Football season has arrived, which means different things to different people. To me, it means that my Sundays are pre-planned for the next 3 months. For the hard-core sports game fan, it also means that the new crop of football games has hit the market. This is the definitely the best time of the year.
Now for the obligatory "I remember when" statements: I remember when video football used to be a team of X's against a team of O's and the action was controlled by a huge trackball. Then I remember when I got my Sega Genesis and picked up a little game galled Madden 92. What an awesome game that was. So what is my point? Here we are today, and Madden is still kicking it better than ever. Maybe some day I will be saying "I remember when Madden 98 was the hottest thing going," because that is what I am getting ready to tell you.
Madden has to be one of the longest, and most sought after, series in any genre. There is a reason for this longevity: quality. Every year, the games get better. The developers really strive to make significant improvements over the previous installments instead of rehashing the same game from year to year. This year is no different. Madden 98 is definitely the best yet, and is quite possibly the best football game on the Playstation to date.
This series has always focused on providing realistic gameplay over anything else. If you have ever played any previous version, you can sit down and start playing a game immediately . Also, the players very accurately represent their real-life counterparts so you can key in on certain players' strengths and weaknesses.
The game boasts something called liquid AI. What this means is that the AI will change during the game and season. So, if you run a sweep to the strong side, you may gain 10 yards the first time or two; after that, the defense will make adjustments to stop you. This forces you to learn your play book so you can mix up your play calling. Unlike previous versions, you can't keep running the same play and busting 50-yard gains. Also, during the season mode it seemed that if you did have success running certain plays against your opponent, in future weeks opponents will make the adjustments coming into the game. I don't know if this was an intentional feature or if it was just happening — the manual doesn't mention that the liquid AI carries forward through the season. At any rate, I definitely had plays that were big gainers early in the season that I could not run later in the season with any success.
The game also has very realistic penalty calling. Some penalties can be caused by you and others just happen. For example, holding and false start penalties are really out of your control, but you can cause pass interference or roughing the passer. Also, the calls actually reference the player that committed the offense. If your receiver is called for holding down field, the ref will call holding on his jersey number. Oh yeah, the best part is the refs actually throw the yellow flags in the area of the infraction. Nowadays most companies can put out a basic football game, but it is the attention to details such as these that really separate the games like Madden 98 from the pack.
I do have one minor complaint about the gameplay: it is difficult to run diagonal. Sometimes when I would try to go diagonal, my player would run backwards or to the side. At first, I thought it might be the controller—but I tried it with three different controllers and each had some problem. The other controls are very responsive and effective. I just wish it was easier to make a diagonal cut.
Above, I talked about how this game does the little things that add to the realism and push the game ahead of the pack. Another thing that adds to this realism is the player animations. After a sack of the quarterback, your defensive player may jump up and do his little sack dance. After scoring a touchdown, your player will do one of a number of different touchdown dances. The coolest one is when the player spins the football on the end like a top. The ball actually wobbles and falls over like a real football would. Finally, the game has auto instant replays on big plays. This was cool because you did not have to take time to set them up. They played automatically, but could also be skipped if you did not want to watch them. One more thing: I think the best addition of the game was the ability to call time out by just hitting select instead of having to pause the game, load the options screen, and call time out.
This is where I have my second complaint with the game. I found the graphics to be a bit jumbled and not clear enough. Before you jump on me, let me say that the graphics are an improvement over the previous versions, but they still have problems. A prime example is a game I was playing against the Oilers. I knew that if the Oiler offense handed the ball off, it was going to Eddie George. Anyway, they had a two back formation and the numbers on the jerseys looked the same, so I was unable to determine which of the backs was George. I like to control the defensive player that is nearest the action and I was unable to tell which player I should control. This may be trivial and not an issue with some people, but I like to play the game as realistically as possible. On a more positive note, the stadiums all looked superb. It looked like the same person who did the stadiums for Triple Play 98 did the stadium graphics for this game. Also, it may be time to take Mr. Madden to the polygon generation.
When I first started playing this game, I was a bit skeptical. After playing a few games, I was hooked. This is a great football game that no Madden fan should be without. The attention to detail is unparalleled. It is not often that I throw out a "must-buy" recommendation, but this one comes real close.
Download Madden '98
I remember my sense of awe when I loaded the first version of Front Page Sports Football on my screaming 486-DX 33 with 4 megs of RAM. I showed off the graphics to everyone! Even my dad said he couldn't tell the difference between that game and watching it on TV… of course, his eyesight was just a little under par. I was so excited because I was sure that this game was just the first in a long line of ever-improving graphics and gameplay for football sims. My gosh, I thought, by 1998 we'll actually be able to see Reggie White's mug shot as he comes crashing down on your unsuspecting quarterback … well, such is not the case. In fact, most licensed football sims out there don't even draw the helmets with the team logo; usually it's some generic round blob of pixels or nothing at all. With the advances in graphics and 3D technology, I would think that today's football sims would be a little more awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, most are little better than that old FPS game of years past. I do believe gameplay and artificial intelligence have improved over the years, and of course those cut-scenes and videos.
