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This year’s "Madden NFL" is definitely the best yet — and not just because it has the Steelers all over the place.

EA Sports has taken last year’s winning lineup and strengthened it with better graphics and animations, deeper artificial intelligence and additional online options. And that’s just for the edition that gamers will play on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Wii fans will see totally new graphics and a revised interface that makes the game even more friendly to those who favor the little white console.

At first glance, there doesn’t appear to be too much difference between last year’s edition and "Madden NFL 10" aside from the dazzling graphics. However, it eventually becomes apparent that the entire experience has been refined to make it more realistic.

The new Pro-Tak system allows up to nine players join in tackles, the quarterback better evade rushes and players fight to recover a fumble. You can also lock down defenders so your best players will always be paired with specific players on the opposing team. Another nice addition is a rumble that lets you know when the pass rush is about to pounce on your QB.

What’s less obvious, but just as important to the game’s realism, are changes in the AI. For example, quarterbacks’ accuracy ratings are now broken down for short, medium and long passes to better reflect the strengths and weaknesses of the actual NFL players. Other tweaks add realism to the way players become fatigued, defenders cover receivers, tipped balls react in the air and more. Of course, a lot of these changes are pretty subtle and I might not have noticed them if I hadn’t had my eyes peeled for them. However, the overall effect of these and other alterations make the game "feel right."

Game play is basically the same as last year, with three different levels of control. Traditional "Madden" fans will opt for the advanced system, which gives them control over every aspect of the game on a play-by-play basis. On the other hand, beginners wary of the game’s complexity can leave most of the coaching duties to the AI and simply control a few key players. An intermediate system falls between the two, and is probably good for casual players who spend as much time with the hand in the pretzel bowl as on the controller.

Once again, players can either play a single game, create their own superstar and progress through his career or develop a franchise. This year, they can also team with a friend online to play against a CPU opponent or try on online franchise.

On the Wii side of Maddenland, accessibility for newcomers was obviously the major concern.

Last year, the franchise made tremendous strides with its All-Play option. This allowed the legions of newbies who flocked to Nintendo’s console to get a taste of "Madden" without fear of the game’s complex, full-blown control system. The system returns this year but with a few alterations that make it less reliant on making gimmicky gestures with the motion-sensitive controller. I really enjoyed the optional point-and-pass system, which let you simply aim your Wii remote at the player you want to hit the A button. On the other side of the ball, you can aim at a specific offensive player and send your defense swarming all over him.

A much bigger change comes in the realm of graphics. Players and stadiums look a bit more cartoonish, which might seem like a throwback to the ‘90s. Some won’t like it, but I think it works quite well on the Wii.

In both versions of the game, the weakest link is the color commentary. Expect a lot of inane comments — and expect to hear them repeatedly.

Overall, "Madden NFL 10" is a robust game that delivers a lot of fun — even for those who aren’t Steelers fans.

Platforms: Xbox 360 (tested), PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, Wii

On the Web: http://maddennfl.easports.com

Bowled over by ‘NCAA’ Those who prefer the tradition and pageantry of college football will find it in "NCAA Football 10."

The latest iteration of the E-rated game from EA Sports lets you take to the field in a player-career mode, develop a gridiron dynasty as a coach or simply jump in and play a single game.

Each of these modes has been tweaked this season to enhance controls and create a deeper experience. The best is the addition of a planning screen that lets you set your overall strategy at the beginning of each half and after each timeout.

Another new option is "Season Showdown," which allows wannabe coaches earn credits for their favorite college in a nationwide competition.

All of the major college teams are represented in the game but, if that’s not enough, you can create your own team. That should please people like my friends at George Mason University in Virginia, which has a strong basketball program but nothing to offer football fans.

Game play will be very familiar to anyone who’s played "Madden NFL." Play selection, audibles and player controls are all pretty similar. Beginners will like the "Family Play" option. It simplifies the play choices and handles kicking and passing with the simple press of a button.

Graphics are OK. Players and animations are pretty good and stadiums look pretty close to the originals, but sideline extras seem a bit generic at times. For example, it’s a bit disconcerting to watch cheerleaders frolicking in skimpy costumes and fans cheering in short sleeves when strong winds are blowing snow across the field.

While "Madden" is still king of the gridiron, college fans will definitely find a lot to like in "NCAA."

Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

On the Web: http://ncaafootball.easports.com/home.action


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