'Madden NFL 09' hits the target for rookies and veterans

For twenty years, the minds behind Madden NFL have enhanced and refined their brand of pro football to recreate a near-authentic NFL experience.

Now, they're looking to recruit.

Madden NFL 09 tweaks an incredible blend of realistic visuals and robust control while creating a football simulation that's more accessible and instructive.

The objective is clear: Entice more inexperienced gamers using adaptive computer intelligence and some old-fashioned coaching.

The first step in Madden NFL 09 is an IQ test. You'll enter a holographic training center to perform offensive and defensive drills. Your results are translated into an IQ score that tailors the game's difficulty to your abilities. You can also opt to skip the test in favor of the default or customizable settings.

Play calling is also refined based on expertise. Basic mode removes play calling altogether, while Intermediate offers a playbook with simple run and pass plays. Once you get comfortable, you can shift to Advanced or Hardcore for complete playbooks.

The instruction resumes during games in the form of Backtrack. If you make mistakes, a replay kicks in showing you what you did wrong and advising you on the correct decision. You can also rewind plays and start over right before the snap. Button hints pop up to remind players of the complex control scheme.

As you play games, your IQ adjusts depending on performance. A virtual training center also bolsters your abilities. For the most part, IQ works. There are some inconsistencies. During a Redskins franchise game against Dallas, quarterback Jason Campbell netted a 70% completion percentage, 335 yards and 3 touchdowns. Yet because of the two interceptions thrown, my passing IQ dropped.

Computer opponents are pretty good yet display some unusual behaviors. Sometimes, they save me the effort of killing the clock during two-minute drills by running plays up the middle of the field. They also enjoy running out of bounds more often than normal. Defenses seem way more susceptible to the pass this year than in previous, particularly on underneath routes.

Visuals for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are fantastic. Stadiums are far more vibrant, stuffed with thousands of fans. Player models look sharper. Dirt stains cover uniforms during rainy games.

The new ActionCam presents some impressive views of the action. When you drill players with a big hit, the camera shakes violently. On big plays, the camera zooms in on the player as he scampers downfield.

Because of this level of authenticity, bugs stand out more than ever. During some touchdown celebrations, players literally walk through walls. Footballs often get sucked into hands as if a mysterious vacuum was hidden under players' sleeves.

The standard modes return, from Franchise to Superstar. Online play expands to include Franchise leagues of up to 32 players. In general, online games are smoother and much more competitive.

The adjustments in Madden NFL 09 aren't nearly as dynamic as previous versions, but this season's release maintains the franchise's stance atop the sports gaming heap.

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