"Madden NFL 12" ($59.99; Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, rated E) also is a solid game when judged individually, but the tweaks seem far less significant than in previous years.
EA Tiburon again upped the ante in the game's visuals, lighting and presentation.
The broadcast style presentation is slicker than ever, weaving in team specific tunnel entrances, multiple camera angles and stadium exterior shots. Small touches such as more realistic textures on players' mesh jerseys and grass blades and snowflakes being kicked up from the field surface are impressive.
As a Buccaneers fan, I was excited to hear gunshots from the pirate ship cannon when the Bucs entered the Red Zone — so much so that after the next play, I paused and panned the replay camera up to the rafters only to see empty flagpoles instead of what should be raised pirate flags.
Ridiculously nitpicky? Sure. But when a video game franchise is in its 23rd year of existence, these are the little touches that fans find themselves looking for each year.
With the continued upgrades appealing to the sense of sight, it's surprising that the franchise has made such little progress with sound.
Gus Johnson and Cris Collinsworth are back in the booth, and though there's a bit of improvement on last year's disjointed play-by-play announcing, there are some serious lag-time issues. "Touchdown" should be declared as the receiver crosses the goal line, not after he's several steps into his celebration.
The game's player models clearly have been hitting the weight room during the NFL lockout, appearing bulkier than in past editions. And the new collision system takes those weights into account, so larger linebackers likely will get the better of smaller running backs.
The hitting animations are greatly improved, but the usual gameplay annoyances are still there.
Quarterbacks take too many sacks when they appear to have plenty of time to launch a pass or at least throw the ball away.
On defense, corners and linebackers often bat down the ball when they should be making an interception, but I guess that too much the other way would make the game too frustrating on offense.
This year's "Madden" changed the kicking and punting system from the way-too-simple flick back-flick up motion to a golf game style meter in which you click once to start, click again for power and then click for aim. It's slightly more challenging, but a better fit.
EA's new dynamic player performance does a better job accounting for players' gameplay styles in areas such as consistency and confidence, which can change week to week depending on performance and lead to hot and cold streaks.
Another big addition this year are custom playbooks, which can include up to 400 plays and 50 formations.
"Madden NFL 12" doesn't offer any new game modes, but the franchise mode has been drastically revamped.
Wannabe general managers can now begin a preseason with a 75-player roster and make cuts before the season opener. A new free agent bidding system allows managers to get into bidding wars for top players in real time, though NFL salary caps still apply.
It's fun to create your own team and design its uniforms and stadiums, but the "create a team" feature is too limited by its small selection of logos. "Madden" should considering something similar to the "NCAA Football 12" TeamBuilder add-on that lets users import their own images.
EA Sports again offers us a great game, and with no competition from another brand, a recent "Madden" should be in everyone's video game collection. But whether it's worth an annual purchase will depend on the new features you're looking for and your dedication to the franchise.
Three stars out of four.