Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

Madden NFL 09 is not a revolution in American football gaming. It doesn't deliver the best conceivable rendering of hulking frames lugging a rawhide-laced pigskin up and down a floodlit or sunlit field (though it is as close as you'll get outside a pro jersey and cleats). It doesn't present a radically different way to play the game either.

Fullbacks and safeties and wide receivers do not fly on broomsticks with paddles, swatting footballs with wings. This is American football, not American Gladiators, and the basics haven't changed much over the years. Got all that? Expectations back on earth? Good.

Now relax: Madden NFL 09 delivers a triumphant celebration of armchair quarterbacking, with a clever new adaptive difficulty mode, vital procedural animations, online league and franchise updates, and a battery of analytical tools.

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Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

Getting your head around a Madden refresh, with its exotic playbooks and split-second button-and-thumbstick combos, takes some doing. To help you get game-ready, Madden NFL 09 introduces Madden IQ, a difficulty trainer that gauges your skills in four key areas: rushing, passing, rush defence, and pass defence.

After the game's intro completes its warm-up, a jaunty John Madden materialises, haloed in electric blue and ready to talk you through dozens of drills on a holographic field; the prep work takes about 20 minutes to complete, and then you get graded out with a score of between 200 and 800.

Your score determines how the software plays in 12 performance areas such as "QB Accuracy" and "Run Blocking". The brilliance of this approach is that it lets you go online and play against someone who is at a completely different skill level and not automatically get steamrolled if, say, your opponent is "All Madden" at passing and you're only "Rookie" on pass defence.

You can retake the test anytime you like, or just let the game steer your IQ up or down as you play. And though you can't turn the feature off, you can effectively neuter it by switching from "My Skill" to any of the game's four stock difficulty levels. You'll also want to spend some time in the new Virtual Trainer, which helps you increase your Madden IQ by focusing on drill areas like "avoiding blockers" and "rushing the QB".

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Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

The only problem with Madden IQ? It favours balance over realism, diminishing team strengths and bolstering team weaknesses. Score high on offence but low on defence, and you'll tend to have lopsided games. On offence, you'll be scrambling every time to break pass coverage or carry more than a couple of yards. Switch to defence, however, and suddenly (and absurdly) your CPU teammates are snatching half a dozen interceptions in a single game.

Madden IQ works exactly like it's supposed to, in other words, so long as you expect dust-ups to play adaptively instead of representatively. Once your Madden IQ levels out in all four categories, team strengths and weaknesses shine through, but if you don't want to wait to hit that kind of parity, you're better off playing the CPU on stock settings and letting Madden IQ compute in the background.

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Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

The new player models not only look sharper, they also more closely resemble their NFL counterparts in form and function. The Bears' 186-pound Devin Hester is a two-legged exclamation point, for instance, nimbly skipping, leaping, and rocketing through tackle attempts on punt returns, while the Vikings' 218-pound running back Adrian Peterson hurtles through defensive holes and deftly spins or jukes out of arm tackles.

Bulky linebackers swat smaller players to the ground but lumber ineffectively after lithe sprinters, who streak down the open field but can barely budge a 6'5" 270-pound brick house like linebacker Adalius Thomas of the Patriots.

Enthusiasts will quibble about perceived buffs and nerfs to favourite or disliked players; but on the whole, Madden NFL 09 leaps past its predecessors to render digital models that look a lot more like the individual guys you watch on TV each week, and a lot less like faces slapped on generic body doubles.

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Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

Madden NFL 09's improved inertia modeling works for and against you, exactly as it should, turning sprint tackles into grinding arrests and tight curls into dangerous gambits as receivers try to pivot back against their own momentum.

Ball carriers with serious velocity no longer smash into invisible walls, driving into cleat-plants and dragging side-tacklers forward commensurately.

The one thing this complicates is wide receivers' out patterns, since no one drags his feet or seems to know where the sidelines are, turning what ought to be easy inside connections into incompletions.

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Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

Hate the way sports games lock you into presequenced moves once you've triggered them?

Madden NFL 09 remedies this by changing how animations interact. In past versions, triggering jukes, jumps and spins caused the game to load arbitrary animations that you couldn't break out of, reducing tactics to second-guessing the time it took for those animations to complete.

With Madden NFL 09's elegant new procedural physics system, you can realistically shift from a jump to a juke to a dodge or spin without waiting for a sequence to process - just the way real players move, in other words.

You'll still see a touch of field glide and player stutter, of course - especially during major pile-ups, as the procedural system tries to sort who rolls where.

But the best thing about the new mechanic has to be "breakaway tackles," which allow you to twist and thrust away from clutching defenders by triggering the right move at the right time. Not to worry: the CPU suppresses daisy-chain exploiting by bringing multiple defenders to a tackle - again, just the way a real defence would.

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Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

Surprisingly, Madden NFL 09 doesn't let you manipulate CPU competence with sliders to tweak abilities such as "run blocking" and "tackling time". That type of direct-customisation option has been replaced by a couple basic difficulty settings and 12 sliders for human-controlled players that affect the CPU only indirectly.

