- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 6, 2012

My days of passively watching televised football games might be over.

The latest innovations to a venerable gaming franchise make the big difference in Madden NFL 13 (EA Sports and Tiburon, reviewed with Xbox 360, rated Everyone, $59.99).

Why feel helpless by my favorite team’s on-the-field exploits when I can take total control of players and manipulate their success and failure in an amazing sports presentation that now, more than ever in the history of Madden, truly mirrors any real broadcast.

It’s not like EA Sports had to stretch the boundaries, As the only video game in pigskin town to boast the NFL license, and with plenty of fans already lined up to buy the latest game, the lack of competition could have been a simple cash collecting, “rest on your laurels” approach in 2012.

Instead, developers did not play a prevent defense. The new Infinity Engine ties physics-based collisions to every player’s action on the field as the program factors in mass, speed and body type with calculations down to muscle and joint tension.

That translates into nearly the most realistic games possible as I command my beloved Chicago Bears and challenge all of the mighty of the NFL.

Running back Matt Forte’s neck and body twists as opponents grab at him, my huge lineman stumble over defensive ends as legs flop out from under them, middle linebacker Brian Urlacher fights off multiple blocks (bodies crumpling in the process) to sack the Washington Redskins’ RG III (in my first full game no less) and stars like wide receiver Devon Hester jump, bump and fall over safeties as he fluidly fights for an opening.

Do I really take notice at the authentic quarterback cadences from some of the NFL’s stars, the 82 hours of recorded material from commentators Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, the new collections of drop back animations, the eye-popping amount of replay footage incorporated in games and ridiculous variations of uniforms and gear?

Not outwardly, but my brain and eyes absorb this level of constant and subtle, lifelike detail during every play from scrimmage to make Madden NFL 13 stand out as a visual and aural smorgasbord.

Of all of the new features, I admit to not being in love with the new passing system. I was happy with three choices (bullet, regular and lob) and now I can control more than 25 potential pass trajectories using the right analog stick.

Thankfully, I can just stick to the old method. I did welcome receivers that can now signal the quarterback (watch grayed out versus lit icons) in anticipation of potentially catching a ball. That made my job much easier.

Another welcomed innovation for Xbox 360 owners incorporates the functionally of the Kinect sensor system. The often touted but seldom truly utilized marvel allows an armchair quarterback or middle linebacker to shout out signals that teams react to in the actual game.

Screaming “time out” at the television screen means calling time out on the field. In all, more than 6,000 recognized phrases extends a field general’s arsenal as he can just as easily call “spike,” “hike” and the daunting “d-line shift right.”

For those committed to playing more than just the occasional matchup with online friends or computer-controlled teams, two levels of satisfyingly time-sucking modes are available.

First, the vaulted Connected Careers brings a role-playing appeal to Madden as it melds the Franchise and Superstars modes of the past.

A gamer chooses to control the life of a rookie player or a coach and build his virtual career to that of a pro football Hall of Famer using options to even join an online league with up to 32 humans.

I picked the player option and rather than construct a budding superstar (you can even import a photo and rebuild a body around your own likeness), I saw some tantalizing possibilities with the selection of a classic star from the NFL.

An initial selection of legends is available such as Otto Graham, but many need to be unlocked including George Blanda (find his card in the Madden Ultimate Team trading card game) or Jerry Rice (unlocks this month for players logged in with an Internet connection).

One legend immediately caught my eye, and you guessed it, I selected the record-breaking running back of the Chicago Bears, Walter Payton.

Honing the rookie skills of Sweetness during practice sessions and pre- and regular season games was an emotional joy. His fighting for every inch, this master of the stiff-arm and acrobatic runs was only handicapped by my ineptitude while following a blocker or running a pass pattern.

As a player reaches goals for his position or has in-game successes (win a scrimmage with 3 minutes left in the game for example) he collects experience points used to increase Walter’s skill levels. These can include ball carrier vision or juke moves.

Connected Careers should consume most of a Madden connoisseur’s time.

Next, back again, is Ultimate Team, a fantasy football meets collectible trading card game that allows coaches to build, buy and trade player cards to build the strongest line-ups. Tempting scenarios such as unlocking the use of Vince Lombardi as your coach (if you can beat the modern-day Packers with him at the helm) also really add to the fun.

Actual packs of trading cards are opened and used to construct lineups. What’s great is coaches are exposed to many players they may have never heard, yet they can perform admirably for them. Vikings back-up quarterback Joe Webb was a dynamo in my roster as well as recently released Baltimore Ravens running back Anthony Allen.

Gamers collect cards and manipulate line-ups to put the best team in the simulation and play actual games against online opponents or solo challenges, collecting coins for efforts to buy more cards. Unlocked players can also take part into other modes of Madden NFL 13.

I’ll readily admit to being a casual fan of the Madden franchise over the last decade and have spent as much time marveling at how well others play as actually wielding the controller.

That reported, this year is a game breaker for me. Sure, I’ll still watch the occasional real NFL game, but I’m spending my football couch time devoted to being part of the Madden team experience.

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