- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2015

As per yearly tradition, professional football returns to entertainment rooms and, with it, this year’s version of an incomparable, companion sports simulation in Madden NFL 16 (EA Sports, reviewed with PlayStation 4, rated Everyone, $59.99).

Well, it’s truly incomparable since the franchise offers the only video game available starring the complete athletic shenanigans of the National Football League.

The latest action arrives through an impeccable television broadcast presentation and features the rosters, stadiums, uniform variations, playbooks and rabid crowds from every team.

Pop the disk in and immediately get thrown into a hypothetical Super Bowl 50 match up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.

Well, I would have preferred the Bears (I can dream), but a player gets to command the Steelers, led by fearless quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, as they attempt a comeback during crucial points of the contest.

The limited chunks of play calling and player controlling clearly shows off the drama and beauty of the game on the field and on the sidelines.

With that rousing start, it’s hard for an amateur football fan not to appreciate this year’s edition from a pure entertainment point of view.

A few points to consider include:

* A focus on the receiver and quarterback connection — Now Madden has even finer control of the receiver using buttons for an aggressive catch (sprawling in the air), maximum running after catch (watch out for the ball being punched out by a defender) or a possession catch (hanging tight onto the ball).

A quarterback has more options now to tailor a throw to a receiver in coverage. He can lob the ball, fire a bullet, throw high or low, or use a touch-pass option to drop the pigskin through the defense and into his target’s outstretched hands.

* Defense has some new tricks mostly refined to the defensive backs and linebackers  — The options range from more aggressive gang tackles organically occurring during a play, covering a receiver tightly to deliver a bigger hit and playing the ball to have a better chance at an interception.

* The upgrade of player models and hundreds of new animations — The “wow” factors continues with much more expressive players that look just like their live counterparts, follow the ball with their eyes or look at other players flopping around them.

For an example of complex visual execution, under the lights of the Gillette Stadium, I had Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, lob a pass over the New England defense and into the outstretched arms of wide receiver Jermaine Kearse. I swear his eyes got bigger as the ball was coming.

He made the play one-handed with torso stretched to its breaking point as he landed on his back on the turf as his uniform wrinkled at the impact. A family member walking by was floored by the event and wondered what actual football game I was watching.

My only minor beef with the models is the Predator-style dreadlocks hanging from the back of a player’s helmet still look pretty pixelated and fake.

Now, ‘tis also true that Madden fanatics can spend hours leading to weeks and years embroiled in the Connected Franchise mode (as owner, coach or player) or building a Madden Ultimate Team (with help from the trading card format).

A new, more time-efficient mode arrives this year called Draft Champions. The 15-round fantasy football, player-picking maelstrom mixes modern stars and legends resulting in building a team to challenge computer-controlled or online players to three- and four-game elimination tournaments.

However, it’s worth noting that serious Maddenites will be disappointed that the three versus three online team play is still not an option.

Although this year’s version still offers enough features to warrant a look, especially for those who have not bought the game in a few years, the importance of the play experience has now totally changed for this parent.

With an ever-growing son now seriously engaged in football at the high school level, it warrants a reminder to all that the Madden game continues to be a great teaching tool.

When my teen comes home after a tough, exhausting practice, he can virtually run hundreds of plays on offense and defense from smart coach’s playbooks to clearly ingrain in his brain such nuances as player positioning, scheme recognition and the finer points of football.

With the Practice mode, he controls players and manipulates any team’s offense or defense. He can execute a play over and over gain while understating what happens when he calls audibles, shifts lines, adjusts routes, identifies defensive coverage and fights off blocks, just to name a few exercises.

Best of all, he uses a fantastic replay system to methodically hone into each player and area of the field, nearly run a frame at a time, to see how plays develop on both sides of the ball.

Additionally, using the Skills Trainer mode offers information about core responsibilities for each position, honing fundamentals and the rewards, albeit virtual, for repetitive training sessions.

Of course, junior can also goad his old man into playing a game against him and spend time talking about why each team succeeded or failed as they review detailed statistics and view key replays.

Most important of the Madden NFL 16 experience, it should create a craving for dad and his future Hall of Famer to pick up a football and engage in the sport outdoors without sitting around a television and using a game controller.

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