People know John Madden in one of three ways. First, there are the die-hard football fans who remember him as “Coach,” from his days with the Raiders. Then there are the NFL fans who know John Madden by his commentary for all those years on Monday Night Football, and welcomed “John” into their homes. Then there is the videogame generation, who know him simply as “Madden.” John Madden is a veritable institution, quite possibly the most recognized man associated with the greatest of all professional sports. (Please write in to correct me on this.) EA Sports has been churning out their yearly Madden games since 1990, and this latest game, just like all the others, is supposed to be the latest and greatest yet.
Shaun Alexander is on the cover of the game this year, following up on a record-breaking season. Last year was without question the year of the running back, and Madden NFL 07 follows suit, focusing the improvements in the game engine this year on enhancing the running game. The first upgrade is the highlight stick, which replaces the truck stick. The highlight stick enables those game-breaking moves that allow the top backs to evade tackles and break those huge runs. There are forty new broken tackle animations, allowing you to lower your shoulder and smash through a defender, spin your way around them, or perform one of a slew of other tricks to avoid being brought down.
The top running backs in the game have their own unique ways to avoid defenders, and this is taken into account, as the highlight stick enables context-sensitive moves based on your back’s size, ability and tendencies. Bruising running backs like the Chiefs’ Larry Johnson can knock aside linebackers like bowling pins, while wilier backs like the Steelers’ Willie Parker are better at dancing, darting and slipping tackles before breaking big gains. The downside to using these flashy moves to get past defenders is that you increase your chances of fumbling the ball (which I found out all too often while challenging human opponents on Xbox Live).
These new animations are the visual highlight this year, as the character models and fields don’t look much better than what we’ve seen on previous current-generation entries in the Madden series. This is a sharp-looking game, though, and the series has been for years. The grass in the middle of the field will deform and get muddier and worn as play goes on, for instance, and even on the regular old Xbox, it’s hard to find fault with such great-looking character models, excellent use of reflective surfaces and some really well-designed stadiums.