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Madden NFL 09
Score: 90%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 4; (2 Online)
Genre: Sports (Football)

Graphics & Sound:
This year Madden celebrates 20 years and while the joke in recent years has been that the annual release was merely just last year's version with a few minor upgrades, Madden NFL 09 hits what could be considered some of the series' biggest changes.

Visually, Madden 09 is the best the series has ever looked. While it still doesn't come close to that target video from a few years back, Madden 09 manages to impress on nearly every front. Stadium lighting has been reworked and, along with the improved sideline work, every stadium feels a little more realistic. Player animations have also been improved and feel much more dynamic, which is really impressive considering how great last year's animations looked. In addition to new spins, juke and catch animations, players can now perform a variety of touchdown dances and other post-touchdown celebrations.

As far as the sound is concerned, the good news is that the bland radio announcer has been replaced with the team of Chris Collinsworth and Tom Hammond. Though it doesn't quite match the NFL 2K series, overall, the commentary feels better and not as robotic as previous years. Collinsworth will break down specific plays and offer tips on what you could have done differently. The rest of the soundtrack is just okay. I liked most of the music, but nothing grabbed my attention or made me linger on a menu a little longer.

Franchise Mode is still the game's core play mode and though everything is fundamentally the same, there have been a few minor changes to the formula. Rivalries will develop between players on your team as well as between teams, so they'll play you a little tougher than other teams.

Madden NFL 09 also features a more robust Superstar Mode, which is similar to NCAA's Campus Legend Mode. You can create a rookie player from scratch and go through several training mini-games that define and improve your player's stats. Eventually you'll have to choose an agent and enter the NFL Draft.

These Modes are all well and good, though the feature that will grab the most hardcore player's attention is the option to play with 32-player Online Leagues. Similar to NCAA's online leagues, you can play through entire seasons with other live players. There are a few bumps in the road, such as difficulty connecting to some games online, though overall the experience is a good one. While online, you can also access streaming content like NFL newsfeeds or a Fantasy Football podcast. Speaking of Fantasy Football, you can also join friends in a Fantasy Draft and then import that roster into Madden and play games.

Madden NFL 09 features a new Madden IQ system, which tests your skill level based on a series of tests given in a holographic training room. The tests go through basics like passing, running and several defensive situations similar to the mini-games found in NCAA or previous versions. After each test, a holographic John Madden will grade your performance (called a Madden IQ) and the in-game A.I. will adjust accordingly. Although you're not required to take the tests, it is advisable since it beats adjusting a bunch of sliders.

Additionally, your Madden IQ is dynamic throughout exhibition and Franchise games, so the overall gameplay is always changing based on your strengths and weaknesses. This doesn't mean that the game will always lie down and play dead, though it does keep things from feeling cheap. Though there are still a few questionable calls, this is one of the few years I didn't find myself constantly yelling about "Cheap A.I.".

In the case that something does feel a little "cheap", you can activate the EA Rewind feature, which allows you to rewind the previous play and redo it. Of course, you can't redo every play; instead you are given a set number of rewinds per game based on difficulty. Personally, I wasn't too wild about the feature since it felt like cheating, but I would be lying if I didn't use it to correct a few mistakes.

Game Mechanics:
One thing the series has always struggled with is balancing the run and passing games. Neither has ever been broken, though every year is seems like one gets the short end of the stick. This year, that distinction goes to the passing game. It's not that passing is bad, though it is very sporadic. Top-flight QB's will have trouble connecting the easiest of passes while mid-tier and lower QB's can slice up secondaries with relative ease. Though I'm fairly certain this ties into the Madden I.Q. in some fashion, it feels weird when the A.I. manages to develop Jedi-like reflexes and not only manage to dodge sure sacks, but hit a target on the run with near pin-point accuracy.

Running, on the other hand, feels great. The highlight stick has an intuitive feel and is a lot of fun to control. I'm typically a full-steam ahead style runner, but this year I really got into finding seams and trying to get the most movement out of each run.

Madden NFL 09 is an all-around solid football game. It has everything that the veterans who line up at midnight would want from the game, as well as changes that will make it fun for newcomers or old-timers who might feel like the game has left them behind.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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