Madden NFL 09 (Xbox 360)
Twenty years of Madden? Twenty years since Trip Hawkins and John Madden hammered out the idea on a train to Oakland, and Electronic Arts made skinny fans feel like a little bit like self-confident, football-playing Masters of the Universe? Once Madden was released, we were all Paper Lions, just like George Plimpton.
A damn score of years, two long decades. How old does that make you feel? It makes me feel utterly ancient, yeah, but somehow inwardly proud to have seen virtual football players evolve from stick figures on the Apple computer, to cartoon sprites on the Sega Genesis, to near-reality in Madden NFL 09. As anthropologist Ashley Montagu wryly spewed, "I want to die young at a ripe old age," and playing Madden, when it's good, is one of the gaming joys that keep me young.
The biggest spin from the EA folks regarding Madden NFL 09 is the idea that the game will adapt to your style of play. Yeah, in the past you've had everything from Rookie to Superstar difficulty modes to help you become accustomed to gridiron play. But this is supposedly a more intelligent thing altogether, although they make it sound more impressive and scientific than it is by calling it the Adaptive Difficulty Engine. It involves carefully testing your abilities before you start the season and taking the results into the season.
Your guide to the tests is a holographic John Madden (who is see-through and ghostly, like something out of Dickens -- the Ghost of Super Bowls Past). With easy offense tests and difficult defense tasks, in essence, ADE appears to be somewhat based upon the kind of artificial intelligence that gives stats to the NFL players every year in Madden. Cool as it sounds, I'm not sure it works that well if you're a more casual gamer. The idea of ADE is an admirable one, but needs to feel more real. It may well be that hardcore Madden fans will flock to this feature, and less seasoned fans will still start in Rookie mode.
While the movements of players in John Madden's game have become more natural over the years, they still have been somewhat robotic and alien-like. This year, the movements are more like the complex human engine that we are. As they run the field, they're not completely lifelike, but it's as if they possess more than a few of our 206 human bones and 639 muscles to move. Players seem to have a kind of personality, too, as if some of their signature plays have been added to the offering. I'd still like to hear, say, Ray Lewis' trash-talking before plays, but then Madden wouldn't be an E-rated game.
One of the things I don't like is that each year, there's less and less of Madden in the game. Some have said this is a good thing, indicating that Madden is too old, even that he's going senile. In my mind, the game isn't complete without the folksy, knowledgeable persona that John Madden has so carefully crafted and honed over the years. (Right, I know. He uses the "F" word in off-camera conversation a lot. But in the game, he's Big Daddy Football and that's how I want it to stay.) The cheeky Cris Collingsworth is smart and talkative enough, but he's not the big man. Madden has to be used more in the future for color announcing as the game progresses, not just for brief tips on plays and as the ADE Ghost.
Veteran players won't like the fact that there's this time-travel thing called BackTrack. On the surface, it's pretty intense. You go back prior to the play to discover, via Collingsworth, what went wrong with your coaching, passing, catching and the like. What I don't like is that you can then re-do the play. It's supposed to level the playing field between veteran players and the novices, but those five-minute quarters could go on for hours if a novice wants to remake every play. I have nothing at all against newbies. But let eager young noobs play against other noobs, or against those vets who have more than an hour a day to play at Madden. The solution? Thankfully, the ability to redo plays can be limited.
I always struggle to understand other reviewers who say online play is seamless when they review a game. Look, with any online game, you're going to have glitches and frame rate drops, especially if you play for, say, an hour or longer. The glitches in Madden NFL 09 for the Xbox 360 are minimal. But they will happen (although I was never kicked off a game due to technical errors). Also online, the trash-talking on the parts of players who I don't know is annoying at best. These folks are, more often than not, the worst players, anyway. Just play the game online and shut your pie-hole. Your banter isn't going to be as semi-witty as the guys in the new Madden commercial, anyway.
The one potentially great, new online feature allows us all to form leagues and take those leagues all the way to the Super Bowl. Probably the best way for this to work is to have 31 friends and acquaintances become part of the fray. If you have just a few friends to round out the league, the draft function will likely give you and your friends the NFL's top players. I suppose you can think of that as the best versus the best. But if you're a sim junkie, it's just not as close to reality as Madden is supposed to be. EA needs to work on these online leagues for Madden NFL 10.
And having Brett Favre on the cover in his no-longer-valid Green Bay Packer uniform does make the game seem somehow dated even on its first day of launch. Favre, after all, is now a New York Jet. (You can download a new cover, but who wants to take the time to do that? And then what do you do? Scotch tape the Jet's Gang Green goods over the Green Bay uniform? I still wonder why EA didn't choose New York Giant and Super Bowl winner Eli Manning for their cover athlete. Favre is the past, albeit an amazing Super Bowl winner, but Manning is the future, not to mention the game's demographic.) If you can forget about the cover, inside the box is one of the most technologically forward Madden games since Madden NFL 05 for the PlayStation 2.
Stripper alert! Hold onto that ball, Marshawn Lynch!
The realism of Madden NFL 09 -- from the Kentucky bluegrass in Lambeau Field to the grit of the virtual players, to the cameramen on the sidelines, to the wondrous variety of weather conditions, is appreciable and worth a hearty 'bravo.' While they still must vary the number of fan clones in the stands, the expressions of those fans are rendered with more clarity this year. They still need the actual cheerleaders from the NFL teams in the game, however.
Finally, someone needs to add a proper football primer to the game, one that clearly explains the plays in layman's English -- not during play as in BackTrack, but before you play. For instance, when exactly should I play the Nickel, the Dime or the Dollar defense and what are the pros and cons of each? A good designer or writer could strip each play down to a clear, focused sentence or two. So why isn't it there now?
If you haven't given EA your hard-earned duckets for Madden in a few years, now is the time as there are more than 80 upgrades and tweaks to the anniversary game. Then, there's the $90 collector's edition which includes NFL Head Coach 09 and the forward-thinking but cartoony Madden NFL 93. But in these troubled economic times, if you're not a stat and trade junkie, or if you don't have those extra 60 simoleons in a time of recession, last year's Madden will serve you just fine.
This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.