Madden 19 - title

I have a bit of a confession to make: despite my years of playing Madden, and my frequent blog rants about the quality of the game and my desired feature sets, I'm actually not particularly good at the game. I never really have been. I don't really have the "stick skills". I've been playing the game exclusively on All-Pro difficulty setting since the PS2 days, and never really graduated to being an All-Madden level player. All-Pro has always been a bit on the easy side, but I just never have a good time on All-Madden due to the A.I.'s excessive cheating.

Pro and All-Pro difficulties actually providing a challenge?

I'm having a really hard time with Madden 19, and I'm wondering if I'm the only one. The game feels like it's a lot harder to move the ball, and I'm still not quite sure if that's a result of the game cheating more, or if the A.I. has legitimately improved considerably, or if there's something wrong with me (are my 33-year-old reflexes simply not fast enough to play this game anymore?).

My early games were low-scoring defensive struggles in which I and the CPU struggled moving the ball.

I'm not the only one who's struggling; the CPU is only faring a little bit better. My first few exhibition games (on All-Pro difficulty, 9-minute quarters with 19-second accel clock) were field goal battles with final scores in the 16-6 or 20-10 range. I struggled to put up 150 or 200 yards passing or to surpass 30 or 40 yards rushing. The CPU didn't fare much better, usually getting around 150 yards passing, but beating me with 80 or 90 yards rushing.

In general, defensive reactions times and coverages (for both my team and the CPU team) seemed much tighter (without even having to tweak the game's A.I. sliders). Passing the ball downfield seems considerably harder and riskier, as receivers for both teams were often blanketed by man coverage, and the underneath defenders are uncannily good at reacting to the ball and swatting passes. They might even be a bit too good at swatting passes now, as even touch passes over the middle were routinely swatted down. Tiburon might need to tune down linebacker jumping abilities a smudge and add some animations of the ball being tipped instead of outright swatted.

Underneath defenders are swatting a lot of passes.

Passing concepts that had been reliable "money plays" for me over the past few years were completely shut down. Corners did a better job of staying with the receivers for Dagger, Corner, and comeback routes, and the defenders in the flats did a much better job of providing underneath support with those crazy leaping swats. Even when there were gaps in zones, I had trouble getting the ball off before defensive pressure got to me. Blocking is still a very binary "pass or fail" affair, so sensing pressure and getting the ball off on time is still largely a crap shoot. Drag routes seem to still be completely indefensible, but defenses are much quicker at converging and limiting the yards after catch.

This generally excellent coverage was counterpointed by occasional complete breakdowns. I had several instances in which my defender in a deep zone coverage (and it was always my defender!) would suddenly undercut the route while the ball is in the air -- as if to go for an aggressive interception or swat -- only to run himself out of the play and leave the receiver wide open with no help over the top. Almost every touchdown that I saw in those first few games was a direct result of one of these coverage breakdowns.

Deep zone defenders occasionally ran themselves out of plays by undercutting routes.

While I struggled with these early exhibition games, I did appreciate that Madden 19 was actually providing me with a substantial challenge unlike any that I had seen in the entire history of the franchise. And best of all, the game seemed to be relatively fair about imposing that challenge. As hard as it was for me to move the ball, it seemed almost equally hard for the CPU as well!

Could it be? After all these years, has EA finally produced a Madden game this is challenging, fair, and -- dare I say -- good?

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I recently wrote about the game at E3 2018 that most caught my interest. But there are other things coming out of E3 that I also paid peripheral attention to. One of the few reasons that I anticipate E3 each year is that it is also around the time that we start to get the first substantial looks at the upcoming Madden game.

Madden 19 E3 trailer.

The first thing that I noticed about Madden 19 previews is the focus on player movement and locomotion. Specifically, I noticed the fact that they seem to be re-selling us features that were supposed to already be in the game. Didn't Madden 25 already introduce this same mechanic? Yes, it was called "true step" back then. If it was so important to gameplay back in 2013, then why was it ever removed?

Player locomotion and runners getting through gaps in the line are focuses of Madden 19.

We're also seeing the return of a variation of the "get skinny" mechanic that dates all the way back to PS2 versions of the game, but which had been subsequently removed. Hitting the right gap in running plays has been a problem for a long time. It's good to see EA addressing it with the "hit the gap" and "push the pile" mechanics, but they've supposedly addressed this issue several times in the past, and it's never solved the problem.

