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.
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
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!
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 here goes...
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Head in the clouds, waiting for a better Franchise
Cloud disconnects cause lost progress.
Since all the attention was on Ultimate Team and Draft Champions, the grand-daddy of Madden gameplay modes (and the only one that I care about), Franchise, seems to have been left out in the cold yet again. Just like last year's game, the mode fails miserably at providing any sense of actually managing or coaching a team.
EA is now offering cloud storage for Franchise leagues, supposedly to make it easier to manage and to speed up simulation of CPU games. This mode is practically unplayable for me. I play my franchise games with full, 15-minute quarters, so that a single game takes about an hour and a half to play. In half the games that I played in my attempt to go through a season of franchise, the connection to EA servers dropped mid-game. I was told that stats and scores would not be saved, but I was allowed to play through the rest of the game anyway. I thought the connection might be re-established, but I was wrong. When the game ended, I was kicked back out to Madden's main menu, and my progress had been lost. That was two hours well spent. Unfortunately, I can't find anyway to convert a cloud save to a local save, so I had to restart the franchise completely in offline mode. This is absolutely unacceptable! I have no idea how well this feature works in multiplayer franchises. If you're playing single player franchise, then I don't see any advantage to having your game saved on the cloud; in fact, it's only a liability. Save it locally.
Goal feedback is welcome, but mostly cosmetic
Defensive drive goals can be silly. In this case, I had a goal to not allow a passing TD.
I completed it by allowing the offense to score a rushing TD, earning XP and confidence for my whole defense.
Most of the rest of the changes in franchise are cosmetic enhancements to the features introduced last year. You now get in-game feedback regarding player and team goals as you progress them during games. A ticker at the bottom of the screen shows player and weekly goals whenever you make progress towards them, and pop-up overlays will highlight individual players' progress in between-play cutscenes. In addition, new "drive goals" have been added that give you a small task to perform in each possession (both offense and defense). These can range from making sure that an offensive receiver catches a certain amount of passes, that your running back score a touchdown, or that your defense gets a turnover. Completing these goals earns the relevant players confidence and experience that can be used to improve their skills.
These quests would be a lot better if they were things that the player could customize or script in between games or halves (at least for your opening offensive and defensive drives of each half). That would make it a part of your coaching strategy that could be custom-tailored to your opponent or your own goals as a coach. Instead, they are pseudo-randomly generated by the game, and thus not a part of your strategy at all. In fact, they can sometimes be the opposite, trying to entice you into violating your own plan in order to earn some extra experience or confidence - exactly the kind of thing that NFL coaches actively avoid in real games.
In-game tickers and overlays notify you of progress towards goals and real-time updates for experience and confidence.
Having the in-game feedback is definitely a worthwhile addition. It's just that it seems like something that should be a bonus, icing on the cake feature, rather than the meat of the upgrades. The only other really new feature is the ability to "sim a win". This allows you to set which team in a CPU game will win; although, you don't get any influence over final score. This is a nice feature that gives the player the ability to create their own stories in their franchise. You can make division races tighter and more tense, set up a Cinderella situation, or set up a team with an undefeated season so that you can try to crush their dreams in the playoffs. It spares the player from having to continually reload the franchise in order to manipulate the result of games.
The league manager can determine which
CPU team wins any given game.
Another modest addition to the franchise is the inclusion of practice modes inside franchise. This allows you to practice with your specific franchise team. Unfortunately, you still can't do any kind of meaningful practice against an opponent's plays, and the practice doesn't have any effect on your player's awareness or confidence. It's just for the user's benefit, and really isn't all that helpful.
A more promising addition to the game prep is the option to do some skill trainer activities with your quarterback that teach you how to read different defensive coverages (such as cover 2, cover 3, etc). This is a neat addition and can actually be very helpful at teaching some football knowledge to users. It doesn't translate into better performance by your quarterback in the following game (other than via the gain of abstract experience), but this is something that could easily be expanded into a meaningful game prep feature based on scouting. If the game allowed you to scout your next opponent to determine what coverages they like to run most in key situations, then you could script a play to beat that coverage, and practice against that coverage so you can beat it in-game. This would be exactly the kind of meaningful game prep that I've been demanding for years. It's not there yet, but I can hope that EA will pick up this strategy thread and run with it next year.
