Tag Archive: football


Madden NFL 18 New MUT Squads

I had a chance to check out the new MUT Squads mode in Madden NFL 18, which adds 3-versus-3 gameplay and co-op gameplay back to the franchise for the first time in years. Madden NFL 18 is out now.

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When I first started playing Madden NFL 18, I was pleasantly surprised. For the first time in several years, the legendary coach, commentator, and namesake for the franchise, John Madden, lent his voice back to the game. It was only the opening title screen animation, but he briefly waxes poetic—as much as anything John Madden says could be considered poetry—about the greatness of cover athlete Tom Brady, just like he was back in the broadcast booth.

Hearing his voice again brought back a lot of good memories for me, because when Madden was at his best, there were few better at conveying football to the masses. It also brought back some rough ones too, however, because when Madden was at his worst, he was a bit of a laughing stock that distracted from the games he broadcast. It’s somewhat apropos then that his voice is there at the start of this year’s Madden entry, because in many ways, this is a perfect symbol for Madden NFL 18. Some things about the game are very good; some just had me shaking my head.

Easily one of the brightest spots of the game was also the most surprising. Partially made possible by the Madden team switching to the Frostbite engine, and partially because FIFA’s “The Journey” mode was so well received and helped pave a path, Madden added its own story-driven mode this year called Longshot—and it’s one of the freshest and most enjoyable things the Madden series has ever done.

Longshot could best be described as one part Madden, one part Friday Night Lights, and maybe two parts Telltale storytelling. You play as Devin Wade, a one time blue-chip QB prospect who hung up his cleats shortly after beginning his college career and took a couple of years to find himself after personal tragedy left him shaken as a young man. Working through the regional combine and taking advantage of a unique opportunity that comes his way, Wade is the very definition of a longshot, with one last chance to make it in the NFL. Alongside his best buddy and number one wide receiver, Colt Cruise, Wade’s determination will be tested just as much as his athletic ability.

The story that Longshot tells could be placed alongside all the best football stories we’ve seen, from Rudy to Remember the Titans to the aforementioned Friday Night Lights. Not only do you see his story unfold, but often times you’ll be asked to step in and choose Devin’s words or actions in various situations that will guide him down dozens of different branching paths (a la a Telltale game). Depending on those choices—and how you perform on the football field—Devin could be drafted, Colt could be drafted, neither could be drafted, or both could be drafted.

Besides dialogue choices, Devin will also suit up. You’ll get to relive some of Devin’s glory days in high school, as well as be put to the test in combines and game scrimmages. Your performance here has a direct effect on what makes Longshot truly unique, and that’s Devin’s draft grade page. Every major event you partake in can affect Devin’s grade, football IQ, how his personality is perceived, and more. Even bigger, every NFL team is watching, and you can instantly see how every one of these events affects the score directly.

Longshot could truly change what draws people to Madden, and might even appeal to those not typically interested in a football sim. There are a couple of drawbacks to what should otherwise be a highly-celebrated new mode, though. It’s not bad that Longshot should only take you three to five hours to beat, and it’s damn impressive that there are no load times whatsoever once you jump in—you can play the entire thing straight through if you so choose. I just personally wished there was a better balance between those critical gameplay moments that affect your score, and the sometimes long cutscenes that take place in-between to drive the story forward. Also, it was jarring how the biggest moments of Devin’s on-field life at times get boiled down to quicktime events. It heightened the drama, but definitely not the gameplay.

Also, even if you should get your grade to be extremely high (I ended up with a 9.7/10 score), you won’t be drafted where you should be as a player of that caliber. I think a couple more endings would’ve been warranted, because even with all the drama surrounding Devin, if you score that highly, one NFL team would take a flyer on you early. Considering how often teams take risks—like the Bucs wasting a second-round draft pick on a kicker, or the Broncos when they took Tim Tebow of all people with a first-round pick—somebody should snatch up Devin if you end up turning him into a true superstar. Otherwise, I absolutely loved this mode, and hope to have more adventures with Devin next year.

As good as Longshot is, there are some misses on other fronts this year in Madden. The past several years saw major gameplay overhauls, focusing on offensive/defensive line play, the running game, and the passing game. Now that such major components of football have been looked at, EA Tiburon seemingly wanted to use this year to start focusing a bit more after such broad endeavors.

The first (and worst) of these new mechanics is something called Target Passing. It has to be said that Target Passing is completely optional, but after trying to use it several dozen times, I chose to never use it again, and hope it goes the way of QB Vision a decade ago—as in it never comes back. Target Passing borrows a little bit from some of the drills in Longshot, where you can bring up a targeting reticule on the field and move it into position. By pressing the corresponding button while holding the trigger, you can throw the ball not where the computer wants to throw it, but to where the reticule specifically is, and the receiver will break their route to best try to catch the ball.

