The best football game on Wii, redux.
The game of football is an extraordinary combination of complex tactics and intensely focused violence. Players have a dauntingly small window of time to coordinate and execute a play that will have been planned and practiced for weeks or months. For the most part, football video games have favored the strategic elements, offering a wealth of plays, audibles, and hot routes to tinker with, while settling into a comfortably chess-like perspective capturing all the action from a bird’s eye view. Last year’s Madden NFL 07 for Wii represented a rare breakthrough for the visceral side of the equation, offering a full suite of gesture controls to connect players to the physical side of the sport in a more direct way. Arriving a brisk 10 months later, Madden NFL 08 comes with some added control refinements, a huge increase in mini-games, a new mom-friendly "Family Play" control option, and online play. It’s a robust package that trumps last year’s game in many ways, but also reveals some glaring issues with EA’s approach to motion-controlled football that, ultimately, make Madden NFL 08 feel a lot less engaging that it should be.
Madden 08 is packed full of gesture controls, most of which will be familiar to fans who played last year’s version. Many of the motion controls work brilliantly. Pulling up on the Wii Remote hikes the ball, and throwing it forward again passes the ball to the highlighted receiver. Moving the remote faster delivers a bullet pass and easing up a bit will trigger a nice soft lob. Mapping the hike to motion input, in particular, gives a powerfully subconscious underscore to the physical involvement you have in every play. Similarly, the throwing motion really feels great in action and is especially rewarding to see variations in pass speed based on your action. It’s a subtle but powerful effect that carries over some of the intuitive charms of Wii Sports.
As the ball carrier, you will have even more motion controls at your disposal. Moving the Nunchuk left or right will juke in the appropriate direction. Moving the Wii Remote left or right will, likewise, throw a stiff arm in the corresponding direction. A quick shove forward will trigger a power move, a simplification from last year’s more cumbersome system of moving both remote and Nunchuk forward. Power moves have an added layer of differentiation this year, with big beefy players tucking the ball down and bowling right over defenders, while speedy agility-based players will perform an extra nimble slip move. When in the grasp of a defender, players can drum the remote up and down to push forward for an extra yard or two.
There’s a definite learning curve to playing with motion controls, especially for experienced Madden players. It can feel a little bit like rubbing your belly and tapping your head, with hiking, passing, catching, juking, and finally drumming the controller over the course of a typical 3-4 second play. None of the moves are particularly hard to execute; it’s the necessity of remembering what everything does and then doing it with split-second timing that takes some practice. Defense is, largely, a mish-mash of the same basic motions. Tackling is handled by a quick push forward of the Wii remote for a hit up high. Pushing the Nunchuk and remote forward in tandem will deliver a tackle targeted at the ball carrier's legs, good for taking on a big hulking running back with a waify corner or safety. If you’re playing as a defensive lineman, left and right moves on the remote trigger swim or rip moves (depending on the situation) in either direction. Slamming the remote down will have a pass defender swat down a pass, and moving the remote and Nunchuk upwards in unison will go for an interception.
Defense is a lot more chaotic than offense, and you will frequently feel an added layer of distance between you and what is happening on screen, thanks to the motion controls. If you begin as a lineman rushing the QB, you’ll be holding B down for a speed burst, waving left and right to swim your way past the blocker, and then suddenly switching to another player and immediately having to shove the remote forward to tackle the ball handler. It’s not that the actions are hard to do, but that the visceral difference of moving the remote left, right, or forward in the split second required to finish a play feels arbitrary and almost negligible. To further confuse the issue, your player will always be heading from the top of the screen to the bottom while on defense (an age-old Madden tradition) and it feels remarkably counter-intuitive to be holding down on the analog stick while pushing the remote forward only to trigger a tackle animation that moves your character downwards on screen. It’s a bit like having inverted aim turned on in an FPS, assuming you’re not used to the good old "up is down" convention.
While it’s hard not to admire the enthusiasm and commitment to motion controls in Madden 08, it is not a perfect system. It’s tempting to say that the game might have been better served by forgoing some of the motion controls in favor of button pushes, but the deeper issue is really how the game as a whole is presented. Specifically, much of the game takes place in a zoomed out, or semi-zoomed out, perspective where all the elaborate gesture controls ultimately account for a tiny change in animation for the players on-screen. What feels initially new and fun in the beginning will begin to feel forced and unnecessary with prolonged play. Indeed, Madden 08 is a game that could, just as easily, be played with a GameCube controller and wouldn’t suffer too greatly from the transition.
