A new gridiron great

Madden has been unpredictable the past few years. Between a slow mastering of the new technology brought about by a console generation shift, and the decision to focus on singular parts of the on-field product due to their annual cycle, the product just hasn’t come together in a way the folks down at EA Tiburon probably hoped it would. But playing the proverbial long game seems to have finally paid off, with Madden NFL 16 providing an experience that football fans of all passion levels should be able to get excited for.

The biggest gameplay change is evident from the moment you start your first game or training drill. After zeroing in on the trenches the past two years, it is finally time for Madden to air the ball out. Quarterbacks can now add touch to thrown balls by double tapping a receiver’s icon for a pass that falls in between the bullet and lame duck passes of years past. This is great for when you’re trying to hit a small window between multiple defenders and one of them happens to be in front of your intended target. You can also use the left bumper and trigger to modify your passes even further, throwing them high or low and into a spot that only your receiver can make the play on them at.

Receivers also have new options when it comes to how they actually catch the ball. By holding different face buttons with the ball in mid-air, players can prepare for a RAC (run after catch), Aggressive catch, or Possession catch. The Possession catch will make your receiver focus on just securing the catch and getting their feet in bounds if near a sideline. The Aggressive catch, by contrast, allows spectacular plays to happen. New dynamic animations occur when your receiver leaps into the air to try to snag the ball at its highest point, but the gamble leaves themselves open to having the ball knocked loose, since they’re unable to defend themselves. Finally, the RAC is great for when you want to get a lot of yards after a play since your receiver starts turning up field before they even have the ball, but this can result in some unforced errors with the receivers dropping the ball outright.

It wouldn’t be fair for the offense to get all the upgrades, though. Defenders can now choose to play the ball or the receiver. Being proactive and going for the ball can lead to more interceptions, deflections, and some impressive animations as both receiver and defender fall to the ground. Playing the receiver is great when you’re just trying to prevent yards after the catch, like on a pass in the flat and you want to keep the receiver from getting a first down.

The best part of the defensive upgrades has to be the fact that defensive backs can actually catch the ball in Madden NFL 16. No longer will players drop easy interceptions on lame duck passes or tipped balls like their hands are covered in grease. They’ll still drop an easy one every now and again, but not nearly at the rate seen in previous games.

These new features re-invigorate what had become one of the more stale parts of playing Madden, because each new pass can lead to plays you’ll never have seen before from the series. The upgraded catches offer up an interesting rock-paper-scissors dynamic that tests your reflexes in the best ways possible, since you only have split-seconds to decide both what receiver to throw the ball to but also how you want to catch it. And ball hawking as a defensive back is finally satisfying, because you know when you read the receivers properly and jump the route that you’ll be coming down with the ball most of the time instead of watching it hit your hands and fall harmlessly to the ground.

The new passing mechanics have also provided welcome indirect improvements by giving Madden some much-needed balance. Working on the ground game and offensive/defensive line play so much in previous iterations threw the gameplay completely out of whack and left us with an unrealistic experience. It was common for me to have defensive linemen with 50-plus sacks each year and running backs with nearly 3,000 yards rushing. In order to make sure your QB actually has the time to throw the ball, defensive players won’t always beat an offensive lineman anymore—even when perfectly timing the snap. I still have great seasons with my defensive linemen, with guys like Damontre Moore of the Giants getting 15 sacks in my first franchise year, but those ridiculous numbers from previous games are a thing of the past.

The same goes with running the ball. Instead of averaging 175 yards a game, I found Shane Vereen averaged a much more realistic 90 yards a game this year, and the extra benefit of this is it improved my success with the play-action pass. Finally, my stat sheet looked more like an actual football game and allowed me to truly test myself against either the AI or human opponents.

Speaking of playing against other people, Madden’s suite of online modes has a new crown jewel. Draft Champions gives you a team of mediocre players (around 70 overall), and then tasks you with putting together a team of superstars through a fantasy draft. The problem is that you only have 15 rounds in the draft and 22 spots to fill, meaning every team will have some holes. Finding your opponent’s weaknesses—and minimizing your own—puts your football acumen to the test like never before, especially because no two drafts are ever the same. It’s also a fun way to just jump into the action if you’re not into the hardcore simulation of micro-managing a franchise.

