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Published: Saturday, 8/16/2008

Game review: Madden NFL '09 a step forward for both casual and hard-core fans


Before you read this Madden NFL 09 review, I have a confession: I m not a Madden player.

I love pro football, mind you, but I ve never felt the urge to indoctrinate myself into the world of Madden, with its elaborate control schemes and uber-detailed offensive and defensive plays the franchise is known for.

To a Madden devotee, the game s detailed mimicry of the NFL experience from the pages-thick team playbooks and the ability to perform so many on-the-field moves is what make it so much fun.

(As the EA Sports slogan says, If it s in the game, it s in the game. )

But for me and for many casual players, too the time and effort required to enjoy that realism and to become a reasonably proficient Madden player is too daunting. As a result, it s been several years since I really played the game, other than spending a minute or two fiddling around with it at a retail store.

So when the just-released 20th edition of Madden arrived at my desk for a review, I wasn t sure what to expect. After spending nearly a week playing it, I can say I m now a fan. Madden NFL 09 is a game for non-Madden gamers. Its play mechanics, while still daunting at times, can be moderately dumbed down, as can most of Madden NFL 09 s features, so that even after playing only a few games, the novice player won t feel frustrated by not being able to complete a pass or to stop a run.

That s not to suggest that diehards won t love the game as well; they will. The title still has all of the details that make playing it as close to experiencing an NFL game as 99.99 percent of the world will ever have.

Madden NFL 09 also has an intriguing new feature to appeal to the casual and hard core player: the adaptive difficulty engine. The engine assesses your stick skills and tailors the game s difficulty level to match your onscreen abilities. If you re at a rookie level, for example, the defenses you encounter will be similarly matched. Conversely, if you re a top-notch All-Madden player expect insanely difficult AI.

The adaptive difficulty engine is such an integral part of Madden NFL 09, when you start the game you re given the option for the engine to determine your skill level via a hologram practice field called the virtual training center.

The center runs you through four training levels: running, passing, tackling runners and defending passes. Once you play through the levels, you re assessed in each skill. I scored All-Madden in rushing the highest level but scored at the rookie level in passing, run tackling and pass defending. Your scores determine your adaptive difficulty engine. So, for example, based on my scores, I would face a difficult run defense, but an easy passing defense, as well as easy-to-stop opposing running and passing offenses.

My next stop was the practice field, where I ran through a series of pass plays. Once I felt reasonably confident in my abilities, I decided to try a real game.

As I expected, the game was an offensively ugly defensive struggle, with me on the losing side of a 14-6 score.

I tried again and the results were even worse.

Feeling frustrated, I returned to the virtual training center and worked on my passing and defense. I eked my skill levels up a notch to pro level and then tried another game. I lost again, but I took solace in the wry observation of Chris Collinsworth, Madden 09 s color commentator: The game was a lot closer than the score would indicate. Yes, it s pathetic that a cliche boosted my deflated ego, but it worked. My next game I couldn t be stopped.

Playing as the Dallas Cowboys, I thrashed the Cleveland Browns 35-0. Controlling Cowboy s quarterback Tony Romo, I went 12 for 12, including five touchdowns the last of which came as the game ended. I was merciless. (The great thing about running up the score on the computer is you don t have to worry about the revenge factor.)

But my victory wasn t completely on the up-and-up. Madden NFL 09 also introduces another new feature, the rewind.

It s a tool that allows you to replay a successful offensive or defensive call to see if you or your opponent can reproduce the same results. The purpose of the feature, say the game s producers, is to taunt your friends. Sure, make me replay that touchdown, and I will still score on you.

For me, rewind was a free do-over: I narrowly missed connecting with a receiver for a touchdown? Rewind. My running back is stuffed in the backfield for a loss of yards? Let s try that play again.

If only the NFL had such an option.

Out of the half-dozen rewinds I used, five turned a negative play into a positive outcome, including two first downs, two touchdowns and a six-yard run. Once, my rewind resulted in a loss of net yards from the previous play.

As for the graphics ... the Madden series is known for its lifelike realism of players, stadiums even photographers lining the sides of the field. Madden NFL 09 doesn t disappoint.

There really isn t anything negative to say about Madden NFL 09. Not that it really matters. Madden has become so big 70 million copies of the game have been sold since 1989 that the title is nearly impervious to negative reviews.

Frankly, Madden fanatics are going to buy the game no matter what.

But to the causal gamer, Madden NFL 09 represents a big step forward.

No matter how weak your skills are, the game will finally sink to your level.

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734

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