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Review: ‘Madden 09′

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When it comes to sports videogames, there’s “Madden” and there’s everything else. No other title can match the overwhelming commercial success of EA’s NFL-licensed baller, but unfortunately “Madden” hasn’t achieved that same level of critical success in recent years.

“Madden 09” looks to change that.

The first thing that jumps out at you with “Madden 09” is the new Adaptive Difficulty Engine. Promoted as the first sports game that adapts to users, “Madden 09” calculates your Madden IQ and scales the AI to your strengths and weaknesses. If you struggle running the ball, the game will adjust by lowering the AI run defense. Conversely, if your passing attack is too powerful, the game will crank up the AI pass defense.

While you still have the option to set the difficulty to a default level like All-Madden, the Adaptive Difficulty Engine works surprisingly well. If messing with sliders isn’t your cup of tea, the dynamic difficulty should provide you with a challenge out of the box.

Speaking of sliders, the addition of the My Skill system comes with a price — AI sliders are a thing of the past. That’s right, there are no sliders to adjust how the CPU performs. Thankfully the game doesn’t need an abundance of tuning, but taking customization options out of the users hands is never a good thing. Sliders could almost certainly help resolve the game’s biggest AI issues — obscenely accurate quarterbacks and an inept running game. 

Another significant addition to the “Madden” universe is the return of TV-style commentary with Tom Hammond and Cris Collinsworth. Hammond is servicable as the play-by-play voice, but Collinsworth shines as the color analyst. The former NFL receiver lends his insight to the action on the field with a natural, free-flowing delivery. He also breaks down your mistakes with the new Backtrack feature.

Visually, “Madden 09” is light-years ahead of last year’s game. Player models look leaner and more lifelike, the stadiums are gorgeous and there are a ton of new animations.

While there’s plenty to like about this year’s “Madden,” there remains room for improvement. The Franchise Mode is virtually unchanged from last season. Hopefully next year the developers will incorporate some of the features found in “NFL Head Coach” into “Madden.” The second area of concern is the online leagues, if that’s what you want to call them. Instead of offering gamers NFL-style leagues complete with divisions, “Madden 09” features only a basic 32-team leaderboard and round-robin scheduling. In this day and age, this is simply unacceptable. Either step up and deliver full-featured online leagues or dump them altogether.

These issues aside, there’s no denying EA delivered the goods this year. With revamped graphics, a new commentary team and a dynamic difficulty system, “Madden 09” has to be considered one of the best offerings in the franchise’s history.

Score: 8.6/10