Fall gaming season has begun with the release of EA Sports’ Madden 06. Since the game sells millions every year it is basically the beginning of the gaming season after the quiet first half of the year. This year Madden 06 sees no competition in the football arena at all except for the upcoming Blitz: The League from Midway that uses made-up teams and players. During the off-season, EA picked up the NFL, NFLPA, NCAA and Arena licenses for use in football games. We’ve already seen the NCAA and NFL game and the Arena game is upcoming from the people that made the Outlaw games.

As Electronic Arts embarks on its first year of NFL exclusivity there are many gamers in the sports world that are still unhappy about the whole thing. With Madden 06, Tiburon and EA set out to prove that the exclusivity deal won’t stifle advancements in the game without any competition. Whether they did that or not is largely up to the people that play Madden 06. From my perspective it isn’t anything revolutionary and much like in years past they’ve put some new things in the game. If there was to be a revolutionary game, possibly even on the gameplay level, it would probably be Madden 06 on the Xbox 360 later this year.

This is not to say that Madden 06 isn’t still a great game, I just don’t think it meets the bar that many have made for EA and Tiburon in the whole advancement area. There isn’t a huge upgrade from Madden 2005 to Madden 06, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pick it up. Let’s go to the scores.

Graphics have not seen much of an upgrade between Madden 2005 and Madden 06. There are obviously some new animations on both sides of the ball, but there really isn’t any advancement in the baseline graphics model. Madden 06 can’t even hold a candle to ESPN NFL 2K5 from last year and for many gamers out there that does not put EA and Tiburon in a very good light. To be honest, if you’re looking for a great graphical football game you’ll have to wait for the Xbox 360 version to come out later this year.

The Madden games have always been built for speed over jaw-dropping graphics. I still think the graphics do a good job, I’m just not foolish enough to think they are in any way better than ESPN NFL 2K5. I am a bit disappointed that they didn’t try to push the limits a bit, but I also understand that since this is the last year for football games in the current generation that they didn’t want to attempt anything drastic and have saved it for the next generation.

The EA Trax offered in Madden 06 are overall better this year than last year. With the NFL license EA also got use of all the NFL Films video and audio.  This means we have some of the instrumental tracks you hear on the NFL Films shows on television. The biggest name bands attached to the soundtrack are Godsmack, Disturbed and Foo Fighters.  As in years past you can add your songs from the hard drive with the Xbox version. They’ve also allowed you to uncheck EA Trax songs if you like.

Madden 06 is also the first game in the series to get THX certification and I can tell by doing sound tests with Madden 2005 that the overall soundscape is better this time around. The Dolby Digital is put to better use, although I wish the crowd could be as loud as in the NCAA games because those really push the sound system to the max.

It seems Al Michaels (in possibly his last stint on the game since Madden goes to NBC next year while Al stays with ABC/ESPN) put a lot of new lines into the game and it’s always hard to know if Madden has or not. He doesn’t seem to talk as much as in years past, but maybe by now I am desensitized to him and don’t notice it anymore.

This is one of the sections where the Madden games have always been at the top of their game and this year is no different. Over the years the series has added such things as Playmaker control, the Hit Stick, Formation changes and a lot more. This year they’ve added a few new things to the mix. They’ve given running backs the Truck stick that allows them to plow through people with the right analog stick. This helps some of the more powerful RBs like Priest Holmes and can help the speedsters a little as well.

Another difference is on the offense where you can now do offensive line tinkering such as setting up better pass coverage, pushing the line forward or pushing the line left or right. Each one is done via the D-pad. To give your QB better protection you press down, to push the defense forward you push up and to push the defense to either side you push left or right. The better QB protection really helps on 3rd down passing plays because you can give your QB a better pocket and a little more time with the offensive line giving you some space.

The last major difference is the addition of the Vision and Precision Control system. I’ll talk more about the actual use of this system in the gameplay section, but for now I’m going to explain the controls. Each quarterback is given a lit up passing cone, the size of which is based upon their awareness score. Players like Brett Favre (Green Bay Packers), Peyton Manning (Indianapolis Colts), Tom Brady (New England Patriots) and Daunte Culpepper (Minnesota Vikings) have huge cones while players like Joey Harrington (Detroit Lions) have small ones. You move the cone via either the right analog stick or pressing the R trigger and hitting the receiver’s button to do a quick look. You have to have the cone on your receiver in order to get off a good pass. If he is outside of the cone chances are you will miss him badly or the ball will be intercepted.

