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.
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. This is accomplished by two small changes: jumping the snap allows the defender to squeeze between (or around) the blockers unobstructed, and kicks and punts take slightly more time to actually get off of the foot of the kicker. Field goals can also be "iced" by calling timeouts before the kick. When your kicker is iced, the kick meter will actually fade away before setting the accuracy, which can make very long kicks very difficult. Of course, with a little bit of practice, you'll likely have the timing down well enough that it won't matter. But if it happens during one of your first games on a new difficulty level (which changes the speed of the meter), then it'll probably screw you up. I'm sure being iced is also thoroughly devastating in online games.
Jumping the snap now allows defenders to get enough penetration to actually block kicks.
There's also a number of trick plays that have been added. These are mostly just fake field goals and fake punts. There's nothing really creative in here. There's no reverse returns, or designed hook-and-ladder returns to try to recreate a classic miracle play, or rugby-style punting, or any exotic coverage schemes. Overall, I really don't feel like special teams got quite the amount of attention that it deserves. The onside kick mechanics still feel underdeveloped and broken, return blocking doesn't feel much (if at all) improved, and punt returners still have problems deciding whether to field a kick or let it bounce inside the ten yard line.
Despite the lingering weaknesses, special teams is actually something that you can play now. I'm not putting the controller on the ground when I line up to defend an extra point or field goal anymore, and my own extra points and field goals don't feel as much like a sure thing. I've also seen some pretty exciting and crazy fluke plays on special teams that were all but impossible to see in previous years' games.
And now the football is part of the game too!
Punts bounce more unpredictably.
Another change that directly benefits special teams play is the new ball physics. Apparently, EA finally got around to including the football itself (you know, the single most important object on the field) into the physics and collision engine. This means that the ball makes more realistic bounces and rolls during special teams plays and loose-ball situations. There's a handful of new fumble recovery animations, but players are still a bit too willing (and able) to pick up a loose ball off the ground and run with it, rather than simply falling on it. The improved ball physics and fumble recovery animations don't seem to have helped onside kick or squib kick scenarios, as returners still seem to magnetically grab the ball and rarely (if ever) muff it. Tipped passes will also pop up into the air a bit more realistically (though the ball can often feel a bit too floaty in these situations), and pass trajectories feel more realistic if the QB is hit while throwing the ball.
To go along with the new ball physics, there's also a set of new animations involving strip sacks and throwing out of sacks. It makes defensive linemen feel much more disruptive in the passing game, but they also happen frequently enough to be a little obnoxious. Fumbles in general can be obnoxious because the player who fumbles never seems to make any effort to recover the ball, which almost always means that the defense has a decided advantage. The ease with which players can pick up and run with fumbles also means that too many fumbles behind the line of scrimmage get picked up by the defense and run back for touchdowns.
In general, I'm kind of disappointed in how the game's physics engine performs this year. In many ways, it actually seems to be rougher than last year. This may just be me, but I started noticing frequent examples of motion-shifting, animation-canceling, and players clipping through each other during my first couple games - and that was while trying out the "Play the Moments" feature. Despite playing in "Play the Moments" and only actually seeing a fraction of the plays actually run, I still saw problems during those limited number of plays, and it threw up immediate red flags. These problems persisted, and it looks like the physics engine might have taken a slight step backwards since last year. There's also cases of the game seeming to override my own inputs and stopping my players dead in their tracks, which is something that I don't think the game ever did last year.
Despite the new ball physics, the football will still regularly clip right through players' bodies.
Hopefully some of these problems can be addressed by post-release patches? I wouldn't mind seeing things like the officials, goal posts, and maybe even the walls around the field get added to the collision engine, but not if it means that it's only going to make the system even more error-prone!
Back to the film room for "Defense 101"
Special teams wasn't the only phase of the game to get attention. Defense was also in desperate need of some rework as well, and that was also a focus of this year's development. It's also an area in which Tiburon added a lot of football concepts and new terminology to the game. The emphasis of this year's defense enhancements was on gap control at the line of scrimmage, and improving zone coverage in the secondary.
