Following a punk-rock show in a Chicago art gallery where surreal paintings rumbled surrealistically on walls, I retired with Chris Peditto, lead vocalist of ska-punk band Random Outburst, and played some Madden 2004 on PlayStation2. It was my first time playing a Madden title earnestly since 2001, when my roommates in Japan played my copy of Madden 2002 through to many Super Bowls. On this Saturday night, the only bowls partook of were deep ones which held Corn Pops cereal and vitamin D milk. Sitting on a low sofa, gazing up at a high television, we plugged in Madden.
At first, the game didn't work. This is because Chris Peditto has loved his PlayStation2 until it broke down into the piece of shit Shinji Mikami warns us it really is. We had a solid hour of disc read errors, and nearly depleted our initial supplies of cereal, before the game worked. And so once it started working, we didn't turn it off for nine hours.
It was a good experience. I hesitate to say it would have been better if we'd had two controllers -- because I don't know if that's true.
Yes, we only had one controller. The only other controller wasn't a Dual Shock, and the game didn't want to take it. I wrote an email to a friend as Peditto played through the training mode. Here, I'd wanted to review the game for insert credit. Looks like that wasn't going to happen, I was thinking.
"So, what do you wanna do?" Peditto asked me. "You wanna take turns?"
I was sitting on the sofa, face-deep in Corn Pops, when it hit me. "How about I just watch you play?"
And so it was.
The following, then, is a review of Electronic Arts' EA Sports' Madden 2004 for the PlayStation2, from the perspective of a person who didn't touch a controller during the playing of the game.
First off, I admit that I own Maddens 1993, 1994, and 1995 in addition to 2002. I have appreciated the Madden series since 1993; it is the 1994 edition I have the fondest memories of. Back then, Madden was a videogame people could master; I often talk of how my brother Roy and I once won the Super Bowl on "Pro" difficulty by 100 points.
There were four seconds left in the fourth quarter. We, the San Francisco 49ers -- of course -- were up 97 to 3. "We gotta win by at least a hundred points, man!" I told my brother. "We can't," Roy said. "It's impossible. There's only three seconds left -- and they've got the ball." I replied: "Three seconds -- plenty of time for a touchdown."
The rules of playing Madden 1994 on Genesis went something like this: when on defense, always blitz. When on offense, always throw the Hail Mary or the Hooks.
We blitzed, they fumbled, I recovered, we then threw a hook for a touchdown. We were legends. We were also still in high school. It was the kind of thing we did.
And it's the kind of thing you can't do in Madden 2004. You can't even do it in Madden 2003. You can't do it in Madden 2002, either, for that matter, because these games are now so devoted to "realism" or something like that.
They're also devoted to looking better.
As the president dude of Acclaim said back on some 60 Minutes interview a few weeks ago:
GREG FISCHBACH: You know, it's all that suspension of disbelief. If you can walk by a monitor and watch one of our games and can't tell if you're watching a real baseball game or you're watching a virtual baseball game, then we have succeeded at our job.
BOB SIMON: How far are we away from that?
GREG FISCHBACH: Three or four years.
This prompted Chris Kohler to say:
CHRIS KOHLER: Yeah, right, Greg. You're three or four years away from bankruptcy
And that has little to do with the topic. The question is: if this Acclaim guy insists that the goal of making a sports game is to make it look as real as a television broadcast, and that we're "three or four years" away from that happening, well what needs to happen? So it was that, due to journalistic curiosity -- not entirely due to one controller's having gone missing -- I looked in on Chris Peditto as he played Madden 2004 for PlayStation2.
I personally bought Madden 2002 because of the jump it represented. It had a real smooth look to it -- and that wasn't the only reason. Its gameplay was polished, and smooth, and resembling a good football simulator, which is what I wanted.
A year before having my friend send Madden 2002 to my place in Japan, I was working in a videogame store. Some kids in their early teens were crowded around the demo PlayStation2 unit, squealing at Madden 2001. They couldn't believe how "tight" were the "insane graphics." I couldn't believe that they couldn't see NFL 2K1 -- my football game of choice, that year -- just one demo station away.
