As a die-hard football fan, August 2005 had me scratching my head and puzzling over a few choices; Madden 06 was hitting the Xbox and I "really" wanted to play it. In fact, I "needed" to play it. After reading about Superstar Mode and having played a lot of NCAA Football 06's Race For The Heisman any football fan would've been climbing on furniture and scratching at walls. I knew that Madden NFL 06 would be hitting the Xbox 360 a few months later and I knew that it would look amazing, so was I capable of waiting a few more months? Well, I succumbed to the temptation and I'm glad I did. As it was, I had assumed that the 360 version would simply be a graphics upgrade to the Xbox version, but in fact, the 360 features a brand new game rebuilt in every way from the ground up. It lacks a few modes here and there (hence my happiness at picking up the Xbox version) but it certainly more than makes up for it in all the places that count.

To set matters straight from the onset, Madden NFL 06 is without a doubt the greatest looking game ever made to date. From the accuracy of the stadium and player/coach models down to the tattoos, arm hair and beads of sweat, Madden is nothing short of a humbling experience. I knew it was going to be nice, but I never expected it to completely blow away anything possible that I had imagined.

I started out playing as the Rams versus the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. The first thing to note is that the stadium is as accurate as humanly possible. You'll find the three Superbowl pennants (all in their accurate rendering), the marks on the field from the Saturday's soccer game (and the turf a little less for wear), the two towers above the main enclosure, the rock garden by the arches and anything else that you could be looking for. I was told that the stadium took over 2 years to create and that thousands of pictures had to be taken of each in order to get everything (from the seats to the boards around the play-field) as accurate as possible.

The next thing to note is that even though this is Madden football, Al and John are no longer doing the play-by-play. In fact, the audio is now "on the field" and features a more gritty feel to it. Instead of playing as if you were watching it on TV, the game now feels like you're playing it from the sidelines or from the turf itself. There's now a PA announcer that calls all the plays like at the real game. Don't worry, John is still around in the revamped "Ask Madden" play-calling option where he'll give you the 411 on what plays he feels you should call next.

Also in the audio department, EA has gotten many of the real NFL QB's (around 20) to come in and run through their cadences, audibles and trash talk to get the "on the field" portion as realistic as possible. When you hear Tom Brady calling an audible, it's really Tom Brady calling an audible.

Keeping with the "from the ground up" mentality the play-calling interface has also been re-vamped completely. There are now many ways to pick your next play. You can choose by formation (like in previous Maddens), you can choose to Ask Madden, You can choose by player/go-to-guy (and if the Rams' playbook is any indication, there are as many plays in Madden as in Mike Martz's actual playbook; Tory Holt has 65 all to himself), you can choose a Key Player/Star, you can use Coach Plays (and you'll actually hear the coach call out the Gun Delta Niner streaks play). In all instances, there's more personality to play calling since you'll see the faces of the men involved and you'll note that the scrimmage diagram appear easier to decipher than other football games.

Once you've seen the stadium and called your plays you'll finally see Madden NFL 06's engine for what it is. And here are the facts; Madden 06 360 plays a lot like every other Madden and that's a good thing. This "feels" like Madden through and through and I was glad that nothing had changed here. You can still tweak your packages at the line, still use the Hit Stick and the A.I. seems as clever as ever. Trying to run the ball with Michael Vick in a later game, I found the defense adapting intelligently (and quickly) to my play-calling and shutting down Vick immediately. Pure Madden.

Returning is also this year's new QB Vision. It should be noted that it has been tweaked a lot and is only activated it you choose to press the right thumbstick in. Its implementation is also a lot more user-friendly and natural. Veterans appreciated the need to actually check receivers, but for newcomers, the cone appeared overwhelming and so it's nice to be given the choice now. The other large change comes in the new kicking meter. Gone is the annoying circle that sets your power and precision. This time you have a large arrow that moves back and forth and you stop it where you like. A gauge then climbs up and down to set your power. Sure, it's not a big challenge, but it's a much needed change to a kicking meter that seems almost a decade old.

Alright, you snap the ball, try to make a play and gain some yardage. And when the ball's called dead, you get to finally hit the Start button and enter the replay mode. And this is what separates Madden from every other game known to man. The graphics and the football engine under it. When you've frozen time, you can actually sit back and appreciate all the little nuance of the 360 version. The turf looks amazing, the jerseys look real and become wet, dirty and wear realistically as the game moves on. The crowd (all 3D) is amazing looking (even though no one seemed to be wearing any team jerseys or player numbers) and animate well. The refs patrol the field like they should and the players not on the field are on the sideline (generic model, but with the right numbers). Gone are all the cheerleaders though.

