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GF! Archival Version Copyright 1995-2004

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by EA Sports

Ups: Stunning player models, excellent running game, lots of fun, and only game out there this year.

Downs:  Goofy animations, some graphic and gameplay glitches, terrible "Great Games" mode

System Reqs: P266, 32MB RAM

Know what’s scary? This is it for PC football fans in the year 2000 A.D. Sierra’s once-proud Front Page Football is a distant memory, and Microsoft’s 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, that’s not so farfetched) and we the damned would still pay good U.S. money for our football fix. That’s the bad news. The good news is that Madden 2001 is a pretty good game. It’s not perfect, and has some annoying flaws, but it looks damn stylish and it’s 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 you’ll notice about Madden 2001 is the improved graphics. With twice as many polygons, the player models are much better than last year’s, 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 well—helmets 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, Madden’s animations don’t 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 Madden’s 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 receiver’s laps, but the running game’s animations can be a little goofy, too—most 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. It’s nothing that will ruin the game, but the contrast is unsettling. And of course all this graphic beauty doesn’t come cheap. If you want to experience Madden 2001 in its bleeding-edge graphic splendor, you’d better have a machine named Godzilla. You can, of course, start turning down graphic options until the game runs well on your machine, but you’ll need at least the recommended system to get smooth gameplay and stunner graphics.

The game’s sound is excellent—at least as long as Madden and Summerall aren’t talking. Crowd noises are deafening in the Metrodome, and realistic field noises add a lot to the game, from bone-crushing tackles to the linemen’s grunts. In one game, my kicker missed a field goal and hit the crossbar; it made a hollow metallic thunk. Now that’s 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 you’ll hear that stock comment over and over again. Every once in a while there’s a specific comment about a certain player, and if he’s having a good game, you’ll get to hear that one over and over again as well.  C’mon Madden; if you’re taking the jack for lending your name to a game, take the time to support it, too.

While there’s a lot of carping about Madden’s gameplay, I’ve got to admit that I like it. It takes a while to get used to the arcade mode’s controls, but once mastered Madden yields up as fun a game of football as I’ve played. It’s not utterly realistic, but it’s about as realistic as it can be while still appealing to the mass market arcade crowd, and I’ve 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 game—usually, it’s 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 year’s 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. That’s right, this year you won’t 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 overall—and if you take the time to master the controls—this is the best implementation of the running game ever.

The passing game is less good, though, mostly because of the game’s 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 hell’s 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. There’s also a nice new “scramble” mode—if 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 defense—a 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, it’s 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 you’re playing against the opposing AI, you’ll find a much tougher opponent than last year.  For instance, I still haven’t found any “killer” pass plays yet; the defensive AI usually catches on to them. I’ve also found that the offensive AI will adjust to my defensive schemes. If I consistently run the same formation on third-and-long, it’ll 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 it’ll 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 year’s 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 aren’t going to play through those games. Because they’re terrible, imparting no feel for the game’s history. For example, the first game you can play pits the ’57 Lions against the ’57 49ers. It’s 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 50’s are straight from 2000—the Niners use Steve Mariucci’s 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 he’s just number 22. Doak Walker is just number 37. I don’t know if this is a licensing problem or what, but it sure takes away from a historical game’s appeal when you can’t tell who’s playing. Either fix this or lose this.

On the other hand, online play is very good. EA’s servers are easy to access and crowded with folks ready to play, and—even though the interface is less than intuitive—you 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 that’s why I’m willing  to overlook the game’s not insignificant faults. For all the cursing I’ve done over this stupid game, I still can’t help firing it up and playing. I’ve even joined a league. This year, Madden 2001 is my PC football game of choice. Even if it is the only choice.

--Rick Fehrenbacher