Inside Pulse 12

Review: Madden 09 (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Madden 09
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Genre: Traditional Sports
Release Date: 08/12/2008


*sigh* I really haven’t been looking forward to this…

The line above comes from Yahtzee Croshaw’s review of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. A large reason for his trepidation was that he knew his criticisms of the game would not sit well with a fanatically dedicated fanbase that brooks no dissent without resorting to flames, email bombs and other forms of “protest” that fail to take into account the phrase “different strokes for different folks”.

I write this review fully understanding where he comes from now. Madden 09 was released last Tuesday to midnight launches and nationwide parties, and preorders for the game – which have been shoved down gamers’ throats since before Super Bowl XLII – were so astonishingly high at Gamestops around the country that I literally had to broker a deal with a friend to get my own copy, effectively buying HIS pre-order. Yes, I had to buy my own copy; while the big name companies managed to get early builds so they could get their fellationary 9.0’s out the door days before the impending release, it’s currently Tuesday the 19th and we still haven’t received our own reviewable copies; my guess is that EA couldn’t risk some small indie rag pissing on their parade by not mindlessly slobbering a high score on their marquee title.

Not that Madden is a bad game; to the contrary, it’s still the same good American Football game we’ve known for twenty years now. But watching EA charge absolute top-dollar for all versions of their product while throwing precious few “innovations” onto their product in a flimsy and half-assed attempt to justify their bullying 2K out of the football market after they DARED to competitively price their product is starting to wear on me. And even worse, with the game in the hands of anyone that wanted it, I know that I write the coming few thousand words fruitlessly, my good words ignored for the bad, and effectively doing nothing but pissing off EA and inviting flames and vitriol from fanboys across North America.

The first thing you’ll notice as you boot up the game for the first time is John Madden’s holographic body offering you to take the Madden Test. This is a mode where you scrimmage a few set plays on offence and defence – running and passing both – to determine your customized difficulty level and Madden IQ. For instance, if you’re excellent at picking apart defences with passing, but not so good at running, the game can set your passing difficulty to All Madden, while keeping running at pro, and the same thing for the other side of the ball. On paper, this is an outstanding idea, but the execution falls short. Let’s take running for example. Running in games of Madden historically can be a maddening prospect, with holes closing off rapidly and the very art of slipping tackles made more painful by unbreakable animations closing you down so much that by the time you’ve slipped one open field tackler, three more are picking at your carcas. In the Madden Test, you’re given an open field, and the game tells you specifically what buttons to press to shed the tackles, and until you get to All Madden difficulty, it’s a 100% success rate. In short, you’re determining your real-game difficulty with quick-time events, and it skews things greatly. I have difficulty running on pro. On All-Madden? I might as well have sent my offensive line to the store to run errands, it would have had the same effect.

Defence, on the other hand, is virtually impossible to get a consistently good score in. Maybe the style of defence I play in Madden isn’t conducive to top-level play, but essentially, I like to take the right end, see if I can rush the passer, and essentially let my CPU players do the rest of the work; it’s an eleven man game, and I let my other ten players do their jobs. Madden seems to think that I should be doing the work of all eleven players on the field; if there’s a pass play, and the quarterback gets the ball away, I’m supposed to be able to switch to the player who’s got the receiver covered, keep up with his line to the ball, and tip or intercept the ball; if you take what Madden test is essentially telling you seriously, receptions are BAD! Five yard button hook? Flare route to the tight end? Doesn’t matter, catch BAD, and you shall be PUNISHED! Same thing with run defence; you’re expected to tackle a player with two guys in open field with two to three players doing blocking, while doing the kind of tackle they want you to do; did you press X instead of A? Watch the virtual running back shed you like a prostitute sheds her panties! Did you get gang-tackled by two blockers? Then you’re pretty screwed! It’s poorly balanced, and can lead to misleading results, especially for new players, who this mode is primarily aimed at. With all that said, there are good points; if the game mis-judged your skill, and you spend a few games either throttling the computer or getting throttled yourself, the difficulty adjusts itself, and continually adjusts for your skill. Furthermore, if you think the mode completely pants, you can skip it all together, re-take it when you get better at the game, or even customize your own skill. Finally, for players that have played as long as I have, you still have the option of just selecting a general skill across the board; that way, I can keep it at All-Pro like I have for almost a decade.

