Thursday, September 5, 2019 12:01 AM

What's old is new again in Madden 20

in Video Gaming | Game Reviews by MegaBearsFan

Madden NFL 20 - title

To Madden NFL 20's credit, this year's "demo" game actually does showcase some of the new features of the game. While you're waiting for the game to fully install, you can play the Pro Bowl this year. The Pro Bowl is one of the "new" features in this year's game, and playing this all-star game provides users with a prime opportunity to experience the game's other "new" feature, the Superstar X-Factors.

For some reason though, the game defaults to making the user play as the NFC. I'd much rather have been able to play as the AFC, with Patrick Mahomes as quarterback, so that the game could start off by letting me play a tutorial for the one and only new feature in Madden 20 that is actually new: the run-pass option. Instead, I have to play as Drew Brees, with no RPO tutorial or opportunity to hit the skill trainer, even though the play call screen keeps trying to get me to run the RPOs that I have no idea how to actually execute in the game.

The Pro Bowl demo showcases the new Superstar X-Factors.

So even though this demo Pro Bowl exposed me to new features, it was still a total crap-shoot of an introduction to this year's game. Without any tutorials, I ended up just having to play the game like last year's game and didn't get to actually enjoy any of the new content.

The impetus of Madden 20's design seems to be to bring back features and mechanics that were lost when Madden transitioned to newer consoles -- just in time for the end of this console generation, so they can get lost again! Almost every big new feature is a variation on some mechanic that existed in the game 10 or 15 years ago, even though EA's marketing team wants to insist that these are all new ideas.

Face of the Franchise feels like a re-imagining of the old Superstar mode,
and X-Factors feel like a re-branding of Madden 08's "weapons".

The Pro Bowl is a feature that existed on the PS2 / XBox versions of the game, but which was lost in the transition to the PS3 and XBox 360, was re-added to later PS3 and XBox 360 iterations, before being lost again in the translation to PS4 and XBox One.

The &Superstar X-Factors" are basically just the "Weapons" that were introduced in Madden 08.

The "Face of the Franchise" feature is a hybrid of the old Superstar mode and the more recent Longshot mode.

And so on...

The Pro Bowl was playable in previous generations.

Did anyone even really care that much about getting the Pro Bowl back? I understand wanting the pre-season in the game, there's team-building strategy that goes into preseason, so that has value in the video game. But the Pro Bowl? Heck, I don't even think the player gain experience points from playing in the Pro Bowl, so the game is just as pointless in Madden as it is in real life!That's why the NFL had to move it to before the SuperBowl -- because nobody would watch it. And it's also why they had to relocate it out of Hawai'i -- because anybody who could afford to fly to Hawai'i to watch it would rather just visit Hawai'i than attend the game.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing that I'd expect to be a footnote in the Franchise feature list that gets no fanfare whatsoever, compared to other sweeping changes that I expect to see. The fact that the return of the Pro Bowl is a headline feature just shows how little improvement this series sees from year-to-year.

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If you're a fan of college sports video games, then you've probably already heard that in the middle of May, the NCAA announced that it would be convening a special group to re-examine the issue of student-athlete compensation for the use of their name and likeness. Lawsuits from former players whose likenesses were being used in college games without their permission (let alone compensation) is the reason that companies like EA and 2K Sports had to stop releasing new college football and basketball games back in 2012 and 2013.

These issues have been in and out of the courts over the years, with most (if not all) cases being decided in favor of the individual athletes and requiring the NCAA, video game publisher, or both to have to pay damages the athlete. Ever since, the NCAA has refused to lend its license to video games in particular, as they have steadfastly refused to allow players to be compensated on the grounds that they are "amateur" student athletes, even though they are the primary driving force of a multi-billion dollar-a-year industry.

College sports games have been absent for quite a few years now.