I'm not sure if there's really that much new logic in the gap control system. Instead, I think this is more a case of Tiburon just attaching more explanation and user aides on top of functionality that already mostly existed. It's kind of similar to how they added button prompts to defensive line play in Madden 15 and button prompts for receiver play in Madden 16. Except in this case, it isn't button prompts, but rather new play art that shows us what gaps are supposed to be covered by each defender. Depending on the direction of the run play, each defender will have a specific gap responsibility, and you'll now know which gap you're supposed to be covering. You'll also know exactly which A.I.-controlled player to yell at if your opponent's runner walks through a massive hole in your defense.
Now you'll know exactly which of your D-linemen screwed up if the runner has a huge hole to run through.
Defenses are also supposed to do a better job of edge containment and shutting down the cut-back lanes. The labeled "force" defender is responsible for edge containment and forcing the runner back to the inside. On the other side of the ball, the "cutback" defender is responsible for slicing across the backfield and tackling the runner as he tries to make that forced cutback. This gives a greater sense of relevance to the existing block-steering and block-shedding mechanics introduced in Madden 15, since you know what your actual responsibility is in the defensive scheme at any position.
Man coverage is still far more effective than zone.
The other major change on defense is the new defensive zones. Instead of having four zone options, Madden 17 now has over a dozen. Basically, each of the previous zones was broken up into three more specific situational zones that basically control how deep each defender plays his zone. A "Cloud Flat", for example, will defend mid-range passes such as outs and curls as its top priority before moving down into the shallow flats to look for a running back coming out of the backfield. Alternatively, the "Soft Squat" variation allows the defender to run with the outside receiver and convert to man coverage if there's no other receivers on his side of the field.
First of all, I'm pretty sure that older versions of NCAA Football had zone variations similar to these. In that game, during play-selection, you could press a button to toggle your zones between playing underneath or overtop. So once again, I'm not sure how new this feature really is, or if EA is just re-labeling a feature that they've already sold to us in the past. In any case, I'm not terribly impressed with these new zone coverages. Zone defense plays still feel too easy to beat - especially with drag, deep in, and flat routes. CPU QBs on rookie and pro difficulty (which I had to play a lot of in Ultimate Team) are perfectly capable of hitting the tiniest gaps in the zone coverages. QBs on higher difficulties tend to cut through my zone defenses like a hot knife through butter. So I mostly rely on man coverage, but of course, that tends to leave tight ends wide open for corner routes. I am seeing some much better hybrid man-zone defensive schemes in this year's playbooks, and that's certainly welcome.
The secondary regularly fails to
keep running plays in front of them.
Overall, I just feel like defenses still don't play very well. Coverage seems weak in general, zone coverages leave too many holes, linebackers simply can't keep up with tight ends or running backs in man coverage, pursuit angles are still terrible, and broken tackles at the first level (of which there seem to be a lot more) often lead to huge touchdown runs because the defensive secondary just completely fails to keep running plays in front of them. These are all problems that have been in the game for years, but it's especially disturbing to see that they are still present considering how much attention was put on defensive play this year.
The biggest problem (for me) on defense remains the limited amount of time that I have to read the offense's formation and make any adjustments. CPU-controlled QBs still have the annoying habit of snapping the ball immediately after getting into position. This leaves me with very little time to switch to any given player on the defense, let alone make any individual coverage adjustments. It also makes it all but impossible for the CPU to ever get called for delay of game or to have to burn a timeout in order to avoid a delay of game. In all fairness though, that's what human players do online as well, so maybe EA is just trying to train us. But then again, I also don't play online games because people use cheap, exploitative tactics like that. There's so many options available on defense, and I'd love to be able to use them to fine-tune individual coverages and anticipate specific plays, but the CPU just never gives me enough time to do it. This creates a really high bar of entry for playing effective defense. If you have the time to sit in practice mode and memorize every possible command and commit them to muscle memory, then you'll probably find yourself able to make the adjustments that you want to make. But if you're stuck having to open up the menus and read what each button does, then you're going to be screwed. Adding the extra step of checking my player's current gap assignment only compounds this issue.
