I always know Madden has been released, not by the review copy that arrives at my doorstep, nor the messages left by my editor asking me to review the game; No, I know Madden has been released when all of my friends magically appear outside my apartment with boxes of pizza, bags full of chips, and more beer than I can hold in my pint-sized fridge (one of my friends thought ahead and brought an extra cooler - good thinking mate). Ah yes, September is once again upon us, and that means another season of Madden. While my first few hours with Madden remain a blur to me, once some water hit my bloodstream and the crowd finally dispersed - without cleaning up might I add - I put on my thinking cap (which is actually more like a toque as it's 50 below in my apartment), and delved into the pigskin mayhem that is Madden 07.

If you remember last year's Madden on the Xbox 360 then I'm so very sorry. In the mad rush to release as many games as possible on the 360 for its launch, EA forgot to include the game. Instead, we got a DVD disc with a few play modes, most of which felt as though they were coded and finalized the night before, not to mention a steeper price tag. Apparently paying more for less was the name of EA's game.

This year's outing, though not without its flaws and its fair share of gameplay omissions, is an incredible improvement over last year's debacle and boasts one of the most engaging, deep, and hour-consuming features in Madden history - Superstar mode. While 07 is hardly a huge leap in the right direction when directly compared to the current-gen versions, it's certainly is a step, and I'll take that over a stumble any day.

There are a number of new gameplay modes added to this year's Madden that are worth highlighting - namely the ability to switch to a blocker on the fly during a run and the handy highlight stick - but Superstar mode is by far the game's biggest attraction and best addition to the series in years. The idea is to create your superstar from scratch and earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. But before that can happen, players are prompted to pick their parents, which ultimately affects your position and to some degree, performance. Don't like that your mom is a rock climber or that your dad is just an average quarterback? No problemo, just press 'X' to randomize your parents until you've got the desired results. This can of course take a bit of a time, as some couplings appear far more often than others. Getting a good set of parents, or any set of parents for that matter, who carry the genes of a halfback, can be like trying to win the lotto.

It's all in the genes; it's all in the genes!

Every position, with the exception of being a punter and kicker - an option which is unsurprisingly unavailable - offers players with a completely unique experience. Want to be a quarterback? You better have Montana-like eyes to find the open receiver. What about the next Barry Sander? Finding the open hole is the name of the game. Or if being a part of the defensive game is more to your liking, then guarding the QB and HB with your life is priority number one. When not on the field, you simply watch the action as it happens. Or if you'd rather not be a spectator, you can easily fast forward through the plays and get yourself back on the field in a jiffy.

First though, you have to tweak your player's appearance, including his height, weight, and what type of gloves he wears, before heading off to train and earn your attribute points through a series of position-specific mini games. Here you'll partake in a quick sprint, then hit the bench press (I got to 42 reps before my fingers broke) and depending on your position, a skill-based drill where you earn points for successful plays. Aside from these mini-games, you'll have to take a time-based IQ test and put up with a few interviews from a few very annoying reporters to determine your intelligence and influence with your team, before being randomly selected in the NFL Draft. And when I say random, I really do mean it. Performing poorly or well on your tests has no bearing on what team you end up with, contrary to the way in which the real draft is designed. In American football, teams with the worst seasonal records are rewarded with the chance to sign top draft picks before any other team. In Madden football, signings are based on the luck of the draw.

After you've got your team (I got stuck with the Bills my first play through - talk about bad luck) it's off to training camp. Here you can practice any number of plays to help improve your team's stats and build upon your team influence.

Once you've completed the practices (auto completing the practice rather than doing it for real will save you some time), the real fun starts. On the field, you have no say on what plays are picked, that's the coach's job after all, but must carry out the plays assigned to you. Some positions obviously offer you more play time than others, but in my case, as a halfback, I got equal time on and off the field.

Before the very first play during each possession of the ball, you'll have a chance to use your influence to upgrade certain attributes. If your leadership qualities are enough to influence the team, you can improve individual stats for individual players as well as improve upon your own game, which can actually be more of an annoyance than a blessing as it completely interrupts the play before the snap and ruins the flow of the game.

Each position offers a distinctive camera system that is both poorly implemented and extremely frustrating. Take the halfback position for example, the camera is zoomed in on the player and positioned a bit to the left of him, making it next to impossible to see anything other than what's on your right side, which can be completely disorientating. As a wide receiver, the camera's a bit forgiving, but the lack of the ability to tinker its position is, at times, infuriating.

