Football video game junkies have been anxiously waiting for this week's release of "Madden NFL 07" by Electronic Arts Inc. (ERTS) The annual release of this video game franchise has become an event in itself.
But is this year's supposed latest and greatest any good? After all, spending $59.99 on a new E-rated Xbox 360 version of the game is asking a lot — especially if you were burned by last year's crummy version, which lacked many of the key features found in the older consoles.
A lot of annoyances remain, and there's plenty of room for more polish and refinement. But at least the only "next-gen" console on the market finally has a decent football game.
Visually, you'll be hard-pressed to distinguish "Madden 07" from a live TV broadcast at times. From grass that eventually gets trampled into mottled splotches of dirt to the reflective shine of stadium lights on players' helmets, the graphics overall were very good, especially on a high-def television.
But there are moments of inexplicable ugliness and some unexpected performance problems, creating an overall sensation that can be sometimes jarring.
Compare, for example, the uncanny realism of players mashing it out on the field to the freakish sameness of the gyrating fans. (During some spectator close-ups, they were so crudely rendered I just had to look away).
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming is the game's lack of fluidity. Overall, the animations tended to stutter quite a bit, as if the Xbox 360 was choking on more pixels than it could spit out on the screen.
These issues aside, anyone who's played sports video games can tell you that the graphics don't matter if the controls stink.
Fortunately, this is where "Madden 07" shines.
The controls are probably going to be a bit overwhelming to newcomers, but they become incredibly precise with practice.
New this year is a much-heralded ability to quickly switch to your lead blocker during a running play to make way for the ball carrier. Finally, players don't have to rely on sometimes stupid artificial intelligence to clear the path for them — failure or success is your call now.
Few games have the pick up and play appeal of "Madden," especially with a group of friends or roommates.
Not even a regular-season National Football League Sunday afternoon of real games can top the appeal of a friendly rivalry with pals on the virtual gridiron.
EA has finally recognized that this sort of heated competition can extend beyond the living room and across the world with the "Live Opponent" feature.
Players using Microsoft's Xbox Live service can now compete for prestige in tournaments and games. And all the while, a dizzying array of stats is recorded for later analysis and bragging rights.
Also new is "Madden Gamer Level," a point system of sorts that awards gamers with unlockable Hall of Fame players and other extras after they reach certain milestones.
But most intriguing for "Madden 07" is the ability to breed and groom your very own superstar.
The process begins before conception, by choosing from a mother and father with particular characteristics.
My character's father was a case worker who helps the needy but has a below average IQ. The mother, meanwhile, was an intelligent casual golfer who crochets for a hobby.
This combo — according to EA anyway — was apparently the perfect recipe for a future NFL quarterback.
The experience proceeds much more like a role-playing game than a typical sports game in that you have to guide your character to success by completing various tasks.
In this case, I had to hire an agent, get selected in the draft, and then claw my way though practices to prove I deserved to be playing. Interestingly, during games you're only concerned about your player; the rest of the game proceeds even if you're sitting it out on the sidelines.
It's features like this that elevate "Madden 07" beyond simple football and something with lasting replay value.
Despite the sometimes troubling graphical and performance issues, the overall experience, the depth and complexity offered here make "Madden 07" an odds-on winner for Xbox 360 owners.
Three stars out of four.