Madden NFL 09 Review (Xbox 360)
In terms of sports game sales in the United States, there is Madden, and then there is everything else. Every year a new version is released, and routinely it outsells practically everything else sports wise in America. Every year people debate the quality of Madden on Internet forums and around water coolers across the country. Madden is more than a game to many people, and the frenzied mobs that either condemn or curse the game annually are evidence to this. So when you’re asked to review Madden for Operation Sports, you can be assured of two things: that you’ll be told you are the biggest idiot on the planet for your opinion, and that Madden is "arcade" while NFL 2K is/was "sim."
Fast forward three years. Madden NFL 2009 is the best version of Madden that I’ve played in a long time.
I’ve played every version of Madden since it released on the PC in the '80s. When NFL 2K’s many versions released, I (like most football gamers) spent quite a bit of time in 2K’s camp. I was also quite horrified at the thought of a single game company holding all the cards, so to speak, when the NFL chose to go with an exclusive licensing agreement a few years back. When comparing Madden NFL 2006 to the previous year’s NFL 2K5, it appeared the sky was falling, with nowhere to hide.
Fast forward three years. Madden NFL 2009 is the best version of Madden that I’ve played in a long time. Is it perfect? Of course not. If you’re looking for things to point out as defective, you’ll be able to find them. But even the best football games in history have issues. It’s impossible to create a game without them. What you’ll find in Madden 09 is an incredibly enjoyable game that is finally taking steps forward without quite so many steps back.
It all starts with the Madden IQ, which is the feature most prominently featured in the television ads. “The first sports game that adapts to you." But what does that mean, and more importantly, how does it perform? Decently, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. When you first fire the game up, you’re met with a holographic representation of Madden himself, explaining how the Madden test is supposed to work. You are supposed to perform a series of tests to determine your ability in rushing offense, passing offense, rushing defense, and passing defense. This is supposed to give you a highly customized difficulty in all four categories, tailored to your ability. The problem here is that it doesn’t necessarily work as advertised.
While great in theory, the Madden Tests don’t really test your ability. It’s more like a glorified version of Street Fighter in some cases (rushing offense), and roulette in others (pass defense). During rushing offense, for example, you’re tasked with following the Tron-like blockers and pressing a corresponding control that appears over each defender’s head. If you press the proper control, you’ll get past him. If you don’t, you’ll be tackled. I’m not sure who thought of this, but it really doesn’t prove that gamers know how to run the football.
When an 8-year-old is being assigned All Madden simply because he can play Simon Says, something is wrong there.
Inevitably, anybody with an ounce of skill will have “All-Madden” skill level assigned for his or her user rushing difficulty. My wife and 8-year-old son both scored top marks in the rushing offense test, and I guarantee you they couldn’t run on All-Pro difficulty, even with Walter Payton behind the Hogs’ offensive line. When an 8-year-old is being assigned All Madden simply because he can play Simon Says, something is wrong there.
It’s just as crazy during the pass defense test since you’re tasked with stopping a catch (not a score) with a defender that you can’t switch to or control. You may start as a middle linebacker, but not be able to stray outside the hashmarks while the CPU throws a hitch to the receiver outside. You watch helplessly as the receiver makes the catch, counting as a “failure.” How do you stop a hitch in man to man without the ability to control the cornerback? You don’t, really. It’s more a game of chance than skill, sadly.
Madden NFL Football is finally on it's way back, in more ways than one.
In the end, however, the My Skill setting the game generates actually results in a solid experience. (How’s that for bizarre: broken tests, broken settings, yet great end results. Believe me, I know how weird and contradictory that sounds.) That is a huge feat, because there are absolutely zero sliders for the CPU AI this year. You read that correctly. No CPU QB accuracy, run blocking, zilch. Everything with regards to the CPU behavior is adjusted with one general “difficulty slider.” That will set a lot of people off, and I can at least see their point. If I had a CPU QB accuracy slider, I could try to tone down the surgical precision that the CPU passers have, and yet at the same time, the game still plays rather well without it.
