Thursday, September 5, 2019 12:01 AM

What's old is new again in Madden 20

in Video Gaming | Game Reviews by MegaBearsFan
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Madden NFL 20 - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Elite players feel unique!
  • Effective ball-carrier special moves
  • Certain player traits are hidden until they get enough game reps
  • Manually assign double-team pass blocks
  • Viewing play art with a button that isn't the "jump snap" button
  • Double-tap receiver to pump fake
  • More intense pass rush
  • No super-jumping linebackers
  • Tackle battle is gone

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • No new features that weren't in the game 10 or 15 years ago
  • X-Factors override physics and A.I.
  • No longsnapping abilities
  • Slow game speed is gone
  • Referee models gone
  • Huddle-break animations gone
  • 2-minute drill is even worse
  • Can't independently shift defensive line and linebacker units
  • QBs tuck ball too easily
  • Defensive coverage is atrocious
  • Abysmal lose ball physics and A.I.
  • Kick meter lags in single player
  • Numerous other U.I. bugs
  • Can't re-do reps in Skill Trainer
  • Ultimate Team is even grindier
  • Soundtrack

Overall Impression : F
The most unbalanced, broken, and derivative
Madden In recent memory

Madden NFL 20 - cover

Developer:
EA Sports Tiburon

Publisher:
EA Sports / Electronic Arts

Platforms:
PC (via EA Origin),
PlayStation 4 < (via retail disc or PSN digital download),
XBox One (via retail disc or XBox Live digital download).
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $60 USD + micro-transactions

Original release date:
2 August 2019

Genre:
sports

ESRB Rating: E (for Everybody) for:
in-game purchases, player interaction

Player(s):
single player, local multiplayer,
up to 32-team online career

Official site:
www.ea.com/games/madden-nfl/madden-nfl-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so on...

The Pro Bowl was playable in previous generations.

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

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

X-Factors both help with, and exacerbate, underlying problems

The Superstar X-Factors is a mixed bag. On the upside, it helps to further differentiate and specialize elite players. In some cases, it even allows elite players to perform feats that their peers simply cannot do. If you played Madden 08 with its "Weapons" mechanics, or the badge feature of All Pro Football 2k7 (or any basketball game developed by 2K in the past few years), then you should have a pretty good idea of how this works in principle. This helps to add some welcome extra flavor to team-building in both Ultimate Team and in Franchise Mode.

These X-Factors can also have some strategic value. If playing with certain players, with certain abilities, you may actually be well-served to change up your strategy or play-calling in order to more effectively utilize the X-Factors of one or more players.

Protect your quarterback!

For example, the Superstar pass rushers are now very effective, so you'll probably have to adjust your blocking to deal with them. Maybe you slide your protection, or you hot route a running back to stay in and block.

Neutralize elite pass rushers by manually assigning a double team.

A patch update released a couple weeks after launch also added a new manual double-team pass block adjustment. This adjustment replaces the old "pinch" slide protection (which was borderline useless anyway, so good riddance) with an ability for the offensive user to select a specific pass rusher to double-team -- probably the guy with the big star under his feet. If you don't have a Superstar blocker of your own to shut down that Superstar pass rusher, then this manual double-team might be necessary to keep your QB standing upright. Of course, it might also leave you vulnerable to blitzes or stunts, so there's always a risk/reward component. Great addition!

Sadly, the pass rush seems to be about the only way to slow down an opponent's passing attack. Coverage is atrocious across the board. Zone is especially bad. Players in zone just sit in the dead center of their assigned zone and don't seem to react to anybody coming into or through the zone. This is something that was supposed to have been fixed years ago, but which either never worked to begin with, was broken by later iterations, or was deliberately removed. I also still see a problem that I first noticed last year, which is that defenders in deep zones will undercut a receiver's route (as if to go for an interception) and then simply not attempt to go for the ball, leaving the receiver free to catch the ball and unimpeded toward the end zone.

Middle third safety in cover 3 often leaves post routes uncovered down the middle.

Certain specific coverages are also horrendously bugged. Safeties will undercut deep jump balls and just stand 5 yards in front of the receiver, watching the ball sail right over their heads for an uncontested reception, while making no effort to swat or intercept it. The middle third safety in cover 3 seems to be completely bugged against certain route combinations. He has a tendency to chase after wideouts streaking down the field and leaves post routes open all day. Corners in cover 2 seemingly can't decide whether to cover the flat or the cloud, and leave both wide open.

