Destructoid review: Madden NFL 09

Two decades is a damn long time, and that’s how long Madden NFL has reigned supreme in the realm of simulation football videogames. The franchise has had its ups and downs, to be sure, but in general, EA has delivered a quality product every year since 1988. Madden celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, and for one-fifth of that time period — the last four years — it has been the only officially licensed pro football game on the market.

So, cover athlete fiasco aside, how does Madden NFL 09 fare against its EA-developed brethren from the previous 19 years? Is it another mere “roster update” to a franchise that many complain is getting stale, or does it shake things up enough to provide a great football experience? Hit the jump for opinions from two longtime football fanatics, myself and Brad Nicholson.

Madden NFL 09 screenshot 1

Madden NFL 09 (PS3, 360, Wii, PS2, PSP, DS, Xbox)
Developed by EA Tiburon
Published by Electronic Arts
Released on August 12, 2008

Samit avatar
Samit Sarkar (PlayStation 3 version)

After the immense disappointment that was Madden NFL 08 (on the PS3), I was ready for a fresh start. I love my Madden, and I was eagerly anticipating this year’s release, especially after hearing about all the improvements and changes EA Tiburon was making to the game. Unfortunately, the finished product doesn’t quite live up to the hype, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

Last year, I picked up the PS3 version of Madden 08, and it was visually inferior to its 360 counterpart in a number of ways. While the 360 version was locked at 60 fps, the PS3 version only ran at 30 fps — sometimes. Slowdown was pervasive, and I just couldn’t deal with it. In this day and age, there’s no excuse for delivering a notably lesser product when the two platforms are supposed to be (roughly) equivalent, and EA finally understood that this year. On my PS3, Madden 09 runs at a silky smooth 60 fps, and this game in motion is truly a sight to behold. I never experienced a hint of slowdown throughout the entire game, and that’s saying something, considering last year’s mediocre effort.

One of the things EA Tiburon revamped for 2008 was the tackling engine, and it shows. Combining “canned,” motion-captured animations with some procedurally generated movements, the engine produces the most fluid, lifelike football movements this side of ESPN. Gang tackles look painful, and they finally work as they should. In past years, once a tackling animation was in progress, any other bodies would just bounce off the two players involved in the tackle. Now, tackle animations have no pre-determined result — if you’re quick enough, you can even break free or control which way you fall after you get hit.

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Here’s an example of how things can play out in Madden 09. Let’s say you call an outside run. A cornerback comes at you from the right, while a linebacker barrels toward you on the left side. The CB hits you first, sending you reeling toward the middle of the field, and then the LB smacks into you, forcing you back to the right (and forward, if you’ve kept your feet moving). It may not seem like a big deal, but anybody who knows a thing or two about football will realize that this kind of scenario, which was physically impossible in a Madden game until now, is vital to accurately recreating the sport in videogame form. This isn’t just relegated to tackling, though; receivers can now bobble balls, which makes for some pretty spectacular catches.

The graphics have also undergone a major overhaul. Player models look better than ever, and wouldn’t you know it, they’re actually differentiable from one another! In other words, undersized defensive ends no longer look like offensive tackles. In addition — and this will sound trivial until you see it for yourself — grass looks loads better than it ever has. The turf has been retextured, and it looks fantastic. Along with the field, vast improvements have been made to weather. In past Madden games, you’d have been hard-pressed to tell the difference between a snowy field and a normal one, because the weather engine just didn’t have the horsepower to really recreate a blizzard. Now, if you select “heavy snow” as the weather for a game, the visuals will be transformed — the game takes on a cool bluish hue to reflect the frigid temperature, and snow piles up on the field only to be shoveled away (on the yard lines, that is). You’ll even see a mess of footprints created on each play as the players move around.

