August 17, 2005

Football, football, and more football

Ah, football season is just around the corner. I can feel the itch. The need to fully engulf myself in NFL goodness. The marathon game watching on Sundays. NFL Primetime. Monday Night Football. Good times, good times.

A side effect of my football fever is my constant need to play a video game version of the sport. This urge starts just around July and doesn’t go away until February the earliest. So, when I’m not watching real football, I’m simulating it on a console.

For about the last 12 years, the football game to fill my needs has been Madden. It was Tecmo bowl before that. And 10 Yard Fight before that. But for the most part, Madden was my fix. I switched over to Gameday when it made its debut, not only because it looked better than I could have hoped, but because there was no Madden released that year. Gameday looked so good, it scared EA off and they didn’t release a Madden football title for the first time, well, ever.

But EA came back the next year and I was there. Then, with the debut of the PS2, EA had probably the most impressive launch title available. The jump in graphics was simply fantastic. Sure, all the players’ eyes looked extremely disturbing and creepy, but man, did that game look sweet. I stuck with Madden and it provided my yearly football itch relief. Then, like the Madden franchise has a tendency of doing, the series began to feel a bit flat. Stagnant if you will. Sure, it would improve every year. Small details here and there would make it a better game than the last, but the improvements were so subtle that one couldn’t help but feel like they were playing the same game for years.

Then last year, something interesting happened. ESPN NFL 2k5 caught my attention. Sure, the 2K series had been around for a few years, but for some reason, I never gave it much thought. But 2K5 really intrigued me. Man, did the game look sick! The graphics on X-Box looked so completely new and amazing compared to Madden, that I immediately took notice. The game had a ton of innovations that I was not used to as a Madden player. The tackling system - in which every hit seems to affect the tackle - was simply amazing. The detail of the players and animation, it was the breath of fresh air that I had been looking for. Throw in a half-time show with actual highlights of your game, Sports Center with weekly highlights during your franchise, a weekly prep feature to get ready for your next opponent, the VIP system that keeps track of how you play, your crib, customizable soundtracks that would play over the stadium speakers for the events you specify, on-line leagues, the list just went on and on. I was sold. Oh, did I forget to mention that all this was going to cost you just $19.99. Sign me up!!!

In hindsight, ESPN 2k5 was not the perfect football experience I was hoping for, but it was a fantastic game and with some tweaking to the engine and additional development time, could prove to be the best football sim on the market. I quickly began to anticipate what Visual Concepts could cook up for 2006.

I also purchased Madden 2005 (I mean, with 2k5 being only $20, I could afford it). Madden was also fun. Defense had received a boost which lead to some realistic scores and close games. Although, defense was SO good it did lead to many UNrealistic defensive plays by cornerbacks and linebackers. Now, the deep throw was no longer automatic. In fact, it was impossible.

There are many aspects of the Madden series that I enjoy. I enjoy the feeling of control I have over the players. I always feel like they are doing exactly what I want them to. In ESPN I always felt like I had less precision control over my guys. I enjoy playing defense on Madden much more than ESPN. Mostly because the secondary in ESPN would do some of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen. I did, however, feel that controlling a defensive lineman in ESPN was worlds better than in Madden. Playing as a DE in Madden felt odd, as if none of my button commands would register. In ESPN, line play was almost perfect. I say almost because it was probably too effective and I could easily rack up sacks of the opposing QBs. The running game was a mixed bag in both games. ESPN had a fantastic running game when it came to running though the holes and the tackling system. Running into the back of a blocking O-lineman in ESPN produced a fantastic animation of your RB putting his hand on the O-Lineman’s back and shimmying around him. In Madden, if you run into your lineman, you just stay there, running in place, not doing much of anything. Blocking for both games was shaddy, but perhaps slightly better in Madden. Then you have the tackling system, which as I mentioned was absolutely fantastic in ESPN. It seems as if every hit affected the tackle animation. So you could be wrapped up from behind, begin to fall forward, then have someone come from the front and lay one into you, and it would break up your forward momentum, change the animation seamlessly and you’d get pushed back. In Madden, once it goes into its canned tackle animation, there’s no stopping it.

