Game: Madden 09
Platforms: XBox 360, Playstation 2, Playstation 3, Wii, PSP, DS (Reviewed on 360)
Sure as the sun rising every day, you can bet every August another Madden video game will be out. This year the game celebrates its 20th anniversary of big hits and big plays. 2009 marks the fourth year of the Madden monopoly on NFL football, and the fourth year of the game on next-gen consoles. Last year’s effort was a splendid work, but looked even better coming after two years of mediocrity on the 360. While Madden 08 was a good game, there were still plenty of features that fans felt should’ve been included. The Monday before this year’s game released was probably the most grueling wait of my life. After getting it home at 12:45 AM, only one question remained: Was this going to be the game next-gen football sim that Maddenites have been looking for?
The game begins with John Madden himself introducing you to one of the new features EA has been touting, Madden IQ. The test breaks the computer difficulty down to four components: Passing and Rushing Offense, and Passing and Rushing Defense. How you do in these four tests will give you an IQ, which you have the option of making your default difficulty. If you’re great at passing, but terrible at running, the game will tailor how hard it plays against you in those four situations. While at first glance this seems like a brilliant idea, the offensive tests are very simple, and the defensive tests are insanely frustrating. A newcomer could score as high as a Madden vet, and be completely screwed when starting their season against the computer. Luckily, your IQ constantly changes depending on how you play. To me, it would’ve been better to let a player earn their IQ from playing a game or two, versus taking the test, and possibly being frustrated by the stifling AI.
Once you start a full game, you’ll get a look at a ton of other new features the game introduces. Next-gen console owners have been listening to nothing but boring radio broadcasts during games for the last three years. After countless message board complaints, EA finally put together a broadcast team worthy of following in Madden’s footsteps with Chris Collinsworth and Tom Hammond. Honestly, Madden 09 was the first time since I bought a 360 that I played the game with the volume on instead of listening to music. Even though Madden himself has virtually nothing to do with the presentation of the game, fans are better for it. Not only do the commentators provide some much improved color and play-by-play, but Collinsworth is also at the helm of my favorite new feature, Back Track. While Back Track doesn’t necessarily change any of the gameplay elements, it provides something the game has needed an upgrade in for years: more realistic broadcast presentation. Every once in a while, Collinsworth will break a play down by showing you where you went wrong, how you could’ve gone right, and how effective your play-calling is against a particular defensive set. If you pay enough attention, you may want to use another of this year’s innovations, Rewind. This is an optional feature giving users the choice to take another shot at a poorly run play, on either side of the ball. Though not available in online games, even the staunchest Maddenite will find themselves using one Rewind or so a game to compensate for the often frustrating AI. Fumbled a crucial third down conversion? Rewind. Did your friend throw a TD as the clock ran out to win the game? Rewind. While some may scoff at the idea of being able to take back a play, there’s surprisingly a lot of strategy (and screwjobs) involved when playing a friend.
What really stands out when playing the game are all the new animations featured. The most noticeable is the way players will reach for a ball no matter where it is next to them. Previous years had preset catching animations which receivers and defensive backs were often stuck in while a ball went sailing behind them. This year, a player will follow the ball, even doing so much as to turn in mid-air and reach behind them for a tipped pass. If a player is breaking away from the pack on a run, you’ll notice them looking over their shoulder to see where the nearest defender is. When an incompletion hits the ground, surrounding players will pounce on the ball just incase it was a fumble. Even players getting back up from hard hits have been given different animations for getting back up. Players will stagger to their feet, or clutch their leg after standing. There are so many minute details the animators put in, the game is just as enjoyable to watch as it is to play. In large part, it’s because everything looks better this year than it ever has. From the new individual player models, to newly designed stadiums, to the individual blades of artificial turf, not a single graphical detail from last year wasn’t given an overhaul. It’s supremely satisfying to see lineman of varying girth rumble down the field instead of five stock-looking fat guys moving in synchronicity.
Though there are plenty of things to love about Madden 09, the game has its share of disappointments. The biggest let down falls to the bare-bones presentation of their online leagues. While I appreciate the inclusion of online leagues (we are running one, you know), the automated draft and limited stat keeping have me wondering why EA felt online leagues were a throwaway addition. It may be just me, but at this point I feel like we should be able to play this game in widescreen. If I have a widescreen TV, I shouldn’t have to zoom out on the pre-snap to view the whole field. I want to see everything all at once. There are also a few gameplay issues you’ll run into occasionally. Receivers will sometimes run routes out of bounds. For whatever reason, quarterbacks always overthrow running backs in the flats. This has been a problem for years, and it’s a shame it still hasn’t been addressed. Despite how good the game looks, it should’ve looked like this three years ago. We finally get a next-gen Madden game worthy of being on a next-gen console, but it’s four years into the 360 life cycle. Occasional clipping issues will pop up, but there’s always so much that goes right with the game you won’t care too much about the time Adrian Peterson’s arm went right through Brian Urlacher’s chest.
I always get excited for Madden every year, but for once I feel vindicated in my excitement. The game looks great, there are a ton of little nuances football fans everywhere will love, and most of all, it’s fun to play. Despite some issues with the AI, I think this is the first must-buy Madden for next-gen consoles. Even with some of the issues I have, all the things the game does right more than make up for the areas that were lacking. If you haven’t already picked this game up, you definitely should. There’s never been a better time to be a football gamer.