Just like Brett Favre, Madden NFL 09 is chock full of changes that may or may not have been needed, depending on whom you ask.
There's nothing I can say about the latest edition of EA Sports' keystone title, released today, that will keep rabid football gamers from dropping $60 or so on it. It's good, about what you'd expect from a title that has been around for 20 years, and Electronic Arts has finally added features that are supposed to help the casual player compete with the legions who update year after year after year. (I'm still waiting for downloadable roster updates for obsolete seasons, EA.)
But this fight for the hearts and minds of both casual and hardcore gamers is bound to have its collateral damage.
It's not that Madden is any better or worse than previous years — any player who sells their last copy to GameStop to help pay for the update won't be disappointed — it's just that the new stuff exposes a growing problem in video games: overall complexity.
Nintendo is riding a wave of novelty that appeals to casual gamers. To that target audience, using a Wiimote and Nunchuck to go bowling is a lot more fun than memorizing dozens of formations and hundreds of plays. And there's the rub, since that's the very thing that appeals to hardcore Madden fans.
The new game (I tested the 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition, featuring extra goodies and NFL Head Coach 09, on Xbox 360) touts the great equalizer: The Madden Test. This is a fairly fun, VR-style run-though of a player's skills on both offense and defense, and calculates an "IQ" based on performance (full disclosure: I ranked "All-Pro"). The game then ostensibly adjusts gameplay to help players with lower IQs by simplifying the action.
That's a good thing in a title that features 80-plus button-based actions, and is a decent tutorial to help n00bs figure out what does what. But any game that requires a tutorial to play inherently can't be as simple as Madden is touting itself to be.
Today's PS3 and 360 games, utilizing something like 10 buttons and three directional sticks, may have just grown too complicated for their own good, making it near-impossible to win over casual players. EA tries, but the basic architecture of the series makes the task akin to trying to downsize an Abrams tank for commuting.
The game's rookie level simply selects plays automatically, while the next-highest level limits choices to the Ask Madden feature. This eases confusion, but it also severely handicaps what a player can do in a game that demands you think like the game.
Since Madden is a football simulation with rules of its own and doesn't play like real football (I don't care what any of you say, nobody can regularly get 35 yards off a sweep right), the fairness quotient still comes down to skilled players getting bad calls and rookies relying on one superstar receiver to rack up 300 yards. And that new rewind feature will result in plenty of dorm-room fistfights, I predict.
But while I decry the new Madden IQ gimmick for not quite living up to its billing, I will say the depth of features is astonishing. Superstar mode is back, as are player weapons, plus a new front-office mode for control freaks and a new rivalry feature that ups the ante (and difficulty) when your team plays a hated foe.
My favorite has to be the new Madden Moments, in which you try to recreate great plays from the 2007-08 season (although getting the Giants' David Tyree to catch the ball on his helmet is tougher than it looks — even harder than listening to new play-by-play announcers Tom Hammond and Cris Collinsworth drone on).
Most telling about the series, however, is the fact that the emulation of Madden '93 included with my disk was just as fun and generally played the same as this new version — and used only three buttons, I might add. Whether that says more about how great Madden is or the dearth of truly fresh ideas for the annual installments is for you to decide.
— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. You can challenge his opinions at email@example.com.