Could this be the year Madden shuts up critics, and takes it to the house?

Those who have been following Ripten since its inception just over a year ago, know that I have not been the biggest EA Sports/Madden supporter. I have compared their in-game animations and player control features to “constipation”, and openly bashed their seemingly lax approach to churning out the Madden franchise year in and year out.

Their in-game commentary made me want to vomit, and their so called attention to detail “in the game” was laughable at times. I even went as far as to compare EA’s NFL license extension to the on-field suicide of the fictional football player in The Last Boy Scout. In other words, I had completely given up on Madden, and the notion of ever being satisfied playing video game NFL branded football ever again.

I went to E3 with no knowledge of the Madden 09 game, and even jokingly worked the line “WIll Madden have field goal nets” into the crystal ball animation on our E3 predictions post shortly before the event kicked off. For those who are unaware, Madden has not had field goal nets, on field refs, or a chain gang since they launched their next gen version several years ago.

As I wrapped up an interview with a Sony Home rep, a writer of mine approached me on the E3 show floor. He uttered one simple comment that changed everything. “Hey Chad, they have field goal nets.” Armed with this knowledge, I felt compelled to walk over to their booth and, at the very least, take a look.

At first, I just watched as the Tiburon rep finished up a game with another member of the press. The kicker approached the ball and sure enough, up rose the NFL branded field goal net. I smiled just a little, but surely the rest of the game would suck — right?

The kickers leg swung back, the ball went through the uprights, and I heard the voice of Cris Collinsworth. I said to myself … could this be true? Could EA Sports really be giving NFL loving gamers the game they finally deserve?

No more watching, it was time for me to get my hands dirty. I grabbed the controller, and prepared myself to unleash question after question, fully expecting misleading answers and double talk … but it never happened. Every question I asked was answered as honestly as any Madden doubter could ever hope for.

Field Goal Nets / Attention to Detail

I asked why the sudden inclusion of nets? Why not sooner? The rep responded by first admitting that the company should have addressed it sooner, but also explained that the inclusion of a net was not as simple as many may think it to be. I was willing to let that one slide, so I moved on to controls.

Running the Ball

Will we finally be able to control our player without feeling like we are sliding on ice? The answer is yes. Madden 09 feels completely different. It was explained to me that the momentum was miscalculated in previous versions of the game, and that the team made every effort this year to fix it. The result makes for super smooth control and split second response time.

Responsive controls will help you leave would-be tacklers in the grass.

I tested the controls out in a new area of the game called “Virtual Trainer”. Think big dark room with glowing white grid lines on the ground. Your team consists of orange hologram generated players, while the opponents are a shade of blue.

The moment I started the running back drill, I could feel the difference. The slightest move of your left analog and the on-screen player responded. To juke, simply tap the right analog in the desired direction. Spinning can be done with the right analog as well by whirling it in the direction you want to spin.

Catching the Ball

Catching a pass appears to be more fluid than ever as well. The rep explained that there are only really about 5-10 catch animations, and that each is made slightly different each time by the addition of on the fly joint and hand response in relation to the flight of the ball. For example, the same canned animation can look totally different if a ball is thrown waist high as opposed to above the receivers head. You will also be able to perform over the shoulder catches in Madden 09.

More Fail, Less Bail

In previous iterations of Madden, an attempt to stiff arm, for example, would be calculated by the game, and if it was not going to be successful, the animation would not play out. This would leave gamers (like myself) screaming at the TV “but I pressed stiff arm!!!”

This year however, Madden will feature specific “fail” animations. So instead of seeing nothing when you wiff on a stiff, you will now be able to witness your attempt to establish masculine dominance get rejected like Kobe Bryant at a Colorado Ski Resort.

The Pocket Actually Feels Like a Pocket

Step back into the pocket just once and you will notice the difference. Lineman seem to double team properly and actually try to force defenders away from you. The line for the first time really seems to work as a cohesive unit.

A pocket even Brett Favre wouldn’t mind staying in for a while.

Dropping Back to Pass

Gone are the days of 45 yard drop back passers. QB’s will now be rewarded with bonuses to their stats for playing realistically and staying within a reasonable pocket. If you drop back further than 15 yards, your passing icons disappear and your accuracy shits the bed. The vision cone (aka: the Peyton Manning sees the entire field but you don’t cone) has also been removed from the game.

No Place To Hide / Jiggle Before The Wiggle

In previous years, certain receiver routes took advantage of blind spots (notably the sidelines) in the Madden cameras coverage. This has now become a thing of the past, as the new Madden 09 camera system slightly pans back to make sure that every player on the field is visible at all times.

Another camera enhancement can be seen on break away runs and receptions. If no one is in site as your player closes in towards the endzone, the camera will change to a low angle zoom of the player running for pay dirt and jiggle from side to side as though the cameraman is running behind you.

