Does your Granny play Gridiron? Probably not, though with Madden NFL 09 All-Play, EA have their sights firmly set on getting her into a helmet and shoulder pads. In a move that's both expected and rather smart, the latest Madden on the Wii bends itself in all kinds of directions in the hope of snaring some of those freshly minted gamers who might have finally tired of Wii Sports. That 'All-Play' in the title is something you'll be seeing a lot of in EA Sports' Wii titles, and it represents a kind of post-Christmas dinner, gather-the-family-around-the-Wii philosophy.
The 'All-Play' option is always present in the player set-up options, no matter which of Madden 09's many game modes you're playing. It's essentially a kind of under-the-hood handicapping system that levels the playing field between experts and novices. Any player who has it turned on gets a helping hand with all aspects of the game, be it completing passes, dodging tackles, kicking or anything else you're required to do. It's still quite possible to stuff everything up even with All-Play holding your hand, but it takes the pressure off new players while they come to grips with the game.
The influence of Wii Sports is most apparent in the brand new '5 on 5' Mode. This pitches two bobble-headed teams of five players against each other in a stripped down version of the main game. Each side only has four options in their playbook. Offence can choose to run or to throw a short, medium or deep pass. Defence get to defend against a short, medium or deep pass, or go for the blitz. There are no field goals, the ball changes side every four downs, no matter how much progress is made up the field and the first team to score five touchdowns wins. It really wouldn't look out of place on the Wii Sports disc, and plays with the same kind of bare-bones simplicity. It's undeniably fun and a great way to get someone to at least consider the possibility of picking up a virtual pigskin but it won't keep a seasoned Madden player interested for too long.
Further concessions to the casual market can be found with the in-game Playbook, which now provides three different levels of complexity. The most basic option leaves all the play choices up to Mr. Madden himself - or, more accurately, his Mii - who provides a brief reason why a particular play has been chosen and what the player should do once the action begins. The mid-level of complexity features a shortened playbook with basic options for all circumstances without getting the player bogged down in endless variations and formations. Finally, there's a full playbook which gives full access to a bewildering number of plays, variations and formations.
Rounding out the pink and fluffy side of Madden NFL 09 All-Play is Party Mode. This contains 22 mini-games which are essentially the same as the various practice drills you'll find in other areas of the game, only with a multiplayer twist. So, for example, a goal kicking game tasks one player with booting the ball over the goal posts while another player furiously waggles the remote to generate enough wind to blow the ball off course. It all feels a bit perfunctory, and it's difficult to imagine anyone getting too worked up over Party Mode. A multiple choice trivia quiz is also nestled under the Party Mode menu, but will only really be of interest to die-hard Gridiron fans, and even they will struggle to stay interested.
Beyond the All-Play simplifications of Madden NFL 09, there's still a good, solid sports sim to be found. If you choose to ignore all the above distractions, Madden NFL 09 All-Play will happily get as crunchy and hardcore as previous iterations. Franchise Mode lets you guide a team over a number of seasons to either glittering victory or ignominious defeat. We were a little disappointed to find we couldn't build our own team from scratch, which meant that the simmering rivalry between the Boston Tea Cakes and the Small Town Boars had to wait for another day. Still, once you've settled on a team, Franchise Mode proves to be a compelling fight to the top of the NFL tree. Or, if you're us, slipping down the ladder with all the grace and poise of a well-oiled warthog. Ah well, it's not whether you win or lose, but who you blame for failure. Or something.
Superstar mode lets you focus entirely on a single player's career and provides an interesting angle on proceedings, both on and off the field. Whenever your character is in play, you can only see things from his perspective. It's a little disorienting at first, but dropping down from the usual god-like angle to something a bit more personal does make things feel much more immediate. You can also get a sense of the pressure on individual players, as playing well slowly increases your stats and status in the team, while consistently lobbing bad passes and getting thumped by the opposition will see your ratings plummet.
Online play lets you face off against friends and strangers in ranked and unranked matches. We were unable to find anyone at all to play against, though we have a sneaking suspicion that this may have been somehow region specific. US-based players might have more success finding pick up matches, but anyone in Australia with visions of a vibrant online community had better temper their enthusiasm. As ever, though, if you can co-ordinate with friends you'll obviously be able to make better use of Madden 09's online capabilities.
NFL 09 All-Play makes great use of the Wii's motion controls. Hiking the ball is accomplished by swinging the Wii Remote upwards, and passing is just matter of selecting a receiver with the D-pad and making a throwing motion. It feels immediately natural and responsive. Running is guided with the Nunchuk thumbstick and crashing through a defensive line or landing a bone-crunching tackle are aided by shoving the Wii Remote forward at the right moment. Thrashing the Wii Remote around will usually result in something beneficial happening, and we had very little trouble remembering the correct combinations of button presses and gestures to thump, crunch and generally steamroller all the way to a touchdown. In a brilliant, but probably unintentional move, the 'break tackle' motion - drumming the Wii Remote and Nunchuk up and down as fast as possible - is exactly the same as that employed by over-excited five year olds at a Wiggles concert. There's something endlessly entertaining about a 4th-and-inches do-or-die play culminating in a fit of frantic finger waggling...
Graphically, the game sits somewhere around the mid-point on the Wii's visual sauciness scale. It's a little spare looking, with the crowds in particular looking like something out of an early 90s version of the game. Not that it really matters - no-one really expected it to match up to the Xbox 360 version, and it does the job without any glaring graphical glitches or frame rate drops. The soundtrack consists of the usual selection of guitar rock and rap, though there are some unusual orchestral options buried at the bottom of the EA Trax list.
For a game that consistently goes out of its way to get new players involved, we felt that Madden NFL 09 left many of the intricacies of Gridiron completely unexplained. It's easy enough to grasp the basics and understand why in some situations it's better to go for a long pass than a short run, but we never really felt like we were doing anything but skimming off the surface of what appears to be a very deep pool. Even the most casual player will eventually want to dig a little deeper into the game, but you're mostly left adrift to work out what the hell all the stats mean and how to make any kind of use of them. There is a 'Learn Madden' option that provides a a brief, text-based run down of the sport but, again, it only goes ankle-deep. All the other tutorial options are devoted to the game's controls.
While it does feel a little uninspired, it's difficult to fault Madden NFL 09 All-Play's attempt to bring the franchise to the masses. It's accessible, the controls work very well, and it still presents a deep and enduring challenge for the long term fan. It's a solid, competent, professional product that is unlikely to disappoint anyone, whether they're a face-painted fanatic or just looking take a step up from Wii Sports.