AP-The 22-year-old Madden NFL video game franchise returns with another championship-caliber effort, capturing the Vince Lombardi trophy but falling short of the cherished undefeated season.
EA Sports, which is owned by Electronic Arts Inc., once again finds a way to up the series' incredible visuals and Sunday experience, and developers have made running fun again while adding a great new play-calling mode to speed up the time it takes to get through a game.
But "Madden NFL 11" ($59.99; Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3) is held back a bit by disjointed play-by-play announcing that is hard to ignore.
Football teams are most effective when they can establish the run, and EA Sports comes through here.
The game scraps the long-used sprint button (why would you not want to go fast?) in favor of a dual-stick control that makes juking and spinning toward the goal line more intuitive and enjoyable.
For two decades, my impatience for video game yardage has prompted me to call an inordinate number of pass plays. This control adjustment has fixed that.
Another welcome improvement is GameFlow, which allows gamers to play a football game while leaving the coaching to others. It's far superior than the previous "Ask Madden" method.
Just click a single button and a suitable play for the situation is called. A coach calls the strategy into your helmet's headset (the main speakers or your Xbox 360 headset) and you just run the play.
Sure, the artificial intelligence play callers are going to make some puzzling decisions, but so do real-life offensive and defensive coordinators. And gamers who really want control are going to pick their own plays.
Even with GameFlow, you can always opt to select from the full playbook or call an audible at the line, and more extensive pre-game adjustments can be made in the Game Planning menu. Just bump and drop the popularity of certain plays in particular situations in a process like rating songs for a customized online radio station.
The visuals in "Madden NFL 11" pop off the screen.
Coaches and players look more like their real-life counterparts, and the sun and halogen beams entering the stadiums create more realistic shadows and lighting effects.
"Madden" expanded its pre-game cut scenes with shots of players sitting in locker rooms, stars in suits walking off team buses and fans lining up to grab a beer or hot dog.
On the field, players engage in those now overly filmed get-psyched pre-game bounce sessions, defensive players jump each other to celebrate a beastly hit and coaching assistants give a player some Gatorade during timeouts.
The stadiums look great, and graphical improvements with both the sidelines and crowds are evident. Fans wear a variety of NFL gear, but the collective crowd's color palette is exclusively matched to the teams' palette. Would an occasional random yellow or red shirt at a Colts-Eagles game hurt anyone?
Crowds engage in team specific chants such as "J-E-T-S Jets," 'Go Pack Go" and "Tampa ... Bay." I've been waiting for the latter for 20 years.
Other in-game improvements include better downfield blocking and refinements to many of the catching and running animations.
Where the game really falls short is in the play-by-play announcing.
In an attempt to boost the broadcast excitement level, EA Sports hired Gus Johnson, a top-notch veteran announcer who does a fantastic job on Sundays.
But his game calling comes through here as ridiculously fragmented and choppy, as the voice inflections in strung-together phrases are way too diverse.
A loud and excited "Braylon Edwards" is followed by a subdued "making his first reception of the game." Excitement builds with a boisterous, "He's wanting to go deep with it," followed by a way softer, "He's taken down at the 20," without ever noting that it was a catch. It's just not natural.
I got so fed up with this that I decided to turn off the commentary, which revealed another sound issue I had been overlooking. I could hear no stadium announcer chronicling the play, ball carrier, tackler and yardage. The odd thing is a specific volume control setting for the stadium speakers that says it scales the volume of the PA announcer. Confusing.
On the positive side, Cris Collinsworth's color commentary is solid and unbutchered, as his bits are recorded in full sentences.
One new multiplayer offering this year is online team play, which allows three-on-three action with one controlling the quarterback, one handling the running backs and the third guiding the receivers. This is a nice addition.
All-in-all, "Madden NFL 11" is once again the best NFL football video game on the market, and that's not just because it's the only NFL football video game on the market.
Fans of the series commit to buying a new title each year, and there are not enough reasons to skip this year.
Three-and-a-half out of four stars.