The Madden Test takes place in one of the other new features, the Virtual Trainer. Essentially, the Virtual Trainer breaks everything down as simply as you can get it; it’s a VR type atmosphere where you’re given specific drills to perform, whether it’s running, tackling, passing, etc. It’s aimed at newbies, and for those people, it’s not BAD, per se, but fairly flimsy, if you ask me; anyone THAT new to football should probably be waiting for a simpler game like the new Tecmo Bowl, or should likely be playing the Wii version instead. Just about everyone else that wants to get practice in is better off heading to regular practice mode to get their timing down. Come to think of it, a lot of the newer features this year were with newer gamers in mind, to rope in a new audience. A new audience into Madden Are you serious? It is it’s own monopoly! There’s no competition, and never will be for years! That’s like inviting Joe Camel to an eight year old’s birthday on the “hook ’em young” scale.

After that, the standard Franchise mode comes back. I’ve been fairly negative so far, so let me qualify all of that by saying that Madden’s Franchise mode is probably one of the best in sports. It has the NFL’s CBA down to an art, as every aspect of the salary cap and every other rule is meticulously recreated with stunning realism. Furthermore, trades are realistic, statistic simulation has noticeably improved, and the franchise mode ties into the game’s presentation perfectly (more on that in a bit). There’s also the option of doing minigames every week (instead of just during preseason, which is an improvement) to improve your players, and for the most part, it works well, though some drills are easier than others (I still haven’t gotten good at the 40 or the bench), and for some inexplicable reason, it seems lesser players are held to an unrealistic standard. My low-string right end on the Jets – someone who only sees game action if everyone ahead of him died in a car crash just before the game, before we could bring in someone else – was expected to keep the opponent in the rushing drill below 10,000 points. That’s virtually impossible for someone of his skill calibre. There’s other quibbles I have as well, such as how scouting can be a pain in the ass, but they’re exceptionally minor.

The other big mode in the game is Superstar Mode. In this, you get to either create a rookie, or take on the life of a real NFL rookie; if you do the former, you have to make yourself as attractive for the draft as possible. Along the way, you can also build up your Q rating through various means, improve yourself through the Performance Center (if your agent has access to that), and generally pretend to live the high-lifestyle of an NFL player as he builds himself to superstardom. This is another case of something that sounds good on paper but doesn’t execute as well as it could. The main currency in this mode is influence, which you gain through various means, but the best way to gain it is to play well on Sundays and in practise. However, the influence is dependent on how your UNIT does. This isn’t too big of a deal if you’re the quarterback, but if you play defence, or are an auxiliary position (like lineman), then getting points is a problem unless your team is really good. For example, I typically play as a right end that likes to rush the passer. If I rush in from the right, and the offence runs a sweep to the left and pulls off a big game, how does that hurt me as an individual? It’s not MY fault coach called a bad play, and that they ran away from me. Same thing with passing; if I’m double, or even triple teamed depending on where the tight end is, how is it my fault that I didn’t get to the passer, and they were able to hit for a first down? If I miss a tackle, or miss my assignment in coverage, fine, I can see a big influence penalty. But don’t punish me, and only me, because the other ten people around me can’t do their own fucking jobs, or because the quarterback has a thing for five-yard flares.

Finally, in terms of relevant game modes, there’s Madden Moments, which simulate moments from the 2007 season for replay, such as the Giants’ final drive from the Super Bowl. This is all well and good, but it’s mostly filler, and to be completely honest, it’s hard for me not to roll my eyes at EA advertising this as a big deal when it was first done in a Super Nintendo game twelve years ago (NFL Quarterback Club).