The passing game I felt was flawed in both games, but both had positives in them as well. I enjoyed the joint animations in ESPN of a corner putting his hand out to touch a receiver on deep balls and the fact that pass interference and holding was called on the defense (something that NEVER happened in Madden, no mater what you did). The passing mechanic in ESPN - while it might have been a tad floaty - produced some very pretty passes. However, there were WAY too many drops in the game. I believe this was done on purpose to counter-act the completely awful play by the corners and safeties, who would often run away from a play, or go into some interception animation that would take them completely out of the play. Another annoying aspect with the passing game, was that short routes over the middle of the field resulted in your receiver getting man-handled by the defenders. I like the fact that they added players jamming the receivers, but it is done to a degree that makes short crossing routes practically useless. Speaking of useless, the screen pass was about as effective as taking a knee with your QB, you loss some yards and the down. Post patterns were a little too effective and perhaps the game’s biggest flaw was that there was usually no YAC. It seemed that defensive players were not affected by momentum like the offense was, so while the ball is in the air, every single defender on the field is able to quickly converge on your receiver and as soon as he catches the ball, he’s surround by four defenders. But, Madden’s flaws weren’t any better. Mostly, the defense was super human and defenders would jump great distances and reach balls they had no business even knowing were in the air. It practically killed the passing game because there were certain routes that you would not even bother throwing to because you knew they were an automatic incompletion - or worse - an interception. The deep ball was one of those casualties. And what is a football game if you can’t go deep every now and then and at least have some HOPE that the ball will be caught.

Anyway, I realize I’ve been rambling on about last year’s football games, which was not my intention. So, to fast forward a bit, after playing both ESPN and Madden last year, I came away excited at the possibilities for this year’s offerings. ESPN took a big chuck out of EA’s market and I was salivating at what EA would do to counter. When pressed up against the wall EA has always done their best work. I was also very excited at the possibilities of ESPN 2k6. The game already looked phenomenal and had many innovations that I loved, but some more polish would make it look and play even better.

Then comes the bomb. EA gets an exclusive deal with the NFL and the NFL Players Association for the next 5 years. 5 years!!! That means no ESPN NFL 2K6, no Gameday 2006, no NFL Fever 2006, nothing but Madden. How could this happen!? I was furious. I screamed "Monopoly!! There’s gotta be a law to reverse this!". "EA is an evil corporation". "Boycott those EA bastards!!". And many more phrases far more explicit. In hindsight, I don’t blame EA for their move. I blame the NFL.

But either way, that was bad news for gamers. No competition = stagnation. For whomever holds the license. No NFL license means I’ll never get to see what Visual Concepts would have done in ‘06. Or the next gen systems. An exclusive NFL license means we won’t see any other NFL game on the next gen systems. After all, it’s a 5 year deal, and last I checked, that’s the typical lifespan of a console. So if EA isn’t up to the challenge, we’re out of luck.

But again, this is all very old news. Where have I been for the last eight months right? Actually, the point of this long rant is my current dilemma. What do I do as a gamer now? I vowed that I would not buy Madden 2006 out of protest back in December. Of course, back then I wanted to burn down EA’s Corporate Headquarters as well. Since then I’ve come to my senses. I don’t blame EA anymore, but I still hate the fact that they have total control over my NFL gaming, especially since I’ve seen the quality of their games decline steadily for years now.

EA has taken gaming and ripped the fun out of it. EA churns out games at an alarming rate. Do you think they give their developers time to really improve their games? And you can forget about innovation and trying new things. That would be too risky. The Madden franchise is so big, that you cannot alter it’s formula (however broken it might be) because you might alienate millions and millions of consumers (I’m surprised they tinkered with the passing game this year, although you are able to default to the old way). So what if it doesn’t play like real football, it plays like Madden football and that’s what counts. Last year, I could have agreed with that statement. If I didn’t like the way Madden played, I could have always gotten my fix somewhere else (and I did, with 2K5). Not so anymore, so now I’m getting worried.

