EA Sports recently held its 2008 NFL Rookie Madden Challenge in Los Angeles, hosting a number of rookie NFL players in an eight-player tournament to determine which future NFL star has the most skill on the sticks. Newly minted Washington Redskins wide receiver Devin Thomas took home the trophy during the tournament, beating up on former Appalachian State (and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers) wideout Dexter Jackson to take the win. However, before all of the Madden madness began, we got a chance to check out the upcoming Madden NFL 09 for the first time.
After booting up the game, our first step was to establish our Madden IQ, a new feature in the game that will automatically gauge your skill through a series of minigames presented in a futuristic hologram style. There are four drills to run through--run offense, pass offense, run defense, and pass defense--and, despite the sci-fi visuals, the minigames themselves will be familiar to Madden players straightaway. For the running drills, your goal will be to beat individual defenders on your way toward a touchdown, whereas in the passing tests, you'll be judged on the number of passes you can complete against a variety of coverages.
As you might expect, you'll be asked to stop the CPU from moving the ball during the defensive run and passing drills. We assumed that the defensive running drills would be fairly easy, but they actually proved to be tougher than the passing defense drills. This was partially because of the difficulty of making open-field tackles one-on-one, and partially because the CPU seemed a bit too adept at busting out of tackles. Similarly, on the surface the passing defensive drills seemed like they might be the most difficult, given that staying tight with a receiver in Madden has traditionally been an advanced skill. However, that fact is mitigated a bit in the drill because time slows down a little when the virtual quarterback puts the ball up in the air, giving you a chance to get a hand up in the air and break up the play.
At the end of each of the drills, we got a score in each category, ranging from rookie to all-Madden. The final Madden IQ is a mixture of those different scores, and that score is used to dynamically control your game's difficulty as you play through it. When you start a game, you'll be able to pick from a variety of difficulty levels, including the standards such as rookie or all-pro, or choose the "My Skill" difficulty to play the game with your custom difficulty sliders. As your skills improve (or if they degrade), the game will then automatically adjust difficulty aspects to compensate for your rising (or falling) Madden IQ.
There's one other aspect of difficulty in Madden NFL 09: game style. There are a number of different game styles you can choose from before you begin a game, and each presents information to you in a slightly different way once the game begins. On the beginner game style, the game is simplified to a great degree; for example, when in the huddle, the game will give you only one play to call. As you move up through the more advanced game-style options, you'll get more play-call options available to you, until you reach the hardcore level, which is a presentation level designed for the most faithful Madden fans. At the hardcore level, superfluous features such as instant replays and the backtrack feature (which breaks down your busted plays in exacting details) are turned off so that you can get to the next play as quickly as possible.
The dynamic game difficulty and the different game styles are EA's attempt at leveling the playing field a bit between Madden players who might be of wildly different skill levels. When playing against an opponent, both players will be able to choose their individual game style and see just as much (or as little) information about the game as they want.
On the field, Madden 09 has lots of little features that set it apart from the previous year's game. Things such as brand-new camera angles before plays are immediately noticeable, but there are also more substantial improvements that just feel right on the field. At its spring press event in Vancouver, EA talked a lot about the improvements to the character-animation systems from previous years and, even though it's not a night-and-day transition from last year's game, it is noticeable. Players seem more responsive than ever, able to switch directions quicker and, though we weren't able to see it in action ourselves, we understand that the ability to spin out of tackles will help improve the running game. The improved animations won't benefit only the offense; producers told us that the ball-strip animations will be improved to make it slightly easier to pull off.
The weapons feature will be part of Madden 09 and, in addition to reclassifying certain NFL players, the game aims to make some improvements toward getting the most out of your weapons on the field. For example, if you like to play as a lineman when on defense (like we do), you'll get a handy button hint that will recommend whether to try a finesse or power move against an offensive lineman. The suggested move logic seems to be mindful both of the type of player you're controlling as well as the play you've called. In addition, the producers were aware that the jump-catch animations from last year's game were overpowered and, as a result, a defender will be likelier to knock the ball out a receiver's hands when attempting a jump-catch.
The ability to substitute individual players in the play-calling screen is a new feature and a big plus in the game. Although the game will automatically sub out tired players, you can make manual subs from the play-calling screen by pressing the Y button (on the Xbox 360 controller) and then picking off the bench the player who you want to sub in. This is a great way to make quick positional subs to take advantage of a mismatch.
The rewind and backtrack features are two new Madden features that bring an entirely new dimension to gameplay. The rewind feature is essentially a football mulligan that lets you try a play over again if it fails. You can rewind any play, whether on offense or defense; however, as we found out, the CPU will not necessarily run the exact same play again when on offense. For example, we were defending a goal-line stand against the Steelers during one game, when Pittsburgh ran a sweep left with Willie Parker that resulted in a touchdown. After rewinding the game to try the play over again, we cheated our linebackers to the left, but the Steelers adjusted and put Parker up the middle, a clear case of the game being cleverer than the player. Rewind is an interesting feature, but it's easy to see how using rewind too much could be tempting. Luckily you'll be able to set the maximum number of times you can use the rewind in the game (or turn it off altogether).
If EA's rewind is gimmicky, the new backtrack feature seems more like a legitimate teaching tool in Madden 09. Here, the game will give you a full breakdown of a play that you blew, complete with on-field graphics and voice-over explanation from Madden 09 color analyst Cris Collinsworth (one half of the Madden play-by-play team, which also includes Tom Hammond). These backtrack moments will happen during one of three scenarios: 1) If you thrown an interception when another receiver is open; 2) If your quarterback is sacked when an open receiver is available; 3) If you make a bad play call. Further, a "bad play call" is defined as a pass defense going up against a run offense, or a run defense going up against a pass offense that results in a big play. The amount of information shown during these backtrack segments is impressive, including breakdowns of all of the players involved in the play and percentages of success that a particular play had for succeeding. If you pay attention to everything Collinsworth has to say about the play, you'll have a good understanding of what you did wrong so that you might avoid that same mistake in the future.
It's easy to see how much Madden 09 has improved from last year's game in and of itself. Better lighting, grass textures, and improved player models are all immediately noticeable, and the new camera angles work well with the developer's motto of bringing you a football experience that is "beyond broadcast." The difference between Madden 09 and Madden 08 was particularly obvious to us at the Madden Rookie event. After spending some time with the preview build of Madden 09, we headed back out to the rookie tournament, which was playing last year's game, and the visual differences were stark. Everything in Madden 08, from the minimal shadows on the field, to the relatively stilted running animations and the grass textures that looked more like Astroturf, made the game look practically ancient by comparison.
Though we might have liked to spend all evening checking out the latest build of Madden NFL 09, we had to give up the console so that EA Sports producers could show off the Madden rookie ratings to the players on hand at the event. (The Kansas City Chiefs' wideout notably took exception with his 91 speed rating, saying he should be at least a 94.) Nevertheless, our first few bites of Madden have left a great taste in our mouth, and we look forward to seeing more of the game in the near future. Stay tuned for in-depth coverage of Madden NFL 09 here at GameSpot and at our sister sports site SportsGamer in the coming weeks.