Simon says "juke now!"
Offense did receive some attention as well, though it's pretty minor. There's new assist features for running the ball, which include a visible indicator of the projected path a runner will follow, and on-screen button prompts for which moves to execute in order to avoid a tackle, which just continues the trend (that started with Madden 15) of throwing button prompts on the screen. By default, these assists are on for the rookie and pro difficulty settings, but they are disabled for all-pro and all-Madden. The effectiveness of some of the evasive moves have also been tweaked so that they are more effective against multiple players if executed correctly. I do like the running path indicator, especially on kick returns. It makes it a little bit easier to avoid running into the back of a blocker. It's too bad that I can't seem to toggle the path indicator on without also turning on the other assist features.
An arrow points in the direction of the runner's projected path, making it easier to know if you'll hit a hole.
To be honest though, I've never been particularly good at using evasive moves to begin with, so I probably haven't noticed as much difference as other players with more skill. On the other side of the ball, I have noticed that it seems harder for me to make tackles in the open field, which only exacerbates the problem of CPU runners breaking too many big TD runs, since my own A.I. defenders take terrible angles and can't keep a play in front of them to save their lives.
Closer to the franchise experience that I expect
The real selling point for Madden 17 (for me) is the Franchise upgrades. Franchise went a couple years without seeing much attention, but now it has some useful new tools for developing your team on both a week-to-week basis and a season-to-season basis. Best of all, some of these new franchise features seem to have been pulled straight from my own personal wishlist. Did someone at EA read my blog?
Training against your opponent's gameplan
One of my biggest requests from last year was that users should be able to use variations of the Skill Trainer drills to practice and train against an upcoming opponent's actual play calling tendencies. Well, that wish has been (at least partially) granted! Prior to a given game, the "weekly training" activity will open up a menu that will highlight some basic offensive and defensive play-calling tendencies of your opponents, as well as highlighting their top threats on both sides of the ball. It then recommends one offensive and one defensive Skill Trainer drill for you to run in order to practice against one of that team's preferred tendencies on defense and offense (respectively). If your opponent runs a lot of cover 3 defenses, then the training screen will recommend that you run the "Attacking Cover 3" drill. But if you want to play a different drill, you can pick any drill you like. Your players will even be granted small ratings boosts during the games for running the plays or concepts that you practiced during the week.
You can run drills to teach you how to counter your opponent's preferred play-calling tendencies.
Sadly, you still don't get to customize your playbook or play-calling profile. So if the appropriate plays that you need to counter your opponent aren't in your team's selected playbook, then you are kind of screwed. You can't install new plays or even adjust the frequency with which existing plays are called. So if you're up against a mobile QB, but your defensive playbook lacks good QB contain and spy plays, then there's not much you can do about it.
Relevant positions gain small ratings
boosts during gameplanned situations.
You're also allowed to chose a handful of players to "focus train". The selected players gain additional experience. Unlike last year, you don't have to run drills with individual players. Instead, you run the drills based on a concept (and everyone at the relevant positions gain exp), and your focus players automatically receive additional experience. I like this system much better than last year's system. It has much greater context and feels less arbitrary.
Despite some limitations, this improved Gameplanning feature is a very good start. It incorporates the game's excellent Skill Trainer into the franchise mode where more people will actually be able (and hopefully willing) to use it. Instead of focusing on individual performances (as it did last year), the revised Skill Trainer drills focus on core football concepts such as reading and recognizing the opponent's plays! Every drill reviews a concept, lets you practice it, and provides experience to every player in the relevant position(s). It's a much better system than last year - I dare say that it even beats the weekly practice features of NFL 2k5's Franchise Mode (which took place entirely on a spreadsheet). In addition to providing experience for your players, it also gives the user an opportunity to brush up on your own football knowledge and play execution. You might even learn a thing or two about real football strategies or concepts! And once you've already received medals in a given drill, the game will let you simulate the drill based on your best performance, and it will award experience accordingly. This way you don't have to keep repeating drills that you've already mastered, if you don't want to.