With the strange combination of top-tier difficulty and an extremely efficient CPU offense, I had some extremely tense, enjoyable games using the My Skill setting. And, if you’re a fan of longer games, then you’ll be happier than a pig in slop. If you like a quick fix (five or six minute quarters) that still results in realistic stats, though, you may be in for a rude awakening because that's just not going to happen. Coupled with the fact that we still don't have in-game saves, some gamers could have a real dilemma on their hands if they want realistic stats but don't have enough time to actually play long games.
Generally, in Madden 09 you'll get yardage in small chunks when using a My Skill rating that places your offense in the All-Madden difficulty tier. So, when you first leave the world of the Madden Training Center and hop into a real game, you’ll discover that the "training" really didn't prepare you for the in-game experience. That’s not exactly a news flash, but consequently, the rushing game especially is definitely something that takes some time to come to grips with this year.
For starters, the advice of “not hitting turbo until you’re past the line” has never been more accurate. But how many average Madden gamers who pass the Madden Test with flying colors really know that? They’ll get blown up in the backfield over and over without really knowing why, or how to really make moves and gain yards. The running game in Madden 09 is approaching levels of realism that it’s never reached before. You have a split second to find the correct gap, and if you miss it, your play is dead on arrival. Not only do you have to find the correct gap, but you must then EXPLODE through the hole to get past the defensive linemen who will frequently shed a block if you get anywhere near them, bringing you to the turf.
No longer should you be content to just go down with the first contact. You must fight for yardage after contact.
Compounding this is the fact that CPU defenders rarely take wrong angles “inside the box” anymore. In the real NFL, a linebacker’s first step will make or break him. If he hesitates or takes one wrong step, the talented tailbacks at the professional level can blow by the first and second lines of defense into the secondary. It’s much the same way in Madden 09, so the CPU linebackers on the higher difficulties will be quick to flow to the gaps and shut down any lanes that develop.
To combat this, you’re given a more effective set of tools to break tackles -- better than ever before in fact. No longer should you be content to just go down with the first contact. You must fight for yardage after contact. The new animation system lets you truly break out of any move into another, and that includes tackles. If you have a defender who has a bead on you, a juke just as you make contact can actually leave the defender attempting an arm tackle that you can easily break through. Plowing into a safety and then immediately using the spin move allows you to physically spin off of the impact, stumbling forward for more yardage (or collecting yourself and sprinting to paydirt). It’s an incredibly impressive system that really takes some time to master. In the early going, most gamers will find themselves averaging less than two yards per carry if using the almost-always-maxed-my-skill setting. With some experience, you can have a solid four yards per carry, but it will take a little bit of time to really get the timing down and become effective.
The new animations system offers a unique experience never before seen in Madden NFL Football.
One notable problem that seems to persist in every version of Madden that has ever been released is the lack of a CPU running game. When you have the difficulty cranked up to the maximum, the CPU breaks off some long runs, inflating its average, but still won't ever consistently generate a good ground attack. I've had some games where the CPU really took it to me, but mostly because I missed a tackle or called an inopportune blitz from the wrong side.
Passing the ball, as well, is very much the same as it has been for the past couple of seasons. The major tweaks that I noticed in Madden 09 are dreadful offensive lines performing, well ... dreadfully, and arm strength actually having a prominent role in the passing game. As the Raiders, I can't buy time to do anything in the passing game. When I played as Brady or Manning, I had a lot more time to read the defense after the snap. As far as arm strength goes, with a QB like Chad Pennington (that guy gets no slack, even from me), you can hold the passing button down for quite a while, yet the ball won’t have any real velocity on it. Defenders will be able to reach balls that you thought were untouchable at the time of the throw, because they come out with a lack of “zip.”
Speaking of completion percentages, it’s definitely the “hot button topic” of the 2009 crop of football games.