Superstar mode is worth every penny

By now you'll have probably seen the Hall of Fame and Madden Gamer level bars, the former of which calculates your progress into The Hall of Fame, and the latter of which is a neat feature that tallies up a number of your stats, including how many interceptions you've caught (I've caught 15 from Drew Bledsoe alone - seriously Drew, enough is enough), the number of punts you've returned for a touchdown and so forth. Best of all, you can wager these points with a friend (or foe) online to earn some additional bragging rights, or in my case, lose them, as I'll admit, I am about as average a player as you can get when it comes to virtual football.

And if you're looking for even more bragging rights, you might want to give the new highlight stick a shot. Using the right analogue stick while running with the ball causes your player to perform a handful of highlight-worthy moves to help avoid the tackle. So Ray Lewis is trying to put an end to your gain huh? Move the stick to the left or right to juke to his side, or take the more direct route and plough right through him by pressing up on the stick, or hop back just in time to avoid the dive by pressing the stick down.

Another great addition to the series is the ability to choose a blocker on the fly and take control of him while the computer handles the running. You're given the chance to take control of any player on the offensive side, whether it be a linebacker or a tight end, and use him to clear a path for the runner. Make a big play and your halfback will receive a significant boost to his stats to help make bigger plays and net bigger gains. But you don't have to leave it up to the CPU to decide the fate of your play; you can switch back to your halfback on the fly in slow-mo and resume the play.

If the CPU isn't putting up much of a fight, you can head online and play against your friends. There are a few lag issues, particularly when tackling an opponent, but nothing that completely ruins the online experience. And as with most Live games, depending on who you play, your online experience will vary considerably. I had played a few games against equally skilled players who fought until the very end. On the other hand, there are still plenty of gamers out there who would rather quit the game than accept defeat.

Aside from the notable gameplay additions, Superstar mode, and solid online play, Madden 07 has omitted a few features that any football fan will notice right from the get go. The most notable omission being owner mode, which in the past few years has become something that players have come to expect in their sports titles, and rightfully so. Not having an owner mode is like not having cheese on your pizza. What we're left with is season mode - essentially a single screen that lists every game in the season and when it's being played. You pick the game and play it; that's about as deep as it gets.

Another big miss is the announcing, or lack thereof. Some might cheer at the fact that Madden doesn't offer his commentary anymore, I on the other hand, sulk. Madden assessed the plays, he provided team stats and general football commentary; the hometown commentator we're left with in 07 resorts to shouting ridiculous lines like "Look at that good play" or calling out a four-yard gain when it was clearly a ten-yard run. Sometimes the announcer makes comments by using the word "we" as in "we're almost at the end zone," implying that both the commentator and the player are in cahoots, buddies if you will. I get the hometown aspect of the announcing, but I don't want my neighbour in the booth, especially when he chokes up and forgets to comment on huge plays resulting in a number of bizarre silences.

Adding salt to the wounds is the fact that once you do make it through season mode, put up with the robotic commentary, and win the Super Bowl, there's no post-game celebration - nothing, nadda. No Gatorade pouring, no display of fireworks, no sense of accomplishment, it's just straight to the next season. I'm not saying I need a 30-minute trophy presentation, but just anything would do; even a bit of text scrolling across the screen congratulating me would be enough.

Madden also suffers from a number of bugs and freezing issues. The fatigue meter for example, never drains, despite the fact that players are clearly becoming fatigued. How can you decide who to keep on the field when the meter is always full? EA has said a patch is in the works, but this is unacceptable. This coupled with the constant freezing during play can make for a very sluggish experience. There's also the issue with the Hall of Famers, who once unlocked, often appear in season mode as free agents. EA claims this was intended all along, but you should be able to turn this feature off either way.

From a visual standpoint, Madden 07 hasn't improved much over last year, but that's hardly a bad thing. The light reflections on the player helmets still look superb and the fields look downright incredible. However, the biggest improvements lie within Madden's enhanced player animations, which are now fluidly linked together, with player tackles looking especially realistic. Some players are even given their own animations based on their real-life play styles.

The biggest issues with Madden's visuals are the constant chugging and shaky frame rate. Mainly an issue during the scenes that transpire before and after the play, the game tends to pause for a lengthy period, and then boot up again, The frame rate is hugely inconsistent, and teeters around 30, sometimes below. Now in its second year on the Xbox 360, these technical problems should have been ironed out.

There's no doubt about it, Madden 07 is far superior to its predecessor in just about every way, despite some glaring issues that prevent this year's gridiron game from being a true classic. The problem here is that Madden is still in desperate need of a makeover and although this year's NHL looks to be doing just that, Madden continues to be just another step in the right direction. However, its solid gameplay and ultra addictive Superstar mode more than make up for its blunders.