IGN Review of Madden NFL 09
Madden is a rare sight in the videogame industry. It's a yearly release that has managed to stay fresh and fun throughout its 20 years. Detractors say that its general lack of overhauled innovation is an abomination, while fans rabidly defend it (and the sales charts prove it). Madden NFL 09 will likely be received the same way by both groups as it manages to refine the already splendidly realistic football that was seen in last year's version, while bringing it to a new level. It may not look all that different to the casual observer, but football aficionados and Madden veterans alike will be able to appreciate the small enhancements.
EA Sports is putting a large emphasis on the accessibility of the core Madden gameplay, now offering different play styles and a user-defined difficulty setting known as My Skill to go along with revamped production values. These two main features represent the biggest changes to the Madden formula.
When you first boot up Madden NFL 09 you'll be presented with the Madden Test, which is four drills that gauge your Madden IQ. The results are used to establish your My Skill difficulty level. My Skill changes based on your performance after each game. It's a clever mechanic in theory and one that actually does work for the most part. My only complaint is that My Skill can't separate the game's ineptness with the actual skill of your players shining through.
What that means is that it takes you gaining 150 yards per game with your halfback as a sign of weakness in the AI. No matter who your running back is, you'll face a tougher and tougher rushing defense if you continue to excel. It sort of puts a stop to any serious MVP candidates you might have on your team. But, if you do notice that things are getting a bit too difficult, there are several handy dandy sliders that let you manipulate rules and finite details with regard to each of the different areas of football.
So while My Skill might not work exactly how it's intended, users still have the ability to create their own customized set of difficulty settings if they so desire. Play styles are another addition that, unlike My Skill, works to perfection. Players of varying football knowledge can choose styles that change the complexity of the game. The easiest level handles everything except for hiking, running and the act of throwing; everything else is handled by the AI. The hardest level puts everything in the hands of the player for a true football experience.
Play styles were designed to simplify the game for newbies, and in that regard they're a success. Their importance shines through to an even greater extent when a new player lines up against a pro. Madden now has handicapping which can skew the game in one direction in a hurry if you stack things enough.
But no true Madden fan really gives a damn about how EA Sports is making Madden easier for the less-than-important player who has never picked up the game. Sadly, core changes to the tried and true Madden formula aren't a main focus for this year's release. There have been some additions -- slide protection, formation subs on the fly, bluffing play art and rivalry games -- that football junkies will surely appreciate, but there is no vision cone or mind-blowing camera angle that totally changes the game.
Where Madden will impress followers of the sport is its attention to finite details. For instance, receiving animations have been tuned to add the ability of players' arms and hands reacting independently from the rest of the animation. This results in much fewer instances of the ball slamming into your receiver's head while his hands were only six inches away.
Running and juking have also been improved beyond the branching animations from Madden 08. Breaking out of a tackle is now more under user control. A tackle animation will begin but if you hit a face button or flick the right stick you could break free. If not, at least you'll get the satisfaction of seeing your player's body strain to escape.
The little additions that I mentioned earlier help bring Madden 09 in line with what people expect from football. Bluffing play art is great for multiplayer games and it's a bit easier to bluff a playcall than what we saw from Madden 08.
With all of the small enhancements and little additions to the gameplay, there's no question that Madden 09 is the best pure football game I've ever gotten my hands on. Still, it isn't perfect. There are instances, mainly during kickoffs, when animations seem to glide along at an unnaturally quick rate. Then there's the fact that the AI still doesn't know how to properly maneuver its players. It often runs out of bounds for no reason, even on the toughest difficulty setting. It's something that's slightly annoying but doesn't happen enough to ruin the experience by any stretch of the imagination.
Presentation values are something that have been relegated to a radio announcer and stylized camera swoops in the last few years. Thankfully, EA Sports is finally listening to its fans and has added Cris Collinsworth and Tom Hammond to the broadcast booth, both of whom offer reasonably insightful commentary. There are moments when their quips might not be accurate -- calling LT a back that has a tendency to put the ball on the ground seemed a bit off -- but when they land they sound just as good as they do on Sundays.
Upping the ante on the presentation front a bit more is redesigned grass. It sounds trite, but the grass has been re-textured and looks better than ever. There are also new camera movements, including a hit cam that adds some needed pop to big hits and a breakaway cam that dramatizes a big run; both of these and more add to the overall fun.
Football analysis is something that used to be contained to TV broadcasts with commentators making use of the telestrator and insights to diagnose what went wrong in a given play. Madden 09 brings that kind of a breakdown to the virtual realm, or at least it tries its damnedest, with BackTrack.
Collinsworth and Hammond do a solid job of picking out plays that went awry, but it's in their analysis of what you should've done where things can fall apart. Sometimes Collinsworth will say that you should've passed into double or triple coverage or into such a small window of availability that there's almost no point. Following any of the bad advice in BackTrack might lead into the next addition on the chopping block: the Rewind feature.
Rewind is that one newcomer that, depending on how it's received, might not be in next year's game. While it can be turned off (or limited to 1, 3, 5 or unlimited number of uses), Rewind gives players a mulligan at the previous play. It isn't used at all during online multiplayer but can be used offline. Having a friend sitting next to you and having one of your touchdowns taken away is gut-wrenching to say the least.
For as much as I thought that Rewinds would break Madden, I actually find myself using them quite a bit. If there's a play where you feel cheated by a forced fumble or a fluke interception, you can use a single Rewind to take things back a notch. It's a fun system that can be used or turned off entirely.
Game modes in Madden 09 are represented by the classic stable of Superstar, Exhibition and Franchise modes. All of which remain unchanged from what you've become accustomed. There are two new additions: Madden Moments and Online Leagues. Online Leagues likely sound more exciting than they are and Madden Moments, while simplistic, are still fun.
Madden Moments selects one memorable portion of a game from last season and recreates the situation. Sometimes you'll have to follow through with the real world finish, and then sometimes you'll need to change history.
Online Leagues, something that likely caught several eyes when people first heard of it, is way too much of an afterthought. Thirty-two players can hop into a league, complete with its own championship trophy and can play in a series of games as their favorite team. That's it. It's a fairly no frills package and it works just as fluidly as the rest of the online modes, but isn't quite what I'd like to see from Online Leagues in Madden.
The new trinkets and doodads on the presentation side wouldn't amount to much if the graphics engine looked like Ugly Betty. Luckily, that isn't the case. Aside from new, more dramatic (read: cool) lighting and player models that now actually look like NFL players, there's a new camera angle that does a much better of job of keeping the action in front of you while delivering a greater sense of size with relation to the stadium and crowd.
The aforementioned grass does indeed look pristine, as do the smooth edges on players with aliasing only creeping in on the intricate facemasks and player models on the newly populated sidelines. For as good as everything looks on the outside, it's the inner workings that drive the animation that really sell the visual appeal. Players move with extreme fluidity, almost too much so at times. There are still moments when oddities pop up, but most of the time you'll be wishing your favorite players could pull off some of these moves at your command in reality.
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