Switch to a guy like JaMarcus Russell, though, and the whole game changes. You can fire cannon shots into locations where you didn’t think a completion was possible. Playing with a rocket-armed QB actually takes a bit of talent in Madden 09, however. If you hold the button down on simple little swing passes like in previous years, you’ll see the majority of them just bounce off of your running back’s hands. It's the same with lesser-rated receivers. If you’re throwing heaters everywhere, you had better have a stellar receiving corps, or your completion percentage will suffer.
Speaking of completion percentages, it’s definitely the “hot button topic” of the 2009 crop of football games. Both NCAA and Madden have CPU QBs who complete a very high number of passes, creating the “Robo QB” controversy. I can say with certainty that the CPU quarterbacks will definitely complete a large number of passes against you, but more often than not they’ll just be taking what you give them. Many players will lock up tight in man-to-man coverage, and the CPU will simply run a slant or square-in pattern, which is a high completion throw against man to man. However, if you start running zones a lot, they’ll begin tossing hitches and seams to the soft spots in a zone. There’s no magic answer to shutting down the CPU passing attack. It really takes a lot of coverage changes and blitzing to get pressure on the passer, and even then, they’ll still complete 60 percent of their throws with regularity.
Expect Petyon Manning to rip you apart with short dink and dunk passes this year, if you don't adapt.
But that’s also reality. I have a ton of CPU teams that had 60-70 percent completions, but fewer than 10 yards per completion. That translates to a very safe, efficient, dump-off offense. If you’re running solid defense, the QB will still look to dump the ball off to a back or into the flat, just to gain a few yards. That’s football, and this year is the first time that I’ve seen a CPU-managed offense actually try to gain positive yards on every play, instead of just looking for a wide open guy or taking a sack. In short, the quarterbacks are very efficient, but not "unstoppable." It actually creates a CPU offense that’s tougher to stop, especially on the All-Madden difficulty. The CPU will routinely gain 4 yards on third and three. You have to really commit to stopping those 4-yard gains if you want to be successful, but then you’ll risk giving up the big play.
At least in Madden 09, thankfully, the CPU will go for the big play on occasion. Unlike NCAA, where the CPU seems to have problems throwing deeper than 10 yards with regularity, the Madden CPU will go deep on you if you commit too much of your secondary to shallow coverage assignments. It may only be once or twice per game, but the CPU does take its shots, and usually it’s when you blitzed two extra defenders and left receivers one on one in the secondary. I’ll take that in comparison to an offense that takes the short completion, even when the long one is open, any day of the week.
The chess match against the CPU offense can be incredibly fun, and when it’s third and two, and the CPU fools you with a gorgeous play action fake, you deserve to be fooled for a nice gain.
The problem with a short-gain style of offense is that the CPU team needs to make the best decisions possible, or it digs itself a hole that there’s no escape from. If the CPU is executing a gameplan that calls for short gains and ball control, then throwing a swing pass to a tailback that promptly runs out of bounds for no apparent reason can be a problem. It doesn’t happen all the time, but enough to be frustrating. The chess match against the CPU offense can be incredibly fun, and when it’s third and two, and the CPU fools you with a gorgeous play action fake, you deserve to be fooled for a nice gain. Instead, many times the CPU will toss the ball to the fullback in the flat, with nobody around him. That fullback then takes three or four steps toward the sideline and runs out of bounds for a loss on the play. That can really frustrate some gamers, even being considered a game killer to some. It’s not to me, as it doesn’t occur on every play, but I can certainly see where the detractors are coming from on that issue.
Late game clock management is also erratic. Some games, I’ve seen the CPU go on an absolute tear down the field, shredding my defense no matter what I call. Other times, the CPU has seemed so lackadaisical that it appeared to be just casually sauntering up to the line, only to call a dive play from its own 40-yard line, down by five, with 35 seconds left to play. That only happened a handful of times in two full seasons, but it happened enough to warrant mentioning. If you’re the type of gamer looking for infallible AI and clock management, then you’ll be disappointed by some of the decisions that the CPU makes.
Best Playing Madden in Years?
