Madden NFL 16 saw the incremental changes of the several previous titles finally culminate in probably the best year-over-year improvements the series had seen to date. Therefore, it was only natural to assume that this might prove to be a down year. After all, how could they top the effort that changed the passing game and saw the addition of Draft Champions? Well, there may not be anything as flashy as brand new modes added this year, but Madden NFL 17 amazingly builds upon what last year’s game did, and may be the most polished entry I’ve played from the annual series in a very long time.

For me, Madden’s greatest mode has always been Franchise mode. Since I first started playing the series 21 years ago—don’t mind me as I take a moment and remember how old I am now, shedding a single tear at the thought of my own mortality—the idea of taking your favorite team to the Super Bowl was what drove you in the days before the advent of online play. When Franchise was introduced and I could then take my team repeatedly to the Super Bowl, I was hooked forever.

The mode has been tweaked countlessly over the years, but never before have we had so much control over our team I think. The addition of practice squad players and being able to focus experience points towards developing draft picks shows a better commitment to how an actual NFL team prepares for the future. Combine this with the returning college scouting system, where you spend points each week to see where potential picks should really fall in the draft, and if you’re likely to play at least several seasons worth of Franchise mode, then building up your team has never felt easier or more natural.

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Franchise isn’t just about building towards the future, though. In the here and now, new coach goals and predictions can determine your future with a team—as in if you don’t win now, you might not have that future to build towards. There’s the ability to practice and gameplan each week before your next opponent, and doing so successfully provides in-game bonuses to key player stats. For example, practicing Flood patterns on offense and Cover 2 on defense will boost your players when calling plays that fall in those categories in the game that week. Making legitimate game prep an actual part of Madden surprised me—first for being there, and then for being as enjoyable as it is.

The hardest part of turning any team into a dynasty, though, is keeping them together. New mid-year contract negotiations help make that a breeze, as you see how much a player could want before even getting to the off-season and potentially extend their contract right there. (It’s especially effective with those players who want to negotiate earlier in the year.) Sometimes you’ll realize it’s better to trade away a player who wants too much money, and you can get some sort of return before it’s too late. Sorry middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley; the Ray Carsillo-run New York Giants organization appreciates your service with the team, but we’ve traded you and a draft-pick to the Packers for Jake Ryan, someone just as good as you, who comes at a cheaper price tag, and is seven years younger than you. Welcome to the National Football League, folks.

It’s not just managing a team that has been beefed up, though. Once you take the field, several noticeable changes have made Madden NFL 17 feel like the most realistic game the series has produced yet, starting with the look. A new presentation package gives us more realistic camera angles on replays, and to my delight, the fewest animation bugs I’ve seen in Madden in years. There’s still the occasional hiccup, but the days of players glitching in and out of existence or running off the field and into a replay booth headfirst seem to be gone.

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Also, thank goodness the commentary team has been changed. Phil Simms and Jim Nantz sounded so repetitive and canned (just like in real life!) that I played the game on mute most times. Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis sound like they’re actually enjoying the game, making the recording sound fresh and inspired. Even little touches, like Gaudin taking note when you decide to skip the Larry Ridley halftime show and get back into the action, makes the product feel more alive and far more enjoyable.

In terms of gameplay, since last year had a focus on the passing attack, Madden NFL 17 turned its attention to the ground game. First up is how players will fight for extra yards. In certain one-on-one situations, a button prompt will appear on a defender or runner. If you’re the runner, it means you’ll most likely shed a would-be tackler, leading to a bigger gain; if you’re a defender, you’ll emphatically slam the runner down, halting their forward momentum. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it can be a game-changer, keeping you on the lookout for those shining moments.

Another tweak to the running game has been special moves. They’ve long been a part of Madden, but even after all these years, getting the timing down for spins, jukes, and stiff arms has never been an exact science. So, sort of taking a page out of the NHL series’ tutorial overlap, Madden now tells you exactly what button to press—and when—to help you learn the moves you’ll need to turn average runs into game-breaking touchdown scampers.