Fair-weather games also benefit from upgrades. Your players will get noticeably dirtier over the course of a game, with grass and dirt stains soiling their jerseys. However, EA Tiburon didn’t quite go the extra mile here. Footprints appear in the snow, but inexplicably, there aren’t any “body prints” when players get tackled to the turf. It’s a rather glaring omission that doesn’t make sense. And while the condition of jerseys will worsen throughout a game, there isn’t any perceptible field deformation — it might be double overtime, but the grass will be just as green as it was at kickoff.

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There’s one last visual change that EA made, and it’s a hugely successful one. In all previous football videogames, I found it difficult to keep all the on-field action in view due to the camera angles that the games employed. Madden 09 introduces the ActionCam™, and I can’t really explain how it works its magic, but I can say that it is by far the best camera in the history of football videogames. The only way one of your receivers will be caught off-screen is if he runs a quick out route, and you happen to have rolled out all the way to the other side of the field. There are also special angles for breakaways (when there’s nothing between you and the end zone but the open field, the camera zooms in to follow you to paydirt) and big hits (a jarring shudder of the camera).

Madden 09 also makes a colossal upgrade in the audio department: the lame “radio announcer” who has been calling the games since Madden 06 on the Xbox 360 is gone; in his place, the NFL on NBC duo of Tom Hammond and Cris Collinsworth does a wonderful job. Hammond handles the play-by-play, while Collinsworth provides analysis. The calls provided by Hammond are serviceable — he’s nothing to write home about, but he gets the job done, even though his constant reminders that the game is brought to us by EA Sports quickly get annoying. But the real star of the show is Collinsworth. I’ve always enjoyed his work as an analyst, and he proves knowledgeable as well as entertaining in Madden 09. One of my favorite lines came from his discussion of how a running game helps a quarterback do his thing: “This running game has become a BFF of this quarterback!”

The commentary is mostly spot-on — of course, there’s the occasional missed call, like Hammond saying that you got “stuffed” with “not much room” on a five-yard run, but those are exceedingly rare. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of repetition after playing a few games, but until text-to-speech technology gets to the point where commentary can be procedurally generated in people’s voices, we’ll just have to deal with that. Overall, though, Hammond and Collinsworth are infinitely better than the radio guy from the past few games.

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But that’s not Collinsworth’s only analytical role. In a brand-new feature for Madden 09, dubbed “BackTrack,” he gets to truly strut his stuff. BackTrack is a truly brilliant addition to the franchise: essentially, after you make a serious mistake in the passing game (i.e., getting sacked or throwing a pick), Collinsworth will take a look at what went wrong and tell you how (or if) you could’ve prevented the error. This is complemented by a visual overlay of large arrows to open receivers, who will be highlighted on the replay. There’s more, though — Collinsworth will even show you the play that you selected, and its NFL success rate against the defensive playcall. It’s a comprehensive tool to help gamers become more adept at picking apart defenses with their quarterbacks, Peyton Manning-style.

Unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and roses. One of the game’s more maddening (I apologize for that) facets is its in-game advertising. I’m not talking about banners around the stadium — I don’t mind an Under Armour billboard next to the scoreboard, since it just makes the experience more authentic. But Madden 09 commits a serious sin by placing advertising in the game’s statistical overlays. I was absolutely furious the first time I saw a small but prominent box next to my rushing yards featuring this: “Transformers: The conflict begins on Blu-ray Disc 9.2.08” (and of course, it was accompanied by a photo of the Blu-ray set). That’s the type of gratuitous in-game advertising that just doesn’t sit well with me; I find it obnoxious and highly obtrusive.

Another issue, and a much more significant one, is the much-ballyhooed Madden IQ system (it’s what EA’s talking about when they advertise Madden 09 as “the first sports game that adapts to you”). The problem is that the system is essentially broken. The idea behind it is that the game will provide just the right amount of challenge for you based on four tests that you take at the outset to set your Madden IQ between 200 and 800. The tests cover passing and rushing (offense and defense for each). The offensive drills are a joke, especially the rushing one, while the defensive drills are just as disproportionately difficult as the offensive drills are easy — pass defense, in particular, is balls-hard.