The idea was to offer the kind of precision we see on any given Sunday in an NFL game—for example, aiming for a receiver’s outside shoulder to guard against a corner, or to aim for the corner of an endzone that only your tight end can get to. What it ends up doing is adding an overly complex layer to Madden’s passing game, and throws even more information at you to process in the brief amount of time you have to get rid of the ball. I’m sure there are some pro-Madden players out there who will jump for joy over this mechanic, and I admit the idea was a sound one, making perfect sense on paper. But QB Vision was also a sound idea that was poorly implemented, and I believe that’s the case here again. Target Passing’s not fun to use, and will take far longer to figure out than it is worth for most players.

Of course, no matter how you end up throwing the ball, you always need someone to throw to, and so wide receiver versus cornerback play has also fallen into EA Tiburon’s crosshairs this year. Here, however, I found the new controls to definitely add something to the experience. Now, it’s easier than ever to jam wide receivers if you play with corners by using the right joystick and simply pressing against the receiver, trying to guess correctly which way they’ll try to run. Conversely, receivers can also use the sticks and shoulder buttons to roll around from potential jamming, and can more easily break their routes off or make sharp cuts to get to the inside or outside of the numbers depending on what the situation may call for, adding a welcome layer of realism to one of the most important battles on a football field.

This new gameplay in particular comes in handy within a new wrinkle in one of Madden’s most popular modes, Madden Ultimate Team. Yes, the card collectible game that allows you to buy packs of players and create your own fantasy team is unsurprisingly back, but with it comes a lot of changes. For example, there are now special fantasy packs that allow you to see an entire selection of amazing players, and then choose the best one of that group (while forcing you to discard the rest of the pack). There is also the brand new MUT Squads, bringing big time online co-op to Madden.

MUT Squads allows for 3-on-3 online matchups to take place, with one player serving as the offensive coordinator and providing the offense, one player doing the same for the defense, and another acting as head coach, who basically controls the timeouts (a role potentially great for less-experienced Madden players). MUT Squads is a bit of a double-edged sword for Madden, however. It is great that Madden can support larger groups online, and that buddies who have always wanted to play together now can. One player can be the QB throwing to a receiver who, using the new controls to get away from receivers, is fighting to get open for his team.

The downside to MUT Squads is that it’s very hard to get on the same page in Madden. Much like real life football, it will require a lot of time to get in sync with someone, especially when most folks at this point are used to playing Madden alone, where the entire team works together as an extension of the player. Another disappointment is that the 3-on-3 co-op is only in MUT Squads, when I know there are many out there who would probably rather just play as their favorite team with their buddies without having to rely on the randomness of MUT to provide them with good players in order to be competitive.

And that’s the real rub of MUT and a lot of Madden NFL 18 in general: It feels like all of the game outside of Franchise is just trying to funnel players into MUT, where you either need to grind for the best players, or be forced to spend real world money on microtransactions. (Even Longshot will “reward” you with MUT items if you beat it.) The microtransactions are all optional, of course, but the more times you put temptation in front of someone, the more likely they are to bite.

Even Draft Champions—an inclusion we first got back in Madden NFL 16 that has been a tremendous addition to the series—is now locked behind a level wall in MUT, and you need MUT tickets to play against people online.

Admittedly, you only need to put around 20 to 30 minutes of time into MUT challenges to unlock access to MUT Draft (the new name for Draft Champions), but the fact that one of the most popular aspects of Madden has been absorbed under MUT and put behind a wall of any kind is frustrating. The worst of this is that the balance of the randomness from previous years feels lost, because not only are the players you can choose from in each round of MUT Draft random, but so are their overalls, since MUT can feature the same player with different stats each time. Frustratingly, it feels like EA Tiburon ruined Draft Champions by turning it into another way to try to keep you around longer in a mode that tempts you into spending more real money.

And of all the things that aren’t linked to MUT—Franchise mode—there’s a part of it which could be. In that mode, you can train with your team before each game as part of a scouting report against that week’s opponent. Meanwhile, there’s also the Skills Trainer option on the main menu, which is where all the scouting report drills are pulled from. Completing tasks in Skills Trailer rewards free MUT packs; completing those tasks in Franchise does nothing for MUT. Why those two things aren’t linked makes no sense, aside from the fact that Madden loves making you grind. It’s the digital equivalent of two-a-days.