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As a heads-up, though, this feature is set to automatic as the default setting. I found after only a couple games that I needed to turn it off, because as much as it was great when my receiver or back would juke a defender out of his shoes and go for a big gain, it was frustrating when they would try to do a spin move around a wall of defenders. I’d rather just run forward at that point and try to churn my legs for an extra yard or two, instead of being spun down in the spot I’m standing. Besides, by then I had rediscovered my personal timing anyway. So, just as a word of advice: you might need to tweak the settings on this for it to fit your play style the best.

As great as this has been to help balance the running and passing game, the biggest gameplay changes may have surprisingly come from special teams. The third phase of football has long been overlooked by Madden, but this year they’re getting their due, starting with kicking. Borrowing the three-input system from the PGA Tour series, kicking field goals and punting now requires you to press a button three times before sending the ball (hopefully) sailing. The first press starts your power meter, the second sets power and starts to swing the meter back down for accuracy, and the third sets that. It finally adds challenge to what is an integral part of football, and one that had surprisingly become relatively automatic in Madden.

There are two sides to every kick, however, and defending kicks has changed as well—in that you can actually block kicks now. Jumping snap counts and actually being able to run around defenders makes it so that playing the other side of the ball on field goals and punts isn’t automatic anymore. More realistic blocking AI means mistakes can happen, and there are few things in football more exciting than a blocked kick. I’d blocked one kick in my entire Madden career—Madden 2004 with Osi Umenyiora of the Giants in a Super Bowl against the Bengals in franchise mode—up until this point. I’ve already blocked three field goals, and had one of my own field goals and punts blocked in only a couple dozen games in Madden NFL 17.

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Of course, this could use some better balancing, especially in online modes like Madden Ultimate Team and Draft Champions. In Franchise, it’s still hard enough to block a kick and it happens about as often as it does in real life, to say not very. In these online modes, since you start with lesser players—and, in the case of Draft Champions, may not fill all the holes you need to in the fantasy draft—it’s much easier for high-level corners to work around low-level linemen. This turns Madden NFL 17 almost into Madden 97 when it comes to playing against others—no one wants to kick the ball.

Speaking of these online modes, Madden’s online suite remains as vibrant as ever. Ultimate Team brings the “Chemistry” feature back (which I’m thrilled about), with clear markings on each card you earn telling you what system those players will best fit. Fill up your chemistry meter with enough players of a particular style (west coast offense, run defense, balanced offense, etc.) and gain bonuses for them in matches. This makes it easier to focus on how you want to build your team and how best to counter your rivals. New solo challenges—now with instant win conditions—expedite the team building process. Last year’s new mode, Draft Champions, also returns with new legends to bolster your roster. As of writing this review, servers appear stable and it’s been quick and easy to get into Draft Champion and head-to-head matchups.

Madden NFL 17 bucks a trend for annual franchises by showing that it can not only find new ways to continue to innovate, but maintain a high-level of consistent quality. Some new features may require more balancing for online play, and there will always be the occasional graphical or audio glitch, but considering where Madden was even just a few years ago, it has come a long way towards showing off its sports dominance and is much more than just a roster update like titles from its past. If you love football, Madden NFL 17 may be the best football game yet.

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Publisher: EA Sports • Developer: EA Tiburon • Release Date: 08.23.16 • ESRB Rating: E – Everyone
9.0
New features may need a little more balancing to be effective online, but overall, Madden NFL 17 is the most polished and enjoyable Madden yet, magnificently avoiding a potential regression after the successes of the year prior.
The Good Special teams, Franchise mode, and ground game tweaks make it feel like the most authentic football sim yet.
The Bad The occasional graphical glitch. The online balancing of the new features needs some work.
The Ugly That opening LA Rams vs Washington simulation. You really think that’s going to be a Wild Card Round playoff matchup EA Sports?
Madden NFL 17 is available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, and PS3. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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