Madden NFL 2005

Ray Lewis howls as he walks downfield, your crushed body in his wake. I'm goan get you. Get you every damn time. You not even goan SEE me!

At least two of your ribs are broken. Breathing is pain. And a foot in front of you, sitting on the astroturf like a small, dead chicken, the ball taunts you for your weakness.

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Pass Incomplete. Fourth down.

Let's go Madden.

American Football has never just been rugby with pads: it's a complex, brutal sport lying somewhere on the curve between cage fighting and chess. Madden 2005 marks the fifteenth year of EA's storied game franchise by bringing more of that weird mix than ever, with a huge featureset and several upgrades to the game engine. Significant upgrades, too – for while recent years have leaned towards offensive tweaks, 2005 is all about the D.

For a game played by giant, sweaty men on Sundays gridiron is surprisingly tactical, and Madden reflects this with a tough learning curve. Quarterbacks, wide outs, triple reverses with a short wide receiver hook - you're not going to figure it out in half an hour, though the game does a good job of teaching you with a series of tutorials and boot camps. In return, once you're up to speed, the rewards are there: action, strategy and excitement in unique combination, with a dose of statistical mania thrown in. You want to know Michael Vick's yards-per-carry vs yards-per handoff as a decimal figure? Madden will tell you and much, much more, beyond all normal reason. The NFL is not for the faint of heart.

Putting master linebacker Ray Lewis on the cover sends the message: Defence rules for 2005. After several releases with all the offense you could handle, this year's Madden clamps down tight. No more impossible passes. No more miracle plays. Better still, no more screaming at your defenders while they let another run through. The AI is much improved, with defensive plays executing smartly and a host of new audibles that let you tweak positions. Quarterbacks can be pressured, gaps filled, and in general the offence will have to work much harder to score. The fireworks are still there, and this is still a highlight-reel game: but overall points production is about half what it was, and you can now make spectacular plays on both sides of the ball. Along with the AI improvements, this is largely because of a new option, the funtime Madden equalizer known as the Hit Stick.

Debuting across most EA Sports titles this year, the Hit Stick is a way to bring the hurt on defence. When stopping an opposing player you have the option of a nice, girly, massage-tackle... or you can flick the right analogue stick for a hospital shot. If you get it right the results are brutal: your victim lies there, squirming on the ground. There's a good chance they'll drop the ball. And if you Hit Stick someone's quarterback, stretchers will beckon. It's huge fun, but the flip side of the Hit Stick is that it's also a gamble: screw up your direction and you'll miss completely. There is absolutely nothing more humiliating than having someone romp in for a touchdown while you lie in the grass and your opponent cackles away next to you on the couch...

... and it's the couch where Madden ultimately gets going. The game has single-player modes for Africa – straight matchups, mini-games, drills, and a mind-boggling franchise system – but as always the real action's human vs human. Madden's perfectly structured for this, with staredowns before each play, mind games ahoy, and a nasty psychological crunch kicking in as you head for the fourth quarter. The endless tactics and combinations make for long term rivalry which could easily go back and forth for months. Then, once you've figured this monster of a game out, there's the rest of the world to take on in Xbox Live.

After a controversial absence last year, Madden 2005 is fully kitted out for Live play. An extensive ranking system lets you see exactly where you stand vs all competitors and the usual tournaments and leagues are available. EA have also worked to cut down cheeseball tactics with a “Fair Play” option that limits no-huddles, audibles, and going for it on fourth down. Madden Live opens up a world of possibilities for new and experienced players alike, though online competition is as brutal as ever and you'll be up for at least a few humiliating defeats.

If you're after a quick, arcade-style gaming fix, Madden 2005 probably isn't it. This may just be the most complex, sprawling sports release ever, a significant re-tool from the recent years with a welcome defensive focus. Even Madden veterans will take time to get up to speed, and there's a definite intimidation factor for new players. Ultimately, though, the rewards are there in spades. It's tough, it's smart, it's demanding: and as a truly indepth sports title, a mind-and-body combo that'll keep you going to the Superbowl and beyond, Madden's in a class of its own.

"Madden looks exactly like its multi-million dollar budget."
- Madden NFL 2005
Follow Own it? Rating: G   Difficulty: Medium   Learning Curve: 45 Min


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