For one thing, the players in Madden 2001 had Muppet eyes. Their eyes were little bulging white globes with Homer Simpson pupils. In addition, players were all of the exact same tight-end body build. White players' faces and black players' faces were exactly the same, palette-swapped. The game was, if nothing else, a good rough outline of a good-looking, smooth, 3D football sim, whereas NFL 2K1 was a piece of work from developers already skilled in the 3D football sim.
Madden 2002 fixed a lot of these problems. Eyes now had irises. Linebackers were now built like linebackers. 2003 kept up the same trend.
2004 advertises "higher character detail" on the back of the box. What kind of details, really, are we getting? Peditto and I noticed very little. Occasionally, the players have long hair that flows out of the backs of their helmets. Sometimes their gloves look different from other players' gloves. Sometimes players wear different colored kneepads. When players get tackled, they get tackled hard, and loudly. Peditto remarked that the tackles were almost "Cartoon-like," and resembling something out of the arcade game NFL Blitz.
For the most part, however, in terms of character detail, Peditto and I were disappointed. There are generally only a handful of face types, and seeing as the players never remove their helmets, you're never going to see them fully, anyway. In a very odd move, the players in the game have only two noticeable skin tones: apricot and chocolate-milk-stained apricot. Sega Sports' NFL 2K3, in comparison, enlists all shades of the skin tone rainbow, from ivory to ebony.
The coaches are remarkable, however. Football, as a "static" sport involving sixty players on each side, is a coach's game. So Madden 2004 is sure to show the coaches at all non-action opportunities. Which is fitting, to me -- when I'm playing a football game from that bird's-eye view, I feel more like a coach surveying the game on a television monitor than a quarterback about to get sacked. There's a distance between me and the quarterback getting sacked, one that makes me laugh at the violence, and say things like "Dude."
"Look at the coaches," Peditto remarked. "They look . . . thin."
They are indeed thin. I remember reading an interview with John Madden in which he talked about players asking him to make sure they were "quicker" or "tougher" in the next year's edition of the game. Could the coaches of the NFL possibly have been asking to look thinner?
The coaches' mouths move as they bark orders into their head-mounted microphones. When their mouths move, I detect a faint peach-colored residue in the corners of their lips. It's like in The Matrix, when Neo's mouth is sealed-up by Agent Smith, almost, and it jars. It's not real. It's a little creepy.
Even creepier still is the crowd flaming behind the coach: a massive, animated, pixilated bitmap. As a result of programming genius, the clothing-resembling pixels oftentimes are the colors of the home team's uniform: expect red and blue blurs when in Buffalo. During particularly intense moments, the pixels pulsate and reel and raise pixel fists.
This is weird.
It's not as bad, granted, as Madden 1994's crowd -- a blinking field of white static that sometimes glowed orange. When John Madden announces "Let's look at the totals" at the end of the game, and we stare at an aerial view of the stadium, we have a few moments to notice that the white-static field of spectators is blinking orange. Some patches are empty, showing brown bleachers. This is supposed to mean the audience is moving, and leaving. It only caused my brother and me to put on our best John Madden impressions. Like with mouths full of roast turkey, we shouted deadpan:
"IT APPEARS THE FANS HAVE SET THE STADIUM ON FIRE."
These days, there is not as much unabashed joy as following a 101-point victory in the Super Bowl. There is only a head-scratch during a field-goal kick in the tied fourth quarter, and Peditto's proclamation:
"Dude, the crowd is freakin' out."
One thing would have struck me as "nifty" on the Nintendo 64: when the close-up of the coach's screaming face rotates by a few 3D degrees, the pixilated sheet of animating crowd swivels, too. It comes to almost look like it has depth, and height, like a pop-up book. Not like a real football-viewing crowd, mind you -- like a pop-up book image of one.
So I cast judgment upon this: if we truly are "three or four years" from seeing a sports game that could pass for a televised broadcast, the crowds are going to have to start looking more real. A lot of games have taken a lot of different approaches; I won't comment on them: that Madden 2004, the cornerstone of its genre, takes this one is cause for concern.
