There are three things that are sure in life: death, taxes, and a new version of Madden each year.  Madden NFL 06 came out earlier this year for just about every console available on the planet including the PSP and Nintendo DS.  One console wasn’t released though, the Xbox 360.  EA, not content to leave a console left out, released Madden NFL 06 at the launch of the Xbox 360.

Gamers with an Xbox 360 hoping to play football on their new bright shiny console had to pick up Madden NFL 06 because of the exclusivity deal made between EA and the NFL.  Did EA rest on their previous laurels with this version of Madden?  Are those with a PS2 or Xbox and a copy of Madden better off with the Xbox 360 version?

The simple answer to that question is yes and no.  Why is this?  The scoring should help determine that.

To say that Madden is not a good looking game would be a great disservice to the game.  While playing the game isn’t as good as watching an NFL HDTV broadcast on Sunday afternoon, it is awfully close.  The helmets shine from the stadium lights and slight scratches show up as the game progresses.  The jerseys get dirtier as the game progresses, and certain players get dirtier depending on which position they play.

Several faces of key NFL players have been placed on their virtual counterparts.  Most noticeable are the quarterback faces.  When walking up to the line of scrimmage behind the center, you can see the detail in the uniform and face.  However, the eye movements make the eyes squint like a character from a bad kung-fu movie.  The facial expressions are also reminiscent of the original Max Payne.  These are minor nuances in the overall scheme of the graphics.

The animations of the game are smooth as silk.  Players twist, juke, and dive like you would expect them to, without any clipping issues.  Over the shoulder catches, stretching leaps, and running grabs all look realistic.  Once the receiver jumped while the defender dropped to the ground, and the receiver landed over the defender realistically.  After big plays the player sometimes will make a first-down move or make some “I’m the best” type of expression.

The stadium adds a lot to the game.  The crowd looks a lot more realistic than the previous versions of Madden.  The pogo-stick men from previous versions are gone.  The animations on the stadium monitor are basic, but the stadium monitors look just like the ones in their respective stadiums.

Playing at an outdoor stadium means inclement weather can show up.  When it does, the particle effects shine.  Snow and rain fall to the ground during the game.  It looks like the most realistic rain and snow I’ve seen in a game.

You’d expect every version of Madden to have the game’s namesake in the game.  Madden has been the face of EA’s NFL game.  Yet he hasn’t shown up at all in the commentary.  While some might think the Madden “Boom” being gone from the game would be a good thing, what is sorely missed is the play-calling from Al Michaels.  A local radio announcer does the commentary, but the sound is rather muted.  You need to listen for him to hear what he has to say for each play.  Sometimes the stadium announcer is just as loud as the radio announcer, and the radio announcer doesn’t have all that much to say.  Commentary like this is very disappointing.

The stadium noises are great.  The announcer can be heard after plays are completed with the result of the play.  The crowd cheers and boos, and you can pump up the crowd while on defense by clicking on the left thumbstick.  Hearing “DE-fense” coming from the stadium speakers.  Players occasionally have some type of comeback after big plays but mostly stay silent.  These sounds help add to the ambiance of the game to make it feel more like a real game.

During instant replays, the NFL Films theme plays in the background.  While other versions didn’t have this in the background, this addition makes it feel like you are watching real replays from the NFL archives.  It is a nice touch that adds to the NFL feeling.

The control of the game should feel familiar to gamers that played this year’s version of Madden on the other home consoles.  On offense before snapping the ball you can switch the direction of a running play using the right analog stick, call a new hot route by hitting B and highlighting a player and hitting Y to call a Hot Route and using other buttons to signal the kind of Hot Route, send a player in motion by hitting B and using the left analog stick, and fake the snap using the right button.

After the snap, running and passing share some similar controls.  Running with the ball lets you dive by hitting X, protect the ball with the Y button, spin using the B button, juke using the A button, stiff arm using the left trigger, and the right stick activates the Truck Stick to help you get past defenders.  Passing is a bit more complex than that.  Hitting A hikes the ball, and the icons over the receivers show up for where to pass.  A new feature in this year’s game is the inclusion of the QB Vision Control.  Using the right analog stick, you control where the quarterback is looking.  If he is looking at a receiver in his cone of vision and passes to him, it’s more likely that the pass is completed.

