Madden has now gone 14 years strong. What makes someone like myself pick up this game every year? In my opinion they do just enough new every year to make the purchase worthwhile. This year’s new stuff is the addition of Owner Mode in Franchise and Playmaker control where you can change plays both before and during a play on both offense and defense. Along with graphical enhancements and some new EA Trax, the best-selling football game of the year has finally come out…Madden 2004 continues the great tradition of this series.

You can look at the graphics section from different perspectives and compare it to last year’s Madden. Let’s start with the menus. To be honest the menus this year look too blocky and boring in my opinion. Where is the cool setup from last year (where they went down diagonally and had small, instead of capital, letters) or another cool setup? Sure, it’s nice and quick…but so was last year’s menu. At least everything is easy to navigate as usual.

Going into the in-game graphics we will start with the playcalling menu. This has been drastically changed and probably for the better. Problem is it will take a while to get used to the new playcalling menu. You are presented with the score, timeouts, challenges, yardage, down information, etc. on the top of the screen. In the middle of the screen in-game graphics are being shown. Last year the same type of things were shown in a small box in the playcalling menu. It is now about the size of a 2.35:1 widescreen movie on the screen (give or take). In this section of the screen you see such things as replays, celebrations and anything else on the field that is happening. It is a pretty cool and it does a good job of not slowing down the game by doing full-screen replays a whole lot. On the bottom is your playcalling menu, which has gotten a bit of a snazzy update, however one big thing is missing: the option to choose a play from another page different from the one you are currently on. Yep, at least in single-player mode they only give you the main page of play options.

The informational banners that come up on the bottom are annoying. They did nothing to make them snazzy and in fact they made them larger than last year’s placards. I just wish they would have used a new font or had some creativity with these parts of the game. Things are too blocky and the graphics are just boring in my opinion. The most annoying banner is after you score it shows you the information on the drive, but it doesn’t quickly disappear. No, you have to wait for it to disappear before kicking off. I just want a quick synopsis, not a long look at it personally.

As for the in-game graphics, they have remained largely the same as Madden 2003. Yes, there are new animations, but overall the stadium, player (there is more detail up-close) and crowd graphics look pretty much the same. I even popped in my copy of Madden 2003 just to compare the two. Granted, why fix graphics that aren’t broken, right? The only minus is that the game seems a bit blurred, even moreso than last year. I’m willing to bet this was to try to eliminate any slowdown there may be on plays up the middle, but who knows.

The Sound/Music category has taken a nosedive in some sections and are better in others when compared to Madden 2003. I’ll start with the bad stuff. First off is the provided EA Trax song selection. There is a lot of rap and some songs that just don’t seem to get me excited at all. I can take rap here and there, but the rap in this game just grates on my nerves. I think I left a little over 7 songs on for the game and turned off the rest in the options section. The beauty about the Xbox version of Madden 2004 is they have given us Customized Soundtracks. So, pop in your favorite CD and add the song to the game. Bravo EA!

The other bad thing just devastates this section. I talk about it in my Short Take, but the big problem is Al Michaels’ commentary. Something seems to have gone wrong in-between 2003 and 2004 in the commentary section. When you start a game the same general things are said that were said last year and it all sounds fine (example, when they’re talking about the quarterback they say such things as, “He is their big playmaker and he will win or lose this game for them”…same canned commentary as last year pretty much), but when you get into actual play-by-play, something has gone horribly wrong. I noticed it in my first preseason game in Franchise mode. I was up on Jacksonville (I play as my hometown Vikings) 28-7 after the half, when the second half started Al said something like, “THE Jaguars have this game all wrapped up”. Uh…wrong team Al. That first word also is the biggest problem with the commentary. For some reason we have stilted commentary this year. Al says things like, “THE Vikings are doing great against…THE Jaguars” and “THE defense is setting itself up against…THE Viking offense” (the … is to represent pauses). The emphasis is on the word “THE” and this game makes me feel like this is about 4+ years ago when stilted commentary was rampant. I put in my copy of Madden 2003 again and was shocked that it had smoother commentary than Madden 2004. Al seemed much more smooth last year than he does this year. Instead of doing stilted commentary they should have just put in the same thing from last year in my opinion. Why can’t Madden have as smooth of commentary as NCAA or even its biggest rival, the Sega Football series?

Onto the good. The sound effects are absolutely amazing in this game. EA seems to have refined the Dolby Digital experience in the game this year over last. The crowd seems more alive and the hits sound that much more punishing. I have also noticed that the home team crowd will leave earlier when you’re beating them badly than in the recently released NCAA 2004. They also become quiet much faster as well.

Tight as a button. Madden has used the momentum physics for a bit now and it seems to get refined every year. I always feel in control of my players. Nothing I can think of that has changed with general controls other than the Playmaker abilities which are done via the right analog stick. You can do such things as change your receiver’s route both before and during a play, point the way for the blockers to block as you are running and even change things on the defensive side as well. This is the major change from years past.

Madden 2004 on the actual football field is much the same as every other year of this series with some updates done here and there on the graphical side of things. Much like NCAA 2004, EA has gone and made the play-action and draw plays look like a running play and passing play respectively with exellent camera work. You will be fooled more than once and this goes a long way toward making the play-action and draw plays work better than in previous years. That and the Playmaker control talked about in the Control section are the major upgrades from last year. Another semi-big upgrade is that the defensive backfield AI has gotten a facelift since last year. They seem to cover the receivers better, but the interception ability seems to have been loosened. In my first regular season game with the Packers I had 3 picks before the end of the first half. Favre should not be throwing that many picks in my opinion and to be truthful the Vikings cornerbacks suck and have for many years.

The big thing to talk about in this section is the Owner mode section of the Franchise mode. Through the Owner options you can do several things, not the least of which are: hire and fire coaches, set salaries, raise or lower ticket prices, parking prices, merchandise prices, condiment prices, upgrade your current stadium, build a new stadium, move the team, etc. Basically you have control over the whole operation of an NFL club and not just General Manager duties as in previous years. This honestly is an unprecedented move by EA and it is really an exciting section of the game.

Franchise mode is set up nicely. The Mini-Camp that appeared in last year’s game (and I thought it was an awesome addition) makes an appearance in two ways this year. The first one can be gotten to from the main screen, but the second one is embedded in the Franchise mode. During training camp you can do the mini-camp stuff with one player on each section. If you receive a bronze or higher you get points that can be added to your player’s attributes. You can put those points on the line to go to the next difficulty level and get a chance at more points. It’s a bit of a gamble, but sometimes it does pay off. It’s a nice way to give your player’s some natural progression as they go through training camp, much like what happens in the NCAA games before the season.

Overall Franchise mode is more robust than last year, but that is mostly because of the optional Owner mode. I say check it out as it gives you pretty much total control over the team much like Jerry Jones runs the Dallas Cowboys.

Is this game worth $50 even to people who have bought Madden every year? I’d have to say it is. It has an expanded franchise mode that can easily be on par with NCAA‘s Dynasty mode. The game’s replay value is all up to you. You want to do several seasons of games? Go ahead. You want to run the franchise just as an owner? Go ahead. This is the beauty of the EA Sports lineup, the replay value is totally up to you. You can spend hours upon hours playing this game if you want.

The only thing I will say against Madden 2004 on this is that it does not have as much play value as its cousin NCAA 2004 in my opinion and hence the lower score.