Defensive drills are a different story. They're a complete crap shoot. For example, when trying to run a tackling drill with a DB who keeps missing tackles, I had to practice against Matt Forte. So even on the off chance that I read the play, dodged the blockers, and reached Forte, he just broke through the tackle, and I failed the practice. Why even offer tackling drills to DBs if they are just going to fail due to their own poor tackling skill anyway? Who in the Madden design team thought this was a good design? Well, nobody, because this feature was tacked on without any thought. Heck, why even offer specific drills like this? They don't improve the skill(s) that you're practicing. They only provide generic experience that can be used to enhance any skill. So there's no real need to have anything other than the generic "gain free XP" practice setting.
You can run passing drills that teach the basics of how to read defensive safeties.
Madden 16 is loaded with mini-games such as the Skills Trainer, Gauntlet, MUT, and Draft Champions. These features all feel like fluff diversions that represent EA's greater focus on making Madden feel like an arcade game. Now, I do want to stress that I really like the Skills Trainer. There's a lot of really good tutorials on football strategy, and someone who knows nothing about football could really learn a lot from playing through it. Heck, someone who knows a lot about football could probably learn a thing or two. It's just too bad that the developers can't find a better way to integrate these awesome training tools into the Franchise in a more meaningful way so that players will actually use it.
Many elements of the franchise interface have been streamlined or improved in meaningful ways. Player info cards now display all relevant player attributes for their position in a single chart, so you don't have to scroll through dozens of attributes scores to view your quarterback's throwing accuracy. Though, for some reason, these cards can't be displayed from within the pre-game prep, skill improvement menu, or depth chart, which is pretty much all the places that I would ever want to see it. There's also a graphical depth chart based on the Ultimate Team depth chart that allows you to swap players at specific positions It's a nice feature, but it's very limited. It's derived from the old depth chart, so doesn't always work the way you expect it, and the graphical depth chart isn't even accessible from within games anyway. Formation sub menus also seem to be completely gone.
Other long-standing franchise bugs have still not been fixed. The most noticeable is that there is still an option to use "pre-existing injuries" when starting a franchise, but this feature does not seem to work, since EA never bothers to list any players as injured on their built-in rosters. I don't think this feature has ever worked, so why is it still in the game?!
Franchise has a graphical depth chart similar to MUT, but it's not available from within games.
Preseason substitution logic is so broken, EA expects you to just skip it
Preseason is the other area that has some outstanding design flaws that never seem to get fixed. Franchise now gives the player the option to skip the preseason entirely (a political statement from EA to the NFL, perhaps?), and skipping preseason is actually the default. This is a big disappointment for me, since it immediately implied to me that EA didn't want to put any more effort into preseason logic. And that is mostly the case, as substitution logic is still fundamentally flawed.
I still see starting running backs getting subbed in as fourth or fifth-string receivers, starting tight ends as full backs, punters becoming backup quarterbacks, star players being placed as kick returns, star defenders show up on kick and punt coverage teams (because you can't set special teams depth charts), and defensive starters can end up virtually anywhere when the second quarter starts. Starters always seem to be one injury to a backup away from coming right back into the game and risking their own injury. CPU-controlled teams are stuck with these problems, since the user still can't adjust their rosters, and the CPU teams will never sub deeper into their rosters to give rookies and third-stringers any playing looks.
"It's just preseason", you might say. "It's not that big of a deal", you might say. Heck, the NFL might do away with preseason altogether in the next few years. So why do I harp on the preseason functionality so much?
Well, I make a big fuss about preseason substitution logic because playing the preseason is actually the most fun part of Franchise for me. Yep, you heard that right. Giving playing time to my rookies and sophomores, and evaluating which players to keep on my 53-man roster is the only time that the Franchise Mode ever gives me anything to do that actually feels like a football coaching decision. It's the only place in which the back-office management and the on-field gameplay really merge together. Granted, the process can be done just as effectively (or more effectively) by just comparing the players' respective ability scores in the menu, but that just shines a spotlight on another glaring hole in EA's Franchise mode: it doesn't do a very good job of creating breakout players.
Pre-season logic routinely makes stupid substitutions, like playing Matt Forte as my fourth receiver.