Along with the cone you also have Precision Passing. This allows you to push the left analog stick in a direction to lead your receiver and have a more “laser” like pass that the receiver can catch. You can push forward to go up top with the receiver, push back if the receiver is in front of coverage or left and right to give a little more horizontal room so a defender doesn’t grab a straight on pass. This works pretty well, but it works in conjunction with the Vision cone, so your acceptability of that is the only way you can use Precision Passing.

You’re probably thinking that the score is pretty low on this section and it is. The gameplay additions of the Vision Cone/Precision Passing (they tie together) and the new Superstar mode just end up being sub-par in the overall scheme of things and I’ll get to that in a bit. First off let’s talk about what does work.

I think there is enough new gameplay enhancements talked about in the Control section (outside of Vision Cone) to pick this game up and not just stay with Madden 2005. Franchise mode, the mode I spend most of my time in, has pretty much the same things as in Madden 2005 with tweaks here and there. The Bruno show has new audio and doesn’t seem like a last minute tack-on as it was last year.  The simulation aspects seem to run a bit faster than in Madden 2005 as well. Playing the actual game of football is as fun as ever and you have a variety of settings to choose from, including the ability to turn off the Vision Cone. I think if they had not had that option in the game there would be a lot more backlash coming out than there already has been.

Then there is the Vision Cone and Superstar mode. Since these are new additions to the game I don’t consider their uselessness to hamper the overall gameplay of Madden 06 to push this score into the 70s. The core gameplay is still there and you can luckily turn off Vision Cone, so you can play the same type of game as last year with a few tweaks on both sides of the ball.

The Vision Cone itself isn’t necessarily broken, it just has a steep learning curve and the controls aren’t quite tight enough to make it enticing to use. I switched my controller layout to Madden 2005, which took away the ability to hold down the R trigger and go through the receivers via their buttons. Instead I was stuck with hitting the black button and the receiver button. On both the Duke controller (which I still play with to this day) and S Controller it just isn’t feasible to hold the black button and hit a receiver button. Now you may ask why I switched back to the old style layout and the reason is because I like my running back juke moves on the triggers instead of on the right analog stick. It is far easier to hold down the speed button (A) and do a juke with the triggers than with the right analog stick. Long story short I was left with having to use the right analog stick to get the cone onto the receiver I wanted to throw to.

Some of you may know I can only see out of one eye (was born without a left eye), so the Vision Cone adds a new dimension to how I need to view my players. I usually hike the ball and immediately am looking for an open receiver on passing plays.  With my eye trained on the receivers, I have no clue if someone is coming for my QB or not. I get sacked very often, but with the Vision Cone I get sacked even more often because I now have to move the cone to the receiver I want and then throw to him. I understand that the Vision Cone is more realistic, I’m just glad they gave the option to turn it off. I’ve also heard the cone will not be in the Xbox 360 version coming out later this year.

Superstar mode is a great idea with poor implementation. I took my legend from NCAA 06 and loaded him into the Superstar mode. My wide receiver, who was #2 and #3 in Heisman voting for his junior and senior year respectively was drafted in the low 2nd round. I’d hate to see what would have happened had I actually won the Heisman! I then started to do Training Camp and quickly found out you can only do a certain number of reps before it becomes useless to continue and advance your stats.  In fact, if you do too many reps you can go into the minus column for advancement. I then looked more into this mode and saw that you can hire and fire agents, who find gigs for you to do like movies, television shows, interviews, commercials and other stuff. All the while you are still playing football and trying to make yourself look good so you can score that big contract after your current one expires.

This mode sounds wonderful, but it is full of simple text boxes that explain to you what is on your calendar and the result after you’re done with the appointment. You also have a voice mail and e-mail system where Terrell Davis keeps calling you like he is a stalker.  After about the first month I gave up on Superstar mode and have never looked back since. Franchise is still were the game is at in the Madden series.  The sad part is this is the first year where there is nothing substantial that has been brought to the table in many years of the series. The game can stand out on its own without these additions though and I hope they rethink before putting them in again honestly.

Xbox Live play is back as well and it is pretty much the same as last year. I have only played one unranked game. I am not sure if in ranked games you can only use the Vision Cone, but I hope you have the option of turning it off. I am going to guess the upcoming Madden Challenge will require you to use the Vision Cone in the Professional section and possibly not in the lower section.

If you come to Madden 06 for the franchise mode you shouldn’t be disappointed and you should find a lot of replay value in the game. With the addition of the draft classes coming from NCAA 06 it makes the experience that much cooler when draft time rolls around.

If you come into this game thinking Superstar and the Vision Cone passing is enough to make you want this game over Madden 2005 I suggest you stick with that game and not go to this one. I think the gameplay additions are enough to warrant a purchase, but some may just want to stick to last year’s iteration over this one.