The scent of pigskin cutting through the crisp September air is drifting in from the horizon; it appears that hashtag-Madden-Season is upon us. You can set your watch to a new entry in EA Sports’ iconic (American) football series, but as devotees will tell you, each game stands out as a new chapter in the publisher’s history. New features clog up the back of the box while others are quietly retired, never to be seen again (vision cone, anybody?).
Madden 16 simply has too many moving pieces to properly cover them in a few days’ time, even after just over 30 hours of play on Xbox One and PlayStation 4, which is why I’m offering a taste of my experience here before the full review laces up its cleats.
What You’ll Like (so far)
Madden looks presentable
Since its move to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One two years ago, the Madden series embraced a visual transformation rivaling a frumpy accountant on What Not To Wear. The crowds might not be quite as diverse in appearance and animation as other sports series like MLB: The Show just yet, but the digital audience finally reached a point where it no longer detracts from the atmosphere. Aside from some absurdly realistic, hi-res face scans for popular players like Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, the biggest shift is the one you’ll occasionally wish you could A-button through. Onfield stat pop-ups are gorgeous and feed into the experience in long-term modes like Connected Franchise. The data-focused graphics keep the story of every game moving, informing players when their running backs reach rushing milestones, for instance.
You’ve got the touch
Past iterations of Madden featured, according to the publisher, “unprecedented levels of control.” It’s hard to think of a time where that’s been more true than with Madden 16, particularly in the passing game. Now, quarterbacks get five different button combinations that make passes more precise, such as double-tapping the receiver button to throw a touch pass that goes over the shallow defender, but in front of the deep safety, a particular style of pass that’s been much more difficult to pull off in past versions. Additionally, both defenders and receivers have new controls to dictate their actions as the ball is in the air, enabling receivers to catch and run with the ball or make leaping aggressive grabs when the situation allows it. Madden 16 feels like a different game entirely with these controls and their visual indicators, and it’s much better off for it.
The Draft of Champions
In recent years, the NFL realized that fantasy football is a big draw for its audience, and it was only a matter of time before EA Sports caught up. Draft Champions is the series’ first crack at a fantasy football-inspired single or online multiplayer mode, putting players in the hot seat by presenting three similarly rated players to pick from in each of 15 rounds of drafting. The team you wind up with is different with each draft, but it needs to be good enough to win you three games without losing once, four if you opt to play online against other Draft Champions players.
While I am concerned that Draft Champions isn’t diverse enough to encourage players to return all that often, it’s certainly a good addition. You’ll shift your strategy as the game shuffles up new players in trading card form before testing your tactics on the field. Your strategy when composing your team is forced to change as athletes are presented in trading card form, then your tactics are put to the test on the field. Winning with your fantasy team is as fulfilling as your weekly fantasy football wins, certifying that successful Draft Champions know how to pick ’em.
It’s fun getting schooled
I’ve heaped praise on Madden’s Skills Trainer mode in the past, an effective hands-on instructional tool that helps players get better at the game while learning more about the sport itself. The mode aligned well with John Madden’s original vision for the EA Sports series, and Skills Trainer is even better this year. I’m pleased to see EA commit time to making the game more accessible to those unfamiliar with the sport and all its nuances, going as far as offering an “I am new to Madden” section that even explains the positions on the field.
Even as an avid football fan, I’m happy I took the time to learn more about run-blocking concepts in the mode, and it’s already improved both my Madden skills as well as my outlook on the real-life sport. It’s great to see Skills Trainer get more attention this year.
What you won’t like (so far)
Jim Nantz and Phil Simms
Overall, the commentary duo is OK, but the speaking roles are starting to fall behind the rest of its presentation, and it’s noticeable. It doesn’t take long before the same lines from the last version of Madden or two are heard over and over again. I fear that I may wake in a cold sweat one night, hearing Simms remarking that nobody in the league does power running anymore, or how quarterbacks have “all day to get it done” on play action passes.
Frankly, I consider significant bugs and balance issues part of the tradition with each Madden release. It seems that any new onfield gameplay-oriented changes are quickly found to be overpowered in some aspects and later corrected by a postlaunch patch. This year’s biggest concern is in the deep passing game, as the aggressive catch button may as well be an “offense wins” button given the frequency of success I’ve witnessed both offline and against human players. Be warned: Heaving a deep pass to a tall receiver with a good jumping rating is a strong tactic that will be prevalent in the online Madden community this year.
Bugs need to be squished
Of the other nuisances I’ve seen so far, I’ve witnessed defenses both online and offline receive encroachment penalties before the offense even reaches the line of scrimmage, a clear bug that occasionally hands a first down to teams on third or even fourth down and inches. Likewise, I’ve also seen far too many bobbled balls that deflect off multiple players wind up as wacky interceptions, one of which was put under review by the referees and upheld as a turnover after the ball clipped through the turf completely. As with balance concerns, while you can rectify some issues with the tuning sliders, collision-detection issues will remain until EA addresses them.
It’s fair to surmise that many Madden players have felt burned by what appeared to be a promising game in the past. As much as I adore the extra depth quarterbacks and wide receivers have, balance issues have and may continue to outweigh the benefits of the new controls. Even so, bolstered presentation elements like on-field graphics for stats and the fantasy-inspired Draft Champions are enough to warrant a definite recommendation to veteran players. Even newcomers to Madden and football itself are set up to succeed thanks to a slightly enhanced Skills Trainer.
Stay tuned for a more thorough review coming off the bench soon that discusses other parts of the game, like Madden Ultimate Team and Connected Franchise, in more depth.
Madden NFL 16 is now available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360. The publisher provided GamesBeat with retail versions for PS4 and Xbox One. GamesBeat will update its impressions with a final score once our reviewer has more time with it.