Madden 2009 better than ever

But when Favre decided to play again and was traded from the Packers to the New York Jets, it looked like the Curse simply reversed onto EA itself.

By the time the dust had settled, "Madden" (EA Sports, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; Wii, $49.99; PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, $39.99; Nintendo DS, $29.99), the mega-selling football video-game franchise's latest installment was too far into production to switch Favre's wardrobe. You'll be able to download rosters that feature Favre as Jets quarterback, and Gang Green diehards will be able to download a fresh "Madden" cover that puts the superstar in a New York uniform.

But all this chaos has distracted EA Sports from promoting "Madden 09" the way it would like: as the 20th anniversary edition of the longest-running franchise in sports video games. EA has always delivered new features in each installment, but this year it's going long, stuffing nearly a dozen fresh game modes and gimmicks into the package. (I reviewed the Xbox 360 version; your mileage on other consoles may vary.)

One of the problems in a series with so much history is that it can be somewhat daunting to a newcomer. Many of the new features in "Madden 09" are geared toward helping the novice. For example, play selection can be as simple or as deep as you want it. At the easiest level, the computer will select your plays for you. Later on, you can arrange your playbook by play type (power run, quick pass) rather than by sometimes confusing formations like Z slant wide corner or double Z LB spy.

You start off with the Madden Test, which gauges your skill in passing, running, pass defense and run defense, then adjusts the game's difficulty to your strengths and weaknesses. Each time you play a game, your skill level is adjusted according to your performance. If you're particularly weak in one area, you can go to the Virtual Trainer, a holodeck-like gridiron, and bone up on the necessary skills. I'm hoping all this will put a stop to the 56-7 blowouts my brother's been inflicting on me for the last 10 years. A few more in-game features let you learn from your mistakes. Instead of kicking yourself over that end zone interception, you can hit the Rewind button and try the play again. Or you can watch a Backtrack video, in which the game shows you how you could have salvaged a botched play. "Madden 09" also does a great job with onscreen menus that provide a helpful guide to all your options at the line of scrimmage.

The Franchise mode, where you lead a team through one season or more, has some nice upgrades as well. In Franchise Rivalry games against division rivals, the pressure is ratcheted up and everything becomes a little more difficult. (Difficulty also gets ramped up in the playoffs and Super Bowl.) For the truly hardcore, the Front Office mode lets you take charge of every aspect of your organization, from salaries to scouting.

I didn't have the chance to check out the online play, which offers one major addition: Online Leagues, which allow up to 32 competitors to create their own league in which they can draft and trade players and play any games on the schedule in any order they like.

Finally, there are Madden Moments, in which you can try to duplicate some of the most memorable events from the 2007-08 NFL season, like Devin Hester's two-touchdown-return game or David Tyree's catch in the Giants' Super Bowl comeback over the Patriots.

"Madden 09" brings back a variety of the more successful innovations of the last few years, such as the Weapons icons that spotlight individual players' unique talents; Ben Roethlisberger, for example, has the Cannon Arm, while Plaxico Burress has the Spectacular Catch. And the Superstar mode, in which you can build your own career from pre-draft workouts to Hall of Fame induction, is one of the most addictive challenges in any sports game.

As you'd expect, "Madden 09" looks better than ever, with high-definition graphics that come awfully close to the level of a network broadcast. The audio has undergone the most jarring change: Al Michaels, the veteran TV broadcaster, is gone, and John Madden himself has been demoted to the halftime show and the training levels. Their replacements in the booth, the bland Tom Hammond and the insufferable Cris Collinsworth, are poor substitutes.

The post-game recap: If you're a longtime "Madden" fan, you don't need me to tell you to buy this. If you're a newcomer, or if you just haven't played "Madden" in a few years, now is a good time to give it a fresh look. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

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