Man coverage isn't any better, and is still easily exploited by running drag routes or corner routes with your tight ends. I can try to manually control a safety or a linebacker, but a.) I'm not very good in coverage to begin with, and b.) even if I were good in coverage, I can only control one guy out of eleven!

If I'm user-controlling the middle linebacker to try taking away the tight end running the in route or drag across my zone, then I can't also user control the safety in the deep middle third to make sure he doesn't bail on his post responsibility to go cover a streaking wideout who's already in double coverage, nor can I user-control a cornerback in the hard flat to make sure he doesn't leave a 10-yard cushion for a hitch route, nor can I user-control that same cornerback in a soft squat to make sure he actually goes after the corner route. I can do one or another; I can't do all of them. The A.I. has to be able to handle these responsibilities, or else defense is completely broken.

Good CPU QBs routinely complete over 80% of their passes due to poor coverage.

The bad coverage is compounded by the aggravating accuracy of high-rated quarterbacks. Completion percentages of 80 or 85% are not uncommon in Madden 20. This was the same problem that caused me to stop playing Madden 17 (an otherwise good Madden release overall) after a late-year patch introduced "robo-QBs". To put this into perspective, even the best QBs in the history of the NFL barely average 70%!

Backup quarterbacks are as inaccurate as the good QBs are accurate. And I'm not talking about the ball sailing slightly out of reach of a receiver's fingertips. When QBs are inaccurate in this game, they miss by a good 10 or 15 yards. The inaccuracy of low-tier QBs makes preseason games almost unplayable -- which sucks, because preseason is actually one of my favorite parts of playing Franchise.

Lower-tier quarterbacks are wildly inaccurate -- even without pressure!

Both the CPU and user quarterbacks also tuck the ball far too often, leading to far too many sacks. A QB can be finishing his throwing motion as he gets hit, and instead of the ball squirting out of his hand for a fumble or lame duck incompletion, he just tucks it and takes the sack almost every time. The wonderfully-realistic strip-sack and lame duck mechanics that were present in pre-patch Madden 17, and which really helped to force QBs to call shorter routes and go through their progressions quickly, have been tuned down to the point of irrelevance.

X-Factors manipulate player behaviors

It isn't just legacy problems and poor logic that stops the X-Factors from being a game-changing improvement. They have their own baked-in downsides. Since Madden is so heavily based in canned, motion-captured animations, many of these X-Factors can actually disable or override the game's physics and A.I.. Animations or player behaviors will be egregiously manipulated by the game in order to make some of these X-Factors work.

QB freezes in place to allow the reach tackle.

For instance, Khalil Mack has an X-Factor that improves his ability to make reach tackles through a block. I've seen this ability cause a scrambling quarterback to freeze in place while trying to squeeze between a gap in the pocket, so that Mack can shift out of his block and make the tackle.

On the other side of the ball, Aaron Rodgers has an ability that makes him immune from being intercepted by an A.I.-controlled defender. Even if Rodgers throws directly to a defender, that defender will simply refuse to make the interception, no matter how perfectly-positioned he is to make the pick, no matter how good his catch and awareness ratings are, and regardless of whether you've used the "Coaching Adjustments" menu to assign your defenders to go for picks. This sort of ability is maybe acceptable in an arcade environment (such as in Ultimate Team), in which "stick skills" are supposed to be paramount, and game-deciding plays are supposed to be executed by the user(s). That's fine. I have no problem if that's how competitive players want to play the game. This sort of ability, however, has absolutely no place in single player Franchise mode or in the "Simulation" game mode!

What?! Aaron Rodgers cannot be intercepted?!

Receiver X-Factors may also lock defenders out from being able to swat at or intercept the ball, and can motion-shift the receiver into position to make the catch, or motion-shift the defender out of position to break up the pass; while DB X-Factors may give a cover man an unrealistic speed boost towards breaking up a pass. Blocking X-Factors (which weren't even in the game at release, and had to be added by a patch several weeks later) can cause lots of suction blocks and motion-shifting at the line of scrimmage (even more so than what is already common in Madden). Running back X-Factors can cause defenders to motion-shift out of tackles or simply ignore trying to go for a tackle. And so on.

