Madden 2007 Keeps the Chains Moving

Universally played and oft praised, the Madden NFL series has been a must-purchase for football fans every year, especially since it stepped up its game on the current generation of consoles.

But in recent years, there has been somewhat of a backlash against developer EA Sports for lack of innovation in the series. Ever since EA purchased the exclusive NFL license and effectively eliminated its competition, the cheaper ESPN/NFL 2K series, it seems as if fans have come to expect nothing short of perfection from the Madden series.
Of course, that’s not going to happen anytime soon, if ever. But each year, Madden’s game play tweaks and new features inch it closer to that goal, and the 2007 version continues that tradition.

This year’s theme, as evidenced by cover star Shaun Alexander, is the running game. EA has talked about improving the blocking up front on running plays for years now. Tweaks have been numerous but the result each year has been the same: an uneven running game that almost forces players to bounce it outside every time. Madden 2007 introduces two key new features that make the running game more realistic and entertaining than ever before, with new lead blocking controls and the highlight stick.

The highlight stick replaces the truck stick, and operates on the premise that not every running back is going to try to bowl defenders over like Jim Brown circa 1960. Each running back can bust out different moves depending on their size, strength, and agility. If you’ve got a back like Jamal Lewis, he’ll still try and run people over, but smaller, shiftier backs like Warrick Dunn and Tatum Bell will respond with jukes, stutter steps, and duck-under moves to evade tacklers.

Capturing individual player characteristics is a big step the series needs to take to go to the next level and this feature is a giant leap in the right direction. Hopefully, we’ll see similar features for other positions in next year’s game.

The lead blocking is an excellent new feature that allows you to have an impact in the running game in a new and exciting way. There are plenty of options as you take control of the lineman (or fullback) of your choice and attempt to open up rushing lanes for your running back. Different types of blocks include seal blocks, pancake blocks, cut blocks, and even holding, if you’re brave enough to try and get away with it, that is.

In past games, it was frustrating to watch the defensive line manhandle your offensive line and not be able to do anything about it. All running backs need help from the O-line to be good, and now players finally have control of it. And by the way, it’s about time someone gave the “Big Uglies” in the trenches a little respect. Maybe now they’ll actually be able to wrestle a little attention away from the more popular position players.

As for other new features, the franchise mode is back and deeper than ever. Okay, so EA seems to make that boast every year, but Madden 2007’s new features add realism and depth in the strategy department.

The new Weekly Gameplan feature gives you stat breakdowns, tips from scouts on opposing players, and samples of plays that counteract opposing teams’ plays. The info can sometimes be contradicting, however. One tip said to challenge Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant while another said the Seahawks’ cornerbacks were too good to pick on.

Meanwhile, off-season player scouting before the draft gets a boost from new workouts and a college all-star game. These features allow you take potential draft picks for a test drive before you spend an important pick on them. The workouts let you run the players through different drills and success allows you to unlock more information about them.

Last year’s Superstar mode has been expanded into the Hall of Fame mode for 2007. It kicks off with an uplifting cinema of your created player standing at the front door of the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, with stirring music pumping you up as you embark on a new challenge to see how far you can take your player. The mode is played entirely from a third-person perspective of the player. It seems tough at first but once you get the hang of it, you’ll have a blast trying to nail down the nuances of each position. You’ll revel in your accomplishments like never before, mainly because you’ll need to rely on your teammates and the A.I. to either get you the ball or put you in position to make plays by calling the right play at the right time.

This mode is the perfect compliment to the more time-intensive Franchise mode, but I have one gripe: it takes the same large chunk of memory card space (1,413 kb) to save and makes it difficult to play a Franchise and a Hall of Fame game on the same memory card for most players.

While the game play tweaks are welcome and enhance realism, Madden 2007 struggles on the presentation end of things. The graphics look virtually identical to last year and many of John Madden’s lines are starting to age badly. Oh, and it’s about time EA canned the stadium PA announcer. You know, the same old guy who’s been doing it since the Ps1 days in his boring, monotone voice and who somehow manages to announce every game in every single stadium. A few small touch-ups in areas such as Create-a-Team mode and play-by-play would go a long way toward shutting up the critics who claim Madden is the same game every year.

Of course, those who purchase the game every year know that’s not the case. It may take a few games for the new tweaks to reveal themselves, but they make a big difference in making each game a truer-to-life football experience and Madden 2007 is no exception.

Take some advice from someone who skipped Madden and just played NCAA all of last year: you’ll realize what you missed out on when you play the next version. I was shocked to realize how much the players’ ratings had changed and how different everything seemed in Madden 2007.

And as a self-proclaimed hardcore football fan, I don’t intend to let that happen again.

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