Whose Madden is it, anyway?

Madden NFL 11
EA Sports
Releases Aug. 10

In the NFL, there are two types of quarterbacks: The ones who are allowed to call and improvise their own plays (think Drew Brees, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning) and the ones who are essentially meat puppets for their offensive coordinators (think Matthew Stafford, Tim Tebow and, yes, Chad Henne).

So it stands to reason that in the Madden video-game franchise, there'd also be two types of gamers: The ones who know the game's intricacies so well they can actually contemplate making extra coin with their mad play-calling/button-mashing skills, and the ones who take one look at the play-calling menus and run screaming from the room like Dez Bryant from the sight of his teammates' shoulder pads.

In the NFL, the former type wins nine out of every 10 Sundays. You'd think the same would be true on the gaming gridiron, but in this year's version of Madden, set to release next Tuesday — it's numero once, for those scoring at home — it seems it's the casual team that's suddenly running up the score.

It has everything to do with GameFlow, a new feature that allows the CPU to call the plays for you. Select it by hitting a button as you head to the line of scrimmage, and you're treated to the gruff voice of the offensive coordinator telling you why a draw play up the middle is going to catch the D off guard and result in a quick six. Not only is the play literally painted out on the field for you — dude, look at the hole in the line, you can't miss it! — but you never have to choose between a nickel and a cover-two defense again.

There are advantages to this, of course. EA can make the legitimate argument it's just like real football — at least for Daunte Culpepper — and hey, isn't that really Madden's raison d'être? It also has practical benefits. No more pesky delay-of-game penalties and blown timeouts when the play clock burns down while you're stuck trying to find the Hail Mary pass in the play-call menus.

It's not like there aren't several fail-safes — you can audible out of GameFlow if you don't like the play that's called, or you can just ignore it altogether and do your own thing, just like before. But the fact that it's there, that it's even an option, grates on serious Madden players, some of whom are eyeing GameFlow the way a music snob views an influx of frat boys bursting through the doors of his favorite underground club — it's the end of something special. For them this isn't like getting the casual peanut butter mixed in with the hardcore chocolate; it's the ruination, the dumbing down of their favorite video- game pastime.

This is a throwdown at the line of scrimmage that's been brewing for quite some time. For the past several years, the Madden development team has been adding new and improved features (audibles, hot routes for receivers, trick sticks, etc.) to the game, and every year, those who weren't spending their Augusts simming the Dolphins to the Super Bowl were finding it harder to just, you know, pick up and play. Not wanting to write off a wide and lucrative casual audience for their most profitable product, EA has been adding in features, like GameFlow, to convince them to get in the game, too.

Then again, when you actually see how easy some of the new features make playing the game, you begin to see the serious gamer's point of view — and to wonder if by catering to the casual player, EA has encroached not the line of scrimmage, but the line of sanity. For instance, when a menu popped up to tell me that by holding down the "A" button during the play the CPU would "help my player make the best play," I just about threw my controller in the air. And it does: Pick a defensive back who's playing deep cover and watch what happens on a run play. Talk about padding your tackle stats.

What's interesting is to note the ways in which the debate over Madden is mirroring the casual-versus-hardcore debate that's thrashing across the rest of the gaming landscape. At this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, the Gears of War and Halo crowd were alarmed to see the attention Sony and Microsoft were paying to the casual crowd as they unveiled (or in Microsoft's case, re-unveiled) various motion-control gizmos and games, all the better to cut into the mom-and-grandma set Nintendo's been catering to these past few years.

Naturally, hardcores reacted like their best gamer pal had suddenly renounced the hobby to take up macramé and water ballet. They weren't exactly mollified when Microsoft told them they'd begin to see some cool hardcore games on the new Kinect "in the next two or three years."

Ultimately, this is a silly debate — not as silly as Team Edward/Team Jacob or any episode of The Bachelorette, but there are eerie similarities. With all it has going for it, there's no reason both veterans and newbies can't be happy and satisfied with EA Tiburon's annual rite of gaming passage. Unlike the NFL, video-game football, like gaming in general, doesn't always have to be about winners and losers.

Now where's my copy of Halo: Reach?

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