|Know whats scary? This is it for PC football fans
in the year 2000 A.D. Sierras once-proud Front Page Football is a distant memory,
and Microsofts promising NFL Fever is being ported over to the X-box. This means
that the 800-pound gorilla that is EA Sports has the field to itself. I mean, they could
put out a PC version of electric football, and all of us football junkies would have
to buy it. They could make a football game in which the Rams had 300-pound chain-smoking
wideouts, the Bears occasionally sacked a quarterback, and the Raiders corners used BFGs
on opposing receivers (actually, thats not so farfetched) and we the damned would
still pay good U.S. money for our football fix. Thats the bad news. The good news is
that Madden 2001 is a pretty good game. Its not perfect, and has some annoying
flaws, but it looks damn stylish and its fun. Most importantly, it does a fine job
of bestriding the realism/arcade line, which is harder to do than it seems.
The first thing youll notice about Madden 2001 is the improved graphics. With twice as many polygons, the player models are much better than last years, when everyone looked pretty porky. This year wideouts look sleek and fast, power runners look thick and sturdy, and offensive linemen look massive. Nice little details are thrown in as wellhelmets reflect stadium lights, fields degrade in quality as the game goes on, and uniforms are meticulously modeled, right down to ankle tape. Overall, this is the best-looking video football game ever. That is, until the action begins. Curiously, Maddens animations dont seem to have been reworked, and anyone used to the graceful animations of NFL Fever or NFL 2K will be disappointed at the awkward and often jerky movements of Maddens players. This is most apparent in the passing game, where balls blithely defy laws of physics by stopping in midair and dropping straight down into stock-still receivers laps, but the running games animations can be a little goofy, toomost noticeably the spin move animation, which looks more like a trademark Three Stooges move than a trademark Terrell Davis move. Oh, and while everything on-field looks great, for some reason EA has found fit to include truly wretched 2D sprites to represent the bench players and cheerleaders. Its nothing that will ruin the game, but the contrast is unsettling. And of course all this graphic beauty doesnt come cheap. If you want to experience Madden 2001 in its bleeding-edge graphic splendor, youd better have a machine named Godzilla. You can, of course, start turning down graphic options until the game runs well on your machine, but youll need at least the recommended system to get smooth gameplay and stunner graphics.
The games sound is excellentat least as long as Madden and Summerall arent talking. Crowd noises are deafening in the Metrodome, and realistic field noises add a lot to the game, from bone-crushing tackles to the linemens grunts. In one game, my kicker missed a field goal and hit the crossbar; it made a hollow metallic thunk. Now thats detail. Unfortunately, the voice commentary is uninspired. EA must have had Madden and Summerall in the studio for all of an hour, if that. You quickly discover that they each have a stock comment for most situations, and youll hear that stock comment over and over again. Every once in a while theres a specific comment about a certain player, and if hes having a good game, youll get to hear that one over and over again as well. Cmon Madden; if youre taking the jack for lending your name to a game, take the time to support it, too.
While theres a lot of carping about Maddens gameplay, Ive got to admit that I like it. It takes a while to get used to the arcade modes controls, but once mastered Madden yields up as fun a game of football as Ive played. Its not utterly realistic, but its about as realistic as it can be while still appealing to the mass market arcade crowd, and Ive got no problem with that. The thing that appeals most to me is the improvement in the running game. Most video football games have had a tough time modeling a realistic running gameusually, its just impossible to run, and games turn into air-it-out track meets. For example, both NFL2K and NFL Fever had awful running games last year. Last years Madden, on the other hand, had a pretty fair running game, at least as long as you ran outside. This year, however, you can grind out the yards inside. As a life-long Bears fan, this gives me no end of pleasure. Holes and lanes will open up inside the tackles, and you can often get the 3-6 yard gains that NFL offenses live on. If you can bounce it outside, you can break off big gains, and if you can beat the last defender, you can go all the way. Thats right, this year you wont see Marshall Faulk getting tackled by Dana Stubblefield thirty yards downfield. The running game still has a few glitches, though. The aforementioned spin move is ungainly but effective, and the juke move might be a little too effective, especially in the open field. But overalland if you take the time to master the controlsthis is the best implementation of the running game ever.