EA can add all this stuff about player and team goals and experience points and buying player upgrades that they want, but it all just feels so "game-y". Sports do actually lend themselves pretty well to these sorts of party-based RPG design philosophies, and I'm surprised it took so long for these features to be introduced. But that doesn't mean that practicing arbitrary, generic skill tests is the way to go. In lieu of any features for scouting opponents, adjusting my playbook, or practicing against an opponent's playbook, those preseason cuts are the only time that I actually get to feel like a football coach with a meaningful football decision to make. Preseason is even more important to me than draft day because at least I'm guaranteed to play the preseason; whereas I might get bored and not progress the Franchise long enough to even play a draft.
This is all EA is willing to give me, so I want it to work, damnit! It frustrates me that it doesn't, especially since the fixes seem so obvious. Even if the logic for proper preseason substitutions is too difficult to write (which it very well could be), then just give control of the preseason depth charts to the player, so that I can can make the appropriate substitutions. After all, it's "just preseason", right?
I will give credit to EA for adding some preseason-specific drive goals for your substitution players (even though they are very running-back-centric), but this just makes me wish even more that EA had fixed the substitution logic.This had the potential to make preseason really meaningful and relevant, since completing goals to earn XP to develop your rookies and backups could be a fun game-within-the-game that would encourage users and the A.I. to substitute players deeper in their depth charts.
Goals could provide an excellent incentive to for user and CPU teams to
play rookies and backups in order to quickly develop their skills.
As it stands, it's hard for substitute players to get enough play-time to complete goals that are based on playing an entire game. And since rookies don't gain experience faster than veteran players, they might gain enough exp to level up two - maybe three - attributes. That's probably not even enough for their overall rating to get bumped up by a single point. Granted, they usually have lower skill values, so it costs less experience to upgrade them, but that is only minimally relevant. If young players had the potential to earn bonus experience in the preseason and off-season training camp, then EA would possibly have an effective ruleset for modeling breakout players. If only EA had dedicated more time to franchise instead of spending all their effort on meaningless crap like Draft Champions.
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EA finally took some time to revise the much-maligned passing and catching mechanics in order to make it much easier for receivers to make catches down the field. This leads to a lot of new risk versus reward mechanics. After throwing a pass, players can press and hold one of three different face buttons in order to control the technique that the receiver uses to catch the ball. One button forces the receiver to make a conservative possession catch that usually results in them wrapping the ball up in their body and rolling to the ground. This is used for converting third downs and making sideline catches. Another button causes the player to try to make the catch mid-run in the event that he gets good separation from the defender and the quarterback leads him correctly. Finally, the player can chose to force the receiver into making an aggressive, leaping catch. You'll see a lot of Odell Beckham one-handed grabs in this mode (at least one or two per game), and if nearby defenders also go up for the ball in a similar manner, then they will fight with the receiver for the ball in the air.
Aggressive catch attempts lead to wild one-handed grabs and aerial competitions between receivers and DBs.
Defenders have a similar risk-reward mechanic. One button allows the defender to go for an interception, but may leave the receiver open for a big gain if the defender misses the ball. The other command allows the defender to play the receiver and be more likely to make the tackle if the receiver catches the ball. The old swat ball command is still there, but isn't really integrated with the other controls. As far as I can tell, there's also no increased risk of defensive pass interference when deciding to cover the receiver instead of go for the ball. In any case, the new receiving and pass defense controls work very well and give receivers a sense of agency and relevance that they've been sorely lacking for - well - pretty much forever.
The catching controls are supplemented with new passing controls. There's now several different ways to modify a pass with button presses. You can hold a shoulder button modifier while pressing the receiver button to lob the pass or throw it low to the ground. You can also double tap the receiver button to throw a touch pass (a floating pass intended to go over the heads of linebackers and dropping in to the hands of a running receiver). The double-tap touch pass is a nice addition that feels comfortable to execute, although I prefer NFL 2k5's use of the double tap for pump fakes, since it allowed the player to pull down the pass at the last instant if you realize the throw is unwarranted. The other controls feel really uncomfortable to me, and I'm honestly unsure how the lob and shallow passes differ from holding or tapping the button while using the analog stick to lead the receiver (as you could do in previous versions). I don't see how a combination of the double tap and left analog stick couldn't have provided the same results as the shoulder modifiers. All it seems to do is obfuscate the controls and add more opportunity for error while fumbling with the controller.
