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Hands on with Madden NFL 06 (PSP)

Hands on with Madden NFL 06 (PSP)

Madden NFL 06 launched for consoles yesterday, thrilling some while leaving others slightly underwhelmed. Of course, the good press is just gravy for EA, and the naysayers don't matter, since in either case this is still the only 2006 NFL video game in the world. Who cares if "this year's big additions don't quite live up to the expectations placed upon them"? (That's from GameSpy, who gave the game a 9.0 anyway.) The core football experience remains the same, tacked-on features notwithstanding; stagnant or no, it's pretty good, and for most people "pretty good" is good enough.

I have a point here, and it is this: if you can take even a "pretty good" console game, and make it portable, then you have created magic. And that's what EA Sports has done with Madden NFL 06 for the Sony PSP. This is without question the PSP's first killer app and the fulfillment of all those promises we heard back in March of a "handheld PlayStation 2." The Madden experience that piqued over the last couple years arrives remarkably intact on the PSP; the controls feel right (expected), there's a full franchise mode (incredible), and the graphics are roughly on par with what you'd see playing console Madden on a PSP-size screen (unprecedented). Screenshots really don't do this game justice, because they fail to capture the particular feeling you get when you see a 3D Ronnie Brown burst into the secondary after a lifetime of sprite-based Madden efforts on the GBA.

Longtime fans of the franchise will also be happy to hear that the game's learning curve remains intact; I found the moderate difficulty level fairly challenging, and though I'm no great shakes at Madden, it's nice to see that handheld football has evolved past the point where you can just speed-burst into the end zone on every play. Passing adheres to the same time-honored methods of Maddens past, so you won't have to bother with turning off the newfangled Cone of Vision that so many people seem to hate on consoles. A few of the other console-specific moves are absent as well, due to the PSP's lack of a right analog control; you can still "truck" defenders with the triangle button, but can't do the back-juke that, if deftly executed, would likely allow experienced players to speed-burst into the end zone on every play. So maybe that's a good thing.

There were a couple features I couldn't try out; there was no Wi-Fi at the press event, so my multiplayer options were limited, and I didn't get a chance to sync the PSP with the PS2 version of the game, which would have allowed me to play a week from my season on the go. But EA's PR types assured me that those features worked perfectly well, so you'll be able to log in and manhandle any guy from Chicago who insists on playing as the Bears.

It's the rare game that actually inspires people to buy the platform it comes on, but Madden has the potential to do just that for the PSP. I can almost picture the collective sigh of relief at Sony HQ--you're in bad shape when your console's most exciting title is a Web browser.