Games 8/15: Madden NFL 08, Jeanne d'Arc

Madden NFL 08
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: Every system imaginable
From: Tiburon/EA Sports
ESRB Rating: Everyone

The annual arrival of “Madden” is video gaming’s answer to New Year’s Day — the opening float in a parade of blockbuster games that runs, non-stop, until after the holidays.

For the first time in three years, it’s also a day worth celebrating. After a pair of glitchy and/or feature-starved false starts, “Madden NFL 08” finally (mostly) delivers the kind of next-generation football that owners of next-generation hardware have wanted all along.

Fittingly, the gameplay itself is the greatest beneficiary. A.I.-controlled players play smarter and more authentically react to situations at hand than in games past. Exploiting the secondary isn’t the cakewalk it once was, and even untrained eyes will recognize improvements in the running and blocking games. A fantastic new weapons feature places special emphasis on star players’ various intangible strengths and weaknesses — a crucial aspect of football that wasn’t possible until now.

The game also looks better — and, at least on the Xbox 360, runs faster — than ever. (As with EA’s college football game, “Madden” is slower, though entirely playable, on the Playstation 3.) Animations are far more organic than the canned stuff of years past, and that leads to timelier plays when little time to react is available. The benefit this has on tackling, along with some refinements to the hit stick controls, help bridge the fun gap between playing offense and defending the end zone.

While gameplay deservedly garners the spotlight, secondary features either get a fresh second chance (Superstar Mode, which adds new options and improves its on-field execution) or a return to and beyond former glories (the Franchise Mode, which brings back owner features, adds a scouting component, and even allows you to relocate the team if you so please). Players looking for a headline-grabbing new mode won’t find one this year, but the rash of on-field improvements render this issue moot.

That leaves online play, which once again proves to be the Achilles heel. “Madden” supports two-on-two offline multiplayer, but online is one-on-one only. Online league support also misses the cut, so those holding their breath for it will have to do so for at least one more year. Given that EA’s NHL game is rolling out online leagues this fall, this hopefully is the last time that happens. The game does plays fairly well online, so you at least can practice until that fateful day arrives.

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Jeanne d’Arc
For: Sony PSP
From: Level 5/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (alcohol reference, fantasy violence, mild language)

As it did on the Playstation 2 and soon will do on the Playstation 3, Sony is quietly but assuredly gifting the PSP with an impressive library of original, polished games that aren’t available anywhere else.

Emphasis on “quietly.”

Take, for instance, “Jeanne d’Arc,” an elegant gem of a surprise that takes the legend of Joan of Arc and cleverly immerses it in a world of magical creatures and enchanted objects. The storytelling is inspired, the in-game graphics are a treat for the eyes, and the numerous anime cut-scenes are superbly animated and voiced (though the lack of optional subtitles is a puzzling oversight).

More than all those things, though, “d’Arc” finally gives the PSP an original, well-designed tactical role-playing game it can call its own. In fact, tactical RPG connoisseurs who don’t own a PSP might find themselves a bit jealous of the refinements developer Level 5 brings to the genre.

Specifically, “d’Arc” excels at customization, almost but never quite to the point of overwhelming unseasoned players. While the game’s armor and weapon diversity isn’t worth bragging about, the degree to which you can assign abilities to different members of your party most certainly is. Victory in combat yields ability gems, and your skill in spending these wisely — and, if you’re feeling bold, mixing them together in hopes of creating extra-special abilities — will set the course for your party’s strengths and weaknesses.

“d’Arc” doesn’t mess too much with convention when it comes to combat: Standard turn-based rules apply, and the action takes place on a grid per usual.

Where Level 5 makes it interesting is by imposing limits on the number of turns a battle can last. The turn limits vary based on the urgency of the battle at hand, but the general message is that “d’Arc” wants you to step up and fight rather than take baby steps and make the enemy come to you. Other tweaks reveal themselves as the adventure progresses, but this is by far the most interesting.

Mixed together, “d’Arc’s” pieces complement one another nicely. When the adventure plateaus, time is available to play around with ability gems and battle plans. And when that gets old, the difficulty curve often kicks up a touch while pushing the story forward.

The only missing piece of the puzzle? Sony’s promotion of the game. Now that “d’Arc” is available, here’s hoping that changes.