The 2015-16 NFL season is very nearly here and brings with it, Electronic Arts’ Madden 16, which is arguably the closest American football game ever.
The Madden series has been around for over a quarter of a century now, and for the better part of that time span, many gamers have complained of the lack of progress shown with every year’s iteration. It’s one of the most polarizing series in video games. Football fans demand their NFL fix any way they can get it, but many of them are impatiently waiting for EA’s exclusive license with the league to expire. With Madden 16 representing developer Tiburon’s third try at a new generation NFL game, one would expect the series to begin to find its footing. There are a lot of new features in this year’s game, some are extensions of past features while others are brand new. In both cases, there’s a mix of good and bad, leaving this year’s Madden on par with many other years’. For the first time in a long time, it feels like the series is heading in the right direction, but it isn’t where it needs to be yet.
At the forefront of the new features is the focus on improving all aspects of the passing game, including how receivers and defenders play the ball in the air. As the quarterback, you can now aim high and low on targets to try and put the ball where only your receiver can get it. As soon as the ball is thrown the targeted wideout can play the ball in one of several ways. You can go for an aggressive catch that’ll have you meet the ball at its highest point and try to outplay the defender. Alternatively, you can try to play the ball in stride and pick up yards after the catch. The aggressive catch style often sacrifices these extra yards, though in my time with the game I found the best receivers, like Calvin Johnson, were skilled enough to sometimes have it both ways – an amazing catch over the defender, followed by a broken tackle or two en route to a long run after the catch. Like past games, the new animations feature a few nods to memorable highlights from real games. Cover star Odell Beckham Jr’s catch of the decade can now be seen in game from time to time, as can the infamous simultaneous catch that ended the Packers-Seahawks game and ended the referee strike a few years ago.
The emphasis on yards through the air is meant to mirror the league’s real trend in doing the same. Quarterback records are consistently being contested year after year, and defensive players are having a hard time keeping up in a league that seems to prefer the high scoring games every Sunday. In the game, at least, the defensiveback playmaking abilities are made to stay in step with the receivers and tight ends, provided you have the talent at the right positions. Like the real game, battles for the ball often come down to who is better. If you have Dez Bryant on a lowly cornerback like Coty Sensabaugh, there isn’t much Sensabaugh will be able to do on his own. Past games saw far too many ball hawking interceptions from less skilled players, and it’s great to see this has finally been addressed. Now the game seems to stack the odds in favor of the most talented players, no matter what side of the ball they play on, which means you don’t have to fear throwing it deep online anymore if you have the matchup advantage.
Like the real game, battles for the ball often come down to who is better.
Some minor changes to the running game were made too. The way the runningback hits the hole feels different, and juking left or right at the line of scrimmage allows you to find the open lane if you can have the vision to do so. This is something Tiburon has adjusted in recent years too though, and that represents one of Madden’s long-standing issues: a lack of consistency. They seem to tweak with some areas of the game so often that sometimes what was once billed as a key feature is already absent a few years later. This is most obvious in the game’s phony commitment to presentation. Almost every year EA sells the game as having “revamped presentation” and every year it still misses the mark. CBS’ A Squad, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, return to broadcasting duties and, like the past few years, have thrown in a good handful of new lines, but it still doesn’t take long before you can recite them word for word. Madden games have never ever, in over 25 years, found a way to implement realistic commentary, and Madden 16 continues this disappointing tradition. They do stop in their tracks now more than before. For years, an up-tempo offense would outrun the commentary, leaving the duo to comment on things that happened one or two plays ago. Now they’ll at least stop themselves more often to jump ahead to the current play, but as you can expect, that transition isn’t always done well either.
Visually, this is surely the best Madden ever, it looks and feels stunning. That seems like a given since it’s the newest game in an annual series and it always looks better than the previous game, but Tiburon did a few things this year that were sorely missing for years. Players with tattoos now show them off on the field. This decision seems driven by the fact that the cover star Beckham Jr. has two sleeves of tattoos himself, so the studio must have figured it was time to finally include them. Player and team stats also display right on the field at the end of plays, much like real broadcasts have taken to doing, both because it’s more stylish and because of the popularity of fantasy football. This does improve the presentation somewhat, but the other previously mentioned problems keep it from really feeling like a gameday broadcast. Also returning after a multi-year hiatus are EA Trax, the publisher’s program of using licensed music in their sports games. Recent Maddens used just the classic orchestral music akin to what you’d hear on an NFL Films documentary. These still play a role, but the menus are now browsed to the tune of several types of music from a lot of what EA calls up and coming artists. The songs range from unbearable to surprisingly enjoyable, but this is really one area you’ll have to judge for yourself.
The biggest selling point for many this time around is the much-hyped Draft Champions mode. Meant to attract fantasy football players who don’t care to invest the loads of time or money needed to be successful in Ultimate Team, Draft Champions is a lot of fun at first, but soon reveals itself to be pretty lacking. A draft unfolds over 15 rounds, with each round randomizing three players available to you. You never know who’s coming next, so you can only draft based on what you think is best at the time. This is the good part. Every draft ends with a trio of legends to choose from, too, meaning you’ll always have a leader on your team, you just won’t know where he’ll be on the field until you get to the last round. Unfortunately, all you do with these drafted teams are play a series of three games against the computer or four online against other players in an effort to go undefeated for these small stretches.
You’re rewarded no matter where along the ladder you end up. Losing the first game or winning the brief tournament or finishing anywhere in between all net you rewards, with better ones coming the further you go. The disappointing part about it, the part that feels like fans were cheated out of a new game mode, are what those rewards comprise of. All you get for playing Draft Champions are card packs for Ultimate Team, the microtransaction-heavy, super lucrative game mode that EA supports across their lineup of sports titles. It’s obvious why they focus so much on Ultimate Team year after year, but it was a huge letdown to be tricked into thinking Draft Champions stands on its own when it’s really just a supplement for MUT players. In addition to that, this mode inexplicably requires you play it online, even when you choose the single player path. I lost connection during my second game against the computer and an error message told me the game would not longer count. When I quit the game to retry, it counted as a loss and my season was over, my team was deleted and I was left needing to draft again. Hopefully Draft Champions returns in later versions and is made more robust. For now it just isn’t a full game mode.
Not much has changed with the game’s online modes aside from the addition of online Draft Champions games. Shared leagues are still available and, if you can stand the lag, they’re often the best way to play. It just seems like almost all online games run slower than offline games, which changes the flow of every play and really messes up your timing. Sometimes the lag is so poor, I’m just holding out hope that my opponent will give in and be the one to quit so I neither have to finish the sluggish game nor take the loss on my record. After a decade, I’m still waiting for the Madden that fixes these issues.
The only disappointment in Madden 16 is the hyped new Draft Champions addition to the game, a mode designed to resemble fantasy football – but fans of that concept should perhaps not get their hopes up. The mode complements Ultimate Team by letting you choose part of the starting line-up of players before challenging other human competitors or the CPU with your customised side in order to earn rewards. However, the fantasy element is limited, allowing you to select only one out of three players per draft over a series of 15 rounds.