But in the end, when you look at the package as a whole, this is the best playing Madden in years. When you combine the fluid animation system and the ability to break out of tackles, with defenders that are no longer psychic -- even when playing on All-Madden (or higher, based on the My Skill rating) -- that's a big step for the Madden series; especially because I’ve never been the type that loves to play on the highest difficulty just to see juiced up defenders artificially compensating. From what I’ve seen so far, the CPU defenders take smarter angles and are more decisive on higher difficulty levels; therefore, they aren't just necessarily on steroids that make them run faster and jump higher. That’s a good thing in my book. But when it comes down to it, I always ask myself “does this game resemble the real thing, and convey that package in a realistic manner?”
The variety of games you can get with Madden 09 has no limits.
Madden 09 definitely does, in my opinion. You can actually have defensive slugfests during eight minute quarters. You can also have the occasional shootout. Teams with poor rushing defense can be worn down and hammered on, while other teams with a great linebacking corps will obliterate your rushing attack. It feels like football, warts and all. When you have 120 plays in a game, and three or four are head-scratchers, that’s a far better ratio than in past years. I wouldn’t bank on the promises of patches clearing things up, and I can’t review a game based on what may or may not come to pass.
Madden Moments are Fun the First Time Through
Modes of play don’t mean much if the gameplay isn’t fun, so thankfully that isn’t the problem here. Added for 09 are the Madden Moments, where you recreate famous situations from past NFL games. Want to try and complete the Super Bowl winning drive for the Giants last year, or put a drive together to preserve the Dolphins 1-15 season? You can do that, and most of the scenarios are genuinely fun to play. Putting together a game-winning drive as time expires can be incredibly intense. It’s a good fix for a short play session, but nothing that you’ll spend a ton of time on once the first impression wears off; and there’s no real benefit to replay the scenarios once you have beaten them.
Superstar Mode, Still More Work to Do
Superstar mode is back, and fairly unchanged from previous seasons. You’ll see the same e-mails and scheduling, even be lofted to starter over a 99-rated player. (My wide receiver that I created was drafted by the Patriots and was the number one receiver even with Randy Moss still on the team.) So in this case Madden could really learn from NCAA. In NCAA, you have to practice hard (relatively speaking, as it’s simply a points value) to move up the depth chart. In Madden, you’re the savior of the franchise, drafted in the third (or worse) round and elevated to starter before your first practice. That needs to change. You can still call for the ball as a receiver or running back, and can even have Tom Brady throw into triple coverage simply because the rookie third rounder asked for it.
All in all, the mode is back, mostly unchanged, but the new camera makes it a bit more fun to play than in past years.
Thankfully, however, EA adjusted the camera to be more organic, allowing you to cover an offensive player if he leaves the screen without having to do any frantic pressing of the B button to flip around and try to avoid becoming disoriented. If you try to stick to your assigned play, you have a much better chance of seeing the proper angle to take, or how to run down a ball carrier when on defense. All in all, the mode is back, mostly unchanged, but the new camera makes it a bit more fun to play than in past years.
And then there is Franchise, which is the meat and potatoes of an offline Madden gamer’s diet. This is the area where every version is declared a winner, or broken altogether. Depending on what makes a franchise mode “broken” to you is very subjective, so it’s a tough thing to really nail down.
My experience, so far, has been more positive than negative. I played two seasons with the Raiders (simulating some games and playing all divisional games with a handful of extras), and found nothing in the mode to lead me to declare it "BROKEN!" or "HORRIBLE!" or anything close. There are some statistical quirks, and the progression may not be what some people want it to be, but it’s certainly not “broken.” For example, after my first season playing with JaMarcus Russell, he was elevated to an 86 overall (from an 83). Darren McFadden went from 85 to an 88. The pattern here is that they seem to be changing by three points each.
Franchise mode has some issues, but is largely a good experience.
