Madden NFL 09 All-Play
Fans of EA's sports games are accustomed to the routine at this point: another year, another coat of paint, in the form of updated rosters and a few tweaks to the formula. Obviously, these slightly enhanced annual releases sell well, so why put any real effort into a revamp? Thankfully, EA didn't follow this train of thought when it came to their third entry of the series for the Wii, approaching the game with an eye for some definite changes. The question is, will the new edition, now subtitled "All-Play," appeal to all players?
If someone removed the year from the menus (along with the various NEW icons pointing out 2009 additions), you'd have a hard time figuring out what version of the game you're playing (even the starring player, a Packers-era Brett Farve, puts you in a time warp.) That's not a bad thing, as Madden football is solid football, giving players plenty of gameplay options, including old stand-bys, like exhibition, franchise and superstar mode, all of which return with just minor tweaks from last year's successful outing.
Superstar mode, where you select a talented rookie and navigate them through their career, remains a half-way affair that would be better served in its own game, akin to "NBA Ballers," where it could offer more reasons to play it. Thus, you'll spend far more time with the other modes, playing with friends in Exhibition and running your team in the always deep Franchise play, where you get to manage your roster, handle the coaching duties, including running practices and scouting opponents, and controlling your players in-game, from pre-season to the big game. For inexperienced players, the complexity of managing a salary cap is a game unto itself, but to be honest, it won't take long to figure out just where you need to bulk up your squad.
Once you have your cards in order. it's really a matter of learning how to tackle and finding the mix of plays that work best for you. (Worry not about your kicking game, as once again, outside of a grand mal seizure, you'd have a hard time missing a field goal or whiffing on a punt.) Unfortunately, it's pretty easy to find cheap plays that are nearly guaranteed to beat the AI, on both sides of the ball, like if you need a yard or two, the quarterback sneak is money in the bank, while sticking with the blitz will earn you an inordinate amount of sacks. But if that's your game, you're going to play it cheap or not play at all anyway.
On the other hand, if you want a real challenge, EA has made online play a joy on the Wii (if not quite an extensive system.) You're limited to one-on-one games, but thanks to EA's set-up, it's easy to jump right in and get a game going, without Wii friend codes screwing things up (though you can attach your code to your account (which is also optional, necessary only to track your performance, if so desired.)) Set up a game and wait for an opponent or pick an open slot and hit the field, and you can enjoy a fun game against a foe more likely to adjust to your crutches (especially with optional rules to eliminate cheap play.) Playing over wireless, across the house from a router with cable internet, the gameplay was pretty much lagless, despite hitting the servers during prime time, with some minor stutters during transitions from time-out screens. The ability to bring your custom rosters and playbook with you online gives you all the more reason to go out searching for someone to play against. In a nice touch, there's a ticker with real-time sports news updates in the online system.
With the increased accessibility insinuated by the name "All-Play," and the Wii's reputation for reaching a wide audience of gamers, it makes sense that there would be a number of ways to play the game that would interest casual gamers, and there certainly are a number of them, starting with the modes carried over from last season, Party Mode, Mini-Camp, Multi-Player Mini-Games and the tutorial Practice and Learn Madden modes, which are essentially the same as they were last year, especially the mini-camp games, which even feature the same animations. While repetitive, they are still fun to mess with, but what's new is what makes for a good time and that's the Wii-exclusive 5-on-5 game. Played on a smaller field without yardlines, the goal is to score the set amount of touchdowns first, with four downs per turn. With the option to play with bobblehead-proportioned players and simplified play-calling, it's a fun time, but once you play a few times, it's obvious that running one particular play will turn you into a dominant force against the computer. Unfortunately, you can't play this mode online, so any real battles will have to occur in person.
Here's where it's easy to say you really need to play Madden on a Wii. Aside from the simple fact that it's just more fun (and a bit more natural) to juke, hike and throw using a gesture-based system, the All-Play version of the game makes some serious improvements and advancements to the control scheme, with the "All-Play" concept taking center stage. Though the same intuitive split control system that put directionality in the nunchuk and most of the game actions in the Wii-mote remains in tact for players who enjoy handling all facets of football control, this new system can simplify things, to a point that's more engaging than '08's Family Play mode, but less intimidating to newcomers and casual players. The on-screen play-calling is similarly balanced and easy to navigate, with pointer-based control or thumbstick scrolling, that offers up a wide variety of playbooks, including suggestions from an adorable lil' Madden Mii.
Though the new control scheme is excellent, it won't affect most players the way the Call Your Shot feature will. Simply put, it's the best addition to a sports game since...hell, the licensing of major-league teams and player names. Before snapping the ball on offense, you can use the Wii-mote to select a receiver, and draw out a route for them to run as a series of dots. Essentially, you can customize passing routes for all your receivers with a few clicks of a button. It's absolutely brilliant, and will change the way one thinks about playing video-game football offense, as you've never experienced this level of control with such ease. The first time you torch a defense with a zig-zag pattern, you'll never want to go back. The only thing that's annoying is the over-the-top graphic display that accompanies the activation of the feature and the successful application of it. One time would be fine. Every. Single. Time? No thanks.
There's another addition to the controls, though it's also really a gameplay tweak, and that's the celebration boost. Make a big play, be it a touchdown or a an interception, and you have the opportunity to give that player a stat boost by moving your controllers around in a manic fashion. Honestly, by myself, I felt like a tool doing this. With others, I fel even worse. Factor in the fact that if you don't do it right, you can get a smaller boost, and you have no choice but to get up and shake it if you want to get your full advantage.
After taking a few missteps last time around, including that brutal third-down blur problem, EA has stepped up its game a bit for '09, with a few new player animations, slightly more detailed stadiums, and brighter color all around. The presentation has taken a decidedly more dynamic look, with explosive score updates and high-energy animations following big plays, but nothing marks how different this game is, not just from other Madden '09 titles, but from the other Wii Maddens, is the extensive use of Mii graphics. Your Mii is attached to your profile in the game and is displayed in your playbook, the referees are randomly selected Miis from your Wii, and Madden even is represented as a Wii. It's an odd clash between the traditional look of the game play (which has a few modern touches, like speed blurs) and the cartoony Miis (something less obvious in the Mii-friendly world of 5-on-5 football) but it shouldn't be a dealbreaker for most players. There are some examples of sketchy graphic work, like crowds that wouldn't be out of place in, say, Madden '07, and occasional collision issues (you can put your players through the brick end-zone wall in 5-on-5, for instance) but at least the game is moving in the right direction.
The Dolby Digital II mix may well be the same one we heard last year, with the exception of the building jet engine sound effect during the celebration segments, and the selection of new songs that pepper the menus and fill in the silent spots during games. What's almost certainly not new is the commentary by John Madden and Al Michaels, which is sadly one of the weaker parts of the game. Truthfully, you'd barely even notice them if you weren't listening for the track. One of the nicer audio features has to be the strong on-field chatter, along with the line calls you get in your Wii-mote speaker, as you're told if the opposition is repeating their play or blitzing, for example.
And in the End...
Madden '09 on the Wii is a pretty solid example of the pros and cons of being a Wii owner, as the game takes huge advantage of the console's unique controller set-up and diverse fan base to offer up a variety of gameplay options and innovative game experiences, while suffering from the system's less enthralling aspects, like lower-powered graphics and a under-featured online mode. But if solid, enjoyable game play is more important to you than high-end graphics or being taunted by 12-year-olds, you can't go wrong with what Madden '09 is offering up. Next year the non-franchise modes need an update though. And we better get NHL '10 on the Wii.