Another visual quirk that jars -- and requires less work than constructing the perfectly realistic crowd -- is the nature of the instant replay. In football, an instant reply exists to walk the audience step-by-step through a play that had happened in split-split seconds. Not so in Madden 2004. In a game where you, as a player, control what is happening, you don't always need to be walked through what just happened. (Unless, of course, you're frothingly angry -- see below.)
Sports games in general have been building up on graphics since 1994. They've been emphasizing more visuals, and higher-quality visuals. Since the advent of 3D, it's been all about quick, fast, angry visuals. The Madden 2004 instant replays are an expression of the latter. When a player performs an excellent, life-altering, riot-inciting-awesome play, the game rewards him with a quick, extreme-close-up-y flash between offense, defense, the ball, and crunching linebackers.
The replay is treated with commentary from John Madden and Al Michaels, who reveal such startling things as, "He sure caught that ball."
Okay, so that's not an exact quote. Still, it gives you an idea of the commentary. I can't remember all of what I heard. I can hardly even remember some of it. It's not that interesting. It's there, in the background, to sound like something that you'd hear in an actual televised football game. It's the same as the texture-mapped, lovingly-detailed individual blades of grass beneath the players' feet. It sounds and looks like something to a person who's just passing through the room. It's in close-up, when we're sitting on the sofa with a bowl of cereal and a pocket full of deep concern, that we squint our eyes, prick up our ears, and think: "Huh?"
Mr. Acclaim, as your money dwindles and you chase this dream, I ask you to consider something. Are you making these games for the people who walk through the room on their way to the refrigerator? Is your goal really appealing to just those people? Here's an idea that might save your business -- and an idea that might get me to replace my stalwart copy of Madden 2002 in a few years:
If you want any people to mistake the videogame for reality, make those people the players.
A football game is a long endeavor. It requires many bowls of pretzels, and lots of (root) beer to watch a football game. Being on Sunday, football games are interrupted by calls from relatives as frequently as devastating player injuries, clock-fearing timeouts, or advertisements for automobiles we can't afford. Sometimes, commentators will mull over a play with chalk and lots of big words. Sometimes we'll listen carefully, and sometimes we'll go back to talking to grandma about her new cat.
This -- the experience of the above paragraph -- can't be recreated in a videogame. Any attempts to try would come off not as .hack//-inspired brilliance -- they would be simply annoying and retarded. Playing a football videogame and watching a football game on television are two totally different things. I won't bother pointing out too many of the differences. I'll simply say that, in videogame football, the flow is different. Gamers have less tendency to put up with John Madden's commentary on a Friday night fueled with vitamin D homogenized milk and punk rock than they do on Sunday morning when eating potato chips and relaxing on the sofa. One experience is about craving competition, the other is about observing it.
In Sega's latest video football game, commentators do trace chalk outlines over instant replays; however, it's done with such speed and grace, and with such sparse commentary, that we can't help realizing these details are thrown in for credibility's sake, yet are mindful of the players' button-mashing "I-just-want-to-play-damn-it" attitude.
The cheerleaders in Madden 2004 saunter onto the field under a Madden-cry of "It's time for the halftime show." They dance according to a preset algo-rhythm , and then leave the way they came.
In real football, players take a few moments to stretch their legs as they journey toward the line of scrimmage after a long play. In videogame football, they're teleported ahead, like with magic.
Video football games, even the realest ones in Madden 2004, the "Play Maker" feature of which Chris Peditto takes time to explain to me ("See, I can move around my receivers and everything before the snap, and change formations, all just by using the analog stick -- it's the next level of an audible!"), are over before I can finish three bowls of cereal or write five short emails.
I'm holding the game up to mixed criteria, however; I, for one, don't want football videogames to resemble their televised counterparts down to the pixel, yet can admire the goal. I can also remember saying, of Visual Concepts' NBA 2K1, that its smooth, computerized look was "Friendlier than real." Seeing the mullets of the Madden 2004 players, I begin to fear the real animated dripping sweat of NBA Live 2006.