All of this is fine and dandy, but means nothing if the game doesn’t play up to snuff. Thankfully or unfortunately, depending on your view, Madden plays virtually the same as every other version since the early PS2 era. There have been changes to the formula, and for hardcore players, most of them will be extremely welcome. The biggest change I noticed was that now, if you get locked up in a tackle, with the right amount of timing, luck and skill on the part of the runner, you can actually break the tackle with a well-timed button press; for example, someone locks you up from the side, you have a small chance, if you press A right, to use your arm to throw the tackler off, whereas in years past, breaking tackles was a matter of pure luck combined with ratings; the addition of interactivity is VERY welcome. Also, this might be just me, but the tackling engine seems like it’s mostly improved, especially when it comes to gang tackling; there’s a lot fewer instances of going from one animation for a singular tackle to a separate and unrelated gang tackle than in years past. However, there’s still a somewhat noticeable “vacuum” sensation with tackles, especially when a tackler catches a player from behind. There’s also an option to bluff what your actual play call is by throwing up a fake play with the “show play art” option, which goes hand in hand with the new, interactive touchdown celebrations (press a button inside a zone in the endzone to do everything from dunking the ball over the goalposts to the Lambeau Leap) as fantastic additions to multiplayer games. One change that I hated was that it’s very hard to see if someone’s fumbled the ball; I’ve had times where I don’t know the ball’s on the ground until the camera switches around, because there’s no notification, and very rarely even an announcement of it. It’s just a matter of “oh crap, the camera switched, I guess I’m on defence”.

New to this year’s game is the EA Rewind feature, which is aimed at newer gamers. Simply put, this is like taking a mulligan; if you mess something up, you can rewind the play, and redo it; if you got hit on a blitz, you can rewind, call an audible that involves dumping off to the tight end, and gain some yards. You can go from turning them off, to having a limited amount per game, to having infinite rewinds, which is a good thing, because I personally hate them; I couldn’t wait to shut that crap off. However, I’m not the kind of gamer they aimed that at, and to be fair, if I’m playing someone that’s not Madden savvy, it’s nice to even the playing field a little bit and give him a few freebies, though I think some additional options would be nice, such as saying you can’t use one if you give up X amount of yards on a play, or give up an interception. As it is, in a game with Rewinds, the winner is often who uses their Rewinds the smartest, which can be very overbearing. It’ll be interesting to see if that comes back next year; though they can be turned off, I can see gamers ignoring that fact to bitch and moan about them. Also, it should be noted that you can’t take rewinds online, and thank goodness for THAT.

In the end, though, it’s still Madden, which has it’s negative and positive points. Players move extremely realistically now, and ratings are still accurate, but running is still a crapshoot against the computer (I STILL can’t run for crap in Madden, but I had no problems with 2K. In this game, I’m lucky if I break 50 yards), and defending passes still amounts to “get to the quarterback before he throws the predictable eight yard out route”, and quarterbacks are still overpowered, able to thread needles on their back foot with ease (though if you throw on the run, it’s going to wobble like a shot duck; I’m glad they’ve got that part figured out, at least), and there’s still no real way to see your quarterback is in trouble while looking downfield other than taking your eye off of the receivers and checking the pocket. In other words, it’s still Madden, it still ostensibly plays like a video game, and while that’s good enough for the millions of people that purchase the game, sight unseen, every single year, I’m a little harder to impress than that, especially once you consider that there still is not one thing in this game that couldn’t or wouldn’t be here if EA didn’t have the exclusive NFL and NFLPA licenses. Four years later, the only thing they’ve truly done is killed off any competition in the NFL market for the foreseeable future, and there’s enough wrong here to leave me yearning for ANY competition that doesn’t have to compete by going over the top (Blitz), using a name from decades past (Tecmo Bowl), or hiding behind a flimsy gimmick (All-Pro Football 2K8).

