So this is the year that EA begins its monopoly on NFL video games. Fans of the Sega NFL 2k series, 989 Sports Gameday series, and other challengers to the Madden franchise were dismayed when the news was released that EA had purchased the exclusive rights to NFL video game properties for the next few years, and many gamers (including people who remained faithful to the Madden gameplay system) promised an empty effort in future Madden projects now that EA no longer had to worry about the competition. They may have been right. Madden is still far and away the most realistic football simulator out there, but even with the rights to NFL properties that EA never had access to before, the new additions in Madden 2006 are lacking, and everyone but the hardcore Madden gamers will probably be disappointed if they pay the new release price.
There are really only two significant improvements in Madden 2006 when compared to previous Maddens. One -- and perhaps the biggest gameplay change in several years -- is the quarterback vision cone. The ease of the passing game has always been a big complaint from football purists. Not only did gamers pass much more than they ran, especially when compared to the real NFL numbers, but they never approached the game like a real quarterback. In previous Maddens, the QB awareness attribute was practically useless because it only mattered when the CPU was controlling a QB, so any human gamer could have success playing a rookie QB with low awareness numbers as long as his physical passing attributes were relatively high. That is all history now! With the QB vision cone, you will be forced to go through a normal progression of reads, look the safeties off, develop an internal passing clock, and all the other trials and tribulations that a real NFL QB goes through. With your analog stick, you control a "flashlight" that starts after the snap either in the middle of the field, or on a designated receiver. This beam of light is wide for veteran QBs with a high QB awareness ranking, and a narrow sliver for inexperienced QBs. The game rewards those who pass to receivers in this vision cone, and attempting to make plays with receivers who are out of the cone can result in disastrous turnovers. While this leads to more realistic play, it also penalizes gamers who are not nimble with their fingers. Not only do you have even more controls to worry about now, but there is also the added feature of precision passing which allows you to lead or throw behind your receivers. Anyone who played the last ESPN NFL games will automatically be familiar with this concept, but if you're not someone who is agile with your hands and fingers, fully controlling your quarterback and maximizing his potential is going to be a chore and a half. The developers, Tiburon, might have been better served allowing the vision cone to be moved with quick trigger buttons rather than the slow awkward analog stick. If you play online, you'll notice that almost all passing stats are much, much lower than they have been in previous years. It's true that running numbers are up, and that defenses can now read the QB's eyes much better than in years past, but this new addition may have been a Pyrrhic victory for EA Sports in that the new QB vision cone only pleases the hardcore gamers who have the patience, football knowledge, and free time to perfect the new feature. In other words, if this new feature is going to become a standard feature, it will force gamers to play realistic football, but it may push more gamers away than it attracts. Luckily, EA can afford that right now with its NFL license. One thing of note is that you can turn this QB vision cone feature off when playing offline, but it is mandatory for online games.
The next large addition in Madden 2006 is "Superstar Mode." If you played "Race for the Heisman" in NCAA 2006, then you already have an idea how this works. As a matter of fact, you can import your custom designed player from NCAA and continue his career in Madden's "Superstar Mode." "Superstar Mode" attempts to please the fantasy gamers who want something more than a basic franchise mode. It's about as close as you'll ever get to playing a sports RPG. You begin the process by picking your player's parents, and based on their IQs and interests, your player's abilities are calculated. Naturally, if your parents are professional athletes, then your chances of creating a player with high physical attributes increase. Once you have a player, you can check your emails from none other than Terrell Davis, ex-Bronco superstar running back. As your mentor, he will guide you through the draft, training camp and other mandatory events. Some of the more entertaining clinics will be a timed IQ test which simulates the wonderlic test given to NFL draft prospects, and interviews with the media in which your answers seem to affect your popularity and marketing potential. All of this amounts to something that is slightly entertaining, but probably not what the hardcore football players are looking for. If you were entertained by features in other football games such as ESPN's "The Crib," then you may enjoy this new option, but many Madden players will probably play it once or twice and never look back.
So now you've basically discovered the two biggest additions in the latest entry of Madden and can decide if it is enough to warrant a purchase or trade. The running game seems to have been tweaked a little, but in general, there really aren't any huge gameplay adjustments like in past years. One of the minor changes is a new NFL Films soundtrack because EA now owns exclusive NFL rights, and admittedly, it is fun to hear that same melodramatic symphony in the background as you imagine the famous voice in the background: "On the cold tundra of Lambeau field..." The graphics are almost the same, and the John Madden and Al Michaels commentary hasn't been changed much from previous versions. Franchise mode options from Madden 2005 are almost identical to the 2006 version. Online play is also very close to Madden 2005 with the exception that the "EA Sports Locker" is open now which allows you to upload and download files that Madden gamers everywhere can access. This is undoubtedly added to help with leagues, but the game could have done a much better job in creating a streamlined league feature for the PS2. Hopefully, the next generation Maddens on the PS3 and Xbox 360 will be able to offer the same customization and features available for PC gamers who want to play in Madden leagues. Check some of the links in this review to find leagues (and helpful playing guides) for most systems.
Of course, the roster has been updated this year. PS2 and Xbox gamers can find even better updated rosters online, but apparently, PC gamers have been given the short end of the stick when it comes to roster updates and patches. The roster delays shouldn't be much of a problem however because most Madden websites have user-designed rosters available for download. If you're wondering which version to buy, my advice would be either the PS2 or PC version. You lose a few features in the PC version, but you also gain much easier access to custom rosters, jerseys, leagues, and more. The PS2 would be a strong recommendation over the Xbox since the game is still designed primarily for PS2 specs and the PS2 controller works so much better than the Xbox controller and its clumsy white and black button placement. I wouldn't even bother with the Game Cube version because of its asymmetrical controller design and no online options, nor the Xbox 360 version because it loses many popular features in the Xbox and PS2 versions. It was apparently rushed to arrive in time for the Xbox 360 launch.
If you're a hardcore Madden gamer, then go out and grab this latest entry. Everyone else should wait! The game is still priced high and you can expect that to last for an even longer period than usual because EA no longer has to worry about cheaper competitors. By the time the price drops to a level making it worth a trade or purchase, it may not even be worth fetching because a newer Madden will be right around the corner. It's sad to write, but this year's Madden may not be worth your hard-earned money or the high-priced game you'll have to give up for it on GTZ. This reviewer would actually say that NCAA 2006 is the superior game, especially when compared to changes made from the previous version, and Madden 2006 only gets a better rating because free agents and passing offenses are more entertaining than the recruiting and option offenses of college football. Hopefully, the next gen Maddens -- that probably won't see their full potential until the PS3 is available -- will be better improvements over previous Maddens.