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.
Polishing and re-polishing the same old turd for a new generation
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.
"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. You can press a button to jump the snap and get an advantage over a blocker. A button prompt will appear when you can perform a power move or finesse move to break a block. And there's different buttons for safe wrap tackles and more aggressive hits. These are all features that have been in the game before, but EA only changed the way that the player uses them.
Power and finesse moves were always available to defenders to break blocks, but now the game just tells you when to use them so that you don't have to have any real skill or situational awareness. To EA's credit, these moves do at least seem to work better than they used to, and the animations between the offensive and defensive linemen look a lot better.
Blindsiding a QB isn't as disruptive as it should be
since "lame duck" throws never happen anymore.
The new tackling controls are just variations of the old "hit stick" feature that has been around for 10 years, and which is actually still present in this game - which just makes the new controls seem redundant.
In my time with the game, I didn't really notice anything that felt truly new. And to make matters worse, some old features seem to have disappeared. The most noticeable is that lame duck passes don't seem to happen anymore. So even though defensive linemen can steer blocks to fill gaps or contain a QB, they aren't as disruptive to the passing game as they should be unless they are getting double-digit sacks.
The physics and collision engine also seem relatively unchanged from previous versions. All twenty two players still have a sense of physical presense, and they can all have an effect on the play. But it still seems that after the first hit, the defensive A.I. just kind of gives up. After the first tackler makes contact, other players typically just run into the ball-carrier or pile-up and fall on him, rather than actively wrapping up or hitting the ball-carrier. It makes the defenders look lazy for not following-through, and makes the runners seem weak for putting up so little resistance to being tackled. This is especially problematic on 3rd and short, 4th and short, and goaline situations, since extra defenders don't do much (if anything at all) to prevent a runner from falling forward.
When tackling a player after contact, real NFL players [LEFT] still hit and wrap and actually tackle!
In Madden [RIGHT], they just kind of run into the pile and collapse to the ground, making no actual effort.
Poor pacing and cheating A.I. nullify real football strategy
The biggest problem for me is that the game's pacing still feels completely wrong. The game still defaults to six minute quarters (with accelerated clock ON), so that a whole game takes about thirty minutes (or less if you run the ball). Many common football strategies - such as "establishing a running game", "wearing out a defense", or "winning the field position battle" - become irrelevant when games are so short. As such, the game has to tweak the on-field action so that big plays happen with alarming regularity (especially turnovers). Playing the game on full fifteen minute quarters exacerbates this problem and inflates final scores and player stats.
This has some severe effects on the A.I. system. For example, this is part of the reason why defensive backs are psychic on higher difficulty settings. In order to offset the frequency of passing plays, defenders need to be able to instantly react to the ball and make knockdowns or interceptions without even being able to see the ball. And it doesn't help that receivers still don't play the ball appropriately in the air, and quarterbacks often don't put appropriate touch on long passes. Back-shoulder fades (which is the cornerstone of the Packers' passing playbook) is not at all functional.
So many plays feel like "all or nothing" gambits. Call a running play, and your back will either be tackled for no gain, or he'll gain eight yards without being touched; no in between. If he breaks 100 yards in a single [30-minute] game, a majority of those yards will likely be on two or three big plays. Passing routes generally go deeper than they do in real football, and a greater frequency of passes have to be swatted down or intercepted in order to slow down an offense. What few passing routes are designed for fewer than 10 yards barely even pass the line of scrimmage.
What good are player attributes when an O-Line of Tom Brady, Carson Palmer, Peyton Manning, Kyle Orton,
and Tony Romo can hold of elite pass rushers like Ndamukong Suh?
EA has also retained the A.I. code that allows the game to cheat to manipulate the outcome of plays and games. Depending on the difficulty settings, player stats and abilities may be completely ignored. On the highest difficulties, an offensive line consisting of unmodified Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer, Kyle Orton, and Tony Romo can hold off a defensive pass rush just as effectively as an elite blocking unit. Ndamukong Suh being pancaked by Peyton Manning is embarrassing and inexcusable!
And don't get me started on how severely broken draws and screen plays are! Every year, these plays are either cheap money plays or completely non-functional. This year, they are non-functional. Offensive linemen in screens don't slow down the rushing defenders at all, resulting in the QB not even having time to dump the ball off to the running back. And in draws, the defenders rarely drop back to play the pass, and so they immediately fill any holes.
Screen passes are complete crap shoots due to poor A.I. scripting for linemen.
And since so much of the focus is on speeding up the pace of the game so that online players can finish before their connections drop, the play-calling has also lost some of its depth and ease. You can still sub different personnel packages into plays, but the interface for doing this is much clunkier than the old playcalling-by-formation methods. So some of the more advanced football strategy that is possible within the game is hidden behind a crappy interface.
Referees also are still in-tangible characters on the field. The ball and players can't collide with them, so you can't use them to pick cornerbacks or act as impromptu blockers. They also don't have animations for placing the ball after a play. Run a hurry-up offense, and you will notice that the ball just magically teleports to its set position on the field. It's a small thing, but it's immersion-breaking once you notice it! It also speeds up the pace of two-minute drills, making it far too easy to conserve the clock if you need to make a dramatic, last-minute comeback.
Slowly catching up to NFL 2k5's spectacular presentation
One place that the game has made a solid step forward is in its presentation.
Halftime and postgame highlights add to the presentation, but commentary and analysis are lackluster.
Halftime and post-game recaps will show contextual highlights from the game; although, the game's definition of "highlight" is questionable. It seems to judge a play's merit in a vacuum, rather than its significance in the game as a whole. Scores, interceptions, and plays that gain a lot of yards are frequently highlighted, even if they are inconsequential in the grand scheme.
