Review: Madden NFL 09

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It’s been 20 years, and Madden’s still got something left in the tank.

A franchise that has seen its share of recent ups and downs delivers an outstanding package of football in “Madden NFL 09.”

This latest version of the wildly popular video game combines a visual face-lift with an arsenal of new features to give the franchise something that wasn’t prevalent in the last few editions: the sense that it truly belonged on the current consoles. You get the feeling that this is the game that coach-turned-announcer John Madden and EA wanted to make all along.


The easiest things to notice are the overhauled visuals, where the players look a little bouncier (some might say cartoonish) on an HD screen.

Every contest features a stunning, detailed shot of the stadium’s exterior, and then the player gets an eyeful of the revamped lighting system as well as possibly the
nicest-looking grass field ever assembled for a football video game.

As far as how the game moves, it’s a mixed bag.

On one hand, the player models are both extremely detailed and proportionally sound. They’re also reasonably well-animated, especially in the running game, where run-blocking and the fight for extra yardage is augmented by the new “total control animation” system, which lets you string combinations of moves together.

Instead of simply accepting the notion of being tackled, you can still try to “break” your way out of it by either spinning or stiff-arming your way free. This is especially fun with an elite all-around runner like the Chargers’ LaDainian Tomlinson.

On the flip side, the players look goofy when they run in replays, where they glide over the field like Chinese kung-fu heroes running in midair.

Aside from the “Crouching Tiger” moments, the in-game visual experience is still a lot of fun. The game plays with the camera, focusing more on faces, panning from offense to defense and then zooming in on players on long runs and shaking, as if the camera was running behind him.

The weather system is also jaw-droppingly gorgeous — all it takes is one game in the snow to convince you.

Adding to the overall impact of the game is the new voice commentary team of Tom Hammond and Cris Collinsworth — gone is the random radio voice that made the experience seem lifeless and detached.

Hammond’s not bad as the play-by-play man, but Collinsworth’s color commentary is gold. He ad-libbed a lot of his stuff for the game, so players will get to hear him discuss things ranging from the beauty of 7-yard pass plays to musing about the physical skills of Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson.

Aside from that, Collinsworth even ties into the game’s “backtrack” feature, where he breaks down a bad play and highlights things that could have been done better. He’ll highlight open receivers downfield, or touch on an area of the offensive line where pass protection broke down.

Backtrack ties into another feature called “rewind,” which gives you a chance to make up for a bad play. Throw a stupid pick? Press a button and turn back time, “Prince of Persia” style, to the point before the ball is snapped.

At first, I hated the idea of an in-game mulligan, but the feature actually grows on you once you start using it as as a learning tool. Plus, you can set the number of times you can use it, and it’s not available online. For casual and serious players, it’s a nifty gadget of gameplay.

Another way players can learn is through the new “virtual trainer,” where players can hone their skills in various aspects of the game and boost their “Madden IQ” score.
Madden IQ is the signature feature this year, where the game attempts to nail down a player’s exact skill level and tailor the game experience to him or her. The better you do in any game, the higher your IQ rises — and the harder the game gets.

The theory is that a numerical score leads to a more accurate matchup and assessment of your skills.

The only issue I have is the discrepancy in experience between tallying your Madden IQ in the virtual trainer and playing an actual game. It’s stunning. Those who rack up an “all-Madden” rating in the trainer will be in for a harsh wake-up call when they start losing yards on consecutive carries. Not a bad test for the hardcore, but casual ballers might get scared off.

In the few “Madden NFL 09″ online games I’ve played so far, I experienced a little lag, and the message boards are rife with stories of glitches that I didn’t have the pleasure of witnessing.

If you’re a football fan, this version of “Madden” is easily the best one you’ll find on the 360 or PS3. Looks like the tread’s not off the tires for this franchise — not by a long shot.

Score: 9 out of 10.