They've also claimed that defensive coverages have been improved, and that defenders will now do a better job of playing the first down marker in coverage. That mechanic was also supposedly implemented back when Tiburon revised zone coverages for Madden 17, but apparently that didn't work either, so here they are, promising to fix it again. Unfortunately, I haven't seen any of these promises play out in the small bits of gameplay that I've seen so far -- let alone improvements regarding block-shedding, defensive coverage, or general A.I.. So I'm tempering my expectations.

I did not see any of the promised new gameplay features pan out in the gameplay previews from E3.

EA's dev blog has also stated that tackles will now factor in momentum, speed, and player weight. Wasn't that what the Ignite, Infinity, and Frostbite engines were supposed to have been doing for the past five years or so? Admittedly, I did see a few improved-looking group tackles and broken tackles in another piece of gameplay footage, but not much regarding the advertised features. Don't get me wrong, if all these features work, then I'll be happy. It's just not very reassuring to hear the same promises year-in and year-out, and then not see them in the advertised product.

Also, what's the deal with Terrell Owens being featured so much (as the cover athlete and in the trailer)? Is he coming out of retirement or something? Does Owens actually have anything to do with the content of the game?!

A long overdue Franchise overhaul?

In any case, it looks like Franchise Mode is a large focus of this year's game, which is good news considering that the mode was almost untouched in Madden 18, which seemed to focus almost exclusively on MUT...

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Madden NFL 17 - title

UPDATE OCTOBER 23, 2016: LATEST PATCH AND/OR TUNER HAVE PRACTICALLY RUINED THE GAME FOR ME.

I've been having miserable experiences with Madden 17 since publishing this review. I suspect that either patch #2 or tuner #2 are the culprit. CPU QBs have become robots that have 80% completion percentages every game. Running the ball has become impossible (for both human and CPU teams). Man coverage simply doesn't work at all, making corner routes, in routes, out routes, and slant routes unstoppable. The throw out of sack mechanic has been tuned down to the point of being irrelevant. And the list goes on...

Sliders don't seem to improve the experience at all. In fact, certain sliders (like CPU QB Accuracy and CPU Pass Blocking) don't seem to have any effect at all anymore. I am tempted to rewrite this review with a much lower score (Somewhere in the range of a D or D-), but I'm hoping that EA will fix the problem - or at the very least, that deleting the most recent Tuner data will resolve some of the issues. Sadly, I don't think it's possible for me to re-download the first tuner data. This is a shame, since that one actually did fix some genuine problems the game had at launch.

DO NOT DOWNLOAD PATCH #2 OR TUNER #2!

Electronic Arts has supposedly spent the last three years or so rebuilding Madden from the ground up. Because of that, the past few years' games have felt very incremental, and somewhat incomplete. It was obvious that there were still major holes in many facets of gameplay. Personally, I would have preferred that EA just take a two or three year hiatus in order to hold off on releasing a game until it was actually complete. I'm happy that it seems like we're finally getting a "finished" version of EA's vision of a "next gen" Madden game, and I was curious to see if it would live up to expectations.

By their own admission, EA has finally rebuilt the final few phases of gameplay that still used predominantly legacy code (e.g. special teams and the football itself). For the first time in a long time, it feels like Madden can be approached and reviewed as a complete retail product rather than one step in a long-term incremental beta process. Is it worth the wait?

We'll, first impressions let it down a bit. Much like last year's game, the introduction and tutorial for Madden 17 seemed like a pointless waste of time that misrepresents the actual content of the game with its frequent cutscenes and dialogue from players and coaches. I'm not sure who these scripted gameplay intros are intended for. I would expect that new players would likely be confused and unsure what to do, resulting in failing the intro without any clue what they did wrong or what they were supposed to do. Experienced players, on the other hand, are probably just annoyed with the lack of control in this sequence. The inability to skip the cutscenes only makes repeat playthroughs (if you care enough to try to actually beat the scenario) feel tedious, as you'll have to sit through more cringe-worthy dialogue. EA Sports / Tiburon isn't Naughty Dog, and so writing dialogue and directing voice actors are not the studio's strong suits. About the only thing that this intro sequence does is highlight the new commentary team, which is actually pretty good.

