EA Sports has rolled the dice on a major overhaul of its best-selling "Madden NFL" football franchise this season -- and most of its gambles have paid off.
"Madden NFL 13" (for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $59.95) swapped out the booth announcers, switched to a more classic presentation, overhauled the menu system and crafted a comprehensive Connected Career mode.
But the most notable change is a new physics engine that dramatically varies the hits and avoids the repetitive sequences of previous years. The real-time action is way more exciting than in previous years, as players bounce off each other with force and stumble over on-field pileups.
The Infinity Engine is far from perfect, resulting at times in bent-back arms, overly dramatic flailing and enough neck snaps to keep a team neurologist running tests around the clock. But most of the animations hold their realism in slow motion.
Introducing real physics into collisions is a huge change for the Madden franchise, and the developers are sure to refine it in future installments.
One of the major offensive changes this season is the addition of receiver awareness. A quarterback now must wait for a receiver to be ready (as indicated by his icon changing from grayed-out to color) before making a throw. That's a big improvement, since quickly throwing a 10-yard pass to a wide-out running a deep route should not result in a completion.
Xbox 360 players can now use the Kinect microphone to control some of the action. To be able to simply call out "Audible, Deep Pass" when you see the defense stacked against the run or yell "Blitz" on defense is much easier than scrambling with buttons.
After modeling its presentation style in previous years around Fox Sports and ESPN broadcasts, "Madden NFL 13" has opted for a more subdued CBS-style approach, replacing rock and hip-hop tunes with orchestral scores and putting Jim Nantz and Phil Simms in the booth.
The play-by-play and commentary are remarkably natural considering EA Sports started from scratch with the announcing pair, and their laid-back style is better suited to make 9,000 recorded phrases sound like they're being spoken in sentences.
Attempts during the past two years to piece together clips of Fox announcer Gus Johnson -- ranging from calm to frenzied -- never quite worked.
After revamping the franchise mode last year, "Madden NFL 13" combines the franchise and be-a-star modes into Connected Careers, which offers incredible depth. Gamers can create a rookie, become a coach or take control of a Hall of Famer in either off-line or online modes.
Altogether, the upgrades in "Madden NFL 13" provide great hope for the future of the franchise.
Grade: Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
What about the college game?
The series has continued to improve its graphics to keep up with its pro-football cousin. It also made some key improvements on offense, adding new quarterback drop-backs, throw and catch animations and pass trajectories as well as the receiver awareness feature found in "Madden NFL 13."
A great new mode is the Heisman Challenge that allows players to take control of a legendary player during his breakout season. Since EA can only refer to current college athletes with generic names like "RB (hash)22," the ability to play to run over defenses as Barry Sanders or Herschel Walker is a welcome addition. The Heisman Challenge also offers the ability to briefly slow time to look down receivers or find key blocks to trail. It's like the bullet time in "Fallout 3" -- without the bullets.
"NCAA Football 13" is a solid game, but its improvements are incremental and I'm not sure it's worth shelling out another $60 if you own last year's model.
Grade: Three stars out of four.