'Madden 11'

"Madden 11," this year's iteration of the gridiron simulation, has gone to new heights when it comes to overall presentation; helmet reflections, the little pitter patter of raindrops accumulating on the camera, balls that actually wobble in the air instead of being perfect spirals, it all feels right.

From the Jumbotron animations to the player models that more or less look like their NFL counterparts (although in a wax museum kind of way), everything about "Madden 11" looks beautiful.

Oh, and by the way, the gameplay is pretty tight, too.

This is the first year in quite some time that "Madden" has faced a legitimate challenger to the football throne. "Backbreaker" had a solid, if unspectacular, debut but was ultimately held back by a slew of weak mechanics. "Madden 11," on the other hand, has no such issues. This year's sim has the tightest gameplay yet and, like "Backbreaker," seems to force the player to focus on running the ball more than in the past.

Perhaps the most hyped feature leading up to the release of "Madden 11" was "gameflow," a new play-calling system designed to streamline the play selection process. At the start of each play, the player is given an option to call plays traditionally, or to select the gameflow option. Once selected, a play will already be handpicked by the computer for the type of situation you're in: runs on third and short, deep plays when you are behind, and so on.

Despite its benefits, the gameflow system seems like a burden for the experienced player. While gameflow generally gives good advice, it's much more exhilarating to call your own plays and be successful instead of the computer doing it for you. That said, I see gameflow as a welcome addition to the "Madden" series, as it gets new players up to speed while not forcing itself upon the experienced crowd.

Playing offense has always been "Madden's" strong point, and offense in "Madden 11" is no exception. In absolutely no small part is that due to the improved blocking. Where in the past blockers may as well have been replaced by parking cones, "Madden 11" linemen regularly pick up their assignments, either giving you enough time to pass, or opening holes for the running game. Blocking isn't perfect, however, as on occasion a lineman will make a block downfield while ignoring closer defenders.

If I had to pick anything negative about the offensive side of the ball, it's dealing with penalties, especially the no calls on pass interference. NFL rules, which "Madden" allegedly follows, dictate that a receiver cannot be touched after 5 yards unless contact is incidental. So I need someone to explain to me how on occasion my receivers were bear hugged with the ball in the air without penalty. The problem is rare enough that you wont be throwing your controller (as it was in "Backbreaker"), but it does happen.

The defensive side of the ball, even with gameflow, is a chore to play. Whether you are a defensive back, linebacker, or lineman, chances are that your individual effort will have no effect on the result of the play. I spent most of my time on defense letting the computer take over my individual player, and focusing instead on the pre-snap settings, the true source of defensive control. Dictating line shifts and blitzes and subsequently watching them work to perfection is much more satisfying than busting through the line on your own.

"Madden 11," as in past iterations, has a multitude of game modes featuring classics like Franchise Mode and Superstar. One new and welcome addition is the "Madden Moments" mode, where you are thrown into the middle of the action of real crunch time situations from the 2010 season. Whether you are asked to duplicate the results of close games (Denver over Bengals week 1) or taking place in revisionist history (leading the Colts to a comeback over the Saints in the Superbowl), Madden Moments is always entertaining.

With the improvements in the graphics and general atmospheric elements (a Superbowl win even culminates in a White House visit), Madden 11 has enough style to match it substance. If you already own a copy of Madden for your console, this isn't a must buy, but for the Madden die-hards who want more than just a roster update, there's a lot to like here, warranting a purchase.

Available at Amazon.com:

The Saboteur

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Video Games: 'Madden 11'

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