Slowly becoming a complete football game

Despite the blocked field goal in the intro being an un-playable cutscene, special teams was one of the primary areas of focus this year. It's an area that's been mostly neglected since the analog kick meter was introduced back around 2007. And what was the innovation that EA decided was necessary to bring their kicking game into the next generation? Well, actually, they decided to bring back a kicking meter that works almost identically to the older PS1 / PS2 era games. You start the meter charging by pressing X, then press X again to set the kick strength as the meter fills, then press X again to set the kick accuracy as the meter returns to the bottom. Nothing new here.

Madden NFL 17 - kick meter
The "new" kick meter is basically a return to the older kick meter.

However, you now have to hold the analog stick to aim the kick prior to starting the kick meter. If you let go, the kick trajectory will snap back to the default. This does require a bit more dexterity than either of the previous kick meter systems ever needed, but it's still fairly easy once you get used to it. Though, EA could maybe loosen up the accuracy window for online games because any amount of lag makes the kicking game virtually impossible. You also have to be more careful with timing your kicks, as the game and play clocks both continue to tick while the kick meter is charging. Not sure if this is a bug or a feature... So be careful that you don't wait too long and give yourself a delay of game (or let the game clock expire before) you get the kick off.

On the other side of the ball, defenders can now actually block kicks by jumping the snap...

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One of the most glaring problems with Madden for many years now has been the passivity of offensive receivers. They've been completely unwilling to make any effort to track the ball in the air and go up and get it. Often, underthrown balls would be easily intercepted because receivers would mindlessly run their route and never make an effort to come back towards the ball to catch it. This, combined with defensive backs who always had eyes in the backs of their heads, lead to a lot of interceptions and a very frustrating experience in the passing game. This year's Madden finally makes some effort to address this problem, and I honestly thought that this might finally be the year in which things started to really come together for this series. I wasn't expecting Madden 16 to suddenly be the NFL 2k5 of our generation, but I was at least expecting to see a product that felt more complete, in which all the areas of on-field action seemed - at the very least - to be competent.

Madden NFL 16 - catching
Long-standing problems with passing, catching, and pass defense were points of emphasis this year.

But as the summer went on, and all I ever heard about was some silly new "Draft Champions" mode that sounded like a half-assed fantasy football season, I really started to lose any hope and excitement that I had. Normally, I'd buy Madden used in order to keep my money out of EA's greedy hands. Fortunately for EA, the first two stores that I went to were sold out of Until Dawn, so I decided to go ahead and splurg on Madden so that I'd have something to do that weekend.

The mandatory tutorial featuring a hypothetical Super Bowl 50 rematch between the Steelers and Cardinals is an absolute train wreck. A handful of players recorded unbelievably cheesy dialogue for this sequence that seemed to imply that this year's Madden was going to put some emphasis on the personalities of the players and include some smack talk (the kind of thing that Madden '05's "Storylines" feature was going for). I thought it was weird that I hadn't heard anything about this in any of the promotional material or previews. It seemed uncharacteristic for Madden and contradictory to the NFL's careful regulation of the public image of the league.

The tutorial proceeded to force me through a series of intolerably-scripted plays and highlights of its fictitious Super Bowl in an attempt to clumsily introduce me to its new passing and catching mechanics. This tutorial is ugly to watch, painful to listen to, is terrible at teaching the new mechanics, and is blatantly unrepresentative of the actual game content.

I hadn't even finished the tutorial or made it to the game's main menu yet, and I was already suffering buyer's remorse.

Table of Contents

Madden NFL 16 - drafting Randall Cunningham
Historic players can be drafted.

Ultimate Team fantasy draft

My feelings of buyer's remorse only grew as I looked through the new features and menu options.

There seems to be a bigger and bigger push towards Madden being an elaborately-crafted system of fantasy football. I already thought that Ultimate Team was trending painfully in that direction. As silly as I think that feature is, Madden players seem to love it - so much so that EA has decided to add another fantasy football-inspired game mode: Draft Champions. As always, all EA's efforts seem to be in trying to make Madden as "game-y" as possible instead of making any efforts to emulate the deeper strategy and nuance of real football. Ultimate Team, and now Draft Champions, are the ultimate expression of that.