While speaking of Franchise, there have at least been some minor improvements to it outside of the drills. The user interface was cleaned up some, particularly when it comes to scouting and drafting college players. As well, animations are better than ever now that they’re powered by Frostbite. Using the hit stick and making open-field tackles has never looked cleaner, and you can almost feel the impact in your favorite gaming chair. There’s still the occasional rag doll glitch, but the visuals at least seem to be the most polished Madden has had in a long time. That said, some member of the team must’ve had a brain fart, because they messed up the New York Giants’ and Los Angeles Chargers’ schedules, giving the Giants nine road games and only seven home games and the Chargers the inverse—in real life, the Chargers are going to Metlife, the Giants aren’t going to StubHub—and hopefully that is fixed immediately in an upcoming patch. These were the only two teams I saw with incorrect schedules, but the fact I even had to check this was irritating to say the least.

Unintentional errors bring me to my final point of Madden NFL 18: the online servers. I played several online games literally just a few hours before this review went live. Several thousand people were supposedly already online and finding a game wasn’t an issue. Neither, for the most part, was maintaining a connection. That said, there were a couple of random disconnects from the EA servers, which could be a sign of instability—and if that’s the case here in this limited pre-launch scenario, that worries me. Of course, the game doesn’t release worldwide for another week even though we were told the servers should be good to go, so there is always hope that this was simply a last second hiccup, rather than a portent for worse things to come. Considering how critical online play is to Madden, it’d be surprising to see any real long-term issues, but we’ll see when the servers ramp up to some real strain in the coming days.

This year, it seems Madden NFL 18 is all about taking the good with the bad. There is more good than bad for sure (highlighted by the new Longshot mode), but things like putting Draft Champions into MUT and the new Target Passing mechanics should make a lot of folks at least a little bit wary. We’re not quite back to the “annual roster update” days, but after the roll Madden has been on in recent years, if you’re looking to take a break, this might be the year to do so.

Publisher: EA Sports • Developer: EA Tiburon • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 08.25.17
7.0
Although the new Longshot mode shines, Madden misses the mark with a few of its gameplay additions this year—so if you don’t immediately take a liking to them and choose to ignore them, the experience will feel a lot like last year’s. Meanwhile, the additions to MUT feel unnecessary, and like a desperate attempt to get more people playing—and potentially investing in microtransactions.
The Good I think Longshot hits its mark for the most part in trying to add a compelling football narrative to Madden.
The Bad I believe new target-passing controls are going to go the way of QB vision; the ever-increasing focus on MUT.
The Ugly Tom Brady is admittedly the G.O.A.T. after last year, but let’s remember that along with those five Super Bowl wins, he has two GIANT losses. Let’s go G-Men.
Madden NFL 18 is available on Xbox One and PS4. 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.

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.

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. 

During E3 2015, I had a chance to talk to Madden NFL 16 creative director Rex Dickson for Walmart Game Center about the game’s new modes, and new passing system!

When I play Madden, I dominate in the trenches. My defense makes sacks on every other play, and it’s not unheard of for my offense to rush for 2,500 yards and 40 TDs.

My aerial attack is another story, though. I’m lucky to throw for 2,000 yards and have a 1:1 TD/INT ratio. I’m more likely to hit the lottery than to have one of my DBs intercept a pass. It’s been this way for years,  whether I’m playing Madden 95 or Madden NFL 15.

This year, however, Madden is looking to make things easier for players like me to take advantage of superstar wide receivers and ball-hawking cornerbacks with new playmaker options. As soon as the quarterback lets go of the ball, there are more nuances than ever to how much touch or zip you can put behind the ball. Whereas in previous years, you’d either fire a bullet pass or lob a lame duck, depending on how you held the button, an in-between pass offers a chance to hit smaller windows of opportunity, as Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning do every Sunday.

Once the ball is in the air, the possibilities get really exciting. Your receivers can catch the ball differently, depending on how it’s thrown and their own attributes. A receiver like Calvin Johnson can leap up for a ball at its zenith; take a chance, turn and run before the ball reaches its target location; or use his tremendous size to jockey positions with a corner to make a sure-handed grab, all depending on which second button you press after your quarterback lets go of the ball.

Similarly, though, defensive backs offer comparable options. Shutdown corners like Richard Sherman can now more aggressively jam receivers off the line, much the same way a defensive player could try to jump the snap in last year’s game. DBs can also choose to jump routes, or leap for a ball with hopes of coming down with a momentum-swinging interception.

