When John Madden Football was released in 1988, no one had any idea that it was the beginning of one of the best-selling series of all time. But after 20 years, tens of millions of copies sold, countless tournaments, and even a TV show, Madden is a global phenomenon. When you purchase a Madden game, you know you're going to be the beneficiary of 20 years of experience. Fine-tuned gameplay, top-notch player animation, extraordinarily detailed playbooks, and competitive multiplayer are all series staples. This year's Madden is just what you'd expect: It doesn't take a whole lot of chances with the formula that has proven so successful in the past. Improvements such as the additions of Cris Collinsworth as a commentator and a backtrack feature that points out and helps correct your mistakes make for a great football experience. However, there are quite a few issues that keep Madden 09 from reaching its full potential, such as disappointing online leagues and mostly unchanged Franchise and Superstar modes.
Madden 09 has a number of features designed to address the steep learning curve associated with the series. This year’s game is clearly one of the most user-friendly versions in recent years, but unfortunately, beginners will still probably have a tough time learning the ropes, in spite of these new features. If you throw an interception or take a bad sack, Cris Collinsworth will break down the play for you and explain not only what you did wrong, but what you should have done instead. Collinsworth's analysis during these backtrack segments is startlingly accurate and useful--it's just a shame these moments occur at random. It would have been nice to call them up at any time. Another useful yet controversial addition is the ability to rewind plays and try them again. This is a great way to help you learn from your mistakes and it's nice to have a do-over if you get cheesed by the CPU, but it takes self-control not to rewind anytime you make a bad play. Rewinding a buddy's touchdown is also a surefire way to prematurely end your friendship.
When you first boot the game, a virtual Madden that looks just like R2-D2's projection of Princess Leia in Star Wars appears onscreen to administer a Madden IQ test. This test takes place in a VR simulator and consists of running, passing, tackling, and pass-coverage drills. The game will adjust its difficulty based on the results of this test. This process is a good idea in theory, but it doesn't work. The offensive drills are so easy that it's possible for first-timers to score well enough that the test results indicate they should play a mixture of all-pro and all-Madden difficulties. The defensive drills are a little more accurate, but this only serves to highlight how difficult it is to play defense in the game. Your IQ will fluctuate based on your performance during games, but it takes so long to balance out your IQ that you're better off manually setting the difficulty to rookie and using the simplified playbooks if you're a beginner. The simple playbooks combined with Collinsworth's backtrack analysis are a step in the right direction when it comes to making Madden more accessible to casual players, but more work needs to be done before these newcomers truly feel welcome. A manual or in-game documentation that explains all of the game's features would be great, as would some sort of in-game glossary. How many people who don't watch football every week know what a "cover 2" is anyway?
There are a number of gameplay enhancements that make Madden 09 play better than 08. The ability to bluff plays from the line of scrimmage lets you view your play and then display fake routes to mislead your opponent. You can also quickly call audibles without changing your formation and inadvertently tipping off the other player. Another excellent addition is that you can now tell individual receivers to run smart routes on third down. This will ensure that they don't stop their routes short of the first-down marker. It would be nice if receivers were smart enough to adjust on their own, but at least the smart-route option is available. On the defensive side of the ball, you can spotlight a receiver. This puts an extra player on a receiver to ensure double coverage on the play. By no means does it render that receiver a nonfactor, but it's now a great way of slowing down an opponent who passes to the same guy over and over again. The only problem with the number of pre-snap adjustments is that it's near impossible to perform many of them when you're on defense due to the short amount of time between when you come out of the play-calling screen and when the ball is snapped. Sure, there are Madden savants out there who can call an audible, shift the line, highlight a receiver, tell the left outside linebacker to spy on the QB, and fake a blitz in five seconds, but most people can't.
Just as there are plenty of good things to talk about with regard to 09's gameplay, there are some problems worth mentioning. Slants and crossing routes are exceedingly difficult to defend against. The linebackers who could snag almost any ball out of thin air last year were annoying, but so is watching a lousy QB and below-average tight end pick you apart like they're Peyton Manning and Dallas Clark. It's not all fun and games for QBs and receivers though. Quarterbacks will frequently overthrow passes in the flat so that they lead receivers right out of bounds or receivers will get stuck in an animation and, head to the sidelines, lose yards, or run right into a tackler. This is a huge problem in Superstar mode when running screen plays. The more you play the more you'll notice the sometimes questionable AI. CPU-controlled teams might not opt for an onsides kick when they're down by a few points with no time-outs and less than two minutes on the clock. Officiating is also hit or miss. Referees typically ignore holding and are often inaccurate when spotting the ball, and booth reviews are a total crapshoot--you never know what the ruling is going to be. Other nagging issues include sometimes horrific tackling, occasionally inept blocking, unstoppable quarterback sneaks, and play-action's utter lack of effectiveness against the CPU.