I have three choices this year for football gaming. I could go ahead and get Madden 2006, which I know will entertain me - yet at the same time aggravate me when everything is the same and there is so much room for improvement. I can wait and see what Madden 360 is all about. Or I could get Blitz: The League.

I’ve never been a fan of the Blitz series. I like my football with a hefty dose of simulation, not over the top arcade style gameplay. Sure, I’ve payed them and had fun for a couple of hours, but if you recall, I play football from July until February, no way a Blitz game can hold my attention for that long. But this year’s Blitz has caught my attention. This isn’t the same over the top score-fest we’ve seen in the past. This seems like a more realistic take on the sport, with a dash of extreme in all the right places. This game promises a great storyline (storyline in a football game? Who’d a thunk it!). It’s written by the same guy who penned the phenomenal Playmakers on ESPN. It’s supposed to show you what happens off the field as well as on. Ok, I’m intrigued. But, how will it play? I’ve already learned that it won’t be 11-on-11 football, which is a HUGE deal for me. I don’t know if I can take an 8-on-8 football game seriously. Well, I might, as long as the gameplay is there. But I have very mixed feelings about The League. The game’s trailers and videos on look amazing! The graphics are well above Madden standards and actually look very similar to 2K5's, Which is a good thing. The "cinematic" videos of the gameplay look great. Some great broken tackle animations, smooth and varied passing animations, great cut scenes, it looks like a slam dunk. But, I’ve also just recently watched some actual gameplay videos over at Gamespot and hold the phones! The game does not look very good at all from a gameplay standpoint. Granted, these are just a few short gameplay videos, but something about the game just looks off. The players don’t seem to have any inertia, or momentum, or physics to govern them. They are just there running around at insane speeds, changing directions without batting and eye. Looks way off and definitely not what I expected. I really hope this is early footage, because if the game plays like that, you can count me out.

My last choice is Madden for the 360. That would require me to buy a 360. But then again, I’ll probably be doing that anyway. Especially after playing MVP 2006 in 720p and seeing how drop dead gorgeous HD gaming is going to be. Not to mention that I’ve purchased systems just for football games in the past. Madden ‘93 was the first game I owned for the SNES. I bought a Playstation for Gameday and I bought a PS2 for Madden. So, it wouldn’t be a first. But what have we seen of Madden 360? A fake CG commercial which I felt looked awful. Where’s the footage, screenshots, or impressions on this game? Will it really be next gen football, or the same game that’s out now with just a fresh coat of paint? And if so, will all that eye candy be enough to make me feel like I’m truly experiencing the next generation if it still plays the same as before?

I don’t want EA to take this new, powerful hardware, and just use it to make the game photorealistic from a visual standpoint. Sure, I want a huge graphical upgrade - because quite frankly, I think Madden looks like shit. There, I said it. I HATE Madden’s visuals and have now for quite a few years. I think since 2003. And especially after seeing 2K5 last year. Madden’s player models just don’t look human. They look like caricatures of what football players should look like. They look cartoonish. I can’t believe the people who say they prefer Madden’s player models (or hell, just the entire graphical package) over ESPN’s. Everytime I watch 2K5's graphics I’m still awed by them. Are they perfect? Of course not. The facemasks look a little off. And the running animations are not quite right. And the transition from one animation to another is not always seamless. And yet whenever I play a game of 2K5 it takes me ½ an hour longer than when I play a Madden game. Not because of the lack of an accelerated clock, or difference in quarter lengths, but because practically every play has me looking at the replay, watching it from different angles, amazed at the small details and gorgeous animation. I would watch just regular tackles over and over because they were so dynamic they borderlined as real-time. Of course they weren’t, but that’s the beauty of the tackling system 2K5 had in place, it gave off the impression that every tackle was unique.