These new passing controls really do baffle me. Much like how last year added new tackling controls that seemed redundant with the Hit Stick that had been in the game for a decade, this year added new pass modifier buttons that seem redundant with the analog stick leading system that's been in the game for over a decade. Other commands have been removed in order to make room for these new buttons. Pump fake is mapped to clicking the left stick, which means you can't pump fake to a specific receiver in order to try to draw the defense in that direction. Clicking the stick to pump fake is also really uncomfortable, especially when scrambling.
Despite receivers actually making an effort this year, tipped passes still lead to alarmingly frequent interceptions.
I don't know if it's the result of a slow framerate, but I have a really hard time telling exactly what's going on when the ball is in the air - at least on the default game speed setting. The game seems to speed up and slow down when the ball is in the air, making it very hard to react to what's happening. The ball travels so fast, and the catch animations happen so fast that I often can't see what happened or have enough time to make any kind of informed decision of what type of catch to try to make. It also doesn't help that giant button prompts appear on screen, blocking out the action. Slowing the game speed down in the options screen definitely helps.
What really alarms me though, is that interceptions - specifically pick-sixes - still occur with infuriating regularity. Instead of being caused by the passivity of receivers who refuse to make an effort to track down the ball and catch it, it now comes from the proliferation of tipped passes and aggressive catches by defenders - not to mention a camera angle that's zoomed in so far that it's hard to see the wide outs and cornerbacks in order to even read the defense. It seems as if EA has just substituted one problem for another. Mid and low-range quarterbacks also routinely miss wide open receivers. It's very frustrating to call the perfect play, make the perfect read, throw a perfectly-timed pass, but then have a biased random number generator lead to a bad throw that even Chris Carter couldn't catch.
Visibility with the zoomed-in camera is a real problem when running side to side and in passing plays,
we can't even rotate the camera pre-play anymore to see our own wide outs or read the cornerbacks.
I really don't understand this zoomed-in camera. It doesn't rotate to point ahead of the player, and it's zoomed in so far that you can't see what's five yards in front of your player if running from side to side. It may look like your punt returner has nothing but daylight around the flank, but then a coverage guy appears out of nowhere from the edge of the screen and tackles you before you can even react. Sure, you can adjust the camera in the game settings, but why is this the default? Does anybody actually play the game in this angle?
New animations for receivers releasing from
coverage are welcome (but superficial) additions.
The frequency of interceptions makes it unfortunate that receivers don't have a fourth modifier that allows them to play defensively to swat the ball down or try to knock it out of the defender's grasp in the event that the defender is in a better position. I've seen instances in which the offensive receiver seemed to hit the defender or knock the ball out of his hand, so it appears that logic for this is in the game. It's just a crap shoot whether it happens, since the user can't trigger such an action even if you can obviously see that the defender is in the better position. This is an unfortunate oversight that I hope EA will address this offseason.
The physics engine can still be trumped by A.I.
whims. This was an interception by Chicago.
To go along with the new passing and catching mechanics, there are numerous new animations for interactions in the secondary. Beyond just the new catching animations for receivers, there are a lot more realistic animations of defenders reaching across the receiver's body or over his back to deflect a pass, receivers pushing off to release from press coverage, players colliding in routes, receivers and DBs hand jostling, and so on. Eye tracking is also a bit more realistic; although blind interceptions still happen. All these new animations add up to make the game look a lot more authentic and believable when the ball is in the air.
Sadly, many of these new animations feel superficial because Madden still isn't above using blatant motion-shifting, clipping, and force fields in order to manipulate the outcome of plays. Motion shifting is most prevelant in the secondary. I've seen tight ends hit a defender as if to block, only to teleport five feet to the side in order to break out to run a route (or literally swap positions in a wink with an adjacent blocker). I've seen crossing receivers run right into zone defenders only to bounce off without losing a step and without the defender reacting at all! You can tout your physics engine all you want, EA, but it is completely moot if the game is allowed to turn it off whenever it suits the A.I.'s whim. In fact, the new catch features only seem to highlight this problem by making it that much more apparent that player inputs and scripted behaviors are trumping the legitimate positioning of players and the physics engine.
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Motion shifting is still a blatantly-noticeable problem in the secondary.
