MADDEN NFL 06, EA Sports

EA Sports' Madden series has become like Microsoft Office, but only more so: Its updates come every year, and gamers don't even get a discount if they paid for last year's release. Prior Madden titles earned their price, but this one doesn't offer a significant improvement over last year. In some areas, it feels like a step back.

The major change is a new system of offense that tries to model quarterbacks' varying skills by mapping out each one's on-field awareness in a highlighted cone superimposed on the field after the snap. For example, if you take the role of Donovan McNabb, you're presented with a wide highlighted area, but if you play as Michael Vick this area is much narrower. If you restrict your throw to a receiver in the highlight, you'll probably complete the pass. A throw beyond is likely to wind up out of bounds or, worse yet, as an interception. This seems like a realistic, fair implementation, but in practice it may be too realistic. In practice, the amount of time spent scanning downfield to see which available players are open and inside this weird highlight allows the defense to rush for the sack.

Another new feature, Superstar mode, works out better, despite its occasional irrelevance to what happens on the gridiron. It allows you to experience life as a star player off the field by doing things like choosing an agent, endorsing a line of sporting goods or trying out for a part in a movie. This mode also allows the more useful, but weird, option of picking your own parents; their own attributes influence how well your career will unfold. For example, if your dad is a world-class sprinter and your mom a professor, you are blessed with great speed and player awareness, perfect for a cornerback.

Madden 06's graphics look a lot like Madden 05's. Aside from a couple of new receiver animations, including the way their heads now turn to look at the pigskin, there isn't much new to see. The visuals are still great (especially atmospheric effects such as the way the light fades from afternoon to dusk), but for the price we'd prefer more creative animations and more spectacular tackles.

EA does include all the extras we'd expect: online play on the PC, PS2 and Xbox, a deep franchise mode and play-by-play by John Madden and Al Michaels. But it could have done more. Unfortunately, EA's exclusive deal with the NFL means no other game developer can try to beat it at this game. -- Tom Ham

PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, $50 (Windows due Wednesday)

FLATOUT, Vivendi Universal/Empire Interactive/Bugbear

This relentless crashfest -- part off-road racing, part demolition derby and part vehicular pinball -- makes for a welcome change to a racing genre that sometimes takes itself just a little too seriously.

Instead of smooth asphalt tracks, players are treated to rural environments with hairpin turns on dirt roads lined with tires, road hazards and bales of hay. A brilliant physics engine makes all that rustic scenery relevant to the race. For example, hitting a stack of tires will send them bouncing into the track, where they can bump into other cars and cause a sequence of wipeouts. The game is set up to make these items, along with such other extras as wooden signs, fences and construction scaffolding, fair game: You can drive around them or, if you're feeling saucy, go through them. This "create your own path by destroying it" method is a lot of fun -- and that's before you get to driver ejections. As in, your driver's ejection.

We laughed out loud the first time we saw this: We hit an obstacle at the right speed and direction, then saw our driver sail headfirst out of the car and into the side of a barn. You even hear the "Ugh!" or "Aagh!" from your driver on impact. There isn't any blood or gore displayed, however, just the amusing sight of your guy bouncing like a rag doll.

Once you get the hang of launching yourself in this manner, FlatOut provides mini-games to put your new skills to the test. A bowling contest challenges you to floor it into a barrier, then vault your driver into a set of pins. A high-jump challenge sees how far up you can go without that seat belt holding you back, while the long jump gauges how far you can fly across a marked field. Sadistic? Well . . . yeah. Fun? Absolutely.

A career mode blends in some long-term strategy; you start with a slow car, then earn faster and stronger vehicles with victories while purchasing upgrades to enhance things like your top speed, traction and braking. Between the 36 tracks and 16 cars available -- plus online game play that allows head-to-head races and demolition derbies -- there's plenty to keep the pedal to the metal for a good long time. -- T.H.

Win 98 or newer, $40; PlayStation 2, Xbox, $50

RYL, Planetwide Games

RYL -- Risk Your Life, as it was called during development -- is an online role-playing game with a cast of thousands and no pretense about its purpose. This subscription-based title serves up combat in huge heaping amounts. But you have to get your chores done first.

At the start, the game invites you to join a faction; two of three are available right away, with a third open later on. Your choice determines your access to special abilities and quests, and ultimately whom you get to attack -- unlike most role-playing games, RYL encourages player-on-player kills. But your character's development starts with fights against a lot of boring, low-level monsters. We mean really low-level, as in beetles and squirrels; when vanquished, these diminutive foes drop gems that can upgrade your weapons.

Eventually, you'll be ready to go hunting for members of rival factions and "fame points" earned by bumping each one off. These points can translate to real dollars: The 12 players to rack up the most fame points each month in each of the game's three tournaments will be invited to a championship next year, with an ultimate prize of $1 million. Joining one of the game's guilds can increase your chances; to keep things fair, however, characters in the contest are reset to zero at the start of each month. (Maryland residents take note: They, along with gamers in Florida, Iowa and Vermont, aren't eligible for this contest.)

The game itself, however, isn't all that good. Its graphics do a decent job of depicting some towns, but too much of the wilderness appears nondescript and even blocky, and the characters look too alike as well. RYL's control scheme is also weak: Whoever heard of restricting players to mouse-clicking to move around? If you enjoy murdering onscreen images of other people or want a distant shot at a million bucks, RYL provides decent entertainment, but otherwise there are far better games out there. -- John Breeden II

Win 98 or newer, $30 at www.ryl.net, then $10/month

The latest Madden offering from EA Sports lacks the significant improvement superfans have come to expect.