It was late in the 4th quarter; the Saints, pacing nervously along the red line, were down by a single touchdown with mere seconds left. The ball is hiked, the clock reaches zero, Reggie Bush gingerly accepts the hand-off and propels himself forward through a crack in the D, on his way to a well-deserved victory. At least, that was the plan. Two corners close in tight and smack him to the ground, the ball, apparently encased in butter, jettisons from his arms and into the prying hands of the opposing team. Ouch. Now, turnovers aren't exactly unheard of in the NFL, they happen, except there's one problem: this was the ninth fumble of the game. Add in the freakish amount of interceptions from both teams and the number of total turnovers tallied well above the double digits - fun times.

While it may seem a little unfair to base the entire opening paragraph on but one flaw - albeit a glaring one - in what is perhaps the most complete, well-rounded Madden package since 05, the awful aftertaste of losing yet another game because of yet another fumble, lingers. With that rant out of the way, and incessant turnovers aside, here's the bottom line: Madden 08 rocks. Tiburon has clearly gone to great lengths to make this year's Madden the must-have football experience of the current generation. The oh-so-sweet tackling system and transitional animations are superb, but more importantly, Tiburon has gone balls out and nailed it where it matters most: the gameplay.

Madden 08 isn't the bare bones affair we've come to expect from a next-gen EA Sports title. The robust feature set includes the triumphant return of Superstar mode, a bevy of mini-games to fine-tune your playbook, the stellar franchise (AKA owner) mode, and new to this year, but old to anyone who's played a 2K game, the ability to relocate your team to greener pastures. But perhaps the most significant change to the Madden regime isn't a new play mode, but instead the superb animation system that completely eliminates the stale, canned tackles that we've unfortunately grown so accustomed to. Instead, Tiburon has raised the bar by incorporating multiple, branching animations for every bone-crunching tackle. One scenario I witnessed had Steve Smith leaping into the air for the ball moments before Ray Lewis flew in Superman style, taking Smith's legs out from underneath him, flipping him mid-air in one of the smoothest 'holy-crap-that's-awesome' moments in virtual football history. And trust me, the list goes on. Players slip and slide realistically on wet turf and tackles rarely look the same.

But as sweet as the new animation system is, Tiburon absolutely nailed the gameplay. Whereas in previous Maddens, tossing 80-yard bombers for easy TDs was commonplace, Madden 08 forces you to think like a coach, anticipate plays and react to audibles on the fly. It's the most realistic Madden yet and by far the most challenging. The AI is tough, even on the default pro setting. Defensive backs, for example, will follow receiver routes near perfectly so timing your pass right as your receiver's about to break his route is essential; otherwise it's easy pickings for the D.

This leads nicely into the biggest issue in the game: turnovers. They happen - often. Whether you've played a single game or a full season, on both sides of the field, the defence manages to pick off passes at an alarming rate, even when your throws are spot on. Worse yet, many plays, especially when you're handing the ball to your fullback, result in costly fumbles, even when you feverishly try to protect the ball.

Nevertheless, EA has given players a few options on the field that cater both to the casual and hardcore gamers that can help turn the tide. Most notable is the new weapon system that highlights areas of a player's game where he's especially talented, often rewarding him with a special ability. QBs, for example, are able to read lines and literally see exactly the type of play the defence is running, and in turn, expose weaknesses in the D you may not have otherwise noticed. Receivers, on the other hand, may be more adept at catching poorly-thrown passes, while kickers who earn the Big Foot Kicker rating are given a boost to their accuracy, making those difficult 50-yard field goals a cinch to pull off. That said, if you're a Madden vet looking for a deeper experience, EA delivers on that front as well. The sheer number of offensive and defensive options is enough to please any football fanatic, with hot routes, adjustable corners and linebackers at your immediate disposal before the snap with a simple flick of the thumbstick.

Sadly, and not particularly surprising if you've been following the series, Madden falls flat in the presentation department once more. Considering EA snagged the ESPN license, it's a bit disheartening to see the company make absolutely no use of it. Moreover, the stale radio commentary makes its ear-bleeding return to test your aural tolerance with consistent miss-called plays. Here's a perfect example: if you're down a TD, in the 4th and manage to score just as the time runs out, the broadcaster always announces that the game is over, claiming you've lost before you kick the extra point to tie it up and force an OT.

60 fps makes all the difference to this year's game

Adding salt to the wounds, Tiburon has once more neglected to improve the series' online play. You'll by no means be dealing with excess amounts of lag as Madden runs just fine on and offline; however, Tiburon has again failed to include online leagues, a feature that should be a requirement for every sports title. If NHL 08 is doing it, why isn't Madden?

Regardless, at least Madden is easy on the eyes. While the difference between 07 and 08 may not be night-and-day, the game still sports high-poly player models, exceptional animation as I geeked about earlier and perhaps the top reason to get Madden 360 over any other version: silky smooth 60 fps. The difference between the 360 and PS3 versions is like chalk and cheese when you've seen them both in motion, and it makes the 360 game by far the best choice.

In the end, Madden 08 is the most realistic football experience on consoles. It also happens to be the most challenging Madden since as far back as I can remember. Gone are the days when you can simply launch a Hail Mary for a quick 7. Instead, you have to think smarter, learn your plays inside-and-out, capitalise on short-yardage shotgun passes and essentially be the team's coach. That said, Madden does fair unfavourably in the presentation department and the occasional glitches (out-of-bounds catches not being called, disappearing players) rear their ugly heads. Nevertheless, Madden 08 may not be the best football game ever made but it's certainly the best since 05 and a solid addition to any football fan's library.