of Storyline Central is cool, and they've implemented the player morale from MVP into the mix. Every thing you do as the Owner/GM will affect your players' moods. This adds depth to the career mode that is comparable to 2K5's weekly preparations, but in 2K5 you have the possibility of boosting your players' stats, while in Madden you are only driven by the fear of your players getting pissed and not performing. The mini-camp is still in, and there's a new spin-off of the mini-camp called Rushing Attack where you get 1 FB (blocker) and 1 RB and 1 minute to score as many touchdowns against 1 LB and 1 Safety. It's a small addition, but it's fun, and it's available online. Speaking of which, Madden NFL 2005 is on Xbox Live. That's enough for a 10 right there. EA had originally planned to charge a fee for leagues and tournaments, but that will all be free now since 2K5 offers it for free (and $30 less for admission of course). The one downer about Xbox Live is that it is NOT Live Aware, which means if you're in your Franchise, you can't communicate with your friends. That's pretty sad, but not enough to slight the vastness of replay value in Madden.
At its core, Madden NFL 2005 is the same game that has brought fans back to it for over a decade now, and that is to say that it is quite a good game. It offers a lot of modes and an intimidating amount of customization, but where it fails is in the fact that it has not significantly improved upon its predecssors nor has it stepped up to the challenge of its competition. Madden has often been described by fans and critics alike as updated rosters with a couple new features. That is never more true than this year. Madden NFL 2005, while still a good game, is not much more than an expansion pack to 2004. Is it worth your $50? Well, would you pay $50 for a patch or an expansion pack? I'm guessing not. If Madden NFL 2005 were the only football sim available, it would be well worth your hard-earned $50. But it's not. Nor is it the best this year, and I can say that honestly without the influence of any pre-existing bias. If ESPN NFL 2K5 were $50, I'd still recommend that one to you.
*** This review was written for Flamevault.com shortly after the release of the game. ***