OK, we'll admit right now that, beyond a few screens and a single movie, we haven't seen Madden NFL 09. However, that doesn't mean we haven't found out a whole bunch about the game in the past two days. EA Sports is in New York City this week to unveil NCAA Football 09 and also announce former Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre as the cover athlete for Madden NFL 09, the 20th anniversary of EA Sports' football series. Though EA isn't quite ready to show the game yet, it was definitely talking about the new features and improvements that should make their way into the game when it's released later this year. Today we met with EA Sports' senior producer Phil Frazier for a "preseason" discussion of what this highly anticipated game will offer.
We already know that NCAA Football 09 is taking online play seriously with the introduction of online dynasty, but it seems Madden NFL 09 is looking to up its online game as well. Online leagues will be one of the biggest features in the game this year, allowing up to 32 real players to take each other on in a real competitive environment. According to Frazier, this is something that the fans and developers alike have wanted for a while now.
"We're real excited about it," Frazier said. "It's one of those features that has been called out in reviews; it's been called out on message boards. We know people have wanted online leagues, and we're finally delivering." Up to 32 players will be able to compete in games, participate in the NFL Draft, conduct trades between one another, and more in this mode all on a schedule that works for each player in the league. "The nice thing about it is flex scheduling," said Frazier. "You can play your games in any order, at any time. You don't have to play one game a week; you can play five games a week if all five of your opponents are online." The ability to skip games sounds like it will be a crucial tool toward ensuring that your online league--many of which fall apart because of the rigorous scheduling--continues through multiple seasons.
While the league play will surely be a lynchpin in the Madden NFL 09 experience, it certainly won't be the only feature in the game. Frazier is quick to point out the improved animation system that will be found in the game--one that builds off the work that was begun in the improved branching animation system from last year's Madden. When asked how the animations are improved over Madden NFL 08, Frazier points to the animations themselves, as well as the controls with which you'll be playing.
"First, it's more control. I think that's going to be the one thing that people really pick up on from day one. It was really important for us to make sure that we get the responsiveness back in the game. And [second], we've added a lot of animations of course...we have bobble catches this year, which look fantastic. For the first time ever, you'll see a guy go to make a catch, the ball will fly up in the air, and [the player] will actually go up to make a play for it. There's going to be a lot of new animations you see for the first time ever, the game is more responsive than ever before, and I think the combination of the two make the game more responsive than ever before."
As Frazier puts it, part of the challenge in developing Madden on a yearly basis is creating a balance between catering to the series vets and those who might be coming to a football game for the first time. In Madden NFL 09, part of servicing both crowds will be what Frazier refers to as "real football intelligence." A prime example of this will be the EA Sports "backtrack" feature, which will serve as a valuable tool for the hardcore and casual crowds alike.
"When you're playing the game and you make a mistake, the game is going to highlight that mistake and tell you what you should have done in that situation. Guys that are really hardcore don't need to be told that they should be throwing to [a particular] receiver. That's not what they need. But what they will like is the fact that on that specific play, [the game] will lay the play art out on the field of the two plays that were picked on offense and defense. And on top of that, [the game] will show who was hot-routed and why they were hot-routed, and [the game] will give percentages on how often that play is going to be successful in this situation."
As Frazier describes it, the backtrack tool will be both a teaching tool to show you what you did wrong on a play, as well as a method for people to turn back the clock and start a play over again. Using the "rewind" feature, you'll be able to try a play over again from the start, select a different strategy, and ideally end up with a more successful play. New drills (known as the virtual training center) will also be added to these tools that will be more related to the actual gameplay in Madden (as opposed to the 40-yard dash and bench press minigames of previous versions).
The 12 drills are not only designed to improve your skills with the sticks, but they'll also affect your so-called "Madden IQ," which is a numerical measurement of your skill with the game. We expect a number of factors go into determining your final Madden IQ, but it doesn't seem like this feature will be used when it comes to finding matchups online. Frazier said the weapons feature, introduced in last year's Madden as a way to quickly identify impact players on the field, will return in Madden 09, and the team is currently hard at work evaluating the talent in the game to see who will be categorized as what kind of weapon in the game.
Fans who want the full football experience will probably want to shell out the $90 it will take to get the collector's edition of Madden NFL 09,which will also include a packed-in version of NFL Head Coach 09. Players will be able to create plays from scratch in Head Coach, and Madden 09 will be able to automatically append those created plays to your Madden playbook. So far, that sounds like the only interaction between the two games, but the collector's edition of Madden 09 will also include an emulated version of John Madden Football '93, as well as some custom videos that will only be found in the collector's edition.
Other additions, such as better weather effects (including snow that accumulates on the field) and 60 frames per second for both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions are smaller but notable improvements that look to improve on last year's game. Of course, talking about Madden 09 is all well and good, but we are looking forward to actually seeing and playing the game for the first time in the coming months. You can be sure we'll be following up with full reports on the game as we lead up to its release later this summer.