- Buy the Game
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
o steal a page out of the “Saw” marketing team’s playbook… if it’s August, it must be “Madden.” This year, however, is a little different, as the popular video game franchise celebrates its 20th anniversary. To commemorate the event, Electronic Arts has released a snazzy special edition of the game which includes an advanced copy of “Head Coach 09,” a retro playbook, a DVD of classic NFL footage, and a full version of “Madden 93.” Of course, that’s just the icing on top of an already sweet cake. Piggybacking off the success of last year’s installment, “Madden 09” may not look very new on paper, but by the time you fire it up for the first time, believe me, you’ll definitely see the difference.
One of the first things you’ll notice upon loading the game is that John Madden has been given a different role this time out. Though he’s been mostly absent from the series for the last few years, Madden is now your official liaison, and his first order of business is corralling you into a new game mode appropriately titled the Madden Test. A virtual trainer that looks like you’ve been dropped into the world of “Tron,” Madden Test measures a player’s skill level through 12 drills in rushing, passing and defense. This skill level (also called your Madden IQ) changes as you play, so if you’re tearing it up on the ground against a particularly weak defensive line, the game will correspond by increasing the difficulty of that part of your offense. It doesn’t always work quite as well as it should (the pre-game test is pretty easy, so if you don’t skip it, prepare to begin on a higher level of difficulty than you’re used to), but at least it prevents anyone from running the same play over and over again.
Other new additions include Madden Moments, a series of task-based challenges made up of memorable scenarios from last season (like Devin Hester’s two TD returns against the Vikings or the Giants’ Super Bowl upset), and a Fantasy Football mode that allows you to manage and play as your EA fantasy team. Both prove to be welcome distractions from the daily grind of Franchise mode, and while the new online leagues aim to do the same, there are still some kinks that need to be worked out – namely that it’s near impossible to find a league that isn’t password locked or hasn't already begun. Of course, while past installments relied on exactly this type of supplemental material to convince fans they were getting something other than a roster update, this year is all about the game itself.
Designed with the idea that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it, “Madden 09” plays almost exactly the same as its predecessor. There are some minor changes, though, that really make a difference in the long run. For starters, the graphics are unbelievable. Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “they were pretty darn impressive last year, too,” but once you realize just how drastic the difference is (from the crisper environments to the more believable weather effects), you’ll never be able to play a game of “Madden 08” again without noticing that your players don’t get muddy in the rain, or that they don’t leave footprints when running through the snow.
Additionally, the play-by-play commentating has been given new life thanks to the arrival of Tom Hammond and Cris Collinsworth in the booth. Collinsworth in particular plays an essential role in making the game feel like a televised event, and the new Backtrack feature – which has the former Bengals receiver breaking down failed plays to show what you did wrong – is an invaluable tool for anyone hoping to improve. The likeminded Rewind option, which gives players the ability to erase a mistake by replaying the down again, will definitely irk seasoned pros and football loyalists alike, but since you’re in control of the number of Rewinds each player receives, it only makes the game even more accessible to newcomers.
That's not all, either. You can now call bluff plays on the line of scrimmage, audibles are no longer spelled out for your opponent with hand signals, and celebrations (like dunks over the goal post or mimicking Chad Johnson’s riverdance) can be initiated by running into lighted areas of the endzone. It all makes the experience that much more realistic, and though the increased difficulty had me grumbling through my first couple of games, I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is “Madden” after all, and if Electronic Arts made it that easy to adapt to the new dynamics of gameplay each year, it wouldn’t be the most successful sports franchise in video game history. Happy Birthday “Madden,” and here’s to another great 20 years.