I’d need a lot of seasons of actual playing (not just simulating) to create a larger sample size, but it’s not considered game breaking to me to have players who have a decent season, and thus get increased marginally. A guy doesn’t become a future Hall of Famer (Manning, Brady, Moss, etc) overnight, but a breakout season can result in an increase in ability. If you have three great years, you’ll be raised probably 10 points. Again, if it’s a hard-coded “three point maximum” rule, I can see how that may annoy some people.
If you have somebody who comes out of nowhere and rushes for 2,000 yards as a 78-rated back, then having him come into the next season as an 81 can probably rub some people the wrong way. But if he rushed for 2,000 yards before, would I need a huge increase for his rating the second time he did it? It’s all a matter of opinion, and I’m fine with steady progression on players. Some will hate it and call for EA’s head (it’s inevitable), while others may never notice. I’m firmly entrenched in the middle. I think there’s probably a better way to handle breakout players, and players getting old and having ratings drastically drop to simulate hitting the proverbial wall, but I’m not going to declare Franchise mode broken because of that, either.
What kills it for me (and the vast majority of franchise gamers) is statistical accuracy for season stats. I’m not going to say the ones I’ve seen are flawless, but they’re MUCH better than what I have seen in the past. I took a sample of the top three in the major categories at the end of a season, and while you have a low number of QBs throwing 30 TDs, or guys getting more than 10 sacks, you don’t always see a large number of players doing that in reality, either. I have completed a couple of offseasons, and what I saw didn’t infuriate me like the “Mike Vick 2,000 rushing yard” years.
The simulation engine passing stats aren’t perfect, but they’re certainly not so far out of the realm of reality that they’re unbelievable.
For QB rating, Tom Brady topped the league at 104.9, Eli Manning (that’s a head scratcher) was second at 104.6, and brother Peyton came in at 101.5. I guess winning a Super Bowl gets cyber-Eli some serious respect at EA. Peyton led the QB yardage battle with 4,049, Marc Bulger had 3,843, and Phillip Rivers finished out the top three with 3,826. I didn’t see seven guys over 4,000 yards like last year, so it wasn’t so absurd that it was inconceivable. Donovan McNabb threw for the most TDs in the league at 32, while Bulger had 30, and Eli had 29. The simulation engine passing stats aren’t perfect, but they’re certainly not so far out of the realm of reality that they’re unbelievable.
Rushing the ball, Adrian Peterson led the league with 1,730 yards, LaDainian Tomlinson was second with 1,545, and Fred Taylor had 1,492. Taylor also had 12 TDs to lead the league in a tie with LT, and Marion the Barbarian had 11. Rushing average is what actually impressed me, as Adrian Peterson had his standard 6 yards per carry, but Brian Westbrook made an appearance at 5.5. Westbrook has a lot of the big runs on draws and spread runs, so to see a high yards per carry for him was nice. LT finished off the top three with 5.3 per carry. Again, believable stats.
Receiving is where you start to see numbers that may raise some eyebrows. Torry Holt was the only player with 100 catches, as Deion Branch was second with 93, and oldie-but-still-goodie Derrick Mason was third with 90. A year after six players posted 100-catch seasons, it’s tough to remember that in 2006, only one person did (Andre Johnson of the Texans). Receptions are obviously slanted to how many quarterbacks had monster years, so with only one QB over 4,000 yards, it’s understandable that we’d have a single 100-reception receiver. It is also understandable that it would be Holt. As far as yardage, Reggie Wayne led the league with 1,408 yards, Holt had 1,360, and Braylon Edwards made an appearance with 1,176. For TDs, Wayne had 14, while Holt had 13, and youngster Dwayne Bowe had 12. Again, these are stats that may not be exactly in line with last season, or the one before, but aren’t outside the realm of possibility. The NFL stat sheet varies by year on offense, and I have no problem “believing” these stats in a franchise.
There are still some issues with the sim stats, which will annoy some gamers.
