It's September and that means one thing: yellowjackets are trying to kill me. I don't know what it is with those venomous little darts of angry death, but when you've got a yellowjacket allergy even going to the grocery store for floor cleaner and feta cheese is the civilian equivalent to infiltrating a mafia hideout wearing a t-shirt that says 'I'm a stoole pigeon, shoot me here!'. Maybe that's why I stay inside so much playing video games. Yeah, that's got to be the reason.
Ladies and gentlemen, football season is upon us. That is unquestionably a good thing, as steroid bloated men make millions of dollars for running into each other while armchair quarterbacks stuff salty foods and carbonated beverages into their belly and watch commercials with jiggling half-naked twins. This is culture at its highest most evolved form! And what do we do in those brief hours between games? We take our well honed, if unpracticed, skills to the virtual gridiron. We blitz and pass, run and gun, juke and spin with a dizzying euphoria. The only real question left to us is which NFL endorsed game gets played.
I've had a chance to play both the latest Madden and ESPN 2k4 this year on the Xbox, and the first thing I note is that both games are as good as they've ever been. Both franchises have put forth an absolutely stellar effort. When it comes right down to it, I've got to admit from the start that, though I have a distinct favorite, it's ultimately a matter of personal choice. One game is just going to 'feel' right to you, and the best way to make that choice is to play them both. For those interested, I thought I'd put forth a few thoughts.
I don't know why Madden makes me so angry, but it's always been the case. I think it may be because Madden owns me. I don't mean that in a pedestrian internet leet-speak way, but that I'm pretty sure somewhere in the bowels of EA Sports, in a locked file cabinet hidden in a titanium vault labled 'people we own' is a deed to my soul. No sooner have I put the game in the drive than it has taken corporeal form and is slamming my face into its knee again and again screaming at me, 'say my name, bitch!' I say its name.
Madden makes me do things I don't want to do. Crazy things. Humiliating things. It makes me break controllers and shout obscenities like a man with tourettes who's stepped in a bed of fire ants. Madden football looks deep into my heart to find my multitudinous weak spots and then it exploits those tender places in furious succession. It leads me into complacency with a strong Green Bay showing against Detroit and Minnesota, and then it trots out the Arizona Cardinals as if they were Greek Gods who'd lured my players into a state of perpetual drowsiness as Jeff Blake rips my secondary apart. Shoestring tackles on Ahman Green become fumbles and Brett Favre manages to go 0 for about a billion with nineteen interceptions, and god dammit, I can only take so freakin' much before I just snap!
In my head, I hear Madden chuckling malevolently. Even now that I've traded it back in, it's still buried in my head where my soul used to be. It's telling me it'll be back next year and every year after, and next time it'll be different. It won't do the bad things to me. It'll take care of me, and it's changed, and it's not going to hit me anymore. And then it chuckles.
ESPN NFL 2k4 does not, on the other hand, seem at all interested in stealing my humanity or driving me toward any questionable outbursts. Its play style is much more forgiving, and its run game much more viable. Perhaps too viable on the default settings as breaking sixty yard runs with backs like Ricky Williams and Ahman Green as they shed off would be tacklers is not just possible. It's common. And don't even ask how many times I've run kickoffs back for touchdowns - assuming one of my jackass blockers don't get a clipping penalty.
In reality, Madden really made a fantastic showing this year, with some improvements that make this game the genuine simulation of the two. The Playmaker controls are a stroke of absolute genius and for those who can get used to watching ten thousand things happen at once and still find the intestinal fortitude to control a second player's on field action with the right thumbstick, this is the function which will make you virtually unstoppable. With your quarterback flushed from the pocket and your primary receiver running a blown inside post straight toward safety double coverage, you can notice that the blitzing linebackers have left an empty spot in the middle of the field and take advantage of that weakness mid-play. Where previous games have left you just looking at that hole in the coverage wishing you'd put someone on a crossing route, now, you can actually direct your receiver out of his route, and send him where the defense isn't. Obviously, in the fast furious play of Madden working the Playmaker is a complex process that always involves my getting sacked for a substantial loss and, if the game is close, usually adds a fumble just as a quick reminder of who owns whose soul. But I can see how those not prone to controller breaking followed by despondancy could adapt to the Playmaker controls.
Additionally the defenses just seem much smarter, and good playcalling proves a much bigger factor in determining the outcome of the game. Breaking tackles is certainly possible, but not nearly as easy as 2k4. And the passing game gives you a much more realistic feel to the game, as one must see the entire field in an eyeblink to find the passing lanes that lurking DBs can't make a play on. Because if they do, you can pretty much bank on the secondary pulling an INT out of the play, which makes the pass-touch controls - pressure applied to the pass button and adjusting placement of the pass with the right thumbstick - all that much more critical as a fade route requires a lead floater where only the receiver can make a play. There are ten thousand things to think about on every given Madden play, and learning to read the defense is as crucial as learning to pass the ball. Madden rewards patience and persistence - neither of which I have - and is probably the best football simulation made to date.
But no matter how many times I tried, I could never play Certis - who persists in living in godless Canada - online with Madden, thanks very much stubborn Electronic Arts. When it comes right down to it, these were never meant to be single player games. Despite my frustrations with the game, I'd have to admit that with some kind of multiplayer online connectivity Madden would be near technically perfect. But, even that functional capability doesn't necessarily make it the more fun game of the two.
Despite the fact that ESPN's off-season enhancements have more to do with gimmicks (first-person football, The Crib) and presentation, where Madden added deeply to gameplay, for me it's just more fun to take a seat in front of 2k4 than it is Madden. Sure I get frustrated when receivers run their route and then stand there covered by a linebacker as if they needed a break after all that running. I think, holy crap if I had playmaker controls right now, I could get someone open, but ultimately I remember that realism does not always equal a better game. It's not like a video game can teach a person a new trade, like football player, mayor, or murdering thug. There are subtleties that the layperson just isn't equipped for, and 2k4 reminds me that I'd rather be running in touchdowns than struggling in a game of inches.
It's a matter of personal choice I suppose. Perhaps some people with unexplored feelings like to be abused over and over again until they finally dominate they who once dominated them. I'd rather just have some ice cream and not think about a defense made of olympian gods who predict my moves a day before I think about it.
'See, I told you he's stupid enough to run a weak side trap on third and four. Should we just stop him at fourth and two again, or make him fumble this time?'
And in my head, Madden chuckles on and on.