After bearing witness to the graphical wizardry of the current generation of Madden football titles, it's hard to remember that the game came from humble beginnings. When John Madden Football debuted in 1988, each team was limited to six players on the field due to the graphic limitations of 1980s technology. Madden NFL 09 has come a long way from its graphically challenged forefather - now boasting some of the slickest graphics ever seen on a sports title, and continues to be one the biggest sellers of the EA Sports stable. While Madden continues to literally fly off store shelves in the US year after year, recent iterations in the series have been widely criticised by many gamers for its lack of innovation, believing that the game is merely nothing more than a a graphic overhaul and roster update. While many will have their opinions formulated before they even slip the disc into the console, the question remains: after twenty years of Madden, is the franchise still fresh or is the popular gridiron game as stale as an old gym sock?
If it ain't broke, don't fix it... that seems to be the principle behind the development of recent Madden titles. Although new features have been added to refine the Madden experience, do not be fooled - this year's Madden offers much of the same elements as previous efforts.
The biggest shift in Madden NFL 09 is the emphasis on making the core gameplay of Madden more accessible to the casual gamer without hampering the playing style of the seasoned Madden afficionados that buy the title each year. While it might not sound like much in the grand scheme of features, it does represent one of the biggest changes to the Madden football formula. This change comes in the form of the feature 'My Skill', a user-defined difficulty setting which is aimed at tailoring the game to suit your playing style. What exactly is My Skill? It's an intuitive difficulty setting aimed at increasing the difficulty on the aspects of the game that players excel at, while toning back the difficulty in the areas that they suck at in order to present a more well-rounded experience.
Upon loading Madden NFL 09, players will be presented with the Madden IQ test. Here players will be tasked with completing an assortment of drills which rate your skills in how well you run the ball, pass the ball and play defense. The results from the drills are then tabulated, giving you your Madden IQ, which then forms the basis of your My Skill difficulty level. The best aspect of the My Skill system is that it tracks your game statistics after every match, allowing the game to constantly tweak the difficulty to suit your needs. For those that still have trouble with making plays, the game also has the option for players to mess with the difficulty sliders to help tilt the game to your advantage.
The other new feature that has made it into the game is the Backtrack feature, which turns out to be a clever addition to the title. Whether you're a complete Madden rookie or a seasoned vet, let's face it, you're going to chuck a few boneheaded passes in the heat of the game. Usually, it'll happen at a pivotal moment and you'll watch the coveted lead that you've clung on to all game disappear in a split second. Many Madden players are used to this kind frustration, but now it's all a thing of the past thanks to the Backtrack system. The best way to describe Backtrack is to think of it as instant replay for losers. After you've thrown an interception or dropped the ball on what looked like a clear run, the Backtrack replay will come on screen. At this point the game's commentator will run through the play and dissect where it all went wrong. This is a good way for players to learn from their mistakes, and hopefully perform fewer turnovers as they progress through the title.
In addition to watching your failures on Backtrack, this year's Madden gives you the opportunity to take that play all over again with the Madden Rewind function. Whether you were trying a risky last minute hail mary to steal the win or just made a simple error in judgement, one press of the rewind button will wipe away your mistake and let you try to get it right one more time. Of course, this function also has a nasty side to it, as we found that playing a friendly game of Madden 09 with a friend could lead to 'controller tug of war', with players heatedly trying to hit the rewind button on their buddy's controller in order to rewind their last touchdown - you've been warned.
The biggest downside to using Rewind is that players can become too dependent on it. Like players that tap into a title's God Mode to try and get past a difficult section, Rewind has a way of sucking the fun out of the title by taking out the thrill of the unexpected - something that sports titles thrive on. Fortunately, players are able to limit the use of the Rewind feature or turn it off completely in the options menu in order to combat this problem.
Aside from the new features, the biggest leap in Madden NFL 09 is the game's presentation. Whether you're playing on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, this year's Madden is graphically superb. Like with other titles in the EA Sports stable, Madden has gone with a presentation style which makes you feel like you're watching a live game. From the roar of the crowd to the blinding flashes of cameras that pop up all over the place, you'll feel like you're right there in the middle of the stadium soaking up the atmosphere for yourself. Even post-touchdown celebrations have been given an overhaul with players now able to interact with several hotspots in the end zone to perform a myriad of celebrations such as slam dunking the ball through the goal post or leaping onto the wall to celebrate with the fans.
The in-game visuals also get a huge boost with more realistic player models, new grass textures, incredible weather effects, and lighting for both day and night games. The weather effects alone are astounding to see and credit must be given to the developer for the time and attention to detail that they have put into this aspect of the game. Play in the snow and you'll see players track footprints all over the field, play in the rain and their uniforms will get so muddy that even their mothers wouldn't let them in the house. The one gripe we have about the visuals is that the turf itself doesn't deteriorate over the course of a wet weather game, making it odd to see players caked in filth over a pristine field, but that's about as negative as you can get about Madden 09's graphics.
Sadly, the rest of the game happens to tread on familiar territory. Gameplay is essentially unchanged from last year's effort. Though tackle controls have been beefed up to allow players to gang tackle and make bigger hits, while breaking tackles when you're running the ball is seemingly easier.
The Madden Challenge and Franchise game modes have received minor tweaks, while Superstar mode remains exactly as it did when it arrived in the last incarnation of Madden. With all of the on-field tweaks that made it into the game, it's disappointing that the game modes didn't receive the same treatment. Online modes have also largely been left untouched, giving players the options to play ranked, quick matches and online leagues. Sadly, Madden has not received the ability for more than two players to play an online match leaving us scratching our heads as to why this brilliant feature from FIFA 08 (which Aussies unfortunately missed out on) has not made the transition to other EA Sports titles.
EA has shown a lot of potential in the growth of the Madden series over the years, and it's a credit to their work that it's still a fun title to play after twenty years, but the lack of innovation in certain aspects of the title makes you feel as if you've just purchased a copy of Roster Update 2009. EA: it's time to update the playbook.