Admittedly, I needed some time to become comfortable with making an extra button press while the ball was in the air. After just a few blunders, I made my first interception on a flat route, and a spectacular catch in the back of the endzone on a jump ball. If I’m able to pull this off consistently, get a better feel for when to make each particular move, and learn what I can do with each receiver, this feature can be a game-changer for guys like me. I’ll need more than the one Madden NFL 16 game than I got to play in my demo, though, and a couple of possible flash-in-the-pan plays to see if Playmaker is all it’s being made out to be.

Madden NFL 16 will launch on Xbox One, Playstation 4, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on August 25.

A playoff contender—but not quite championship caliber

Much like how Punxsutawney Phil supposedly predicts the coming of spring each Groundhog Day, Madden can set the tone for the coming months when it pops up at the end of each August. Football fans look to the rankings to see how their team stacks up around the NFL, and gamers hope a strong showing will get the busiest season of the year off on the right foot. Of course, this isn’t always the case—especially considering the difficulties the franchise faces as an annual title. But this year’s entry, Madden NFL 15, hopes to not just signify the end of the summer gaming drought but kick off the final major gaming quarter of the year with a bang.

EA Tiburon touted a bevy of new features, tweaks to existing options, and various upgrades in the months leading up to this release. It seems they wanted to prove to gamers that they could make big strides in a single year of a Madden development cycle instead of the incremental changes we’ve seen in years past. And while some improvements definitely help the developer make a run at this lofty goal, enough stumbles on that path keep Madden NFL 15 from being a true football fanatic’s dream.

Since the gameplay—especially on the defensive side of the ball—was the primary focus for this year’s game, I’ll start there. The new defensive-line dynamics now allow players to jump snap counts, choose if they want to use finesse or a power move to get to the QB with a single, well-time button press, or even shed blockers to make the big hit on the running back trying to scoot by off tackle. As someone who primarily plays on the defensive line, this was a welcome leap forward: With a few quick button taps, I got past my blocker—or occasionally, admittedly, I fell flat on my face. But more importantly, I knew why my actions did or didn’t work. The responsiveness, combined with the simplicity, reignited my passion for being in the trenches.

Unfortunately, not everything on defense was such a hit. While I usually play on the D-line, sometimes I like to go into the secondary depending on the down, distance, and my play-call. I’m no Richard Sherman by any means, but I can hold my own back there, and I’ve had my fair share of user picks over the years. The Ball Hawk feature was supposed to have made a big step forward this year, and in some regards, it has. It’s never been easier to pick up the ball as it leaves the QB’s hand and make a play on it. But for some reason, even when I played a pass perfectly, my cornerbacks kept dropping the ball. I kept track, and even if I leaped at the perfect moment to catch a pass at its apex, trained my defensive backs so that their catching abilities were in the 90s, and read the receiver’s route from the get-go, I’d still only make the interception about 10 percent of the time and while, yes, a fair amount of DBs are just failed receivers, these are still unrealistic numbers. For as much as I loved playing on the defensive line, I couldn’t stand playing in the secondary—it felt unrewarding for no good reason.

Now, some might rebut that by noting that if I picked off those passes every time, I’d set new records for interceptions in a year. This is true. But I more than doubled the all-time single-season sack record while playing on the defensive line (with the horrible Damontre Moore of the New York Giants, no less!). So, if the game is purposely trying to keep my numbers in realistic realms in the secondary, it should do the same on the defensive line.

The other defense element that irked me? The new tackle cone. You’d think after the Madden 06 debacle with QB vision, that would be the last we ever saw a vision cone in the series. Even more so than back then, I found it distracting more than helpful, but I’ve also been playing Madden for 20 years now—and I’d hope that in all that time, I’d know how to make a tackle. At least this feature is only optional, however, and I can see the potential of how it could help Madden newcomers who are just trying to learn the ins and outs of the sport.

You’ll find fewer tweaks on offense, but the big difference this year revolves around QB accuracy. Thankfully, this is another winning addition for the Madden folks. Not only are QBs a lot more realistic when it comes to throws on the run (and their corresponding accuracy), but the new pass-catching animations will have you sharing a lot of clips with your buddies. One-handed grabs in the back of the end zone, stretches over the sideline while standing on tiptoes, and sliding grabs across the middle are now a lot more commonplace depending on how off your quarterback is, and these new spectacular grabs were definitely a welcome sight.

Besides the gameplay, Madden NFL 15 tries its best to help players learn the game of football, starting with the very basics. If you want to jump right in, new community playbook options offer the popular choice in different situations and give you a third opinion besides your own and the AI on what play to run. Also, Skills Trainer has seen a huge shift this year. Whether it’s teaching you the very definition of a Cover 2 versus a Cover 3 or when and where to blitz, Skills Trainer now feels like the perfect program not only to teach you about Madden, but also about football itself. The Gauntlet mode in Skills Trainer is a fun way to implement everything you learn with creative minigames, such as trying to use your blockers to avoid 10 would-be tacklers or kicking a 100-yard field goal in hurricane-force winds.

