Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, Wii - Xbox 360 version reviewed.
I could have subtitled this one: 'or how I stopped worrying and learned to like an American football game'.
For me, the test of a truly great sports game is whether it's compelling enough that even people who aren't huge fans of the sport can get involved. For instance, I can rarely be bothered to even watch Wimbledon, yet I love Virtua Tennis 3 to bits. I'm fairly agnostic on football, but I can happily waste a few hours away playing FIFA. I don't think I've ever watched a single game of basketball, but that's never been a barrier to my enjoyment of the NBA or NBA Street games. Once upon a time I got so addicted to Links and PGA Tour Golf (as it was called then) that I actually started playing and watching the real thing.
American football games, however, have always been impervious to my efforts – until now.
This is partly a result of EA's attempt to overcome the biggest problem affecting its current wave of sports titles; after you've established what you can do with a new generation of console hardware, how do you make this year's update different to and better than the last? Sure, you can enhance the graphics, tweak the gameplay and add new game modes, but is that enough to get the same people who paid £40 last year to cough up another £40 now?
The Madden series, like the FIFA and Tiger Woods franchises, offers an additional quandary: these games are already so rich/bloated in terms of features, that anything new you add runs the risk of making the game, its controls and its menus so complex that anyone new to the game won't have a hope of getting into it that quickly.
The solution presented in Madden 09 is reasonably ingenious. It still includes the richest selection of game modes you might see in any sports game, plus all the tactics and statistics that hardcore fans of this spectacularly stat-obsessed sport demand. On the other hand, it bends over backwards to get new and less knowledgeable players involved. In the US, EA's marketing team has been pushing this as the Madden you can play with your girlfriend, and while I'm glad to say that they've abandoned this a) slightly sexist and b) hopelessly unrealistic line over here, I can kind of see what they're getting at.
The key to all this comes right when you first boot the disc, the game immediately offering up a 'Madden IQ test' designed to work out how well you know and how proficiently you can play a Madden game. This consists of a series of simple exercises played out in the new virtual training centre, which brings the game back to a stylised VR version of the abstract figures and fixed camera angles that we would have seen had we picked up a Madden game in the pre-Playstation era.
The game watches and analyses how you mark and tackle on the defensive side and how you pick our receivers, time passes and sprint for the touchline on the offensive side, then uses the data to work out your Madden IQ. This then becomes the basis for how the game sets its difficulty level, giving players with a genius level Madden IQ a tougher challenge than those who are, in Madden terms, cretins.