Draft Champions touts a huge risk/reward factor because there are some incredibly tough decisions that you’ll have to make over the course of your draft. Since there’s no guarantee certain positions will come up, every time you pass on two other players when you make your singular choice each round, there’s a chance you’ll never see that position come up again. I truly believe that one of the games I lost while playing was because I scoffed at Matthew Stafford (81 overall) of the Lions in the sixth round in the hopes another QB would come up. One never did, and I was stuck with Austin Davis (70 overall), the pitiful backup for the St. Louis Rams.

Besides Draft Champions, the ever-popular Madden Ultimate Team returns. While not much has changed in regards to collecting cards, trying to improve your line-up, and then facing-off against people online in order to move up the virtual divisions, the special single player challenges that allow you to hone your team and relive the most exciting moments from last year’s NFL season have been tweaked. Now, these challenges are focused more on specific moments, typically towards the end of games, to offer quicker, more easily digestible gameplay snippets. You’ll progress faster with your MUT while also being thrown right into the action, providing an experience that’s easier to get into and requires far less of a time commitment.

Of course, playing online might not be your thing. Maybe this is your first time experiencing a Madden game and online is a bit intimidating. In that case, Skills Trainer returns with all new challenges and tutorials specifically focused around the new gameplay features added this year. A new 25-challenge Gauntlet has also been created to truly put your skills to the test.

You could also be a Madden veteran, but the idea of grinding against the computer might be more your speed. Connected Franchise is back and gives you the opportunity to control your favorite NFL team and turn them into a dynasty. Whether an owner, coach, or player, you’ll be directly involved with how your team hopefully becomes world-beaters. And if you choose to be an owner or coach, a brand new, more user-friendly interface makes it easier than ever to scout potential superstars in the draft, make lineup changes, or sign and trade current players on your roster. There is also a new XP system featuring season-long, game-to-game, and even drive-to-drive dynamic goals for players and coaches to help them develop into living legends (although the mid-game graphics tracking these goals are a bit of a mess). If you like being in control, Connected Franchise offers up more than ever before and makes it easier to maintain your perfect football legacy.

Even with EA Tiburon’s plans seemingly coming together in Madden NFL 16, there are still a few tiny flaws with this year’s product. Despite visuals that look better than ever, glitches remain on both the animation and AI side of things. The occasional clipping of two players trying to occupy the same space in transitional scenes between plays. Inhuman ragdoll movements after a tackle. Unnatural ball trajectories when released from the QB’s hand. Players standing perfectly still in the middle of the field before, during, and after a play—or, when they do move, it’s like they’re on an electric football field and not moving smoothly like their ten teammates. These are, admittedly, minor annoyances, but are still enough to break the immersion, especially when those players who refuse to move cost you big plays on offense or defense.

While on the subject of animation, those assigned to Aggressive catches quickly become tired. Seeing everyone on the field trying to replicate the Odell Beckham catch from last year against Dallas is nice the first time, but it’s not special if you do it every play. And you know what else is tired? Phil Simms and Jim Nantz’s commentary. I’m so sick of hearing Simms comparing football to Nantz’s golf game.

The only truly significant issue I experienced, though, came with my limited time when playing online. Usually I was able to connect with minimal issues, but every now and again, I wouldn’t be able to match with other players. Once we connected everything was fine, but it was those initial moments with the matchmaking that had me nervous. These could be just pre-launch bugs that’ll be fixed with the day one patch—and it only happened maybe one out of every five times I tried to connect—but it might be something to keep an eye out for on launch day.

Even with these quibbles, Madden NFL 16 is the best game the franchise has seen in quite some time. It provides fun pick-up and play options along with changes in gameplay mechanics that the hardcore players have been waiting literal years for. And what a concept, an EA Sports game that adds new modes instead of cutting old ones out. Draft Champions is going to change the face of Madden online and should rival MUT for where players devote most of their time. All this should make football fans everywhere rejoice that it is once again Madden Season.

Developer: EA Tiburon • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 08.25.15
9.0
New gameplay mechanics and the new Draft Champions mode mean Madden NFL 16 finally delivers a complete football experience that both casual and hardcore fans should be able to enjoy right from the start.
The Good New passing mechanics have revolutionized the offensive side of the ball. Draft Champions mode is my new online addiction.
The Bad The occasional AI bug is still frustrating. Commentary needs an overhaul.
The Ugly I kept looking to see if they only put three fingers on one of Jason Pierre-Paul’s hands after he blew a couple off in an off-season fireworks accident. (They didn’t.)
Madden NFL 16 is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. EA Sports provided travel to a review event to test out some of the online capabilities for Madden and provided a retail copy for the benefit of this review. 
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