With all the negativity and bile out of the way, there are two things that EA hit a home run with this year: presentation and online play. Simply put, the presentation in Madden is top drawer. The graphics are pristine, and look outstanding in 1080; I think EA’s finally starting to get the full hang of the 360, as it’s starting to show in their current line of games. The general way the game is presented, from broadcast perspectives to how you call plays, is nearly perfectly done, and I love the options you have on the playcall screen, from bluff options to viewing replays to checking stats. The biggest and most notable change, however, is that John Madden is no longer in the booth; the commentary is now done by Chris Collinsworth and Tom Hammond, which not only gives us something we’ve only been asking for since the Al Michaels experiment, but comes across nearly flawlessly. Simply put, these guys might be the best video game booth I’ve ever heard. They’re always spot-on, Collinsworth keeps up with the play, and Hammond is very analytical and in-depth with his colour commentary; it’s as close to sounding like a real broadcast as I’ve heard a football game get. Hammond really shines when it comes to another addition to this year’s game, EA BackTrack, which breaks down exactly why the play got screwed up (like on an interception where you throw into double coverage), and gives an idea of where else you could have gone. Sometimes, the commentary breaks down – it seems like EA put a time limit on the commentary, then let the actual commentary go too long – but in all, it’s an outstanding addition to the game. Finally, there’s a little option that’s easy to miss that allows you to enable or disable “clutch” games. What this means is that games against rivals, or in the playoffs, have added meaning to them, where the presentation gets ramped up, the crowd is louder and more in-tune with the play, and the difficulty increases. I’ve been waiting for this to be incorporated into a game for a LONG time, and EA just about nailed it. If they move this over to a game I actually enjoy playing in my free time such as NHL ’09, I might never leave my living room again.

Finally, EA’s been criticized in the past for their online capabilities, and it seems like they listened. Matchmaking is very well done, there’s a lot of options for all types of gamers – including a separate section for people with headsets (YES!) – and plenty of different ways for people to play. The biggest thing for me is the ability to have a full, 32 person league. Though I didn’t have a chance to fully test this – I don’t even have 32 friends, much less 32 of them that play Madden – everything I’ve seen shows me that this is caps-lock level HUGE, and considering the fact that EA does a very good job of maintaining server uptime despite the load, makes online play outstanding in a Madden game for the first time in memory. There’s other little things, such as the ability to import your fantasy football team from EA’s server that should sit nicely for those that play EA’s fantasy football. The only problem I really have is that downloading online rosters is a pain in the rear end; being a Jets fan (as a peek at the pictures listed can plainly show), naturally, the first thing I had to do was download the latest rosters to get Brett Favre on the team. However, to get the roster, I had to match up with an opponent, download the roster, save it, and then back out of the match that was made for me. It’s very clunky, and can really piss off anyone that loses a match because the person that goes in to get the latest roster has no intention of playing.

(Author’s note: there is also a collector’s edition of this game that comes with NFL Head Coach ’09, an edition of John Madden Football ’93 with new rosters and teams, and various sundry videos and tidbits. I do not have this version, but essentially, it’s only for the VERY hardcore. In short, if you didn’t get it on release day, chances are you don’t need to bother)

THE SCORES

Modes: Mediocre
Graphics: Classic
Sound: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Decent
Replayability: Good
Balance: Below Average
Originality: Dreadful
Addictiveness: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Classic
Miscellaneous: Decent

FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME

Short Attention Span Summary

Let me calm all of the fanboys down before they start melting my inbox with bile: Madden is the best football game out. Of COURSE it is; anyone that’s made the only relevant football game for the past four years is going to be above and beyond everyone else. It’s like the Giants lining up against my local Pop Warner side; there’s a slight discrepancy.

With that out of the way, hardcore fans already have their copies, and they should generally be happy with their purchase. However, for anyone still on the fence, I can only really recommend blowing the full $60 for this year’s game if 1) they haven’t bought a version of Madden for this current generation of consoles, or 2) they play predominantly online. If you’re not in that group, then honestly, you would do well to look at a used copy of Madden ’08, which patches have rendered mostly playable, or renting this year’s version to see if it suits you and your money.