Defensively, however, the stats come in quite a bit lower than expected. I have to assume it’s because Madden players don’t record the same number of tackles that real players do in a game, so the sim engine drops their output a bit. But purists who know that 36 guys had more than 100 tackles last year (and leading tackler Patrick Willis had 174) will probably take exception to the fact that Willis led my franchise season with 127, Morlon Greenwood was second with 113, along with rookie Curtis Lofton of the Falcons having a big impact with 113 as well. Now, those numbers are low. Period. But are they so low that it ruins the development of defenders? I’m not sure. I know that I have no hope of getting 170 tackles with my linebackers in the game, but 100 to 120 is a possibility.
I have to guess that it’s a design decision that was made to allow defensive players on human-controlled teams to make the Pro Bowl and garner attention for season awards. Leonard Little posted the most sacks with 13, tied with Darnell Dockett. Dewayne White had 12 sacks, and that’s a bit low for most seasons, but again, most defensive stats are going to be slightly lower than reality, just like previous versions.
Interceptions, though, were more in line (since interceptions are usually higher since they’re user-controllable). Nnamdi Asomugha led the league with nine, Ronde Barber had eight, and Troy Polamalu had six. Defensive stats across the board are a little lower than reality, but just to beat a dead horse, it’s the only way a human controlled defense can compete for the lead in any given statistical category.
When it comes down to it, the statistical accuracy is close enough to resemble the real sport in Franchise mode, while making concessions to allow the player the ability to compete and develop defensive stars. This is a necessary sacrifice if a player wants to have any hope of creating the next Brian Urlacher or Ed Reed, and one that I’ll gladly accept, personally.
Head to Head Gaming is Hit or Miss
For many gamers, however, offline play just doesn’t do it for them. They’re out for the thrill of competition against human opponents. Any of the complaints of AI quirks that appear in games against the CPU in Madden 09 are gone when you square off against another player. I’ve had games where my quarterback could not throw a pass on target to save his life, and neither could my opponent. I’ve had games where I threw six interceptions, and others where I was flawless through the air. Games can actually turn into defensive struggles, as I even had one online game where the combined score was 20, on seven-minute quarters. That’s a breath of fresh air when compared to the score-happy versions in the past. I haven’t seen any huge money plays that can’t be stopped, but again, it’s not even release day yet, and the majority of the shady players haven’t gotten their mitts on a copy yet. I can’t confirm or deny the existence of a money play or cheese online, but I can say that I haven’t personally seen any during the games I’ve played.
So if you want to play with your kids, you can set them at a lower difficulty than you use, which is a great equalizer.
Another great thing is that you can set separate difficulty settings for each player offline. So if you want to play with your kids, you can set them at a lower difficulty than you use, which is a great equalizer. My 8-year-old loves the Patriots (what new football fan doesn’t, I guess), and he took a pretty big lead over my All-Madden difficulty Cowboys. He was able to run the ball well and I had to do more on my own than he did. His other 10 players elevated their play to compensate, while I had to manually switch to get things done, and it worked out beautifully. After four six-minute quarters, it was a one-point game. The fact that I can sit down without lowering the difficulty for my own play (which would leave me feeling a bit bored during the game itself, but loving the interaction with my son), and still get a real challenge says a lot about the job the developers have done making a game that’s accessible, yet still true to the sport. I can now fight tooth and nail for every yard, while my son can fling it around the field and cause me to think hard about how to stop his aerial attack, because the throws are so pin-point, and my pass rush isn’t quite the same unless I control it. It’s really a joy to play with your kids, which is amazing to me, considering how fun it is to play against the AI as well.
The highly-touted online leagues feature, however, leaves a lot to be desired. You can get in on leagues of up to 32 teams, but it’s basically a round robin tournament with stat tracking -- if you create the league with unique rosters on, without them, you get no tracking at all. You can join a tournament and set it to schedule one game against everybody, or more. The problem here is, with a 32-man league, you’re playing 31 other games? That seems a bit crazy. The fact that EA included “online leagues” without any ability to create divisions and a true schedule is very odd to me. I know that EA wants to get the foundation working and all of that, but why did it take four versions on the next-generation of consoles to do that?