Neglecting old features and game pacing
Quarterback throwing motions aren't severely
affected by contact, so defensive linemen
aren't as disruptive as they should be.
Once again, in an effort to put new features on the back of the box, the teams at EA seem to have completely neglected the problems that held back last year's features. The same defensive line mechanics from last year return, but it doesn't seem to have been improved at all. The "lame duck" throws from earlier years still seem to be absent, as a quarterback's throwing motion isn't severely affected by contact (despite the presence of a "physics engine"). Defensive linemen also don't reach through blocks to attempt to swat the ball. The net effect is that if your defensive linemen aren't getting sacks, then they are practically irrelevant against your opponent's passing game.
The tackling engine saw some subtle, but welcome, improvements. Defenders seem to make a bit more of an effort to actually hit or wrap up the runner if another defender has already hit him. I've seen two defenders wrap up a ballcarrier, and then a third come in and take his legs out from under him. So they definitely don't seem as lazy and willing to fall down as in last year's game. In fact, this seems to be a general improvement all around: more players seem to put in more effort on given plays, whether it be receivers going up to catch balls, running backs assisting in double team blocks or chopping free-running blitzers, defenders making more effort to tackle, or blockers leaving a double team to block someone in the secondary. It's not perfect, but it's better.
Despite this improvement, the same old problem of defenders just running into a pile and going limp (as if they'd suffered a concussion) still exists and happens fairly regularly. Players can contort and ragdoll in very painful looking ways, but it never causes an injury or anything because injuries are still randomly-generated by the game rather than being an emergent result of irregular contortions of the players' bodies. It would be nice if an animation of bending a knee backwards or rolling an ankle actually resulted in the player receiving an injury. Of course, injuries would be happening on almost every play if that were the case. A lot of work still needs to be done in this area, and it seems like EA gave it only a bare minimum amount of effort.
Defenders seem to put more effort into wrapping up or hitting a runner who is already engaged in a tackle animation.
Poor pacing and broken two-minute drills
There was also no effort made to address the problems that I reported last year with game pacing. I'm not going to go into much detail. You can read last year's review if you want my thoughts. But in summary: quarters still default to six minutes, which rushes the game by so quickly that many legitimate football strategies are completely neutralized. Teams that specialize in running the ball and playing good defense are especially penalized. The running game is still very hit-or-miss, with most of a runner's yards usually coming on one or two plays. And good defensive teams are scripted to get turnovers and sacks so often, that on longer games, they become frequently excessive. The addition of the RAC catch mode didn't seem to cause EA to reign in very many passing routes, so most routes go out 12 or 15 yards (or for the home run), or they don't even pass the line of scrimmage.
The football still magically teleports to the
line of scrimmage on hurry-up plays.
Two minute drills also still feel cheap and broken. Referees are still intangible, and the ball still magically teleports to the line of scrimmage on hurry-up plays. But you don't even need to run hurry up plays inside of two minutes because the accelerated clock still disables itself during that time frame. So if you know your playbook well enough, you can just quickly pick the play you want and be out of the huddle in less than five seconds, or just pick the first pass you see in the suggested plays dialogue and break the huddle in one or two seconds. It completely breaks the two minute drill! I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the two minute drill is the time in the game that it is most important to enforce simulated time via the accelerated clock!
Onside kicks rarely bounce and just
get sucked into a receiver's hands.
Believe it or not, this Lions receiver "catches"
the ball, despite not even trying.
To augment my frustrations with the poor two minute drills, onside kicks are also still horribly broken. I had hoped that the attention paid to the catching mechanics might have somehow improved onside kick recovery; but no, it didn't. Getting the ball to bounce is still a complete crap shoot, and it usually just beelines right to a receiving player and get sucked into their hands, giving them an opportunity to actually field the kick and run for five yards or so. It's so bad and futile that even the onside kick tutorial in the skill trainer just gives up and skips to the next test if you fail to recover the onside kick. In EA's defense, onside kicks are quite possibly the single hardest play to execute in football, and I don't think any video game has ever gotten them right.
Defensive adjustment crapshoot
QBs rush to the line, even though they
have animations of reading the defense.