For example, a thirty yard pass completion may show up in the highlight reel, even if the team ends up punting three plays later, making the reception inconsequential in the long-term. Similarly, an interception (of which there are many) may be highlighted, even if the offense wasn't driving for a score and the intercepting team ends up just punting away again. Other significant plays, like third or fourth down stops that may decide the game, a sack that puts the offense out of field goal range, a punt that pins a team on the one yard line, or a 6-yard third down conversion that sets up a game-winning field goal, may end up being overlooked, as they aren't exciting in their own right.
The commentary that goes with the highlights is also very ho-hum and lacks enthusiasm. It's slowly catching up to NFL 2K5's amazing recap shows (narrated by Chris Berman), but it still has a ways to go.
Yes, the game includes actual advertisements...
One realistic - but ultimately annoying - addition is the inclusion of actual advertisements. Yep. Between quarters, players of Madden '15 will be treated to in-game commercials advertising Verizon, Snickers, General Motors, or any number of corporate sponsors who apparently paid to have their ads hosted on the Madden servers. Fortunately, these ads can be skipped and occur during the cutscenes between quarters, which is a natural breaking point. So they aren't overly intrusive and don't interfere much with the pace of the game.
The feature set wasn't gutted for this generation
At least EA didn't completely gut the game's feature set for the transition to next gen this time. But then again, when the game moved from PS2/XBox to PS3/X360, the control scheme and game engine completely changed (and it was actually improved), so at least the game played differently and felt like it was moving forward in some way.
This time, the PS4 version doesn't feel particularly different than the PS3 iteration from a couple years ago. It doesn't feel new. It just feels like the same old Madden with a slightly shinier coat of paint, that is trying desperately to catch up to the quality and depth of games from ten years ago.
I haven't spent much time in the Career mode because I had limited time with the game, but I did play around with some of the features.
The owner mode is back, allowing you to set concession prices, renovate your stadium, and relocate the team if you want. It's all stuff that's been in the game before. Nothing new here.
New game-preparation mechanics have been added that allow you to hold team practices and improve the confidence and performance of your players going into the next game. It's nice to finally have something to do in between games of a season, since Madden was always lacking NCAA Football's fun and addictive in-season recruiting. But there's no real thought or strategy required for Madden's features.
For one thing, you only have the time to develop a handful of players in any given week. And even the tasks that are labeled as "whole team" activities still target specific players. So there's no real sense of improving the team as a whole.
There's also no real sense of preparing for a given opponent. You don't scout your opponent's tendencies or playbook, don't adjust your own playbook, or change playcalling strategies, or design new personnel packages to take advantages of matchups, or script your offensive plays, or design totally new plays. You can do drills, but you can't run practices or drills against your opponent's playbook or favorite plays. So you don't do any of the strategic things that a coach must do in preparation for a game of football. Nothing!
You have limited hours of preparation time between games.
Unfortunately, it apparently takes 2 whole days to run one set of drills with one player.
Preseason is also a joke. After the first quarter, the A.I. subs out its starters in favor of second-stringers, but it completely fubars the depth chart when it does it. Starters are often swapped with the second or third player on the depth chart, and players at different positions can be subbed in instead. This can lead to punters becoming backup quarterbacks, starting running backs becoming slot receivers, starting defensive ends becoming defensive tackles, and starting safeties becoming cornerbacks, among other silliness. And the A.I. never substitutes deeper into their roster. They don't put third or fourth stringers or rookies in for the second half or fourth quarter, so if you sub in your deeper reserves, you're just putting yourself at a severe disadvantage.
The way to fix this would be to explicitly declare players as "starters" so that the A.I. can remove them from the depth chart completely and just move everyone else on the depth chart up to replace them. And it wouldn't be too hard to implement some extra code to sub in third-stringers and rookies in the fourth quarter. Or just let the user be able to modify the A.I. team's depth chart for preseason games...
I just don't get Ultimate Team...
Ultimate Team seems to be a big emphasis in this year's game. I never really cared much for the Ultimate Team mode and didn't play it in previous years, but since my time with this new game was limited, and I wouldn't have time for a multi-year franchise, I decided to spend a lot more time in Ultimate Team.
I really don't understand this feature. It's just a trading card game. You don't get to develop your players or improve their skills, so it just seems to be playing games with somewhat randomized rosters. But since your coaches and playbooks are also based on randomly-assigned trading cards, your team is also handicapped by being forced to use potentially unfamiliar playbooks.
I guess the idea is that you have to "build" a team from a ragtag group of players. But you don't do this in any of the ways that an actual football team is built, so what's the point? Maybe it's something that appeals more to gamblers? As for me: I'd much rather just have the Expansion Draft from earlier versions of the game's Franchise Mode (Madden 2003, I think).
It just feels like a waste of development resources that could have gone to making the Career features actually worthwhile, instead of being trivial, superficial additions that you slap on the back of the cover to sell the game this year.
Not worth a new console
In the end, I can't recommend Madden '15 - not even to people who are still playing Madden '13 or '14 on an outdated console. There just isn't enough here that is new enough to make me want to play this game over the older ones.
It's also very sad that EA discontinued its NCAA Football series, since that game can sometimes be more fun than Madden anyway. But instead, we now have only this one football game to hold us over until next year. So if you absolutely need your football video gaming fix, then Madden '15 is your only option, and you've probably already bought it anyway. But for those of us who want a deeper, more realistic football experience, we have no where to turn, since EA is obviously not targeting our demographic.
I'd say "better luck next year", but I know better.