Alright, you move the camera over to Tom Brady's face and this may shock you, but it's actually Tom Brady's face that you find. Yes, I know it should've always "been" Tom Brady, but in other versions, it was a very nice video game representation of what Tom Brady would look like. Now, it's Tom Freakin' Brady! It's creepy the first few times you see it, but these are the real deal players out there. Corey Dillon is Corey Dillon; the eyes, the nose, the lips. Everything is perfect. The play-calling sheet on Brady's arm? Check. It's there. You know EA Sport's saying; and this year they've proven it. It's all in the game. Tory Holt, Marc Bulger, Michael Vick, any player you can name, they've never looked so real. The process of scanning all the players took over two years and they managed to get over 200 players' heads scanned. Other players, like Brett Favre were rendered which was an even longer process. Will anyone be able to tell the difference? Unlikely. Brett Favre looks exactly the way he should and it's eery and exciting all at the same time.

And once you start animating the play, you realize how sophisticated this new football engine is. Guys playing man coverage track their receivers and only rarely look back for the ball. Receivers run their routes and glance back at all the right moments. QBs squint in the sun, their eyes go through the motion of checking their receivers in order, the sweat on their brow and arms is there. Focus on the line on scrimmage and you'll see that there are no more "zombie" players simply rushing forward with their arms out, repeating a preset motion over and over. The players are all alive, with their own goals and intentions and regardless of what player you focus on, everything seems authentic.

The ball is now in the air and you've got "Big Game" Tory Holt looking back for it as he's finishing his route. He sees the double coverage he's in and as he attempts to catch the ball, you can almost feel his face bracing for the impact of the two charging Pats. Does he make the catch? You could look to the crowd, their reactions seem based on the action on the field. They erupt in cheer, you can bet the Pats have done something right. The bottom line for fans of Madden 06? Nothing has ever come this close to putting you into the game of football. And it's an experience the likes of which is overwhelming, humbling and satisfying in a way that a shopping spree in a toy store would be for any 6 year old. This speaks on such a primitive level and gets it's so right that you can't help but grin. Not only is this the best Madden ever, the best football game ever, but it may be the only game ever created to give you that complete sense of realism on all fronts. Wow.

What's the cost of re-vamping the series from scratch though? Well, a few features that we've come to know (and love in some cases) haven't been ported over as of now. The bulk of the game now resides in its 30 franchise mode. There is no more Storyline Central, no Owner's Mode, no Tony Bruno Show, no more setting the price of hot dogs or the amount of salt in your popcorn. The trade off? Menus that are so intuitive you'll wonder how any game has gotten along without them. Slightly reminiscent of NBA 06's (for the PSP) menus, as you scroll through them, you never have to guess as to what's in each "folder" or option. Mac owners may recognize this from having used Column View in Finder and in game form, it's not only sleek but makes finding anything a breeze.

Stats you ask? Madden 06 tracks more stats than you could ever possibly imagine and keeps all of them for as long as your franchise exists. Not just the totals either. You can now check each game ever played, each player's breakdown for every year, all NFL records, everything. Stat-junkies, you are going to love this. And for anyone already wondering what rosters or stats are going to ship with 06, the developers have already mentioned that Live Updates will occur regularly and will reflect the current season's data. Very nice.

As an aside, it should be noted that most games at X05 were builds that were 1-2 months old. Many of them had glitches and bugs and graphical issues and some even crashed hard. But Madden looked and played as if it was a finished product. More work will/has gone into it, but that just means that in the end, every little detail that I was too blown away to look into will have been tweaked and prodded to perfection. Yes, I'm still glad I picked up Madden on the Xbox to play Superstar mode and try out the QB vision. Now, putting it in, I almost feel nostalgic at hearing Al and John calling the plays. But don't get me wrong, Madden for the 360 is shaping up to be one of the greatest games of all time and I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to it. Madden has always set the bar high for all games in terms of graphics, realism and playability, and this out-of-the-gate challenge seems like the perfect battle call for any game developer out there to match. If Madden 06 is any indication, the 360 is going to be mind-boggling indeed.