On the upside, A.I. QBs do seem to give an extra second or two before snapping the ball on most plays. This gives the human player a little bit of time to get some pre-play adjustments made on defense, but it's still not enough. The defensive pre-play controls are horribly inconsistent and confusing, and you have virtually no time to actually read through them to figure out what you want to do. I recommend spending some time in practice mode or the immensely useful skills trainer learning about all the different defensive audibles and adjustments that you can make so that you'll have them memorized for actual games.
There are animations of the QB acting as if he is reading the defense while walking to the line, but they don't happen very often. And even when they do happen, the QB then rushes to the line and snaps the ball once the animation is done. So these animations are there, but aren't well utilized.
The rushed pacing of the game also means that certain psychological tricks don't work - at least not on the A.I.. Sending a receiver in motion isn't just supposed to be for moving his passing route to the other side of the field; it's also supposed to be used to assess whether the defense is in man or zone coverage. Calling a hard count isn't just supposed to be for drawing a defense offsides (or more likely, your own players); it's also supposed to be used to determine if the defense is likely to blitz or drop back into coverage. These techniques can be used moderately well against human opponents. If the human-controlled defender reacts to my hard count by moving up towards the line, then it's likely he was planning to rush the quarterback. If he steps back, then it's likely that he was planning to play coverage. But the A.I. doesn't know how to do these sorts of things. The A.I. QB won't use a WR motion to improve his ability to detect a man or zone defense, nor will he call a hard count to try to get me to show blitz.
Playing defense is horribly frustrating as a result. You can use pre-play adjustments to create double coverages and "spotlight" a particular receiver - if the game gives you enough time to actually take these actions! You actually have a crap ton of options on defense, but the fact that you have to do them all at the line of scrimmage makes them borderline unuseable unless you have every single one memorized and develop the muscle memory to use them in the three second window that will be available to you. There are no menu or coaching options that allow you to set game-long double teams or spotlights on star receivers, and the ability to set specific man-on-man coverage options seems to be gone. If the same player keeps burning you play after play, you often have little or no recourse.
Lack of permanent coverage assignments, a cumbersome def-adjustment interface, and lack of time to make
adjustments at LoS makes it exceedingly difficult to gameplan or adjust for elite playmakers - particularly tight ends.
And while we're on the topic of lack of options, why can't EA make coach's challenges work right? When you make a coach's challenge, you are given no options as to what element of the play you want to review, so you have to just hope that the CPU picks the right thing. Say you have a questionable sideline catch that is allowed to proceed on the field, the receiver runs back into the field of play and is stripped by the defense. You might challenge that hoping to turn it into an incomplete pass and keep possession, but the game decides to challenge the obvious fumble. Or worse yet, they might challenge the spot of the ball! Now you've unfairly lost possession, and you're short both a timeout and a challenge! NFL 2k5 gave you options of what part of the play you want to challenge... Heck, EA's reviews don't even work half the time. I've seen Madden 16 overrule the correct on-field decision to an obviously wrong one on numerous occasions.
Lastly, defense is further hampered (for both the human and CPU player) by poor pursuit angles and coverage. As in previous years, defenders have an annoying habit of over-pursuing, which results in a lot of missed tackles, especially in the secondary. Once a runner gets past the first line of defenders, there's rarely anyone in front of him to stop a touchdown because the corners and safeties have already over-committed and run themselves into blockers or out of the play. This leads to too many foot races and 60 or 70 yard touchdown runs.
In addition to poor pursuit, this year also has really poor coverage for the defenders of the human-controlled team. CPU defenders can cover your receivers like a vice grip, leading to very few open windows and a lot of passes getting knocked down on All Pro difficulty and above. But when the ball changes hands, the CPU receivers and tight ends make one cut in their routes and suddenly have six yards of separation from the nearest defender. CPU passing attacks (especially in hurry-up time) can feel almost unstoppable, especially for elite teams. Tight ends are especially troublesome, since linebackers are the most frequently burnt in the passing game.
Man coverage is terrible, leading to CPU receivers consistently getting an easy six or seven yards of separation.
So when I complain about silly or superficial features being added to the game (I'm looking at you, Draft Champions), it is because those sorts of efforts take time, talent, and money away from little improvements to A.I. that can make subtle differences to add to the strategy and authenticity of the game.
