For several years, each iteration of Madden has inched closer to the Uncanny Valley, that off-putting gulf between almost-human facsimiles of people and the real thing. Madden NFL 09 has the details, but lacks the elegance of a seamless recreation. Tackle-breaking animations are better than ever, but the AI will run out of bounds on a whim. The presentation on the field is slick, but violently tackled players don't mar the ground. The core gameplay is solid, but inching toward photorealism hasn't made the game feel more real.
The big tweak for '09: an option to set your "Madden IQ." A short batch of drills (running, passing, and defense) opens the game. The results generate a custom skill level, which conforms to your abilities from game to game. But the system can't cope with the difference between luck, skill, and the possibility that a great CPU quarterback might steamroll even a well-played defense. Be ready for a Madden IQ that fluctuates like a sine wave.
Two new features attempt to open the game up to less experienced players. "Backtrack" analyzes select plays to highlight mistakes before suggesting better tactics. "Rewind" offers the (optional) ability to take a mulligan on a few plays per game. Use it to ease frustration when the AI makes a bonehead move, or to intensify a head-to-head game. Nothing cranks up the tension quite like being able to recall the touchdown that just put a friend up by two.
Beyond the game: Since no AI can yet match the complexity of football, Madden 09 puts more options into your hands at the line of scrimmage. Play-bluffing, line shifts, calling smart routes, and tweaking coverage are all possible, but the dense play-option menus never match the elegance of on-field calls.
Worth playing for: The slightly revamped controls, which—ugly play-option menus aside—manage to make passing, catching, and running the ball a bit more intuitive than in the past.
Frustration sets in when: The online league feature turns out to be a half-baked competition whose structure doesn't remotely resemble an NFL season or championship.
Final judgment: As ever, new bells and whistles add distraction, but EA is still looking for Madden's sweet spot.