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Difficulty can be customized with sliders — again, offense & defense for passing & rushing — from 0 to 20 (0 = Rookie, 5 = Pro, 10 = All-Pro, 15 = All-Madden). If you put up a near-perfect score on the rushing drill, like I did, you’ll be rewarded with an offensive line that might as well comprise the kids from Little Giants, and your opponent will have a swarming defense of 11 Ray Lewises. And don’t even think about trying to throw the ball; you’ll have better luck throwing it to the other team than your own receivers. It’s better to just start from a pre-set difficulty and adjust sliders from there — unless you prefer a masochistic gaming experience.

Whether or not you use Madden IQ, you’ll be provided with a summary of your skill progression (or, in my case, regression) after every game. So if your passing offense slider is set to 17 (remember, higher = more difficult), and you throw 5 picks, the game’s going to suggest that you hit the Virtual Trainer to work on your passing. It’s a shame that the feature doesn’t do what it’s supposed to — just like Communism, it’s a great idea in theory, but fails to succeed when put into practice. Hopefully, EA Tiburon will refine the system next year.

The Franchise and Superstar modes remain largely unchanged from prior years. Franchise is a case of “why fix what isn’t broken,” although one problem area, stat generation, has been completely revamped in the name of more realistic computer-generated numbers. But Superstar is in dire need of an overhaul. It’s nearly impossible to create a high-level player through the drills, and even if you manage to do so, the mode just isn’t all that fun after the initial “cool factor” wears off. If you’re playing as a running back, for example, your team will call the same five or six plays for the most part, and training camp simply consists of repeating the same play ad nauseam until you pause and hit “Quit Game.” Another niggle is that you don’t get positive points for doing little things to help your team out (like blocking a blitzing linebacker to prevent a sack), but you get negative points for things that are completely out of your control (like a pass that your team’s tight end dropped).

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Madden Moments are a cool extra — you replay select scenarios from the 2007 NFL season, such as the Giants’ drive to victory with less than two minutes to go in Super Bowl XLII. Sometimes, you’ll be tasked with changing history, and other times, you’ll have to re-affirm what went down in real life. As for PS3-specific concerns, the game supports the DualShock 3 controller, but sadly, it doesn’t allow for custom soundtracks. That’s very unfortunate, since the game’s soundtrack has already started to get on my nerves. I always turn off the stuff I don’t like, which usually leaves less than ten songs — and after playing the game for a week and a half, I’ve heard The Offspring’s “Hammerhead” way too many times. Here’s hoping Sony requires custom soundtrack support for every game that comes out after the end of this year.

As you can see, Madden NFL 09 is a mixed bag. It’s vastly better than its predecessors in many ways, but there are a few areas — big ones — where it falls flat. Still, I can say without hesitation that it’s easily the best Madden game since the franchise entered the high-definition era. Definitely check it out if you need your virtual football fix.

Score: 7.5

Brad 2 avatar
Brad Nicholson (Xbox 360 version)

Anyone willing to read this review is probably already familiar with the Madden franchise, so I’m not going to spend time talking about how the core game works. Rest assured that quarterbacks still throw passes and receivers still catch them. Also, linemen still tackle and block. What have always been important about this franchise are the improvements and redesigns from last year.

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This year’s Madden boasts a few new features, the most important of which are intended for a more casual audience. The first of these is the new “Rewind” feature, which allows players to choose to play Prince of Persia with plays of their choice. The premise behind Rewind is eliminating the “Oh Christ, why did I do that?” feeling you get when you throw an interception or do something else that changes the flow of the game. It’s an obtrusive option that players can turn off if they desire, though it can be set to 0, 1, 3, 5, or unlimited uses. When activated, Rewind is shown after every play in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, beckoning you with its large glory. If you select the option (press X on the 360), the play literally rewinds and starts all over again. Interestingly, the A.I. defense usually adjusts better to the play or does an auto-substitute. It’s really a useless option and can piss off your friends, to boot.