On defense line and linebacker shifts are done by hitting the left or right buttons and moving the left analog stick.  Hitting the A button and then going right or left with the right analog stick shifts the safeties.  Clicking on the left stick pumps up the crowd to get them louder.

Once the ball is snapped, strafing is handled with the left trigger, put a spin move or power move on with the left and right buttons respectively, try to strip the ball using the A button, dive tackle using the X button, and try to intercept the ball using the Y button.  The Hit Stick is back as well.  If you are able to flick the Hit Stick close to the offensive player, you lay a huge hit on the player.  While this might be a great thing, if you are too far away when using it, you miss and the player is long gone.

All of these controls are confusing at first, especially if you are used to the NFL 2K series, so some kind of tutorial would have been nice in this situation.  The training camp mode found in other versions of Madden is M.I.A. in the Xbox 360 version.

The experience you get from Madden on the field isn’t all that different from other Madden games, but some significant changes were made.  Most noticeable is the play calling screen.  You are first given the option to select plays based on formation, type of play, focused around key players, the Madden recommended plays, plays based on your team’s real coach, or from a selection of your last five plays.  While most football enthusiasts are going to choose the plays based on formation, the other options are nice for those who enjoy the game but are beginners when it comes to play calling.

Running in Madden is difficult, even on the Pro difficulty level.  Waiting for holes to open and following your lead blockers takes a lot of learning.  The running game is a game of patience.  Even after this, several runs end up in short gains and losses, but eventually a big run breaks.  Getting a running back with over 100 yards a game is very rare, but running the ball opens up the passing game.

Passing the ball is a new experience for those who haven’t played this year’s version of Madden.  Those familiar with this year’s version already know about the QB Vision Control.  During a pass, moving the right analog stick brings up the quarterback’s cone of vision.  Those quarterbacks with a higher awareness have a larger cone of vision.  This also makes defender’s aware of where the quarterback is looking to throw.  While you don’t need to use the QB Vision Control to complete a pass, completing a pass without using the QB Vision Control is almost impossible.  On the flip side, QB Vision Control can make the passing almost too easy.  It also seems that the long ball is easier to complete than short passes.

The Playmaker is back.  By holding in both triggers in you can move the right stick to lead the closest receiver in a specific direction.  When plays break down and the quarterback needs to scramble, this can help the quarterback get the ball to a free receiver.

Scores seem to be fairly realistic, but at the default of five minutes, the games feel short.  You can spend more time in the Two-Minute Warning than in the rest of the period because of the use of time outs, incomplete passes, and running out-of-bounds.    This actually dragged the gameplay on more than expected.

During a game I noticed that I completed a pass, but I thought the player only had one foot in bounds.  Madden marked the ball as complete.  I went back to the replay and saw that the receiver in fact had one foot in bounds but had his second foot land out of bounds.  I was waiting for the CPU to call a challenge…but that challenge never came.    The ability to call a Coach’s Challenge is absent from Madden NFL 06 for the Xbox 360, which is disappointing after having that ability for a couple of years now.

Other omissions in Madden NFL 06 for the Xbox 360 are the Superstar mode, the Training Camp, and the Bruno show.  While some felt the Superstar was useless, the Training Camp was a nice way to get used to the controls, which would have been especially helpful with the new QB Vision Control.  The QB Vision Control has a fairly steep learning curve, and if you don’t get used to it quickly your quarterback finds himself on his backside for a sack very often.  Once you get used to it, it can make it easier to find open receivers.  These omissions don’t drag the score of the game down drastically, but after having these features suddenly yanked from this version the game feels rushed.

Madden plays a good game of football, but the omission of the Coach’s Challenge, the frequency of completing the long ball, and the difficulty of the running game make Madden come up a few yards short.

Madden offers an extended Franchise Mode.  You can take your team through 30 years of trades, free agency, and injuries.  Madden saves all of the statistics throughout those 30 years, so you can see how well a certain player did during a specific year of the franchise.

Madden also has online modes of play where you can play ranked and unranked games.  These games are smooth and without issue.  Xbox Live on the 360 is an incredible experience, and Madden really takes advantage of it.

Unfortunately, the rosters are from early in the season.  Why a roster update wasn’t done is an oversight that could be corrected with an update over Xbox Live.