People lamented the fact that EA Sports had the sole rights to develop games based on the NFL, saying that it was a monopoly and that the game would suffer as a result. If you played some of the last few Madden titles, then you'd know that "suffer" is putting it lightly. Taking a spin through message boards or browsing comments right here on Joystiq reveals that many weren't too happy about it either. EA tells us it finally got the message and started listening this year.
The first thing we noticed was how updated the graphics were, a surprise to us since, during the course of our hands-on, we found out Madden 09 game would also be coming out on the Xbox. That's right, the Xbox, sans the "360" tag. According to Tyrone Miller at EA Tiburon, "People are still buying it!" We assume he means the game, and not the system, which we doubt even JC Penny's still carries.
Anyhow, yes, the graphics are much sharper in the Xbox 360 version we were shown, with tons of new animations for the players an much smoother transitions in-between the motions. They've also returned to the Sports Center style, television-centric coverage, complete with a new "Backtrack" feature, where Cris Collinsworth will "telestrate" on the screen and highlight what you did wrong. Apparently, "You hit the wrong button, bonehead!" isn't in his repertoire. It's a bit like a mulligan in golf, and lets you learn from your mistakes.
EA was keen to point out the accessibility of the game, showing the ability to change your team's abilities in multiplayer on a sliding scale and pitting yourself against a friend who'd never picked up the game before. You can crank up their pass and rush defense, while turning down your offense in an attempt to create a more balanced game. Plus, you know, it'll keep players like us from getting our asses kicked by 10-year-old kids. The single-player game also keeps track of your stats internally and will adjust the A.I on the fly, enabling you to constantly "step up", as the kids say.
Another addition is the new "Rewind" feature that lets you step back and run a play again. This will probably become extremely controversial (or useful) while playing multiplayer! Before we jumped into the game ourselves, two guys were going head to head on the same system, with one cementing victory with a hail mary pass in the final seconds of the game. However, one quick Rewind later, he was stopped stone cold as the other player won the game. You can set how many times you can use it in the game -- it only lets you run the same play over again -- and you can still call an audible. We think EA could have added a minigame to control the fistfights that'll inevitably break out after certain rewinds.
Also new: The holographic training mode, which looks a lot like something right out of Tron. Sadly, you can't de-rez your opponents, but it does feel like you're playing football on the holodeck. These are the same play drills you'll find in the past editions of Madden, albeit with funky graphics and sounds. Despite looking odd, it does make it easier to focus on what needs to be done in a particular drill, rather than getting distracted by the field and trying to run the ball in every time, Vince Young-style.
EA has pumped up online play with the ability to create online leagues, and has addressed the stutter/lag issues which Miller says "should be better" this year. That "should" makes us a bit nervous. If you tried to go online in 08, then you'd know what an exercise in raising your blood pressure it was. When the biggest part of your title's replay factor gets kneecapped, it makes you wish they'd chopped the price of the game in half.
We played through an entire game (Go Cowboys!), noting how the computer A.I. was extremely hard to beat (we were playing on the All Pro setting), and our running game turned into "let's hit the brick wall with our head." In terms of graphics, EA claims that the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions will look identical. We'll wait for the internet's obsessive screenshot and framerate comparisons to find out for sure
Overall, Madden 09 is impressive enough to recommend, although we really wish we could have played online to see how that aspect has improved. It's hard to believe it's the 20th anniversary of Madden already -- you can pick up Madden NFL 09 in vanilla or Collector's Edition varieties on August 12th.