Online Leagues will dissapoint many expecting a franchise like experience.
If you’re going to tout a feature as potentially large as online leagues, you really should make sure that they have a full feature set and aren’t just glorified round robin tourneys. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have them available for the tournament players who want to square off against other people in what amounts to a ladder format. You can even make one-for-one player trades if the players have completed the same number of games.
Bottom line, online leagues are a feature that many people will use, but a lot of people are also under the wrong impression about. It’s not a truly robust league environment, it’s just a ladder system with trades, which tracks wins, losses and stats.
The Graphical Lowdown
The fact that I’ve written so much already and not even commented on graphics or presentation is tough to understand, but rest assured that I’ve gotten there finally. The graphics are, quite frankly, the best in a football game to date, and finally reach the level of the controversial “target video” shown before Madden 06 released … four years later. So much of the view is grass, and yet no fields have actually looked like grass until now. It sounds like a ridiculous thing to be gushing over, but it really does improve the experience dramatically. You won’t see the field get torn up, which is disappointing, but at least it looks like a field now, and not sprayed-on green paint. Player models also received a noticeable tweaking. Gone are the Schwarzenegger-esque player models from past years, replaced with models that are appropriate to their position. Receivers look lanky, linebackers look like they’re carrying around 250 pounds, and linemen look positively huge. For all the people complaining about the goofy player models over the years, I really don’t think you have a complaint anymore. Some of the superstars don’t look like themselves, but overall, the players and the field look fantastic.
The stadiums are also incredibly well done in Madden 09, complete with bustling crowds and flashbulbs going off in the stands (which, thankfully, were toned down from the demo). You will now get an outside view of the stadium as you enter a game, but sadly, it’s the only time you’ll see it. It would be nice to see some cutaways like a television broadcast once in a while, but that’s being incredibly nitpicky. The stadiums are top-notch, and seeing them with this year’s lighting engine is a treat.
The game looks much better than what is has ever looked.
The lighting, by the way, is stellar. Day games are inching closer to realistic lighting as the technology improves, and night games (which have always been the easiest for football games to make “realistic” looking) are incredible. However, the snow games are far and away the coolest thing you’ll see. They have a faint blue hue to the overall picture, which makes it look like you’re playing under a thick, overcast sky. It’s a very dreary presentation, as it should be when you’re playing in a blizzard. Rain doesn’t receive quite the same treatment, as you still won’t see it splashing from player helmets and the like, but it does collect in puddles on the field. Player uniforms do finally get completely destroyed and covered with mud as a game goes on, though. Overall, when you look at the graphical presentation, you can’t help but be impressed by Madden 09. It’s just quality for 95 percent of it.
It’s certainly not anything that really affects the on-field gameplay, or most sane players’ ability to enjoy it, but it’s worth pointing out in the hopes that one of these years EA will address the crowd environment and make it more “alive.”
The 5 percent that doesn’t look so hot are those previously mentioned crowds. I can understand why the crowd constantly gets represented as a cardboard-cutout look, but it still sticks out. You have this game that looks like a Victoria’s Secret model, and then you notice she has a really messed up grill. You start to notice her mouth more and more, because it’s so out of place with the rest of the package. That’s kind of how the crowds feel in Madden 09. You will probably get past it rather easily (I did), but every time I’d look at them, you could see the animation pattern at work. Some would rise, others would sit, and it would continue on like a predictable slide show. It’s certainly not anything that really affects the on-field gameplay, or most sane players’ ability to enjoy it, but it’s worth pointing out in the hopes that one of these years EA will address the crowd environment and make it more “alive.”
That lack of life carries over into the sound department, as well. It’s not that the crowds are bad, but they’re just “there.” They quickly turn into white noise in the background, and you don’t get the feeling that you’re in the midst of 60,000 screaming fans at an NFL stadium. The sounds could have been digitally recorded at an actual game for all I know, but the “oomph” is missing from the sound of a real screaming mob. Their voices will rise and fall with big plays, but much like their animations, the voices are very predictable and they sound artificial. I don’t know how they can be fixed, but the Madden crowds fit into the video game version of the Uncanny Valley hypothesis.