Give the kid a chance!
Another big new feature of Franchise that seems pulled straight from my wishlist is the new practice squad. At the end of preseason (when you cut down your roster from 65 to 53 players) you'll have the option to add ten of the cut players to your practice squad. This allows you to continue to train those players along side your normal roster, and you can activate players off of your practice squad in order to replace injured (or under-performing) players.
You can keep up to 10 players on a practice squad, allowing you to continue to develop young players.
Just like in the real NFL, these practice players can be "poached" by other teams and signed onto their active rosters. So you can't use the practice squad to stash away players with relatively high overall ratings. Pretty much anybody with a rating higher than 70 will probably get snatched up by another team, especially at valuable positions like quarterback. In my Raiders franchise, I had rookie QB Connor Cook get signed off of my practice squad and onto the Browns roster as a backup QB. The only limitation is that a team that signs a practice squad member must sign them to their active roster. You can't play musical chairs shuffling players around between multiple teams' practice squads.
Players on the practice squad gain experience from weekly training along with the active players at the relevant positions, and you can spend their accumulated XP to improve their ratings, but they cannot be the target of focus training. I like this inclusion, as it allows for more long-term development and makes those late-round draft picks feel more meaningful. These players don't get automatically cut by the end of preseason and then disappear into a pool of free agents where they never have a chance to develop their potential. However, I feel like this feature needs to have some limitations placed on the ability of teams to poach each others' practice players. Being able to simply compare raw ratings is just too easy and trivial a process. Perhaps there needs to be some sort of long-term talent-evaluation system in which practice squad players' exact ratings are kept hidden from other teams.
Practice squad players cannot be focus trained, but they gain XP from drills along with starters.
The practice squad is somewhat undercut by the poor preseason substitution logic. Just like previous years, after the starters are subbed out at the start of the second quarter, the CPU teams don't sub deeper into their rosters to play lower-rated rookies or reserves. Not only does this mean that CPU reserves don't gain much (if any) experience (assuming that XP for CPU players is earned the same way that it is for human players), but it also puts my reserves at a disadvantage. As I sub deeper into my depth chart, my third and fourth-string reserves are stuck playing against the CPU's second-string and even some starters! Since they aren't competing against players at their level, they often get beat and have fewer opportunities to make the plays necessary to complete goals and gain experience.
I'm also a little bit miffed by a few other design decisions in Franchise. For one, drive goals don't seem to be present for most drives. I get a goal usually for the first two offensive and defensive possessions, but then after that, they disappear until some situational goal comes up (such as getting a safety if the opponent is backed up against their own end zone). Then I get two more drive goals at the start of the second half, and then they mostly disappear again. I play fifteen minute quarters (with accelerated clock down to 17 seconds), so this means I see a lot of drives without goals. Is this a bug? Or is it a deliberate change to balance out experience gain?
I was also annoyed that I apparently can't set season goals when playing as an owner. This disappointed me because I wanted to play as the Raiders' owner so that I could relocate the team to Las Vegas, but doing so means that I lose out on functionality. I thought that playing as an owner was supposed to include all the functionality of playing as the coach, plus the added responsibility of managing the finances, stadium, and relocation. I guess not.
I can recreate my diamond-in-the-rough
draft picks from Madden 16.
As a fun little gift to players, EA also gave us the ability to completely edit any aspect of a Franchise player during Franchise mode. And I mean everything is editable. Their names, colleges, equipment, ratings, and even traits (including their development traits) can all be edited while your Franchise is in progress. This means that you can manually adjust Franchise players' ratings or characteristics based on real-world developments, if you so chose. The one exception (unfortunate) is that you can't edit a player's injury status. So all you Vikings or Cowboy fans who started your Franchise before the end of preseason don't have the opportunity to put Teddy Bridgewater or Tony Romo on the Injured Reserve.