Superstar Mode is where the game shows the most promise to be something remarkable and only possible on the Wii. In Superstar Mode, you’ll create your own player and guide him through the NFL combine, draft day, interviews, IQ tests, practice, and actual games, progressively building his stats and skills, over the course of a full career. During games your control is limited to your created character, and you won’t even be able to pick plays because the computer does all the in-game coaching for you. If you’re playing halfback and it’s a passing play, you’ll have to simply pass block and hope to buy enough time for the computer AI to hit the open receiver. If you’re playing as a defensive lineman, you’ll play whole games down in the trenches perfecting your swim move. Since you won’t be able to switch to other players in Superstar Mode, the game is played up-close with a camera zoomed in on your character. Playing the game from this perspective comes the closest to realizing how football on Wii could revolutionize the way the game is played. Being able to see the detailed moves your player makes in concert with each gesture of your controller makes the motion controls feel natural and superior to the old style of play, none of which comes across effectively in the zoomed out, traditional mode of play.
True, you won’t get to be the hero of every play, but you will feel a lot more in control of the action and be in a better position to appreciate all of the subtle nuances and strategic choices inherent in the motion controls. While this mode feels a little tedious on other consoles, where you’re limited to simple button pushes, the motion controls unlock a dizzying wealth of possibilities, and hopefully this will be an area that EA continues to evolve and tailor more specifically for the Wii remote in the future. Imagine the possibilities of multiplayer where every player has his or her own position and unique moves. Mastering a position and learning to play that position in concert with other players, either online or in split screen, could truly push the experience of Madden on Wii into territory simply not possible on any other console.
The game looks better than it’s PS2 and GameCube brethren, but only marginally so, with an added depth to colors, crisper textures, and a fluid animation system that looks impressive enough. The underlying AI in the game, however, is strictly last-gen, and if you’ve got any amount of Madden experience you’ll have figured out how to pick apart the computer in a couple of hours or less. It’s hard to overestimate just how disappointing it is to play a version of Madden with so many fresh ideas and not have a more robust way of using them. For all the exciting possibilities inherent in the motion controls, the game doesn’t do anything special to showcase them outside of shoe-horning them into a glossy port of the PS2 game.
Playbooks have been streamlined here as well, defaulting to generic play types like "Short Pass" or "Outside Run." You can still back out a level and choose your own plays based on actual formations, but it’s an extra layer of hassle to go through on each and every play, especially considering that higher difficulty levels require a very specific deployment of every formation and player combination at your disposal to counter the computer. Good luck playing Veteran without being able to differentiate 4-3 from 3-4 on defense.
Family Play is a nice gesture towards making the game more accessible for people not already indoctrinated in the modes and methods of video game football. Players will be able to play whole games using only the Wii remote, with the AI controlling character movement while players control key actions like passing, juking, and tackling. It’s a terrific idea in theory, and will probably make the game a lot more palatable to girlfriends and grandpas around the world. But the AI controlling your character is unremarkable and will back players into some unnecessarily stupid situations like QB’s getting hung up on a lineman or not attempting to roll away from blitzers. In other words, it might convince new players to give Madden 08 a try but probably won’t have them coming back for more.
Online play is a welcome addition that has the great promise of providing relief from the tired old AI routines of yesteryear. EA has chosen to forego Nintendo’s Wi-Fi service in favor of their own EA Nation servers which, thankfully, don’t require friend codes. All you need to do is fill out a brief registration form associated with an e-mail address and you’ll be ready to go. The options are fairly straight-forward, offering only one-on-one matches. You can play a quick match and let the game’s match-making system find you an opponent, or you can enter a lobby and search available players based on their bandwidths and ratings. You can also peruse leader boards in a number of categories. As of now, the system is rather underwhelming and, in some instances, unplayable with nasty lag that can be a second or more (I played on a DSL line with a 384 Kbps upload speed). If you think pushing buttons with lag is a confounding experience, just wait until you have to waggle 4-5 times in a row to make sure the game registers your passing motion during a nasty hitch. It can also be a hassle finding an opponent with a strong connection who won’t have dropped out by the coin toss. In some instances I’ve spent over ten minutes popping in and out of lobbies before actually making it to kick-off. While online performance on Wii is definitely an evolving creature, and EA has already acknowledged some problems with Madden 08, its performance at present probably won’t hold your attention over the long-term.
Madden NFL 08 is a tough game to rate. There’s much in the game done right, and it’s obvious that EA is really invested in getting the most out of the Wii’s unique controller. The problem is that they haven’t invested nearly as much time in the game that exists underneath the control scheme. The AI, the playbooks, and the presentation are still inexorably rooted in the PS2 design that might have been compelling four years ago but which is now really starting to show its age. For all the creativity of the motion controls, it becomes painfully apparent that this Madden engine was originally designed for button pushing and not arm waving. There’s definitely fun to be had with Madden NFL 08. Online, a wealth of mini-games, and the user-friendly Family Play mode are all welcome additions, but none of them really change the basic fact that this is an old game with a shiny new coat of paint on it. Madden NFL 08 is a marginally better game than last year’s, but it’s still got a long way to go to fully realize the potential hinted at with the motion controls.