Plus: Colts season simulation

It's a summer rite of passage along with the State Fair, 90 degree temperatures and a Terrell Owens temper tantrum: the new Madden NFL football video game, which came out last week. Game recount? Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is featured in a Madden game demo.

The Madden series, the top sports game in industry history, has been under attack the past few years. With each year's Madden being basically the same as the last, 2K Sports came in with a $19.99 NFL game last year that was arguably better than Madden. Midway Sports also took on Madden with NFL Blitz, an arcadish game.

Publisher Electronic Arts responded in two ways: First, they locked up the NFL license, making Madden literally the only game in town for pro football fans. Second, they signed a similar deal with ESPN, starting with the 2007 season, undercutting 2K's ESPN-branded product.

With a monopoly on the market, one might think Madden '06 is just the same as every other year's game. But EA has attempted to make this year's game a unique and distinctive experience over past efforts.

The graphics engine has been redone, making it the most attractive Madden game visually. The afternoon shadows fall over Soldier Field as they would in real life. The snow in Green Bay looks more realistic than ever.

But the game's most notable and controversial change is a complete revamp of the game's passing system, forcing the quarterback to use a "vision cone" to see the receiver he's attempting to hit. Using the right thumbstick, players have to move the cone in the receiver's direction - a major change and one that's difficult to learn at first.

The quarterback's field vision is determined by his overall rating. So while Peyton Manning and Tom Brady can see the entire field, poor Eli Manning struggles to see just his primary receiver.

It's completely stymied the longtime Madden players who are used to picking up each year's game and being an expert player from the time they open the shrinkwrap.

The change has met with mixed results from Madden fanboys. The feature can be turned off, but not in the crucial online version of the game, meaning you'd better have the system mastered before even attempting to take on a live opponent.

Another addition is the NFL Superstar feature, where you create a player literally from the DNA up, starting with choosing his parents and customizing his appearance. You then take an IQ test, sign an agent and move into an apartment - ratty at first, then more glamorous as the player develops. Along the way, you try and gain endorsements, playing time and even movie roles.

Along with creating players, teams and stadiums, you can create a fan this year, basically a variation of a fat dude with body paint. While slightly entertaining, it's nothing to get enthused about.

The gameplay, though, seems sharper and significantly better than the last few installments of the Madden series. Star players act like their real-life counterparts, which means Peyton Manning will call lots of audibles and shift receiver assignments instead of slowly walking to the line like every other QB in the league.

The biggest question for local fans is, how good are the Colts in the game? The answer is, pretty good. Their overall ranking is 90, far behind the Eagles (96) and the Patriots (97), but a powerhouse nevertheless.

In order to predict the outcome of this season, we played the complete Colts schedule, computer vs. computer. After losing two of their first three games, Indianapolis went on a tear to win their division title with an 11-5 record.

After the Colts dispersed their early playoff opponents with no worries, the AFC championship game once again was held on a snowy day in Foxboro, Mass. Would the Colts avenge last season's loss?

After receiving the kickoff, the Colts began the game with a 2 yard run from Edgerrin James. On the next play, a play-action pass, New England cornerback Randall Gay ran into the backfield untouched, stripped the ball from Manning and ran it back for a 91 yard fumble return touchdown.

It was the start of a very long and very familiar day for the Colts. With James held to 35 yards rushing, Manning was forced to go to the air early and often. Unfortunately, he was intercepted three times, one of them run back for a touchdown by Eugene Wilson.

Manning recovered a bit in the second half but couldn't hit any long passes. He finished 14 of 26 for 239 yards, one TD and three interceptions. Brady was 14-21 for 230 yards, one TD and no interceptions. New England's Corey Dillon ran for two touchdowns and the Patriots won, 38-14.

While time will tell if the Madden simulation will play out in real life, Madden NFL '06 is perhaps the deepest and most entertaining game in the 11-year history of the game. If you've missed out on the past few years, it's worth picking up.