As always, I am excited to open another football sim, hoping that it will give me the sights, sounds and gameplay I expect from today's games. Madden '98 is the latest installment of a very successful line of football sims; the question is … does it deliver?
Gameplay and Controls
The most important element of a football sim (yes, even ahead of graphics) is the gameplay. Do players run smoothly, do they cut realistically, do they act like they are on a team and have a job to do? For the most part, Madden '98 delivers in this area. You call a play and your players do what they are told; the offensive and defensive players are smart and will peruse and block as expected. If your running back busts through the defensive line and his fullback is still in front of him, he will go and take out the nearest linebacker or safety to clear your path. On defense, safeties will back off into coverage at first, then when they realize it is a running play; they will pursue the back in a believable way. You can do spin moves, stiff arm, or dive your way around tacklers; the motion and actions of the players are good and very believable. I could run the same play three times in a row and not feel that the players were canned or did the same thing every time. I had a lot of fun just running plays, not caring about the season or score, I must have played 50 exhibition games before I played a whole season.
There are three difficulty levels in Madden '98, and after about 20 minutes I was playing on the hardest one and winning games by huge margins. This leads me to my biggest gripe about football sims in general -- there always seems to be one or two plays that will get you a first down or a number of yards, etc. virtually every time. Unfortunately, this is also the case in Madden '98. I admit, it did take me the full 20 minutes to discover a couple of these, which is better than most football sims, but nevertheless very annoying. If I want a first down in Madden '98, I just call the old running back in the flat swing out pass … instant 20 yards or more. I was able to take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (average team) and swing the ball out to Mike Alstott (average back) and score over 100 points in a game against the Packers … consistently on the hardest level. Needless to say, Alstott ended up with over 400 yards receiving and another 150 rushing … a little skewed, if you know what I mean. The reason this sucks is it takes away any sense of suspense or nail biting intensity of the big games. I mean, if it's the Superbowl and my team is behind by 6 points with 1 minute to go, and it's 4th and 15 … all I have to do is call my bread and butter and get the 1st down. I was really hoping Madden '98 with all the hype on its "liquid AI" would prove to be a challenge; maybe next year. Of course some of these problems can be solved by playing with a friend … but sometimes the computer is your only friend (sad but true).
Madden '98 does lean a little more towards arcade style gameplay than some football sims. The most noticeable arcade attribute is the "catch up" ability of defensive players. I get the ball to Antonio Freeman well behind the defense, and the linebacker and a couple of safeties close a 10 yard gap and tackle poor Antonio (where's the speed?) before he can get to the end zone. Of course, in real football Mr. Freeman would be dancing in the end zone, laughing at the oxygen-deprived defenders lying on their backs after chasing him 80 or so yards. Despite these gripes, Madden '98 offers addictive and quite satisfying gameplay, but not stellar … hopefully improvements will be made next year.
Madden's graphics are a bit of a disappointment. The players are not true 3D and they are not as sharp and detailed as I would expect. Each team is in its authentic colors, but there are no distinct helmet logos or other unique team graphics; I always kind of felt like I was playing a college team instead of a pro team. The player animations are smooth and believable, and the different views are nice. One of the most impressive graphic elements was the different stadiums. Each city's stadium was accurately modeled in _Madden '98-, and that made me feel like I was in a different town, giving a good feel for road games and home games. The videos of Madden, etc., were very well done, and when you play a season he actually gives a little synopsis of each team before the game. The only drawback here is Madden's lack of variety in what he says … you know every team needs to "block, tackle, and avoid mistakes" to win. Weather effects are done well; you will play in snow, rain, wind, sunny, cloudy, inside a dome etc. Overall, the look of the game is average; the ideas are there, but the graphics need a little 1998 revamping.
Quite possibly the best feature of Madden '98 is the superb audio. The announcers' voices were great; no choppiness, etc. The ambient sounds of the crowd were awesome … they would actually chant "de-fense" and boo when the other team made a score. Not only are the sounds great, but they are timed well and placed in appropriate spots. The opening musical score is your standard upbeat guitar solo rock n' roll to get you into the gridiron mood. Overall, the audio really shines and rounds out the game nicely.
Installation & Documentation
There are a few install options, but for the best performance you will have to go with the 590 MB option -- yes, that's right, 590 MB! And sometimes I wonder where it all goes … can't be the player graphics. I found the game quite easy to install and play even without the manual. Controls were easy to set up, and I found that a game pad works best. My system is a PII 266 with 64 MB of RAM.
Madden '98 really doesn't stick its head out above the crowd here, but by the same token it doesn't fall behind. I will give this game an average score of 79 because of a few major gameplay flaws and lackluster graphics. It is addictive, however, and I have played for hours at a time, so the guys at EA Sports continue to do most things right. If you are looking for a football sim and need one now, Madden offers solid, addictive play, and is near the top of the heap … until next year.