Celebration Requires Initiation

Madden 09 will feature celebrations that require the controlled player to run to a specific section of the field to activate them. For example, taking Randy Moss into the endzone lit up the back of the endzone and a small section near one of the goal posts. This allowed for either an endzone dance or a jump into the stands. Certain marquise players such as TO and Chad Johnson come with signature dances, however you will not be able to pick the dance you want to perform.

Tom Hammond and Cris Collinsworth Take Control

Finally Mr. Generic announcer has been put to bed. To be honest, the place was loud and I couldn’t hear all of the commentary made by the new duo, but anything is better than the former stiff they tried to pass off as an announcer. If Tom Hammond and Cris Collinsworth have half the chemistry of 2K’s Dan Stevens and Peter O’Keefe we will all be in for a treat.

Madden-o-gram

Hologram Madden will live forever!!!

If you are like me, you grew up playing Madden back when Madden was actually in the fucking game. Well, being that this is the 20th anniversary of the franchise, we are all being given greater access to the man. John Madden will introduce every match-up and also appears as a hologram in the “Virtual Trainer” section of the game described below.

Virtual Trainer / Madden IQ

When EA Sports announced the Live DNA feature for their NBA Live 09 game at their E3 press conference, I was impressed, but Madden IQ and Virtual Trainer are by far the coolest features to hit a sports game since 2K’s VIP system.

Virtual Trainer mode is introduced by a hologram representation of John Madden (as mentioned above), and asks you to run a series of position specific drills in a hologram type environment somewhat reminiscent of Tron. Each movement you make is calculated and once you complete all the drills, you are awarded a Madden IQ. This IQ is constantly updated after each game you play based on your in-game performance.

Madden Virtual Trainer takes visual queues from Tron

Equipped with your Madden IQ, you will now have access to your own custom skill level that directly corresponds to your unique IQ. Why is this cool? Because it tweaks the AI of the opposing team based on your IQ, making for a more realistic gameplay experience.

For example, you may be really good at running the ball, but not so good at throwing it. This would create a custom difficulty level for you that increases the run defense of the other team, but eases up on their passing defense AI.

The Madden IQ and custom difficulty level is not just for playing the CPU, two gamers can use their custom difficulty levels in head to head match-ups, allowing for a more level playing field than ever before. It will be interesting to see how/if this feature is allowed/encouraged in Madden gaming tournaments.

Be Kind Rewind

If ever you have played a game with your buddy and wanted a do over, your wish has been answered. Madden 09 features an in game mulligan system called “rewind”. When playing the computer, it allows you to try the same play again against the same defense, giving you the option to go another direction for better results.

When playing against a friend however, Rewind gives you both a chance to run the same play over with whatever play you like. This could be great for the less aggressive types, or even those that want to spot a buddy a few do overs in order to entice them to play. Rewind is optional, and you will be able to disable it if you like.

Knocked On Your Backtrack Jack

Another new feature in this years Madden 09 that took me about 20 seconds to fall in love with was Backtrack. The feature essentially illustrates on screen where you should have gone with the play and is instantly initiated whenever you take a sack or throw an interception.

Silly Garcia. You should have thrown to your right.

Take a sack while you were looking to throw the ball down field, and Cris Collinsworth will kindly show you the dump off receiver you should have gotten rid of the ball to. Throw a pick, and C squared will turn your TV into a giant telestrator, pointing out exactly where the ball should have been placed.

A  great feature for some, EA realized that not everyone will want this enabled. Therefore, you will be able to turn this, as well as the Rewind feature, off if you decide they aren’t for you.

Sideline Dolphins Flip No More

One of the funniest moments in my chat with the Tiburon rep was when we began to discuss the sideline teammates. I pointed out that they looked terrible last year and all moved in unison. He agreed and even went so far as to admit the team jokingly called them flippers because of their cheesy and repetitive clapping hand motion.

The good news is the flippers are gone, and in addition to the team members on the sideline getting an overhaul, the entire sideline itself has been redone. Everything from random standing dudes to New England’s undercover cameramen have been reworked for Madden 09.

More Fans, Less Clans

It may seem like a small thing, but EA Sports has also taken the time to better randomize the crowds in each stadium. No longer will one section look like they rode in together in a giant caravan of love.

Kick & Prepare to Stick

For the first time in a Madden game, players will be able to line up a player to return missed field goal attempts. Finally, teams with the likes of Devan Hester and Antonio Cromartie will be able to make 50+ yard field goal trying fools pay for their pathetic attempts to score.

You are really going to regret kicking that field goal in about ten seconds.

Parting Thoughts

Of course, the conversation revealed that not everything in the game has been updated just yet. The Superbowl celebration remains the same, and while the game does have a Hall of Fame team, we still won’t have access to classic teams like the 72 Dolphins.

However, if you take into consideration everything that EA Sports has done, I think that most gamers who turned their head to Madden (like me) will be willing to give Madden 09 a shot. Especially when it clearly seems that EA Sports and Tiburon are finally starting to see the bigger picture.

I was able to get one bit of information that should make Madden gamers happy. Next years Madden NFL 2010 will finally feature the long awaited return of on field refs and the sideline chain gang! You heard it here first.