Anyway, I keep getting off track. What I expect from a next generation football (aside from the graphical overhaul) is a game that does so much more behind the lines (sort to speak) that we, the player, may not know is going on, but we can see the results on screen. I want individual player tendencies/habits. I want WAY more detailed attributes that make a difference in how good a player is. In Madden, speed seems to be the dominant rating, even though Awareness seems to get a lot of credit. Awareness should be even MORE important. I want every single player on the field to have a vision-cone similar to Madden’s passing game this year. Of course, I don’t want to see that on screen as it can get a little hectic if you have 22 players with vision cones, but I want every player to have actual vision, so if they’re not looking in a certain direction, they don’t know what’s going on. Veterans will not only have bigger fields of vision (obviously) but they’ll know where to look at the right times. The vision can come into play with player sizes as well, as smaller RBs and QBs will not be able to see the field over the linemen as well as taller players. I want a real physics system in place, complete with real inertia, weight, speed, momentum, so that 180lb WRs don’t pancake 249lbs LBs. I want some real weather effects please. I want to see mud build up on the field, players losing their footing, puddles of water collecting on the field, dirty - and I mean DIRTY - uniforms. I want to see actual pile-ups when there’s a fumble. No more miraculous one person recoveries. I want a pile-up of five players, all fighting or the ball, and the referees having a hard-time determining who has it. Hell, have a mini-game where you have to pound on a button to wrestle the ball from someone at the bottom of the pile. I want to see receivers that actually know where they are on the field and attempt to keep their feet in bounds when making a sideline catch. I want to see QBs actually throw inaccurate passes. In current video football games, you might complete 60% of your passes. Which is about right. Except that the 40% you didn’t complete is usually because of tips, dropped passes or dropped INTs. The reality is, in real football, the majority of incompletes is because the QB threw the ball where neither the receiver nor defender could catch it. There are lots of overthrows when going deep, and not every pass in on the money. If you have realistic QB accuracy (meaning, they miss their mark sometimes) you wouldn’t need to have Defensive Backs making these ridiculous defensive plays in Madden, because the incompletes will still come, not because of cheap defense, but because a QB is NEVER 100% on the money. I want a game design that allows for anything to happen at any time. That’s the NFL baby. Anything can happen on any given Sunday. EVERY play in the play book has to work at some point. It might not work every time (obviously) but every play should be effective if used correctly. Call a punt block formation, you might get a block. And not by cheating and moving around defenders, but by just letting the play develop they way it is supposed to be. I have never blocked a punt in Madden. Ever. Ever, ever. Ever never ever. Ok, enough of that.

Most importantly, and I cannot stress this enough, the commentary for sports games needs to be completely redone from the ground up. The entire thought process behind it needs to be addressed. The commentary needs to be aware of everything that is going on in the game to really draw the player in. This is one of the most overlooked aspects of a sports game. The commentary needs to not only do play by play, it needs to be fully aware of the situation, the score, the importance of a certain play, the importance of a certain score, etc. And above all else, the commentary needs to be aware of what if going on in a player’s franchise. One of the biggest complaints that I have with current franchise modes, is that I never really feel like I’m part of the league. I play my games, see some scores of other games and mostly keep tabs on my division and that’s it. I see the league leaders in certain stat categories, but I want the game itself to draw me in by mentioning things that are going on around the league. When playing a franchise game I want the announcers to mention if a player had a fantastic game the game before. I want to see an overlay with the stats of that game. And not only for my players, for the other team’s players as well. Hell, with the hard drive available, I want to see highlights of that player’s previous outing shown during this current game. If my team is over achieving, I want the commentators to mention the fact that they are having a surprisingly good year. The same for a great team that is losing. I want them to mention if my rookie RB scores his first ever NFL TD. I want them to make a big deal of a big star player playing his first game with a new team. NFL 2K5 took a step in the right direction last year by incorporating Sports Center into the franchise mode. Now, instead of just seeing scores for the rest of the league’s games, you get to see highlights and stats as well. I want to see that taken to the next level. I want to be able to watch highlights for every game if I want to. I want them to maybe talk about certain things that are going on around the league. Surprise teams. A player who’s having a monster season. That new rookie who is lighting it up. And most importantly, I want the atmosphere of the playoffs and especially the Superbowl to be night and day better than what it is now. About 40% of the commentary during the playoffs and Superbowl needs to be specifically recorded just for the playoffs/Superbowl. You should hear things you would only hear during these big, important games, where it’s win or go home. After winning the big one, I don’t want to see some generic cut-scene of the players marching on the field celebrating and then a quick scene of them with the Vince Lambardi throphy. I really want to feel like I’ve accomplished something here.