There's plenty of more passive X-Factors that have less egregiously-negative effects on gameplay. Some quarterbacks have an X-Factor that can actually highlight an open receiver for the benefit of the user. Some pass rushers have an X-Factor that increases the range from which pressure causes QBs to throw inaccurate passes. These sorts of things are mostly fine.

Passive abilities (such as highlighting an open receiver) have less deleterious effects on gameplay.

Isn't patience supposed to be a virtue?

I absolutely despise the removal of the huddle-break animation, with no way to re-enable it. This is just another one of those features that tries to rush through the game for people who are (for some reason) too impatient to sit through a football game, and it only serves to dumb the game down. It also means that the accelerated clock should probably default to 12 or 15 seconds instead of 20. Cutting straight to the players being at the line of scrimmage skips showing the pre-play play art, and it removes a lot of the opportunity for users to scan the field and start making pre-play reads and adjustments as players are walking to the line. You pick your play on defense, and the offense is suddenly already at the line of scrimmage, ready to snap the ball.

Madden 20 cuts directly to the line of scrimmage after picking a play.

I'm one of those people who actually misses having to wait for the animations of referees spotting the ball after the play (especially in no-huddle situations). It was a realistic detail that also helped to manage the pace of the game. Heck, this year's Madden actually cut out the referees entirely.

Madden [2000, PS1] used to control the pace of
no-huddle by animating the referees re-spotting the ball.

Heck, Madden 20 doesn't even bother to animate the teams running back to the line of scrimmage for no-huddle plays. Instead, they just cut to everybody being at the line of scrimmage and impose an automatic clock run-off (usually between 5 and 11 seconds). You don't know how long this runoff will be until after you've executed it, and since it's a hard cut, you can't call a timeout if you realize that getting everyone back to scrimmage is taking longer than you expected it to.

If you call a no huddle with 9 seconds left, you can't watch the clock and call a timeout with 1 or 2 seconds left. The game will run off 10 or 11 seconds, and the game will just be over.

I've complained in the past about the poor implementation of the game clock during two-minute drill, but this is the absolute wrong way to address it. Of course, it's completely moot because the accelerated clock is still disabled during the two-minute drill. You can avoid the no-huddle run-off entirely by simply going through the play-selection screen, picking the first pass play presented to you, then using audibles or hot routes to get the play you want without running any extra time off the clock. The two-minute drill is now even more unrealistically efficient and effective thanks to this new "streamlined" presentation. It's so broken. Who at Tiburon or EA thought this was a good idea?!

There's now a 5 to 11-second clock run-off for using the no-huddle.

Subtle Franchise changes overshadowed by bad gameplay

Franchise also received very little attention. The storyline generator from the Face of the Franchise feature is used in Franchise to create little mini-quests for you to complete every now and then. An ethereal assistant coach (that your team is assumed to have because the game still doesn't include coordinators or assistant coaches in the coaching staff) might come to you to say that one of your young players is having a good week of practice, and ask you what skills to focus on. Do you want your sophomore guard to focus on run blocking or pass blocking? If you chose run blocking, then should he focus on finesse blocking or power blocking? Your choice provides a small boost to the relevant player attribute, and if you complete a specific goal during the upcoming game, the player will receive another boost to another attribute.

Mini-quests will allow you to more quickly develop young players.

In another case, one of these mystery coordinators might ask me about an upcoming opponent's elite player, and how I want to address him. If going up against an elite passer like Aaron Rodgers, I might be prompted whether I want to try to slow him down or completely neutralize him. If going up against an elite defensive back, I might be prompted whether I want to attack him or avoid him. The option I chose will give me an in-game team goal (such as hold the quarterback to less than 250 yards passing, or accumulate 300 yards passing against the elite cover man), and my team will receive rewards if I complete the goal.

It's a nice idea, but its execution is clumsy. When choosing to boost a player's ratings, the prompts don't give you an opportunity to review the player's ratings before making a decision, nor does it tell you which of the available skills (if any) sync up with your scheme. None of the prompts tell you what they're going to do either. What's the difference between "slowing down" an elite quarterback, or "neutralize him"? You have to figure it out through trial-and-error (or save-scumming).

There are no consequences for failing a mini-quest.

