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'Madden' said to regain past glory

Latest version of blockbuster video game, which hits stores next week, called "next-gen worthy."

Football season is almost here and for U.S. video gamers, that means one thing--a new version of Madden NFL, which could be back in championship form after a couple of lackluster seasons.

Madden NFL 08, set to hit store shelves next week, promises smoother visuals, finer control over players, and more dramatic gridiron action, such as gang tackles and mid-air hits.

"When you look at how old the franchise is and how long we've been doing it, we are held to a really, really high standard," lead producer David Ortiz said in an interview.

"The industry says, 'OK, another Madden game, what are they going to show us to make us think this a great game?'"

The franchise, which takes its name from former coach and popular TV commentator John Madden, is a cash cow for publisher Electronic Arts, which has pumped out annual updates for nearly two decades.

Last year's Madden sold 5.5 million copies and accounted for about 7 percent of revenue for EA, the world's biggest video game publisher.

But many fans said they believed the series weakened with the launch of more powerful "next-generation" video game consoles starting with Microsoft's Xbox 360 in November 2005.

It typically takes a year or two for game developers to get familiar with new technology, and Madden for the Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 felt unfinished to a lot of critics, some of whom derided the game as "NFL Roster Update" for the perceived lack of significant new features.

"For '06 we had some rough ratings, it wasn't the biggest shining moment but we figured out the technology...and this year we think we've come full circle," Ortiz said.

The early buzz about this year's game backs up Ortiz's confidence. For example, last month, Madden won the Best Sports Game prize from the Game Critics Awards.

"This is the first real next-gen-worthy version of Madden," said Hilary Goldstein, Xbox editor in chief for gaming-focused Web site IGN.

Many expect Madden to flatten its closest competitor, All-Pro Football 2K8 from Take-Two Interactive Software, which came out last month.

All-Pro resurrects Take-Two's acclaimed "NFL 2K" series, which died after EA struck an exclusive licensing deal in late 2004. Since it can't use current players and teams, All-Pro creates fictional squads manned by famed players of the past.

"While they have some good gameplay and it looks pretty good, it just doesn't have a lot of weight to it. I'd be surprised if they put another one out next year because I think it will sell pretty poorly," Goldstein said.

More than a third of Madden sales come in the first two weeks after it hits store shelves, so EA stages extravagant launch events to build more early momentum.

This year EA is working closely with Microsoft, which went so far as to time a $50 price cut on its most popular Xbox 360 model to coincide with the Madden debut. The two companies are also holding a New Year's-style bash in New York's Times Square to celebrate "Madden Eve."

"Madden is one of those games that emulates film in that we get bigger and bigger budgets and marketing budgets and bigger and bigger splashes the first weekend," said Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter.

"EA is one of the leaders in recognizing that you've really got to make a splash early," Pachter said. "The Madden launch has become almost a bigger event than the game itself, and that's very smart marketing."

The game will be available Tuesday for Xbox 360, Sony's PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2 and PSP handheld, personal computers and for Nintendo's Wii console and DS handheld.