Over recent years, the NCAA has been receiving mounting public pressure to pay athletes and/or allow them to profit from the use of their likeness in commercial products, and it looks like they might finally cave to this pressure later this year. We've talked about the idea of college sports games returning in the past, but up till now, it's always been purely speculative. This time is a bit different, however, since the NCAA itself is finally taking some actual action on the topic. No final decision will be reached until October, so it's still entirely possible that the committee will decide to retain the status quo, which will mean no NCAA-licensed video games in the foreseeable future.

I already thought 2020 was shaping up to be a good year for football video games,
even before this announcement from the NCAA!

I am optimistic that the NCAA will decide in favor of allowing players to receive compensation. In fact, I think this could actually be a brilliant -- and somewhat insidious -- decision by the NCAA. On the one hand, it allows them to license their brand to video game, which would provide a revenue stream for the NCAA. Secondly, it allows the players (the popular ones, anyway) to get paid, which may quell much of the popular demand for the NCAA themselves to pay athletes a salary.

Lastly, based on what I've read about the proposed rule changes, the deal would allow the license-holder of the game or the manufacturer of the paraphernalia holding the athlete's likeness and/or name to pay the athlete directly. Which means the NCAA isn't actually the one paying the athletes. The athletes are getting paid with someone else's dollar. It would, thus, allow the NCAA to save face by continuing to pretend that they are facilitating an "amateur" sport".

In fact, the NCAA's official statement flat-out says:

"... the group will not consider any concepts that could be construed as payment for participation in college sports. The NCAA’s mission to provide opportunity for students to compete against other students prohibits any contemplation of pay-for-play."

It's a kind of cop-out win-win-win for the NCAA, so it's actually kind of amazing that they didn't consider doing this sooner.

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Madden NFL - title

I think I've finally decided to take a stab at some long-form video analysis and critique on Youtube. My first go at this came in the form of a nearly-hour-long breakdown of my frustrations with the Madden NFL video game series (broken up into 2 parts). For the benefit of my readers, I'm also transcribing the video onto this blog post. Though reading this post will certainly convey all the same points that I make in the video, I still highly recommend watching the video, as the video footage included will do a better job than screenshots of demonstrating the problems I report. The entire video is embedded below.

If you want to see more (better-produced) video content like this from me, then I invite you to support me on Patreon.

Watch the full video on Youtube.

EA's ethos of releasing a new Madden entry every single year has become a tremendous detriment to the game as a whole. Modern games have become very large, very complicated, and very expensive to create, and every game series that has relied on an annual release cycle has, in my opinion, suffered for it. Even companies like Ubisoft have recognized this, which is why the company has decided to end the cycle of annual Assassin's Creed releases, opting instead for a major release every two or three years, with some large-scale DLC and expansions to fill out the intervening period. Despite re-using the same game engines, the huge cost of creating a new game every year stretches the company's resources further than they can go. Though I still didn't think that Assassin's Creed: Origins was particularly great, the game still clearly benefited from the extra design and development time that the year's hiatus provided, and the general internet consensus is that the game is very good.

Assassin's Creed: Odyssey was released only a year after Origins, and it looks like a terrible, derivative, waste of time fueled by a grindy micro-transaction economy pulled straight out of a mobile free-to-play game, except with a $60 upfront price tag. We'll have to wait and see if Ubisoft follows through on its promise to "spend more time making fewer, better games", or if it goes back to milking its franchises with slapped-together annual releases.

EA's Madden game is in an even worse boat than Assassin's Creed was in. Not only is Madden an annual release, but it's internal resources are being stretched out between multiple, completely divergent game modes! EA has to chose how much resources to devote to each of these modes, and that commitment comes at the expense of the other modes. In addition to having to make general gameplay improvements every year, the team is also tasked with coming up with new features and improvements for Franchise mode, Ultimate Team, and now Longshot. They're basically developing three different games, and trying to squeeze them all into a single annual release cycle.


Madden's resources are divided between three divergent game modes every year!

Worse yet, one of these game modes clearly makes a lot more money than the others...

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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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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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