As you play Madden, your IQ increases or (more rarely) decreases, meaning the game should constantly adjust to give you a decent time. The virtual training centre, meanwhile, is available between games to help you brush up your skills or iron out the wrinkles that are preventing you from getting further in the game.
It’s reasonably effective, but there are foibles. For some reason I scored spectacularly well in the defensive tests, and even though I then did very poorly in offensive play I still ended up with a Madden IQ that didn’t accurately represent my utter uselessness as a player. As a result, when I started playing proper games I came away with scorelines where I didn’t give away a huge number of touchdowns, but where I seemed incapable of gaining more than a few yards.
Manually switching the game to easy mode had the effect of making the game a bit of a cakewalk, as my team took triumphant easy touchdown after triumphant easy touchdown. Luckily, retaking the Madden test and purposefully fudging a few of the tests gave me a more accurate score and a better balanced game.
Frankly, new players will need all the help they can get, because Madden still isn’t the easiest game to get your head around unless you have a pretty solid working knowledge of American football. The US sport has evolved into a more tactical, stop-start affair than our nearest equivalent, rugby. Working out which play to call for the current situation takes a certain level of experience, and that’s before you get into tweaking that play through audibles (last minute changes made by the quarterbacks to capitalize on defensive weaknesses).
It might take you even longer to get an eye for which receiver is best positioned to actually catch the ball and run with it, as this requires you to make split-split-second decisions as to where your blockers and their defenders will be in a moment’s time. The game makes choosing your receiver as easy as possible with clear button prompts over player’s heads and intuitive play selection menus, but it still takes practice to get decent, let alone perfect.
Yet within an hour or two of play something happened to me with Madden 09 that has never happened in an American Football game before – I settled into the aggressive stop/start pace and started having fun. I began swapping safe strategies for more audacious (and rewarding) tactics. I developed a feel for defensive formations and offensive plays. I could even begin to get my head around receivers, blockers and positions. Somehow, the adaptive difficulty level and virtual training centre seemed to be rewiring my brain.
And once that starts, you get to revel in the bit that EA always gets right: the presentation. Graphically, this is the most accomplished sports game I’ve ever seen and one that sets a high benchmark for new iterations of FIFA and NBA. Some of the light and reflection effects are more hyper-realistic than lifelike, but as two teams of 11 players collide or your wide receiver makes his heroic run for the touchline the sight is frequently breathtaking.
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The slow-motion replays are the closest thing a sports game has to the car crashes in a Burnout or Race Driver: GRID – partly because the slam and crunch sound effects have much in common. At its best, Madden 09 plays like a short burst of panic strategy followed by an even shorter burst of action, the rhythm getting more and more satisfying the more you get used to it.