The release of Madden NFL 08 is a sort of second Christmas for football gamers. Over the last two years, the only next-gen pigskin title in town—since EA secured the exclusive NFL license—has been way more coal than diamonds. But that's changed. Sluggish player movements have been replaced by a new branching animation system that makes the controls way more responsive, and the new weapons feature details the star players on each team. Even newcomers will know to run the ball early and often with elusive, powerful running back LaDainian Tomlinson, and to avoid throwing passes to the side of the field featuring shutdown defensive back Champ Bailey.
Most impressive, though, is the revamped A.I. that makes you feel like you're part of a real-life football game—sometimes too real, if you aren't the type to bury your head in a playbook. For one, Madden 08 tracks your tendencies—something it's claimed to do in the past. But this year, you'll really see the negative results if you continue running to the left side of the field, or if you only throw out routes, or if you try a play-action pass on 3rd and 18, when everyone knows there's no chance you'll hand the ball off. But if you play smart, and pump fake for the first time in the third quarter, you might just get a d-back to bite, which feels like a million bucks.
One problem: The linebackers are cruelly good, and will snag way too many passes thrown over the middle, when at least half should just be batted down. Another: The game finally merits an online league, but just like last year, the best you'll get is head-to-head play.
Beyond the game: The PlayStation 3 is causing industry-wide issues—some even blame it for the Grand Theft Auto IV delay. With Madden, the PS3 runs at a measly 30 frames-per-second rate, instead of the optimal 60 fps on Xbox 360.
Worth playing for: Because of the retooled fatigue system, long, grueling drives down the field will turn defenders' legs to Silly Putty, which makes it easier to trundle in for a score once you're in the red zone.
Frustration sets in when: The linebackers will occasionally bend space and time to make impossible interceptions, and after a few too many turnovers, your throat will constrict when you drop back to pass.
Final judgment: This is the Madden that hardcore footballers have been waiting for. The rest of us should be sure to tone down the difficulty.