The passing game is less good, though, mostly because of the games awkward animation. Because the receivers and defensive backs sometimes run in place or face in odd directions, it can be difficult to tell what the hells going on in the secondary, and choosing a receiver is sometimes like rolling dice. Sometimes wide-open receivers will drop passes for no good reason (yeah, I know this happens in the NFL, but not this often), and sometimes DBs will materialize out of nowhere to make a play. Usually, though, the passing game works. My favorite feature is the ability to put some touch on your passes. Depending upon how long you hold down the pass button, you can either burn in a bullet pass or feather in a downfield lob. Theres also a nice new scramble modeif your QB decides to leave the pocket, you can press a button that leaves pass mode and allows you to put running moves on the defensea very nice option if Dante Culpepper is your QB.
Playing defense is challenging, but with some experience and smart play-calling you can stop all but the most formidable offenses most of the time. There are, again, a few little glitches. For instance, while DBs usually do a good job of covering, its very hard to put pressure on the QB with a pure defensive line rush. Pass protection is very good in this game, and unless you bring someone unblocked from the corner, most QBs will have way too much time to throw.
If youre playing against the opposing AI, youll find a much tougher opponent than last year. For instance, I still havent found any killer pass plays yet; the defensive AI usually catches on to them. Ive also found that the offensive AI will adjust to my defensive schemes. If I consistently run the same formation on third-and-long, itll eventually figure it out and burn me. The only problematic thing about the AI is its propensity to air it out. Oddly, the offensive AI has a much harder time running the ball than human players, and if you stuff it early itll soon resort to passing on almost every down.
As usual, Madden is loaded with options and features, and this year you can even access them without navigating a truly horrible interface. This years interface is better, but better like American bureaucracy is better than Russian bureaucracy. There are still problems; making roster moves is much clumsier than it should be, and the whole draft interface seems determined to hide information rather than dispense it. But you can still play in exhibition, season, or franchise modes, and the game has a fairly deep player management system.
Madden 2001 also includes a Great Games mode, and it is without a doubt the worst part of the game. I really, really, hate it. Let me count the ways: 1) Even though 35 great games from NFL history are included, you have to unlock them one at a time. This is a horrid console game conceit that should never be found in PC games. Do you really think that anyone is going to play through 34 games just to see that special number 35? 2) Let me answer that question. No, people arent going to play through those games. Because theyre terrible, imparting no feel for the games history. For example, the first game you can play pits the 57 Lions against the 57 49ers. Its played on a field with goalposts on the endline of the endzones. Uh, EA, back then the goalposts were set on the goal line. This is anachronistic and makes a big difference in gameplay. 3) Even worse, the playbooks available to these teams of the 50s are straight from 2000the Niners use Steve Mariuccis and the Lions use Bobby Ross. It should be a crime to make any team use Bobby Ross playbook, but especially teams that existed before the modern shotgun, the nickel defense, or the zone blitz. 4) Where are the names? For example, the 57 Lions were one of the most colorful teams in NFL history, led by Bobby Layne, a king-hell QB if ever one lived. Here hes just number 22. Doak Walker is just number 37. I dont know if this is a licensing problem or what, but it sure takes away from a historical games appeal when you cant tell whos playing. Either fix this or lose this.
On the other hand, online play is very good. EAs servers are easy to access and crowded with folks ready to play, andeven though the interface is less than intuitiveyou should be able to get in a game within a few minutes of accessing the server. And frankly, this is the best way to play Madden 2001. Whether over the net, hotseat, or LAN, head-to-head play is exciting and fun.
And thats why Im willing to overlook the games not insignificant faults. For all the cursing Ive done over this stupid game, I still cant help firing it up and playing. Ive even joined a league. This year, Madden 2001 is my PC football game of choice. Even if it is the only choice.