Two years ago, Electronic Arts, the cock of the walk of video-game monoliths, negotiated for exclusive licensing rights with the National Football League. It was a shrewd move, business wise, but one also made out of panic. EA's biggest rival in the obscenely lucrative virtual-football market, Sega, had started to outmatch EA's almighty Madden franchise with their 2K series, which held the trump cards in game play (tighter, and not as complicated, controls), veneer (better graphics, plus full-on ESPN presentation), and price (a shockingly low $19.99). This, of course, meant only one thing: Sega's little franchise that could needed to be killed.

EA's deal did just that. And predictably, when news of the deal was leaked, many a gamer kicked. Blogs and forums were set aflame, vows of an EA boycott were proclaimed—and then, even more predictably, people still rushed out to purchase Madden'06 upon its release. Free market and choices in product be damned, football still needed to be played, even if EA's first post-exclusivity title was little more than a minor gussying of the previous year's release. Just as the sport itself arrives every September, Madden arrives every August—and chumps everywhere, willing themselves to forget just how badly EA has conned them in the past, eagerly open their wallets.

Count me among those chumps, for Madden '07 has been spinning inside my PS2 for over a week now. While many of my complaints about the franchise remain—the controls are still too loose, the graphics often sketchy (especially on Sony's ancient console), and the overall interface clunky and boggling (don't get me started on John Madden's utterly predictable commentary)—football, as always, still needs to be played, even with an inferior product as your only option. Sega's glorious contribution is now a relic; Madden, despite a sea of flaws, is still better than nothing. Talk about the "Madden curse."

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Still, at least EA made an attempt at revamping this year, beginning with an amped running game that at last allows for... well, an actual running game. Gone are the days of merely plowing your halfback into the offensive line in the hopes of finding a gap. In '07, you now have an impressive degree of control over your back's juking and cutting, allowing for missed tackles and more breakout runs. You can also man your lead blocker, hitting a charging lineman with precision. Both tweaks offer what previous Madden games have lacked: smart, and necessary, enhancements.

Also on hand is a solid franchise mode, along with an arsenal of bells and whistles (including, somewhat perplexingly, a fantasy-football option). But the true joy remains in online play, where you can dismantle friends and get an earful from pubescent prodigies who've already mastered the game between homework and wanking sessions. Football, after all, is about the pleasures of abuse—physically, emotionally, and mentally. Madden may be the only game in town, it may frustrate as much as it thrills, but fall wouldn't be the same without it.

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