If you don't stack legal pads next to your entertainment centers to record every throw and tackle, you won't notice this at first, but vets will - and they won't be happy about it, especially when presented with problems such as robotically accurate CPU QBs.

The best way to work around this drawback is to spend most of your time playing online. The second best way is to disable Madden IQ in favour of the custom sliders, and then start estimating and adjusting (set your pens and legal pads to "ready") until things feel right.

The downside? You can tweak the heck out of your quarterback's completion rate and your linebackers' run defence settings, but you're left to work in stark primary colours when it comes to the CPU's personnel. The upside? There really isn't one unless you despise slider tweaking.

Sometimes less is just less, and I have my fingers crossed that EA Tiburon will eventually remedy the situation by patching in an optional CPU slider column on the Game Skill screen. After all, they're making a roster update available at launch that'll transport Brett Favre from Wisconsin to the Big Apple.

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Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

Fumbled the ball on your own 20-yard line? Threw an interception during Sudden Death? Wish you could take it back without restarting the game? Now you can, with EA Rewind, also known as "EA Mulligan", an optional postplay pop-up that literally rewinds the action and lets you try the same play from the line of scrimmage or audible a new one.

The number of do-overs you get per game varies depending on the "gameplay style" (a complementary difficulty modifier that alters the complexity of your playbook) - and it's available only offline.

It may sound gimmicky, but trust me: it becomes indispensable after your safety botches a dive tackle and a bread-and-butter short-yardage play suddenly develops into into a runaway touchdown (not to mention the fact that the CPU often switches up its plays to boot).

If your buddy reverses your touchdowns during couch play a little too often, you can always turn this feature down or disable it entirely.

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Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

Remember past Maddens in which running backs gained thousands of yards in a single season? Fixed, and simulated stats in general no longer produce wildly lopsided results. Franchise and Superstar modes return mostly intact, with the option of taking a team through a 30-year run or of importing players from NCAA Football 09.

Online leagues have been more dramatically altered to allow up to 32 players to compete in a simulated NFL season culminating in playoffs and the Super Bowl, and to support trades and a draft.

The big fix-up to online league play was supposed to be elimination of game lag (and resulting incomplete games). It's impossible to predict what'll happen when the game goes live worldwide, but I spent most of my time playing on a clumsy, high-latency satellite connection and didn't experience a single interruption or hiccup.

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Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

Broadcast vets Cris Collinsworth and Tom Hammond handle the colour commentary this time around, turning in amusing and mostly on-point performances. Of course it takes only a couple games to hear repeats, and things can get weird - for example when a receiver is being triple-teamed, and one of the defenders easily swats away a low-velocity pass, and Collinsworth shouts "He should have had that!"

In general, the commentary feels more apt on rushing and defence-dominated plays than on passes, though the quest for dynamic chatter remains as elusive as Reggie Bush.

The new EA Sports Backtrack feature supplements the talking game with a "let's look at that one again" replay tool that pops up when a play fits a predetermined scenario (your QB gets sacked when a receiver is wide open, for example, or you run a pass defence against a run offence). The Backtrack feature actually breaks down plays using a television-style telestrator, highlighting players and explaining why something worked (or didn't).

Although the canned analyses tend to make obvious points, they occasionally highlight something you may have missed - and they do so with helpful marks and diagrams.

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Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

Complementing the new Madden IQ system, Game Style lets you choose whether to let the game call plays for you (extreme beginners), to have it break them into basic categories consisting of fewer than a dozen options (intermediates), or to break out team-specific playbooks containing hundreds of creative options (Madden regulars).

Crank the game all the way up to "hardcore", and everything from instant replays to backtracks shuts down so you can focus on your tactics. There's a "take John Madden's play" option here, which is interesting as an exercise in gauging the AI's ability to counter itself, but you're usually better served by developing your own play strategies in training mode and then importing them.

You can also sub in players directly from the play-call screen now, though most of the time you won't need to (the computer automatically swaps tired players). Still, it's a nice shortcut if you want to test a hypothetical.

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Two decades of the Madden video game franchise has been nipped, tucked, and stitched into the finest version ever.

Why it took so long is anyone's guess, but the grass in Madden NFL 09 finally looks like actual grass, helping the painted lines and the team logos practically pop off the field.

The new Action Cam crouches thrillingly close to scrimmages but never fails to pull back and keep every receiver in view, making it easier for you to spot holes in a zone defence and follow the action (it also renders the optional Classic Cam obsolete).

The new "movie weather" seems a smidgen overhyped, since it's hard to see exactly what "movie" refers to. Rain and snow look fine, but they still fall with great restraint, never intensifying or making much of a difference visually (although players do slip and slide more frequently and realistically).

The ambient lighting, on the other hand, finally captures the sense of being in a particular stadium at different times of day or in certain weather conditions - whether it's the crisp gleam of Lambeau Field on a snowy night or the humid glow of a midday haze hanging over the Georgia Dome.

The only thing still missing is scarred turf developing over the course of a game. Your guys will slip and slide and muddy-up until their jerseys are practically black, but the fields remain magically well manicured and verdant.

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OUR VERDICT

Flush with new features, encyclopedic but accessible, and fantastically good looking, Madden 09 is the most streamlined Madden ever.

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