The best sports game ever? Madden 2004 hits TV screens in a big way

Electronic Arts’ Madden franchise has been the biggest name in sports video games for a long time. Since about 1990, each successive year has seen a new and improved installment of the highly-popular game. This year’s edition, like all others, has updated rosters and player ratings, but more importantly, has managed to take the very best aspects from previous incarnations and build upon that foundation, adding several great new features. These include the Playmaker option, a better Franchise mode and the revolutionary Owner mode.

The end result of all those years of tweaking and improvement is a football game so realistic that it’s almost like watching a televised football game. Madden 2004 is a wildly entertaining game, regardless of whether you’ve never played videogames in your life or you’ve loved videogame football since Super Tecmo Bowl in the 80s.

In some ways, the gameplay has stayed just as it was in Madden 2003. For example, on both sides of the ball, the basic controls are exactly as they have been previously. The running game is very realistic, offering skilled users chances to break tackles and accounting effectively for the size and speed of both the ball carrier and the tacklers. Passing, too, is as simple as ever – each button has a corresponding receiver (getting the timing down is far less simple, of course). The playmaker option, however, brings an entirely new aspect to the game. This year, gamers have the option to drastically alter their plays at the line of scrimmage.

If a play looks doomed at the outset, users can direct individual blockers to change their blocking assignments or individual receivers to run a different route. This feature truly rewards gamers who can read the defense – if the defensive line is stacked up on one side, the ball carrier can direct his run to the other side; if there is a gap in the secondary, a receiver can run in that direction. The same feature applies on the other side of the ball; it is far easier for a skilled user to intercept passes than in years past, and defense has become less passive overall.

Visually, the game has also remained fairly similar to 2003, but fans will appreciate the many new animations for tackles and blocks. There are also several famous musical artists who did work on the soundtrack, producing worthy and catchy tunes to play by. If you found Madden’s actual commentary annoying in the past, nothing will change this year, but I was impressed with the sheer number of different comments they’ve recorded.

For diehard NFL fans, the Franchise mode remains a dream comes true, and includes a few new possibilities. It affords users the option of running their own team, building their own stadium or entering into a fantasy draft. I understand you can even raise hotdog prices to gouge your loyal fans.

The mini-camp mode is another feature back from last year, but tweaked a bit. Your team can fly around the country to various training facilities where you can work on things like pursuit and tackling for linebackers, pocket presence for quarterbacks or punting accuracy for the punters. This year, however, success in these drills is rewarded with a chance to improve your player that offers rewards that can stack up with progress but disappear when failure strikes. Over the years, your team can get noticeably better.

One of my only complaints with the game is that it is, overall, far more passive than some other sports games. For example, I often find it more effective to let the computer control my tackler rather than assume control of the nearest defender only to run him aimlessly towards the sidelines. Until you are a truly skilled player on defense, the game rewards play-calling far more than actual gameplay. If you are looking for an arcade style sports game, Madden might not be the best choice. On the other hand, while Madden is less immediately thrilling than a game like NFL Blitz, it seems to have done a far better job truly capturing the style and grit of an NFL football season.

Ultimately, Madden 2004 has all the makings of a great videogame; it is visually splendid and highly realistic. It is entertaining either by yourself or playing against friends. This year’s changes go a long way towards making it a more accessible and fun game. Because each and every game is different, the game has great replay value. Whichever console you own, Madden 2004 is a great game to buy and enjoy.