All this won’t be easy to incorporate, I know. But there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be what we strive for in our football sims. Now, the big question is, now that EA has this genre practically in their pocket, with no real worries of competition in sight, do they have the incentive to go out there, completely rewrite, rethink, and redo the way that a football video game is created.? Start completely from scratch, forget about what has been done before and really strive for perfection now that we have the computing power to do it? I’d wager no. Looking at EA’s track record, Madden Next Gen will have some nice graphics and similar gameplay. Sure, they’ll probably be all new commentary, but it’ll just be more of the same. Probably a lot more, so it won’t be as repetitious, but still, it won’t be the dynamic almost living commentary I dream of. The presentation will improve (hopefully by ALOT now that EA has the ESPN license as well), but will it be used to really draw a player into a franchise/season and make them feel like what they did in game 3 still matters as opposed to it concentrating on a single game by game basis? Probably not.

Sure, EA always incorporates something new in Madden every year. But, seeing the strict schedule they keep for churning out game after game every year, I see these as just small steps when looking at what the game of football is as a whole and where Madden is right now. It’ll take forever for it to reach the point where I think it should already be. And now, with nobody there trying to outdo EA, without Visual Concepts (or anybody) there saying, "Look, we can make a better game, buy us instead", we might never get there. We’ll always have EA dictating what they feel a true NFL football game is supposed to be. Because realistically, after EA’s deal with the NFL expires, who’s going to be there to outbid them for it again? Sega? Take-Two? After five years of raking in the cash that their exclusive NFL football game brought them (which is a whole lot) and after already having all the pieces in place for creating next-gen football games (player models, faces, stadiums), is some other developer going to fork out a gazillion dollars for the license, to then invest millions more in the technology needed to recreate the NFL experience like it should be? Not likely.

No, the way I see it, when EA signed that 5 year exclusivity deal, it might as well have been a 30 year deal. If the NFL decides to put it up for bidding again, nobody will be able to outbid EA and they’ll just renew for x amount of years and the process starts all over again. Hell, the quality of Madden games might decline at a faster rate then ever, not only because of the lack of competition, but EA will need to cut costs to make up for the millions of dollars the exclusive licenses are setting them back. Damn shame.

The best scenario - aside from not having an exclusive license in the first place - is to have a deal like the NBA did. One publisher has the rights one year, the other has the rights another. In some ways, this is better than no exclusivity deal, because each game in a series is only released every other year, meaning more development time. I could actually live with that, even if I was a fan of one series as opposed to the other. But, that won’t happen in the NFL, so it’s just hopeless dreaming on my part.

Ok, I’ll wrap this up. We’ll see what the future holds. Maybe Blitz: The League is fantastic. Maybe EA has been working on the next gen Madden for 5 years and the game is so freakin’ amazing it’ll catch everyone by surprise (not bloody likely). Or maybe I’ll dust off 2K5, try to find the best set of sliders out there, adjust the rosters as best I can to reflect this season, and hope for the best.

Thanks a lot NFL. Thanks alot.