Madden NFL 09: Game Time!

August 25, 2008

Portable grills are being cleaned around the country and the Cheese Heads and Terrible Towels are being dug out of the closet. It can mean only one thing. Yet another NFL season is upon us, and with it comes the release of Madden NFL 09. This year EA has appeared to go the extra mile, but is it in the right direction?

We’ve been reviewing Madden for years now, and since the game never receives a complete overhaul, poring over the minute details of the franchise and superstar modes has become redundant. As expected, both have been incorporated into 09. Franchise allows you to control every last aspect of running an organization. The changes to this feature include the rivalry game, where matchups against your most hated opponents receive a bump in difficulty; and front office where you can go elbows-deep into the spending it takes to remain competitive.

The superstar option has gone untouched. You either create a prospect yourself or import one from your NCAA Football save and then begin climbing up the NFL food chain. Agents, interviews, practice, making a statement on Sunday, and just about everything else you need to build your career are included. You only play from your player’s perspective, which can be dull for some positions, but the super sim feature allows you to partake in as much—or as little—of the games as you want.

With the expected features out of the way, we can now talk about what’s entirely new, and surprisingly, there’s quite a bit. The most obvious addition is the Madden test. As soon as you boot up the game you’ll be confronted by the big guy himself, who will ask you to complete a series of on-field challenges. How you perform affects how difficult the game becomes in the various categories—seemingly to even the playing field and make sure every game is competitive. The problem is that it doesn’t organically change the game--it simply affects how your players perform. If you score really high in the passing test, expect your quarterback to inexplicably throw some balls into the turf or your sure-handed receiver to drop some easy balls.

The Madden test ties into a lot of other options. It initially establishes your Madden IQ—a number that signifies your skill across every aspect of the game. Once you’ve set your IQ with the test, it translates into what’s called My Skill, or computer AI that fluctuates based upon your performance. We’re not completely sold on the feature due to the cheap way the game handles adjusting to your ability. You can turn it off, but then you’re left with no option to tweak the computer’s skill since the sliders to do so are inexplicably missing, which will surely anger the Maddenites.

Madden NFL 09
finally includes online leagues. While you can search for leagues that need teams if you don’t have enough friends, this is basically where the options end. It’s about as simple as the feature could possibly be. Even the draft is handled automatically. Madden moments--where you get the chance to replay over 30 classic scenarios from last season—are being billed as a new feature, but something similar has been in the game before.

Once again this year’s Madden is stuffed with modes and options, but the majority of the game remains the same. The addition of online leagues is nice, but they lack depth. The Madden IQ and sliding difficulty is a great idea to get new players into the fold, but the way it’s handled is rather cheap. There’s still tons of content to dig into and football fans will get more out of the game this year than ever before.

Last year’s game really stepped it up in the gameplay department with the addition of weapons, gang tackles, and too many pre-snap options to get through before the ball was hiked. All these features have returned this year, but the ball has definitely been dropped where improvements are concerned. You can now instruct receivers to run smart routes, so they won’t break off their route until they hit the first down marker, but should we really have to tell a receiver to do this?

Manually defending the pass is still extremely difficult due to depth perception, and it’s made worse by crossing routes that must be defended by hand. Players also have terrible field awareness, so be prepared to watch a lot of receivers lock into animation routines that take them straight out of bounds on swing passes—something that was almost fixed last year, but is broken once again. It’s also frustrating to watch the computer automatically change its defense when you call an audible as if it knows the new play.

Not all is bad, though. The amount of pre-snap control is far more than you’ll ever get through before the ball is snapped. Running the ball with each individual player also feels great. LaDanian Tomlinson is slippery and can slide through tacklers while bigger backs utilize blunt force to gain extra yards. Couple this with the realistic physics and gang tackles and breaking into the second level of the defense takes on a whole new suite of possibilities.

Easily the best new feature, and likely to be the most controversial, is the rewind. It essentially allows you to retry any play you want. It may sound like cheating, but it’s a valuable tool in learning how to read defenses and react to different scenarios. The feature is disabled for online play and you can turn it off if you choose—giving it as much emphasis as you want. We like the ability to negate cheap plays by the computer, but you’ll definitely want to nix it going playing head-to-head.

Playing Madden NFL 09 is bitter sweet. For every great feature there’s a disappointment to offset it. It still plays a solid game of pigskin, but it’s been tailored towards the casual player at the expense of the experts.

The visuals in Madden NFL 09 are one part of the game that is undeniably better. The lighting, in particular, has really been improved. There’s a huge difference in the look of the game depending on the time of day, the stadium, and the weather involved. Snowy fields look especially convincing, and the grass looks much more varied and realistic from stadium to stadium. Models also look great, with some players like Randy Moss identifiable from 50 yards away. The variety of animation is absolutely incredible, and game after game you’ll see new ways for players to run, hit, or catch. Both the PS3 and 360 versions run well when the ball is in play, but there are still some stutters here and there when breaking the huddle.

John Madden left the broadcast booth some time ago, and despite an increased presence in 09, his headset remains dormant. At least play-by-play has been included this time around, though Tom Hammond’s deadpan delivery isn’t much of an improvement over the radio announcer from last year. Cris Collinsworth handles the color commentary and does a fine job, but where he really excels is in the backtrack feature, which points out mistakes you made with a startling accuracy.

The Madden series is a seesaw every year as it inevitably adds features that are hit or miss while failing to address long standing issues. Madden NFL 09 is no different. There’s a whole lot of game here, but that was true last year, and for every gameplay improvement there’s something annoying to dampen the enthusiasm. It’s still an excellent football game, but the casual player is going to like it a lot more than the grizzled vet.