Sounds Like a Winner?
Thankfully, Chris Collinsworth is there to save the day. If there’s a better color commentary in video game form, I’m all ears. I had my doubts about putting him in the game when I heard that he was going to do the commentary along with Tom Hammond, but I’m a believer now. Collinsworth’s delivery is a shining example of not “mailing it in”; it's how to make commentary feel organic and alive, with smartass quips that only he manages to pull off. Love him or hate him, the guy can actually bring a chuckle out when he starts tearing you apart for that “embarrassing” play you just ran.
I don’t know if he’s just bad, or if Collinsworth is the anti-Michael Jordan: instead of making those around him better, he makes those around him seem worse.
Tom Hammond, however, is very robotic and just bland. I don’t know if he’s just bad, or if Collinsworth is the anti-Michael Jordan: instead of making those around him better, he makes those around him seem worse. His delivery is so smooth, with that under-his-breath chuckle as he makes fun of you, that Hammond’s stoic delivery seems like it was coming from a Speak N’ Spell. In the end, though, I really didn't dread hearing the commentary in Madden 09, but frankly, could anything be worse than the “radio guy”? I feared that this could be, but it turned out to be serviceable. I’m sure it helps that the entire commentary library is new and still fresh, but it’s still somewhat enjoyable to hear new dialogue lines in a sports game once again.
Combine the fresh commentary with the return of statistical overlays (finally!), and you have a winner. Seeing stat overlays return for everything from individual player stats, to team stats, and everything in between is a welcomed feature. I didn’t really need to be reminded that I was less than two yards per carry against the Ravens, but it’s still nice to see things pop up on screen between plays. Other presentation items worthy of note are a slightly tweaked camera, which manages to show more relevant on-screen action without losing focus. If you throw a ball, for example, it will stay zoomed out to show you the ball, not zooming in until it is caught. This is a marked improvement over instantly zooming to the landing location, not allowing you to see the ball path or where it is in flight.
I just had to sneak the Chiefs in here somehow, even if they will stink this year.
I could probably go on for days and still be dragged through the mud for forgetting something that’s incredibly important to one particular gamer, but not necessarily to another. In the end, Madden 09’s worth is what it means not only to me, but what I think the majority will get out of the title. The series made a larger leap between 08 and 09 than in any version before, and it’s quite simply my favorite football game to play. That may raise some eyebrows, but when you look at the overall effort put into Madden 09, it’s hard to ignore. The graphics made a noticeable leap forward. The gameplay is by and large true to the sport (with asterisks for AI out-of-bounds behavior and laser-accurate CPU QBs), and the customizable difficulty levels tune the game to anybody’s ability.
If the leagues were more like leagues, and CPU incompletions weren’t almost always a tip or an interception, this would vault into “9” territory. As it is, it’s great, on the cusp of legendary.
Add to that the solid online play, as well as the tournaments-called-leagues feature, and Madden Moments, and when you wrap all of it up, you have a “greater than the sum of its parts” game. Strides were made forward in almost every area, and the portions that aren’t true to life aren’t so bad that it’s impossible to look past. There will still be people in the world who will scream “BROKEN!” from the rooftops to anyone who will listen, and I can’t do anything about that. What I can do is say that Madden NFL 09 is the complete package. It’s fun to play, it’s easy for newbies but difficult to master, the Franchise mode is certainly playable, and online play is rock solid. To make things even better, the development team has been here on the OS boards constantly, and genuinely appears to be interested in the community’s voice. That bodes very well for the future, but even in the present, Madden is still leaps and bounds better than recent efforts, and is my favorite football title in years. If the leagues were more like leagues, and CPU incompletions weren’t almost always a tip or an interception, this would vault into “9” territory. As it is, it’s great, on the cusp of legendary.