I could always go for a few more ambient touches, however. Madden 2004 shows me a lot of things I'm surprised I like seeing -- or, in some cases, hearing. Thunder and sounds of patting rain quickly piqued my interest during one game, prompting me to ask Peditto, "When was the last time you played a video football game in the rain, and actually heard thunder?" He shook his head. I felt about the same way.
To ask another important question: When was the last time you played a video football game with gangster rap and angster rock blaring over the menu screens? When was the last time you saw little MTV-ish windows slide up, announcing the name of each song that played during a video football game's menu?
Peditto and I wanted to turn the music off. It was neither of our things. We couldn't figure out how -- either that, or we kept forgetting to look for the option. I'm sure they're trying to appeal to a broad audience with the broad selection, and that's maybe-admirable. Still, every track was poison to my and Peditto's ears. We're just too indie, I guess. That we continued to play the game despite the offense we took with the music should demonstrate, if nothing else, that we were there to play football. Or, well, Peditto was. I was just there to watch.
Watching wasn't fun when it involved watching Peditto play out a fantasy draft for his beloved St. Louis Rams. He opted to play the first twenty-nine rounds of the draft pick, and then let the computer pick the other twenty. It made me yawn a hundred or so times. He pored over each choice, highlighting each player, staring at his Mortal Kombat-esque digitized face with narrowed eyes. He thought through every decision. I thought about using the bathroom, and did, four times. I also drank a tall glass of water, and commented on the Madden 2004 "Franchise Mode," the instruction manual's proudest bit of pride:
"THE MADDEN 2004 FRANCHISE MODE: FOR FOOTBALL FANS WHO LOVE READING WHILST LISTENING TO R&B."
It also lets you customize a new uniform for your franchise. Peditto on this option:
"I love the Rams' uniform, though."
There was talk of us making a new team, and a new stadium. We didn't do it. "The Punk Rock 108" would have been the team. They would have played in the "Punk Rock Dome" in "Punk Rock City." Peditto would have been quarterback, and I'd have been second-string, if I was lucky. This would have, of course been totally awesome. It would have also required a lot of (read: a lot of) work. And the use of the "Create-a-Stadium" mode, which is in-depth right down to the price of hot dogs.
It would have been a lot of work. We didn't want to work. We wanted to play. So Peditto played a game, and watched his Rams get trounced. What had happened, he didn't know.
He discovered that his team sucked because he hadn't trained them. Never mind that the players were all modeled after trained professionals -- they needed training. Peditto then launched into the training mode -- oddly reminiscent of NFL Quarterback Club on Nintendo 64, in which players compete in little football minigames to build up player stats. The Madden 2004 training modes are inspired, at times. Receiving drills involving football-guns are not unheard of here. Little challenges involving a handful of defensive linemen, a quarterback, a center, and a receiver prompted Peditto to, at many times, scream "How the hell am I supposed to . . . ?" and very few times scream "Yes!" Winning some of these challenges earns the player "Madden Cards," which I suppose showcase player stats and/or blissfully take up the completionist's memory card space.
Watching these drills for a while made me feel, again, like I was watching someone play a videogame -- and with good reason, because they're so damned videogamey. So I told Peditto to play a game with his slightly-pumped-up team, and see if he couldn't win this time.
There was a funny moment in that next game: Peditto's Rams were receiving a kickoff. The guy in the end zone didn't catch the ball. He was way off. Before he could creep over to where the ball lay, one of the other guys ran into the end zone and touched the ball, then stood up, then took an awkward, gliding step to the right and back. White letters declared, over silence, "Touchdown." The home team had just scored a touch-and-go-touchdown. The crowd didn't seem to notice.
Peditto did, and with much screaming and reviewing of instant reply. I almost vomited up my cereal with laughter, again and again. We called this "The Touchdown Heard Round the Fake World."
If this were a real football game, wouldn't someone in the commentator's box have been laughing, too? And wouldn't it have been about the awkward little movements of the player's legs?
