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It's been a long wait, but EA Sports' NFL football series may finally be approaching All-Pro status.
By - Sal "Sluggo" Accardo (10/2/99)

Football games for the PC have long been a mixed bag. While there's been the occasionally decent simulation (the old Front Page Sports series springs to mind), few games have been able to combine satisfying button-mashing gameplay with any sense of realism.

EA's John Madden NFL series has been trying to strike this successful balance for what seems like forever, and while this year's offering -- Madden NFL 2000 -- isn't perfect, it may very well be the best football game any developer has put forward to date.

The Pre-game Show

The game starts off with the prerequisite in-your-face highlight reel intro sequence, which (annoying rap music aside) is just as slick as anything else we've seen from the EA Sports series. Next, you're presented with the main interface, which is laid out well, making it easy to navigate to all the different modes of play: arcade, exhibition, franchise, tournament, and so forth.

If you've got the horsepower, you'll be treated to some nice graphics - - you can even read the names on the player's backs.

After some minimal setup, I started an exhibition game pitting my beloved Miami Dolphins against the New York Jets. With a P-500 and a Voodoo 2 in 800x600 mode, I was treated to some fairly nice graphics -- that you could easily read all the names on the players' backs was a great touch.

The player animations are especially good -- players struggle and lunge for that extra yard, and recoil when hit hard. Even the stadiums do a good job of recreating the feel of their real-life counterparts. It may not look as slick as hardcore 3D action titles like Quake III, but the game is certainly up to the level of any PC sports title to date.

In The Huddle

Once in my first game, I quickly found the "Rookie" mode fairly useless -- anyone who can figure out how to select a running play (it's not hard) can move down the field with relative ease. I found the "Pro" mode much more entertaining - I suffered through an 0-5 start before rattling off 15 straight wins on my way to winning my first Super Bowl. That may not sound like fun, but most of the later games were tough and exciting affairs - the Super Bowl was a narrow 21-20 win over the Cowboys, and that was only with Dan Marino heaving an 85-yard prayer with 30 seconds left to win the game.

Controlling players is an interesting affair. The running game feels mushy at best, with the players running somewhat stiffly. They may look good, but it's incredibly hard to steer a running back through even the biggest hole in the defensive line without getting stuck somewhere. It also takes a while to take a player running side-to-side and point him northward. Granted, players shouldn't be able to stop on a dime, but Madden 2000's running physics could stand a little tweaking.

It's easy to create your own players to add to the game, as you can see here. Chalk up another 8 yards for me.
Passing is a little easier, with the ability to throw to any receiver at any time. The behind-the-action camera angle widens as the play develops, allowing you to see all the players as they run downfield. Unfortunately, long passes are essentially a crapshoot - no matter how wide open a receiver may be, the defense always seems to catch up, making interceptions way too plentiful. Screen passes are the safest bet, as are wide receiver crossing patters over the middle.

Of course, as in every computer sports game, there's the issue of the "unstoppable" play: a strategy, play or move that always beats the computer and turns what might be an otherwise entertaining game into boring repetition. In this regard, Madden 2000 is both a step up and frustrating at the same time, because they almost got it right. As you use players over and over, they get tired and lose effectiveness, which theoretically should eliminate your ability to beat a play into the ground. Unfortunately, the fatigue system isn't implemented very well, and the game still doesn't learn when you run the same play over and over. After 15 straight short passes to a single running back, the computer should be able to do something to keep the player honest.

One huge asset to the game is the play-by-play commentary. Longtime John Madden boothmate Pat Summerall is on board to describe the action, making it feel as if you're playing a real NFL game. You may quickly tire of Madden's flat color commentary ("Wow, he was wide open."), but Summerall's play-by-play just ropes you in and creates an atmosphere that's hard to resist. The introductory video clips featuring the two are laughable - they're ridiculously generic, as are the ones featuring Fox anchor James Brown - but they're a nice touch nonetheless.

A Far-From-Regular Season

The meat of Madden 2000 is the "season" mode, and it has just about everything any NFL fan could possibly want. All the NFL players are present, and the rosters are amazingly up to date, especially considering when the game was released and how late teams usually make their last cuts before the season begins. (Some rookies are represented only by their numbers, but their names can be added to the rosters easily enough.)

Reproducing the 1999 NFL schedule, it's easy to simulate a team's journey from September to January. There's a "time acceleration" feature that speeds up the passage of game time, allowing you to play 15-minute quarters instead of the 5-minute quarters most games opt for, so you don't wind up with three-hour 66-63 slugfests. Night games are actually set at night (as I quickly found during the Dolphins' first game against the Broncos), you can track other teams' and players' progress throughout the season with statistics and awards, and the playoffs work just the same as the NFL's. It's these little touches that most football games seem to lack, and Madden 2000 deals them out in spades.

If you're not into playing a whole season of games, you can play a simple "exhibition" mode, which allows you to match up any of the teams present in the game - and there are a lot. In addition to the 31 current NFL teams, there are "all-time" teams for each franchise, classic teams (like the dominating Packers teams of the 60's and the undefeated '72 Dolphins), "All-Madden" teams, and even a few all-star teams made up of the best players from each decade.

Also included with the game is an "arcade mode", featuring a different announcer, harder hits and a more open style of gameplay that emulates the parodying flavor of NFL Blitz than anything else. Some people might enjoy the change of pace, but I found it simply annoying.

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