At some point, the release of the annual Madden football game became a full-blown, unofficial American holiday. Grown men call out of work the day after the midnight release so they can sink hours into the new version. It may be hard for some to imagine now, but there was a time when the game didn't even include a season mode, or have fully licensed NFL rosters. I remember planning out an entire schedule on paper, by hand. Eventually, I played a "Superbowl" with the Buffalo Bills against the San Francisco 49ers. Except it was Buffalo versus San Francisco, since the teams weren't licensed, either. I can't imagine how many times I fired this game up.

It's not like there was much strategy, players were tackled as soon as their outlined touched a player on defense. But at nine years old, I made my Dad watch my execute my gameplan to perfection. We would run up the middle, for some reason. And it worked. Buffalo won. I was excited. But that was that. There was no on-field celebration, no NFL Draft in the off-season, no depth chart to overhaul. The next year, a real season mode and real rosters were almost too good to be true. And fans like me have been wanting more ever since. By Madden '95, I was a full-blown addict.

GameFlow and GamePlanning

EA had inadvertently created a problem. With millions of fans like me who've played the game since the very beginning, they had a fiercely loyal fan base. Having seen growth from 16-bits to the beautiful, HD-representation of real NFL football that we now get every year, we felt like we'd earn some ownership over the game and how it evolves. But with such a successful franchise, every year brings more and more new fans. Madden can seem confusing at times. Hundreds of plays, listed in professional terminology, are hard to weed through, especially when that person doesn't know a bubble screen from a screen door. The developers have to balance the needs of those fans, since they represent a mostly untapped resource, with the desires of the more hardcore fan base. While advanced gamers practically learned football jargon from the game, breaking down terms like "zone blitz" or "slant and go," newbies were lost. So how do you bring those new gamers in without alienating the hardcore fans that have been loyal customers for years?

With an addition called GameFlow, an automated play-calling mechanic, EA thinks they've found the best of both worlds. Based on real scouting reports and playbooks, you have the option of letting the game call your plays for you. At first, it freaked me out. There was something very unsettling about it, something that just didn't feel right. I'm going to assume there are lots of other gamers that feel the same way.

The rationale for why the play-calling had to changed made perfect sense, though: no NFL head coach has access to hundreds of plays during the game, they have a specific list tailored to game situations that they can choose from. Apparently John Madden himself requested the team update the play-calling to more closely resemble actual on-field football. Still, it felt too easy. There's audio of a coordinator explaining the strategy behind each play, and on-field tips show you where to throw the ball. Randy Moss's route is red, which means he's your go-to receiver. You can turn these things off, but by default, they're on. That's fine for someone new to the game, but it's been a tough pill to swallow for me.

Once I learned more about GamePlanning, the hardcore component to GameFlow, I felt a little better. By default, the game will call your plays, but you thankfully have the option to go in and set up plays in order of preference for different real game situations, like 2nd and long or 3rd and short. An iTunes-like star system lets you weigh the plays. You'll be able to craft game plans for each game of your season. At first, expect a lot of resistance from many gamers who don't think they need the game to tell them when to throw a slant and when to go deep. But in the long run, it may be the kind of gameplay change that will be remembered for years, like the Hit Stick.

The one problem is that the playbooks can seem a bit stale. Even though there's plenty of new plays and formations, there are also plays that I feel like I've seen for years. Given a choice, I think I'd have much preferred the ability to create my own plays over GamePlanning and GameFlow. But if someone didn't know how to run the plays already in the game, how could that new player possibly have been able to navigate a create-a-play feature?

Gameplay Improvements

Experienced gamers will be pleased once they get the sticks in their hands. If Madden is a car, the stuff under the hood looks great. There's a new locomotion system which takes into account players' speed and acceleration, making the running much more realistic and balanced. By default, there's no turbo button (of course you can turn it back on), and it's really not missed at all. Blocking has been vastly improved, and  plays tend to develop a bit more realistically than they had in the past. By mapping new jukes to the sticks, there's a more intuitive feel when you have the ball in your hands. You can chain together moves more smoothly than before.

Even though technically, this isn't a gameplay improvement, there is a new mode worth mentioning. Online Team Play allows you to go 3-on-3, which each member of your team controlling a different unit. I haven't played through this mode, but I do have a little bit of frustration that this seems to have been a huge focus for the guys at EA, instead of updating the Franchise mode which is basically untouched from last year. For me, and the other maniacs who have been playing this game for 20 years, we'd have liked to see some more innovation in that mode.

I was happy to see a ton of new cut scenes before the game, including players getting off the bus and warming up in the locker room, and with improvements to the lighting in the game, everything looks fantastic. It sounds that way, too. The audio has been drastically improved, including lots of stadium-specific chants and songs. If you're the Packers in Green Bay and you get a 1st down, you'll hear the crowd chant, "Go Pack Go!" Warming up before a game, you'll hear stadium anthems that are licensed for use in NFL stadiums that really add to the environment in the game. These are very welcomed addition. Even scrolling through the menus, Thunderstruck by AC/DC will get you pumped for kickoff. The much-hyped addition of CBS commentator Gus Johnson makes a difference, too. After recording thousands of pages of new dialogue, with varying emotions, it's an improvement over commentary in past games. You'll hear Gus get more and more excited as you break a run into the open field. And you'll find yourself excited to trigger his excitement.

I have a feeling that somewhere, there's a ten-year old counting down the minutes until he gets out of school and can rush home to play this year's Madden for the first time. Maybe it'll be his first Madden game ever. I'm sure that kid will love the changes that let him or her feel like a real coordinator. But I can't say I'm thrilled with one of the big tag lines for this year's game focusing on finishing games faster. I never minded having to spend an hour playing a game of Madden, especially when it's deep in the game's franchise mode. I've definitely stayed up too late on too many nights playing through games of Madden, but I'm not sure I actually minded. EA is in a tough spot, trying to make a game accessible for casual fans while upholding the notion that this is a hardcore game for hardcore football fans. That's not an easy task, but this year's offering is a solid one, no matter if you're a 20-year vet or a brand new gamer. And like always, I can't wait to get home so I can play.

Visuals: 8.5/10
New lighting makes a huge difference. Love the new cut scenes and the coaches look much more realistic on the sidelines.

Gameplay: 8/10
Locomotion is a winner, but GameFlow is going to take me some time to get used to. If I can get NCAA 11 out of my system long enough to try.

Audio: 9/10
Stadium-specific chants and songs make a huge difference to the environment, and having actual stadium anthems in the game adds a lot, too. You will love hearing Crazy Train before a kickoff.

Fun Factor: 8.5/10
I like that you can be as specific and detailed as you want with the GamePlan feature. I like the way the game plays. I don't like the nagging feeling that it's made for less experienced players.

Overall: 8.5/10
As always, it's a must-buy for an NFL fan.

Madden 2011 is out now. Learn more here.