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Madden ’09 a Starter, Maybe not HOF

By Staff | Aug 26, 2008

If it’s August, it must be “Madden.” As perennial as tugging out your Terrible Towel from the back of the closet, the classic franchise has returned with this year’s heavily hyped “Madden ‘09.” With new features and graphical improvements, Electronic Arts obviously has a blockbuster on its hands. But is this game, as the cynics claim, just the same old thing warmed over again? “The grass looks better this year,” after all, is hardly reason to shell out $60. So is “Madden ‘09” a worthwhile recruit or should it be left on the sidelines?

In football terms: This game is definitely a starter. But it might fall just short of being a Hall of Famer.  

It’s difficult to review a “Madden” game; they’re as much a part of the video game culture now as “Mario” or “Halo.” The core mechanics never change, so the best one can really do is cite what has been altered, each installment.

And as that goes, graphically, this game represents a tremendous improvement: Yes, the grass is definitely greener, but it also sways more in the wind and is crisper in general.  The lighting effects, especially during night games, are also particularly striking. Out of curiosity I found myself popping in old “Madden” installments for one-minute bursts of play, to watch the series’ visual evolution. I wonder if future media historians will use them to track improving console graphical capacity?

Of course, the heart of every new “Madden” is the added plethora of features. It seems to be the curse of the series that these always are a mixed bag; “Madden ‘09” is no exception. On the positive side are such features as “Rivalry Mode,” which creates a marked difficulty and intensity increase whenever two great rivals meet. “Front Office,” meanwhile, allows you to dive into the financial minutia of how to run a great team, a strangely appealing activity for this geeky gamer.  

“Rewind Mode” is memorable as well, enabling players to redo any play they choose. Of course this is unavailable in online play and can be deactivated any time. But it’s actually a feature my father — my ever-present “Madden” partner — loved. After a failed pass play, for example, he’d go back and reread the other team’s defense, assessing how he should react in the future when the opponents run certain formations.  

Certainly the best new feature, though, is the “Madden Moments,” which allows the player to replay real-life scenarios from last year’s NFL season. Monday Morning Quarterbacks across the country will at last have the opportunity to put up or shut up.  (The Patriots devastating Super Bowl loss, by the way, is an unlockable.)

Then there are the features that simply don’t hold up. “Madden Test” is the prime offender here.  

With its video intro by Madden himself and the nifty “Tron”-esque visual scheme, I was genuinely intrigued at first. The idea is to play a few simulated scenarios before you play the game proper and your performance will result in a score known as “MySkill,” which then is meant to alter the game play in response to your strengths and weaknesses. But the execution here is just terribly inelegant.  

If the game sees you’re a masterful quarterback, for example, it’s actually kind of a neat idea that it will handicap you somehow in order to make each game competitive. But instead of giving a weakness to some other aspect of the team, “Madden ‘09” makes it so your quarterback will then throw the ball wildly off-target at inexplicable times.  Obviously the feature was meant to make the game less threatening to newcomers, but the implementation leaves the feature feeling like a gimmick rather than a full-bodied, dynamic aspect of the game.

In the end, though, if you’re a Maddenite, this game is almost precisely what you’ve been longing for. Certainly, like any entry in the series, there are flaws to “Madden ’09,” and some hardcore fans will doubtless cry foul over the adjustments made to entice new players. But the Big Man is back and looking better than ever. And he smells a whole lot better than that old Terrible Towel, too.

Contact Mike at  mmartin@graffitiwv.com