Series fans have been clamoring for online leagues for years, and this is the first year the mode has been included. Well, sort of. Yes, you and up to 31 other players can form a league and play against one other whenever you like, regardless of how many games other participants have played. In that sense there are online leagues; it's just that they aren't any good. You can't fill out the league with CPU-controlled teams, so if you've got only three friends to play with, you're left with a four-person league. There is a draft, but it's an autodraft that selects players based on your predraft rankings. Again, having just a handful of players hampers the experience because everyone in the league will get awesome players. There aren't a whole lot of weaknesses a defense can focus on when the opposition's fifth-best receiver is Pro-Bowler Anquan Boldin. The default settings don't even allow for player statistics to be tracked (stat-tracking is curiously tied to the unexplained "unique rosters" setting). When you consider how full-featured Electronic Arts' own NCAA Football 09's online dynasty is (although it has its own problems), it's puzzling that Madden's online leagues are so lacking. At least online gameplay generally performs well. We had some frustrating problems with the kick meter not recognizing our input, but for the most part, the action was extremely smooth and lag was never an issue.
Longtime fans of the series will recognize the "all new" Madden Challenge feature. These challenges, which have appeared in some form or another in some earlier Madden games, let you try your hand at reliving some of the more dramatic moments of the 2007 NFL season. This is a good way of quickly placing yourself in a variety of different high-pressure situations, but the sometimes punishingly difficult/cheap AI, combined with the repetitive nature of many of the challenges, ensure that the fun is short-lived. One final new mode lets you use your console to track fantasy football teams created (for free) on the EA Sports Web site. At the time of this review the NFL season hadn't yet started, so we were unable to see the stat-tracking mode in action. It's not going to make up for the game's lousy online leagues, but its inclusion will likely please those looking to manage their Madden and fantasy football addictions at the same time.
The rest of the game modes are holdovers from last year. Franchise mode is solid. The simulated statistics seem to be fairly accurate, and it's certainly fun to take the reins of a franchise, but the mode has received only cursory attention since last year, and you can still sign overpriced free agents and package them into deals for draft picks and star players. That's more than can be said for Superstar mode, which is virtually indistinguishable from its 08 incarnation. If you've never tried to take a created player or rookie from his first training camp to the Hall of Fame, there's some fun to be had here, but if you've previously put up with the lame training events, obnoxious agents, and inane e-mails from your in-game mom, there's nothing here that warrants another look.
Madden 09 is easily the best-looking Madden to date. The presentation now features more dynamic camera angles, and player emotion is a bigger part of the game than ever thanks to new touchdown celebrations. By running to a highlighted area of the end zone and pressing a button after a score you can dunk the ball over the goalpost, climb up the wall to bask in the admiration of the fans, and more. The dunks often don't work and they look kind of terrible, but the rest of the celebrations are cool--especially when you steal another player's move. You can do Chad Johnson's River Dance or Steve McNair's hands-to-the-helmet pose, or you can taunt Denver fans with the Mile High salute. Other player animations are top-notch, and if you play enough you'll notice some great little touches, such as kickers tackling just as awkwardly as they do in real life. You'll see some odd transitions and quirky moves upon close inspection of replays (which can be uploaded and shared online), but you'd be hard pressed to notice most of these instances during gameplay.
Stadiums aren't blurry anymore, and they feature more detail than ever--they look great. Snow and rain effects have been cranked up to where it feels as if you're playing in a blizzard or monsoon. By the end of a game in the rain, players' uniforms will be absolutely filthy. You'd have been grounded for a week if you had come home that dirty when you were a kid. The only knock against the weather is that field conditions don't seem to degrade as the game progresses. It's odd to have players caked in mud when the grass looks like the fairways at Augusta. You may notice some stuttering before and after plays, but when the ball's in play, the frame rate is as fast and smooth as you could hope for.
Cris Collinsworth is easily the highlight of Madden 09's audio. His commentary is timely, accurate, and insightful, and it sounds perfectly natural. Imagine having one of the best commentators in the league standing next to you talking about your grudge match against your little brother like it's a real-life showdown in the playoffs--that's how good Cris is here. On the other side of the coin is play-by-play announcer Tom Hammond's performance. It's bad enough that he'll remind you that the game is "brought to you by EA Sports" several times per game, but his choppy, vague, and monotone play calling will almost make you miss the radio-style announcer from previous years. Almost. John Madden might be one of the greatest announcers of all time, but you'd never know it by listening to the game that bears his name. His vaunted "return" to the franchise is limited to brief pregame introductions as well as one or two sentences at halftime and the end of the game. He barely even talks during "ask Madden" plays; occasionally he'll explain why he's suggesting a play, but a vast majority of the time he doesn't say a thing.
The Madden series has been so good for so long that the bar for each yearly release is extremely high. And it's because standards are so high that, while it's still great, Madden 09 could have been better. For every addition, like the backtrack feature, Collinsworth, or improved visuals, there's a problem that rears its ugly head, like the unchanged Superstar mode, poor pass coverage in the middle of the field, or underwhelming online leagues. Newcomers will still face a steep learning curve, but if you're a football fan or series veteran, you can't go wrong with Madden 09.