Madden IQ is designed to uniquely cater to your A.I. frustration. If you’re a good rusher, but suck at pass defense, Madden IQ is supposed to adjust to that style and toss out a game equivalent to your play. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Madden IQ is tested in the new Virtual Trainer, which is a Tron-like interface that supposedly gauges your ability to rush, pass, pass defend and rush defend. The problem with the training is that it only gauges your ability to hit corresponding buttons, not actually what you do on the field. Every offensive play, regardless of drill, tells you what button to push and when to hit it. Anyone with decent videogame skills can get an All-Madden ranking in rushing and passing if they pick up this title. On the defensive side, it’s ludicrous. The trainer puts you in bad positions to begin with, while sticky offensive linemen glue themselves to you. I forgot how bad the blocking still was in the series until I took my Madden IQ test.

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The worst part about Madden IQ is that it doesn’t translate to the actual game. I began my Madden 09 experience with a Madden IQ of over 600. Within my first ten games, I threw over 40 interceptions, dropped countless balls, and rushed for less than 100 yards — and no AI quarterback ever completed less than 80% of his passes (even Kyle Boller). Eventually, my IQ got down to a more reasonable 477, but I still had ridiculous issues running the ball, with a whopping 1.7 yards per carry on 20-25 touches. After turning the IQ-based difficulty off and going back to All-Pro, I found myself actually able to complete passes again and rush the ball for around 50 yards a game. Madden IQ only brings out the worst in the AI. Cornerbacks can still see the ball through the backs of their heads and catch it, and linemen are extreme ball hawks that consistently pummel running backs behind the line. Madden IQ almost promotes these issues.

Franchise mode and Superstar mode are left fairly untouched, but now players can finally partake in Online Leagues. That is, if they can ever get games arranged. I don’t understand the push for Online Leagues. Usually, players are forced into scenarios with people they don’t know that inevitably don’t show up, regardless of the new flex scheduling features. As to the other portion of the online play — normal matches — some of the problems from last year are still around. The biggest qualm that I have is the Quick Match’s inability to sort out a reasonable connection from a potential opponent. I have grown tired of playing in laggy Madden games over the last few years. Of course, you can just go in a lobby and play with the fairly fickle community. They’re always willing to play with new blood.

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Some of the new features are fairly small, but important. There is finally a net behind the goal post. Probably as a result of Devin Hester’s insanity, players can now return missed field goals. More importantly, there are now user-activated celebrations, which can be quite fun to tool around with. After running in a touchdown, players are shown three blue grids in the end zone. One is by the stands, so the player can do an epic Lambeau leap, and the others hover around the goal post — slam dunking and Chad Johnson fun confirmed. If you enjoy playing with a buddy and really want to frazzle him, there are several new features to disguise plays and fake him out — very useful when you think you’ve caught him staring at your controller.

A person can really go on for centuries about how different Madden 09 is and how some of the changes reflect poorly on the product. As a whole, the game is improved, even if the Madden IQ cover has been blown. The new camera, net, play disguising and celebrations are good additions. But the real problems still exist in the core of the game. The AI will still consistently screw you on either side of the ball and the same issues like quarterback speed, pump faking, and throwing mechanics are still present.

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I wanted this game to be exceedingly different, and I don’t believe I got that. It’s still much the same, even if the grass looks greener this time around. Of course, you have no choice in the end. If you like officially sanctioned NFL games, this is the only one. Even with its problems, it’s an above-average game, so feel free to go out and buy it. Just don’t expect the game to turn the football videogame world on its head.

Score: 7.0

Overall Score: 7.25 (Good. Replayable, fun, but nothing innovative or amazing. The game potentially has large flaws that, while they don’t make the game bad, prevent it from being as good as it could be.)

Buy it

Samit Sarkar