It also means that you could, hypothetically put graduating college football players into the NFL for next year's season, though that would take a lot of work by the users. You'd have to manually go into every single team's roster and update every incoming rookie's information. It's too bad that the league GM doesn't have the authority to edit the draft scouting class. At the very least, I can use the player-editing feature to ensure that I could re-draft the diamond-in-the-rough players that I had in Madden 16, since I never got to actually play with them before I stopped playing that game. Yeah, sure you can use this feature to totally cheat, but overall, I think it's good that EA is willing to give the user so much leeway in how they get to experience the game. Besides, a GM can always disable this feature for online Franchises if you don't trust your users not to exploit it.
Do I like Ultimate Team yet?
Unfortunately, it looks like EA is still committed to its silly Ultimate Team trading card feature. The game's main menu puts Ultimate Team right at the front of the list of game modes. I still don't see the point of this feature, especially since your team (despite being saved on EA servers) doesn't transfer from year to year. Each year, you have to give up your accumulated cards and points and start over from scratch. I understand that this is probably to keep competition more fair and to prevent multi-year Ultimate Team veterans from accumulating the best cards possible over the course of multiple years. Maybe this mode could take inspiration from fantasy football and add some kind of "keeper" mechanic, in which returning players can select some subset of cards to transfer into the new team. This would allow returning players to feel like their work last year wasn't for naught, while still preventing them from starting the new year with a team of all-99's.
Ultimate Team might be more enjoyable if not for the frequent disconnects.
Even so, my poor 71-overall starter team keeps getting matched up against teams with multiple 90 and 80's overall players. So either EA didn't bother with any sort of skill or ladder-based matchmaking, or there just aren't enough people playing to allow for a low enough bar of entry for newcomers. It certainly didn't help that I repeatedly got disconnected. I'm paying $150 a month for a fiber optic internet connection, yet I still can't reliably play an online multiplayer game. And of course, being disconnected counts as a loss, and it also burns the contracts for your active player cards. So much for that limited use, 90-overall Von Miller card...
So I'm basically stuck playing the single-player MUT content, which means I'm stuck playing the new solo challenges. Most of these solo challenges aren't even a full "games" - not even by Ultimate Team's already-questionable definition of "game". Many challenges require you to play a few plays in order to pass or fail the challenge, then go back out to menu to pick a new challenge. The whole mode feels like it's really just a load screen viewer, because staring at load screens was what occupied most of my time in this mode, especially during the early grind to unlock the higher-level situations.
Other challenges require you to complete some specific objective (such as "throw 2 TD passes in the first half"). These wouldn't be so bad if not for the fact that the challenge's goal is the whole challenge. The game even makes a point of reminding you that it doesn't even matter whether you win the game or not; only if you complete some arbitrarily-contrived challenge goal. In fact, once you meet the goal, the game just ends and you get your reward. Most of the challenges that I saw revolved around completing two-minute drills or scoring passing touchdowns. And with the super short time period of these games, these challenges just reinforce the misguided idea of Madden gamers that the hurry-up offense and deep passes is the only viable strategy for the game, and that punting is never, ever an option. I actually had one player quit an MUT head-to-head game after he failed to convert a 4th and 20-something in the opening drive.
Ultimate Team's solo challenges feel contrived and encourage rapid, exploitative play.
What this mode probably should have done is let you play out a complete game, and if you win, you get a reward that is scaled based on difficulty. The challenge goals should be added bonuses on top of that (just like the weekly goals in Franchise mode) that grant additional rewards if you complete them. They shouldn't be the end-all-be-all of the mode. That way, you're actually playing football instead of watching loading screens, playing crapshoots, and restarting because you failed to convert a fourth down on the opening possession of a game.
MUT was further undercut by the fact that online play in general doesn't feel very good - even moreso than in past years' games. The new kick meter is particularly difficult to deal with. With any amount of lag (which is near universal in the games I've played), the meter is unresponsive and kicking is completely broken. The meter drops inputs, and lag means that it's near impossible to hit that narrow window for accuracy. I'm apparently not the only one having problems because every person that I've played an online MUT game with either goes for it on every 4th down and PAT (as if that weren't a bad enough problem already), or they horribly miss every kick (even PATs). I've lost several games (among the ones that I could actually finish without being disconnected) because I can't make a PAT or short field goal to save my life.