Peditto will tell you, if you ask him, that this game is good, and he is enjoying it. He does, after all, live in Chicago. Let's have a look at Chicago's favorite games:
CHICAGO'S TOP TEN
The hottest games sold in Chicago on amazon.com as of Aug. 10:
1. Madden NFL 2004 PlayStation 2
2. Madden NFL 2004 Xbox
3. MLB Slugfest 2004 GameCube
4. Backyard Baseball Gameboy Advance
5. NCAA Football 2004 PlayStation 2
People sometimes -- very sometimes -- criticize Madden for updating every year, and then they buy the game anyway. How did Peditto come to buy Madden 2004? Was it brand loyalty, love of football, love of videogames, or some combination of all of the above?
I'd say it's all of the above, and Peditto would probably agree. He tells me he bought the game for the "updated features," as well as loyalty to the series and the brand.
"I need to get broadband," he says. He does, indeed -- it took me six hours to send a damned email from his computer.
"No, I mean, this game has online play."
That it does. Not only that, you can also now download roster updates, much like you could for NFL 2K1 before Seganet went dead.
This way, theoretically, you don't have to buy a new Madden game ever again, if you buy them for the updated rosters. Convenient, huh?
Well, what about three years from now, when the games look and play as perfectly as a real football broadcast? What happens then? Do they continue making new games, when the impossible dream has at last been chased down, grabbed, caught, and bottled?
It's a real Herculean task, perfecting the football game. I salute those intrepid men who try, year after year. I can't say I hope you accomplish your goal -- would you really want that? Isn't the thrill in the chase? I wonder what the world would do with a perfect football game -- play it over and over until the Sunday we die?
I also wonder something more specific: what happens when this beast of "downloadable content" is truly unleashed? When the PlayStation3 is revealed, and if its format truly is "the internet," perhaps we'll only have to buy one Madden game ever again, and it'll be the one that looks perfect. And maybe if it doesn't look perfect, the game can be patched once or twice a year to look more perfect? We'll willingly pay these small fees.
Peditto and I brainstormed a few things -- one of our best ideas was for the game to be constantly passively downloading new commentary, so that you'd rarely hear the same comment twice. They could always call Madden back to the studio once or twice every couple of months, and have him record something new. It'd be something small, yet appreciated, if they ever hope to reach that goal of utter realism.
I'm sure other things could be worked on, too.
"Why is blitzing always the defensive solution?" Peditto asks me, and I shrug.
A minute later, it's "Why the hell do I always lose the toss when I pick heads?"
I tell him, I don't know man. I never played the game. I then ask for another bowl of cereal, and he says we're out of milk, and I ask him when the next El train leaves.
BUY THIS GAME if you love Madden enough to froth with demand for options like setting stadium hot dog prices and would like to try your hand at making a new uniform for the Rams. The Play Maker function is apparently pretty hot, the now wiser-to-the-game Peditto informs me. If you just like the games, your warning is here: the jump to perfect realism has not yet been made. This game is not a revolution. It's a quarter-turn. If anything, get the Xbox version, for the friendly Live play.
IF YOU LIKE THE MENUS, ALSO TRY the music selection at your local Target store. They have this "emerging artists" rack with a whole bunch of shit for like seven dollars a CD. They'll hook you up with some tunes.
IF YOU JUST LIKE TO WATCH FOOTBALL stay the hell out of Indianapolis, Indiana. Damn, I was praying they'd lose that one game those years ago. I was dying for the 0-16 season. It was a child's dream. Bastards came up 1-15. Last time I ever asked God for anything.
IF YOU WERE, LIKE, MY FRIEND, and you were enough of my friend to ever come over to my place, we'd probably play Madden 1994 on Genesis. It's a football game that's comfortable with its limitations and doesn't worry about pushing the boundaries of "realism"; it stands, far from the polish of the recent Maddens, as simply a good classic videogame that's good to play with good, classic friends. As long as you have enough controllers.
--tim rogers sure put some mustard on that ball
CHRIS KOHLER: Tim sure reviewed that game!
BRANDON SHEFFIELD: Check out the instant replay!
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