If you followed all the offseason NFL headlines — concussions, racial slurs, bullying, domestic violence — you'd think the league was in serious trouble.
Instead, it's more popular than ever, and "Madden NFL 15" (EA Sports, for the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99) is here to remind you why. It tosses you right into a high-stakes playoff showdown, with quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers fighting for a late score against cornerback Richard Sherman and the vaunted Seattle Seahawks defense. It's a breathless showcase for "Madden" on the new-generation consoles, and it almost makes you forget about the league's horrible summer.
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If your skills have gotten rusty since the Super Bowl, you'll appreciate the greatly enhanced Skills Trainer. Football can be dauntingly complicated; I've been playing this game for a couple of decades and I still have trouble identifying defensive schemes, for example. Skills Trainer takes you through almost 50 tutorials and drills, and if that's not enough, you can tackle the Gauntlet, 40 increasingly challenging tests that range from simple to absurd (like kicking a 110-yard field goal in a hurricane).
Longtime "Madden" fans probably want to skip all that and jump right into a game. The emphasis this season is on defense, with EA introducing new mechanics to jump at the snap of the ball, break through the offensive line and execute aggressive tackles. It's also easier to switch camera angles so you're looking over the shoulder of a chosen defender — a viewpoint I found much more effective when trying to sack the quarterback.
The new play-calling menus are zippier, given the difficulty of streamlining a system that lets you choose from more than 300 plays. The artificial intelligence does a good job of suggesting plays that could be effective in a given situation, and you can even crowd-source strategy, asking what plays other "Madden" experts like to use on, say, 3rd-and-long.
On the newer consoles, the player models are getting ever closer to broadcast-quality: If you zoom in on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, you can read his tattoos. But there are some lingering presentation issues. EA has dumped the pregame coin flip, but you can't skip past a pointless halftime recap. And the in-game commentary from CBS' Jim Nantz and Phil Simms is comically awful, with clever remarks like, "It's better to be ahead than behind." (Do tell, Phil.)
For the hardest of the hardcore, the sweeping "Connected Franchise" mode — in which you play owner, coach and athlete — is back with some adjustments, such as player confidence stats that rise and fall over the season. And "Madden Ultimate Team," a mashup of card collecting and fantasy football, has been tweaked to make it more inviting for newcomers.
Indeed, the folks behind "Madden 15" have done solid work all around in making the latest edition less intimidating without dumbing it down. If you haven't played for a while, it's a good season to suit up again. Three stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lkesten