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'NCAA Football 09' and 'Madden 09' fumble the ball

Victor Godinez
The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

"NCAA Football '09" and "Madden '09" are guaranteed blockbusters and will sell millions of copies.

But the reputations of Electronic Arts flagship sports titles are clearly flagging among the most devoted gridiron gamers.

First, "NCAA." The game has been soundly trashed on gaming blogs and Web sites for the stupid, blundering play style of computer-controlled characters. For example, in one profane and hilarious video posted online, a gamer narrates a replay showing his computer-controlled offensive lineman wandering away from an oncoming defender during a blitz on third down. Worse, the lineman strolls directly into the path of the ball that gamer-controlled QB has just launched at an open receiver. The balls dinks the addled lineman in the back of his helmet and falls to the grass.

Fourth down.

"Madden," scheduled for an Aug. 12 release, looks no better. It's probably a bad sign, first of all, that EA opted for Brett Favre in a Packers uniform as its cover boy. At this point, I'm more likely to be the Pack's opening-day QB than Brett.

But the real problems with "Madden" are much more than superficial. "Madden" (and most sports games, for that matter) traditionally include menus where you can adjust the skill level of computer-controlled players. These settings are known as "sliders," since you slide a button back and forth to raise or lower the skill.

But the developers of Madden apparently forgot or didn't bother to include sliders for the computer characters in the new version, according to one reviewer who got an early copy of the game. On a discussion forum at OperationSports.com, a "Madden" designer jumped into the discussion and admitted that, yeah, EA really messed up.

"There are in fact no CPU sliders. I discovered this myself about 2 weeks ago as well, and was kind of wondering when I should break the news. I wish I had an explanation, but I don't. There's not all that much more I can say about it. ... There's one other bit of bad news that I discovered at the same time, and that is there is no custom controller configuration anymore. Again, I don't really have an explanation."

It would be one thing if EA left out these features for a reason and presented some kind of argument that the game is better without them. But it sounds as though they just forgot.

Austin, Texas, blogger Bill Harris (http://dubiousquality.blogspot.com) has been doing yeoman's work linking to all these goofs, if you want to examine the evidence.

Criticism of EA for slapdash design and hurried development has been mounting over the last few years, and the executives have recently been saying all the right things about a renewed focus on quality. But these seemingly inexplicable fumbles on the company's most important franchises are making EA look both incompetent and dishonest.

Of course, it's hard to argue with success. Three of the top 10 best-selling games of all time in the U.S. are "Madden" games, and recent ones at that ("Madden '07," "'06" and "'05"), suggesting that the drop in quality has so far deterred only the hard-core.

But there can be long-term downsides to taking your customers for granted. Just ask Ford and General Motors.

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