Madden NFL: Hour of the Phantom Dark Fantasy Kingdom Tactics

My addiction to Madden is well known to long time readers. It was one of the first games I bought for the new Xbox, and I always manage to find a reason to buy it again. Now, being an average dork, I am by no means a rabid football fan. I can’t really name more than a few players on the rosters of my home team growing up (Patriots) or of my current locale (Steelers). I like to watch either of those teams kick ass in the playoffs, but otherwise I’m not really that interested. I have the same basic relationship with most of the major sports, and yet Madden is alone among sports games in holding my interest at all. I think this is because football only forms the shell of the real Madden game. The real Madden is actually a tactical RPG that happens to use a football-like simulation as a combat mechanic.

For those not familiar with the game, Madden provides a variety of game-play modes, including quick games, various mini-games to practice combat, er, football mechanics (passing, running, and so on), and a few practice modes, including things like the two minute drill and various situation games.

A single game in one of these modes lasts between two minutes (two minute drill) and maybe thirty to forty five minutes depending on how you set up the game clock for a full game. As such, each is similar to a medium to large combat encounter in a strategy game. The mechanics of the football game itself are also similar to strategy games. You and your opponent take turns picking offensive and defensive plays, and a large simulation engine figures out what happens. During any given play, the human player can control one or more players on their team. For example, you might make the running back run or the quarterback pass the ball. This gives you some control over your destiny, but since football is eleven players per side, the outcome is mostly determined by what happens in the simulation engine.

For example, if you are on defense, and you call a defensive play that is designed to stop the run offense of your opponent, and your opponent calls a long pass play instead, the majority of the time you will be screwed. It doesn’t really matter how quick you are with the stick, the pass will go over the top of your defense and you will lose. The power of the simulator becomes especially clear on defense, where it is particularly difficult (at least for me) for the human player to make the little football avatar people do anything useful. It’s almost always more effective to call a good play and then let your minions do the work.

The strategic emphasis is also clear when you observe that most of the new game-play features that have been added to the engine in the last few years all involve making adjustments at the line of scrimmage before the play even starts. As of Madden ‘06, you can call audibles to a completely different play, change the defensive assignments of every player on the field, change the pass routes of every receiver on the field, quickly flip the direction of the offense, send people in motion, adjust the positions of the defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs, and change the blocking assignments of the offensive line, all with just a few flicks of the analog stick and the face buttons on the gamepad. All of these minute adjustments can make or break any given simulated play.

This, of course, does not really reflect the reality of the game of football. The Madden engine generally overemphasizes the strategic setup of the play rather than its later execution. It also does not allow the actions of a single player to have as much of an impact on the result as they might in a real game. Rather than go for strict realism, Madden brilliantly packages the semi-turn based military simulation aspect of football into a game that occasionally gives you the feeling of running a football team, but doesn’t spend too much time trying to make you believe every single useless detail. Therefore, while not realistic, Madden is fun.

I think the final version of ESPN NFL2k reached a similar level of refinement with respect to its football game-play. But, I never spent enough time with that game to really become familiar with what you can do. I also never worked through the Franchise mode in NFL2k, which is where our attention turns next.

If the single game in Madden is like playing a single scenario in a strategy game (think one map of Advance Wars, for example), then the rest of the “tactical RPG” structure of the game is in the franchise mode. Here, the game allows the user to create a team and play that team through multiple simulated NFL seasons. As the manager of the team, you can either start with the roster of an actual team, or you can hold a draft and populate the initial rosters from the pool of currently active NFL players. Then, each year, you gain new players from a simulated college draft and you can also build your roster by trading players and signing free agents. Roster management is analogous to party management in a more traditional RPG.

But wait! There is more. The franchise mode also tracks the performance of your roster in the various practice modes, pre-season training camp, pre- season games, and regular season games. At fixed intervals, your players will move through a progression and get steadily better or worse depending on how well you play them. In some cases, the simulation engine picks the effect that this progression has on their character attributes. In other cases, you can play mini-games and win points to assign by yourself. The combination of the huge spreadsheet of stats and control over how those stats progress over time is apparently exactly what all the hard core CRPG players live for. Well, in Madden you can play through up to 30 seasons of simulated football goodness, and get the cool “I won the Super Bowl and I’m going to Disney Land” cut scene for your trouble. The only major RPG element missing from this mix is a pre- written linear narrative that has any structure besides that of a football season. But given what I’ve seen in RPG narratives, I don’t think the game is really missing that much in this department either.

So, the next time you are feeling that T-or-SRPG urge, and the shelves of the local Gamestop are stocked with nothing but shooters, fear not. Just head to the bargain bin and pick up Madden 2004 or _2005 _and go to it. You’ll have to work pretty hard to find a better stats-based simulated RPG experience, in my humble opinion. The football part is fun too.

This entry is part of the September, 2005 Blogs of the Round Table. Please visit the Round Table’s Main Hall for links to all entries.