Draft Champions is a modified 15-round fantasy draft in which you select from one of three available players in each round. You start by selecting a coach, which grants you a specific offensive and defensive play style for you team, and so you want to try to get players that best fit into those schemes - if you're lucky enough to be offered any. In the final round, you also get to chose one of three Hall of Fame historical players, such as Randall Cunningham or Rod Woodson. Once the draft is done, you play a sudden-death "season" of three games. One loss, and you're done.

I complained about the rushed pacing of games in Madden 15, but the "games" in Draft Champions are only half that time! Three minutes in a quarter is not enough time to play football at all. The game even taunts you by forcing you to have to chose a coach and team style in the first round, and you'd have to be masochistic to chose anything other than "long pass" or "medium pass". Chosing "ground and pound" was barely viable with six minute quarter; it's virtually pointless with three minute quarters. A twelve minute game isn't long enough to establish any kind of "pounding" running game. All you have to do is listen to the commentary to hear how screwed up such a fast game is. Every game, the commentators talk about how it's been a "defensive battle" going into the two-minute warning or halftime - because one team had the ball for the entire half! It's nonsense!

Madden NFL 16 - Draft Champions Rod Woodson
Draft Champions might be more worthwhile if you got to keep some of the players you drafted and add them to MUT.

I'll grant this to the game: the second two Draft Champion games are very tense. The short time time frame and insta-death nature of the mode means you have to play virtually perfectly. Of course, that's to be expected when you start the game in a four-minute drill.

And what do you get for your effort? What reward is worth this idiotic waste of time? You get some PSN trohies / XBox Live achievements, and some packs of Ultimate Team cards (most of which are just redeemable for points to buy other cards). You don't even get to keep the cards that you drafted in Champions mode - just random packs. Eventually, after you beat Draft Champions enough times, you get some elite MUT cards. Oooh... [hand waving] Why is Draft Champions even its own mode on the main menu? Why isn't it just an option in the MUT menu? It's basically just a fantasy draft and preseason for MUT, but you don't even get to keep the players! So what's the point?!

The question that I'm left with is: has Madden jumped the shark? Is this the point where I have to just give up on the idea that EA will ever want to pull Madden back to its simulation football roots? Has it so completely diverged from what I expect from an NFL-licensed football game that I just can't take it seriously anymore as an NFL-licensed football game? I'm tempted to just not even bother with the rest of this review if this is the kind of trash that EA is going to waste their time with. If EA thinks that this is the way of the future for football gaming, then I want no part of it.

But, for old times sake, I guess I can go over the actual football parts of the game, give it at least one more stab at being taken seriously, so click here to read the rest of the review...

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Madden NFL '15 - title

Regular readers of my blog who happen to be football fans may have noticed that I never reviewed last year's EA Sports football games. I had played and reviewed the games every year for the previous three years, but not last year. The truth is: I didn't play last year's games. There were a few reasons for this.

For one, I was kind of burnt out on football games, and was neck deep in RPGs like Skyrim and Dark Souls, as well as Brave New World and some modding. So my plate was rather full. I was somewhat curious about the next-gen football games being released on the PS4 and XBox One, but I had neither system, so couldn't play them. And I wasn't really sure that the PS3 version would be worth playing, since EA's focus was probably (and hopefully) on improving the next-gen games. I didn't want to waste my time on an inferior version of the game that may have been "incomplete" compared to its next-gen counterpart. So I skipped last year's football games entirely.

I still don't own a PS4 or XBox One, and don't have any immediate plans to buy either. But a friend granted me the use of his PS4 so that I could try the P.T. demo. I figured while I have the PS4, might as well try the new Madden, so I picked up a used copy on eBay fairly cheap.

Since I was borrowing a friend's PS4, my time with the game was limited. As such, this review can't be as in-depth as some of my previous football game reviews have been.

EA is continuing to make small, iterative changes to the game's mechanics, as well as recycling mechanics and features from earlier iterations of the game. This year's focus was on defensive control and line of scrimmage play, both of which are areas that were in desperate need of an overhaul. Unfortunately, EA's changes were mostly superficial.

Madden '15 - defensive controls
"New" defensive controls are just prompts for commands that already existed. At least they work better now...

The game advertises new defensive controls for breaking blocks and tackling. The only thing that is really "new" is the ability to steer blockers in order to fill gaps or maintain containment. This helps to give defensive linemen a greater sense of presence, as they aren't run out of the play by blockers quite so easily, and gap control is actually possible.

The other new defensive controls are really just fluff features...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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