Xbox 360 Roundup • Page 5

Baja, Warhammer: Battle March, SBK-08, Madden 09 and TNA iMPACT!

Madden NFL 09

  • Publisher: EA Sports
  • Developer: EA Tiburon

In its determination to shed the image of annual roster updates masquerading as new games, EA Sports has been on a crusade over the past few years to reassure players that every year brings amazing new features and ever deeper subtleties of play. It's an admirable stance, in many ways, and when it works the results can be enough to blow away entrenched scepticism.

When it doesn't work, you get a game that feels like a lot of noise about not very much. So it is with Madden's 2009 offering, which has a patchwork feel thanks to a bold boast of 85 new features. It's a ridiculous number, clearly, and elements old and new from the series are thrown into the mix to make up the figure, along with gridiron variations on features introduced in other EA Sports titles, most obviously the new Tiger Woods game.

So we get an all-new Virtual Training Centre, which works in a similar manner to Tiger's Club Tuner. It's a VR simulator, where you get to practice your offensive and defensive skills, or try out new plays. It's also where you'll take Madden's Test, a series of challenges not unlike those set by Hank Haney in Tiger Woods 09. Some are grotesquely simple, little more than Quick Time Events by any other name, which mean that anyone can get maximum marks without actually displaying any genuine football skills.

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American Football - officially more squats than Camden.

More successful is the Total Control Animation System (isn't it great how everything has an official capitalised title?). This essentially means that player interaction is a lot more sophisticated than before, with players able to wriggle out of tackles or retrieve fumbled plays in a commendably realistic way. It introduces a pleasing amount of ambiguity into the game, that ever-present feeling that some unlikely moment of nimble footwork can rescue the game at the last minute. There's also Backtrack, which allows you to rewind the game and try a different approach if things go tits up. For those who balk at such chicanery it is, like all the features, purely optional but it's a welcome feature for those more interested in the tactics than the action, allowing you to play "what if?" with your playbook.

The presentation is, as always, polished to a dazzling shine and perhaps more than any other EA Sports title there are moments here where you could be watching ESPN. Add in some convincing weather effects and a foot-stomping soundtrack and you've got a game that understands, and recreates, the epic sturm und drang that NFL fans expect.

There are criticisms, of course. The gameplay balance is mostly right, but when it feels wrong, it feels really wrong. Playing against the AI in single-player mode can be a gruelling chore, with some of the sport's best players unable to make more than eight yard dashes, while online play against human opponents can veer the other way, with superhuman feats a common sight.

Like most EA Sports releases, Madden 09 is a good re-entry point for anyone who's skipped a few years, but less than essential for anyone who picked up last year's edition. The changes may be numerous, but few feel essential and you're always aware that many of them will be back next year, in a further refined form.

7/10

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