Any amount of lag renders the
kick meter unuseable in online play.
So in summary, no I still don't care for Ultimate Team. I understand that if you're going to play quick online matches, then it's nice to have some feeling of persistence and progression, and MUT allows for that. But if the point is for you to feel like this is your own team, built from the ground up, then the least they could do is let you create your own team, uniform, and stadium (using an online interface similar to NCAA's Team Builder). Even then, I'd still prefer to just have an expansion draft feature in Franchise. But I don't think that is the point - at least not from EA's perspective. I think the point is for EA to have an in for micro-transactions, and a collecting game is perfectly suited to that. At the very least, the presence of Ultimate Team means that Franchise isn't compromised by an exploitative pay-to-win model. And that is maybe MUT's only saving grace.
That being said, I'd still rather have the development time and resources go towards improving Franchise mode and A.I. development. Perhaps Madden's sales figures have been slumping over the years, and EA thinks it needs micro-transactions to keep the game financially viable. I doubt it's necessary though, as the game still sells millions of copies annually. Maybe the very demographic that's not buying the game anymore is the same demographic that is put off by features like Ultimate Team, and if that's the case, then the increasing focus on Ultimate Team is only going to drive more people away as Madden drifts more and more towards being a pay-to-win game.
Madden begins to tentatively step out from 2k5's shadow
So MUT is still (as far as I'm considered) a joke and bastardization of the sport of football, even moreso than generic online games with their pitiful thirty-minute playtime. However, franchise is starting to shape up to be a very engaging experience with more thought and attention going into how to occupy the user's time in between virtual Sundays.
There's also a handful of presentation upgrades. As I mentioned at the top of the review, the new commentary team of Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin sounds good and has more natural, conversational dialogue. They do a decent job of referencing earlier plays in order to give added context to the events on-field. They even refer to events in real-life football, and this commentary is continually being updated by EA. There's still a lot of repeated commentary, and the commentators can be disturbingly quiet during some exciting big plays. I've heard their banter about how kicking a chip shot field goal helps a kicker during contract time more times than I can count.
Madden 16 [LEFT] put faces on these players. 17 [RIGHT] just reminds me that they're nothing but A.I. scripts.
Halftime and replays have also seen some improvement. Replays now slow down or freeze frame on moments of action, and they'll often use these freeze frames to pop up text boxes highlighting player names. This virtually removes the problem of multiple players' names overlapping each other or obscuring the events on-field (which was a particular problem last year in sack replays). I've also seen better variety in halftime highlight selections. The recap will now showcase plays other than just big offensive plays, scores, and the occasional turnover, and defensive struggles will now see more than just 2 or 3 highlighted plays. I've seen highlights of drive-killing sacks and other key defensive plays.
One element of presentation that I'm not sold on is the new "meet the player" vignettes. I much preferred the older versions that showed the photographs of the players. It put human faces on the pixelized avatars of these players and made them feel more real. Now I'm just reminded at the start of every game that I'm playing with a bunch of A.I. scripts. QBs still get live-action video for their introductions, but everyone else just gets a player model (whose face you can't even see) doing a silly pose. This might be related to Tiburon's decision to stop using the stock photos for drafted players' mug shots, and use 3-d renders as the mug shots instead. There might have been some legal reason for this, but I much preferred the stock photos that were used in Madden 16.
These presentational upgrades balance out a fairly well-rounded Madden release. There wasn't anything particularly earth-shattering that was added, but this year's release irons out some of the issues that held back the previous two years' games. It's still only an incremental improvement over last year's game, but it does feel more like a fully-realized retail release than the previous two years' games felt. And you know what, it is really nice to see EA actually iterating on and improving upon the features and mechanics that they added to the game a couple years earlier. Often, old features feel like they just collect dust until they become obsolete, but that doesn't seem to be happening here. And I feel that is worth celebrating.