Another new feature comes in the Connected Franchise mode. Rather than the “hot/cold” system of previous years, players on your Franchise Mode team now have a “confidence” meter that can impact their on-field exploits. If an athlete who’s rated a 75 is playing really well and the team is on a winning streak, he may perform like an 80. And If he’s playing horribly and the team is on a losing streak, he might slip down to a rank around 70. I liked this idea a lot, but the game did a horrible job of explaining it in a one-minute Trey Wingo-narrated video at the start of the mode. From week to week, you can work on your confidence or on your player as a whole. There are only so many “hours” in a week, though, that you can use for training. It took me a long time to realize how important confidence really was and that I needed to spend as much time working on that as I did building up my receivers’ route-running abilities and my D-line’s block-shedding skills. The game really does a poor job laying everything out here.

And speaking of laying things out, the user interface is still a cluttered mess. I really wish they’d clean up the menu navigation so that I’m not constantly searching for the different modes on the front screen or for particular pages inside each mode. The worst in terms of user interface may be Madden Ultimate Team. The mode itself is better than ever, with hundreds of solo challenges for those who don’t want to play online, and a new team-specialty system that gives you bonuses based on what you want your team to excel in (for example, a “ground-and-pound” team will see bonuses in offensive line and running back performance), but getting around in Ultimate Team is a joke.

While on that subject, I did go online for a few matches, and everything seemed to be in tip-top shape. Of course, there were only a couple dozen people online, so we won’t see how the online play really handles until the servers are inundated with thousands more people.

My only other issue with Madden NFL 15—and this is something I hope gets patched—is the bevy of immersion-breaking glitches. There aren’t as many as in previous years, but you’ll still get your fair share of animation problems and audio issues. Some of my favorites this year include the player lying on the field who starts to spasm randomly like he’s having a seizure; the player who, when he trips over someone else, stiffens up like he’s been shot and slowly falls to the ground; and the receiver who never stops running when he gets out of bounds and endlessly rubs against the challenge review booth on the sideline. And there are just as many audio snafus as there are visual ones, like when the sideline reporter says your receiver will miss the rest of the season with an injury, only to find out after the game it’s only a 4-week injury, or when Jim Nantz says you have the least amount of interceptions in the league, when, in fact, you have the most (I’m playing with Eli Manning here—can you blame me?!). And if I have to hear Phil Simms crack the same lame joke about Jim Nantz’s golf game one more time, I’m going to start smashing some speakers around here.

Despite all this, however, Madden NFL 15 is still more of a step forward for the franchise than a step back. I’m glad to see EA Tiburon is trying to do more every year than just giving the game a roster update, and they’re putting real effort into the yearly adjustments with the franchise. It’s just regrettable that some of the changes they’ve made here clearly need to go back to the Xs and Os on the drawing board.

Developer: EA Tiburon • Publisher: EA Sports • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 08.26.14
7.5
New defensive-line play and more defining accuracy with QBs highlight some of the many changes this year’s Madden brings to the table. Unfortunately, not all the other tweaks are nearly as successful.
The Good Revamped presentation and new defensive-line play work wonderfully and are highlights amongst this year’s changes.
The Bad Enough glitches and AI lapses to break immersion—and occasionally bring about my ire.
The Ugly Annihilating EGM freelancer extraordinaire Jason Fanelli online 31-14 and 52-7 while testing out multiplayer. Poor dude never saw it coming.
Madden NFL 15 is available on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, and Xbox 360. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review.

Ray Carsillo gives his final prediction for the Super Bowl, talks about the possible Ryan Callahan trade between the New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues, and discusses the recent events in the WWE. Welcome to Ray’s Man Cave!

I give my predictions as to who I thinks will win this week’s NFL Conference Championships. Welcome to Ray’s Man Cave!

Ray Carsillo returns to YouTube and attempts to channel the early years of his career talking about sports. In this first installment of what he hopes to be a weekly blog, Ray predicts the entire NFL Playoffs with a special focus on the Wild Card Weekend games. Welcome to Ray’s Man Cave!

Music used is from “Meat and Potatoes”. Used with permission from Admiral Bob (http://ccmixter.org/files/admiralbob77/17833); licensed under Creative Commons. No changes were made to the actual music.

License can be found here: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/legalcode