The Madden NFL series has been the definitive virtual American football brand for 20 years, and it's a credit to EA Sports that it has consistently expanded and improved the experience with each instalment, ensuring that gridiron fans return year after year.
The latest version, Madden NFL 09 on PlayStation 3, is like a greatest hits compilation - it takes the best modes, control schemes and features from the previous 19 games and refines them, resulting in a comprehensive celebration of everything that makes the NFL one of the greatest sporting spectacles on the planet.
Graphically, it's an improvement over its predecessor; EA Sports has nailed the TV-style presentation of matches and player animations are startlingly authentic. Collision detection is spot-on and laying a big hit on the ball carrier can be wincingly realistic.
As you would expect from an EA Sports title, everything from player rosters, to the latest rules, to each team's playbook for the current season, is accurate, with the promise of downloadable updates to keep up with player trades.
Accessibility seems to have been high on the development team's agenda, and one of Madden NFL 09's strengths is that it strives to appeal to players less familiar with American football, while also offering a more in-depth experience for fanatics. An example of this is the Madden Test, which starts automatically the first time you play the game. Held in a virtual reality training space reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (an unlikely comparison), the test ascertains your playing skill and gives you a Madden IQ, which decides the difficulty of single player games and increases as you improve.
You can also decide what level of involvement you have in your team's tactical approach, as the plethora of plays and their colourful diagrams can be daunting for some players. The Beginner setting chooses each play for you and is for players who simply want to control what happens on the field; the Intermediate setting provides a little more involvement, allowing the player to choose either run, pass or kick; and Advanced is for Madden veterans, placing the entire playbook of each team at your disposal.
As well as the option to dive straight into a game, there are two career modes, both offering incredibly deep play. Franchise mode puts you at the helm of the team of your choice and grants you total control, both on and off the field. The idea is to take your squad from pre-season to the Superbowl, making shrewd transfers along the way, managing finances and massaging the egos of your star players.
Create a Superstar lets you create a player of any position and take him from obscurity to NFL stardom. First, you must decide which agent to work with and then start training to impress a team enough to choose you in the NFL draft. Training mini-games include the 60-metre sprint, bench press and various drills specific to each position.
Once you've been chosen by a team, it's time to impress on the field and boost your reputation. Games are slightly different to the norm; you control your created player only and try to make an impact from the few short appearances he makes early in his career. You can choose to skip any plays you're not involved in, so things move quickly during your early career, and before you know it you're a star player and your agent is trying to negotiate a new contract. You can even give interviews, and your answers determine what your teammates think of you.
Online, things are just as comprehensive, and you can either jump straight into a random game or choose an opponent from the lobby. You can even check each opponent's profile before you take them on and study statistics, such as results of their recent games and even how often they tend to use running or passing plays.
After 20 years, the Madden series is showing no signs of slowing down. Madden NFL 09 is the culmination of all the tweaks, enhancements and experiments that previous games have brought, resulting in an incredibly deep sports game that has enough modes and features to keep anyone entertained for hours and hours. You don't even need to be an American football fan to enjoy it - EA Sports has done a tremendous job in including settings for the more casual player, making this game the perfect way to learn about America's favourite sport.