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Another year in the shadow of 2k5's epic presentation
I don't know, but I feel like Madden's presentation actually got worse this year. The commentary seems more sparse and less natural than it did last year. Nantze sounds lifeless and uninterested in the game. Phil Simms feels it necessary to repeatedly explain what a post route is, as well as other unprovoked "football 101" definitions as if nobody listening has ever heard of football before. The halftime show is still unimpressive. The commentary is lackluster, showing very little enthusiasm and lack of awareness of the significance of a play in the grand scheme of the game. I also noticed that the game doesn't automatically record highlights of every play anymore. A few times, I went back to look at a highlight from a few plays ago, only to find that the only highlight that had been saved for a drive was the extra point kick. Even big plays are omitted from the highlight list.
New info-graphic overlays can feel out-of-place and intrusive.
There's very few upgrades in presentation. The most noticeable thing is some new info-graphic overlays during cutscenes and replays. They'll show some player stats and highlight specific players in instant replays. They are pretty ugly though, and sometimes actually intrusive. During replays, the highlighted player(s) name will often block out large areas of the field. It's particularly bad in replays of sacks, since the quarterback's name and the defender's name usually cover each other up so that you can't see the actual sack happen. This might have worked if the replay would freeze frame at the start to highlight the player, then remove the name and play the highlight, but they didn't bother with the freeze frame, and it just looks bad. I also really don't care for the holographic stadium introductions prior to the games. I much preferred the old fly-overs and team introductions that preceded games in earlier versions of Madden.
I also got to play some local multiplayer this year, and noticed some weird issues in that mode. I'm pretty sure that pre-play camera and adjustment controls actually change in local multiplayer so that you can't use some of the functionality that is available in single-player. Not sure why this is the case. I was also annoyed with the two-player play calling screen. In single player, a little widget is always displayed that shows the previous play that you chose, what play the CPU team selected, the result, and the average success rate of those plays against each other. It's good, useful information to have, and it can give you some feedback on how good your play call was.
Defenses in local multiplayer should get some stats, overview of the last play, tendency information,
an instant replay, or something - anything - to look at besides the other player's play selections!
In multiplayer, this info is absent. Instead, the defense has to look at an empty play-call box while they wait for the offense to scroll through their plays and pick one. So the defense has nothing to look at, except for what plays the offense is scrolling through. The screen seems designed to draw attention towards the offense's play-call screen, as if it's trying to encourage the defense to cheat. At least display some stats or summary information in the defense's empty play-call box, or collapse the play call box so the defense can watch an instant replay, or something - anything to look at besides what plays the other player is picking!
A glitch causes some players to be invisible.
Lastly, I've noticed a glitch in which certain players are actually invisible. The game simply doesn't draw their character model in either real-time gameplay or instant replays, but they are selectable and seem to function normally. When it's your player that's invisible, you can easily enough select them to see where they are, but invisible CPU-controlled players are virtually impossible to track. There's a possibly related glitch in which some players in instant replays are invisible for the first frame of the replay. They appear once the player hits "play".
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Another year of perpetual purgatory
This year's Madden still feels very much like a work-in-progress. Last year's defensive and line improvements, combined with this year's catching improvements, do address (if not completely resolve) long-outstanding issues with the past generation of the series. I assume (or at least hope) that next year's game will put a large focus on special teams and clock management, which is the last major glaring hole in the on-field gameplay. But even then, across-the-board improvements to balance and the A.I. and physics systems would still be necessary in order to eliminate the fairly rampant A.I. manipulation and cheating that happens in the game. So it still feels like EA is still at least a year or two away from having a complete, quality product. And that's assuming that they don't have to backpedal to remove any broken features that they introduce in the meantime (which might include this year's new throwing mechanics), and that they don't spend a whole year focusing on completely redesigning the game's presentation, commentary, and highlight functionality.
I feel like waiting for a good Madden game is like waiting for a manned mission to Mars. A Mars flight has been "20 years away" for as long as I can remember (the 1990's) and maybe longer. Well here we are, in 2015, and Mars is still 15 or 20 years away. Here we are, more than a decade after EA obtained its exclusive NFL license, and Madden is still a couple years away from reaching the bar that was set by ESPN NFL 2k5. Perhaps Joe Montana can save us from perpetual Madden purgatory - but only if you don't mind playing on a tablet...
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