Also, since there's no punishment for failing such a quest (the relevant players don't regress if you fail), there's no reason to ever chose to ignore the quest. Even if I don't think I have a chance in hell of limiting Aaron Rodgers to 250 passing yards (considering the game's broken coverage logic), I might as well just go for it and hope I get lucky. The game isn't going to lower the ratings of all my defensive backs if I fail, or take legacy score or experience away from my coach, or damage my team's morale, or anything like that. There's no consequence to failure.

In fact, I actually got rewarded (with a small amount of XP for all my linebackers) for failing to hold Rodgers to under 250 passing yards. Perhaps this was tied to the fact that I sacked Rodgers 5 times? Does this mean that there were actually multiple tiers of reward for that quest? If so, why doesn't the game tell me what all the different rewards are? Why wasn't "Let's pressure Rodgers" an option in the prompt?

One of the more interesting additions to Franchise Mode is that the "Development" trait of some rookies is hidden until that player plays a certain number of snaps in games (including pre-season games). This is actually similar to a feature that I have proposed in the past. I have suggested that young players' ratings should be hidden by default, and should be gradually revealed as the player plays in games. This would make pre-season and weekly practices more relevant (and give us something to do in training camp), as they would allow you to evaluate your young players to find out just how good they are. You wouldn't be able to simply look at the player's overall rating and immediately know exactly whether to cut him, stash him on the practice squad, or put him on your depth chart.

Some rookies have to play in games before you know their Development trait.

Having a player with a hidden Development trait does give you good reason to give that guy extra play-time in pre-season. It's a small change, but it's a very good one. Sadly, Madden 20 doesn't go nearly far enough. The hidden Development trait is only present on a few players on each team's roster. Some rookies have it, and some don't. You know exactly what you have with 90% of your players.

The game also doesn't bother to indicate a hidden Development Trait on the depth chart. So once you get into games, you have to hope you can remember which players have it, so that you know to give them some playing time.

An unbalanced, un-polished, grindy mess of a sports game

Then there's minor issues like the numerous U.I. bugs that I've seen in my short time with the game. The two most egregious have been the play-select menu failing to load any plays during no-huddle, and an instance in which I lost a game on a last-second, gimmie field goal because the kick meter never appeared. My kicker wasn't iced (as far as I know), the kick meter just never showed up. I pressed X to snap the ball, and the lack of a meter made me think there was a penalty or a timeout called. Then my kicker kicked a dud straight into the pylon, and I lost the game. Even when the kicking meter does decide to render, it's often laggy -- even in single-player games. I've missed several field goals and extra points because of the lag of the kicking meter.

The kick meter being invisible has cost me several field goals.

And that's to say nothing of the numerous gameplay bugs, which seem to keep multiplying each year. Lose-ball physics and A.I. are atrocious (as has been the case for years). Onside kicks still magnetically gravitate towards a receiver's hand, leaving the kicking team with no opportunity to recover. A player who fumbles the ball on a scrimmage play makes no effort to try to retrieve it, players often kick a fumbled ball around as if they're playing soccer, or players just fall on each other into a massive pile without anybody actually trying to grab the ball. Similar A.I. issues happen on deflected passes. The ball will often repeatedly bounce off of players' helmets or shoulders, and the player will make no effort to try to reach up and catch the ball. These issues are no longer rare, fluke occurances. They crop up once or twice in almost every game.

Oh, and there's the new "Face of the Franchise" mode. I had no interest in playing this mode, since last year's Longshot part 2 was so abysmally bad. The fact that Madden 20 core gameplay is so terrible this year doesn't make me want to invest any time in game modes that I'm not interested in, and it's really dragging down the already-lackluster Franchise experience. If I ever get around to playing Face of the Franchise, maybe I'll write a separate review of that mode by itself. This review is long enough as is.

Ultimate Team is a miserable, money-grubbing grind, and the poor developers at Tiburon know it,
and yet are forced to sink time into MUT instead of spending that time making Franchise worth playing.

I'm not even sure if I can blame all of these problems on Ultimate Team, either -- as I've done in the past. I would assume that core gameplay would be important to Ultimate Team players, and so good core gameplay would be a high priority for the development team. Such was definitely not the case this year. The coverage A.I. is so bad that playing competitively requires even more micro-management than before, or you need to grind for elite players, or give EA your credit card so you can buy the best players. The challenges somehow feel even more grindy than they have in previous years, and the whole mode is, once again, an absolutely miserable waste of time.

Actually, Madden 20 as a whole is a miserable waste of time. I'm glad I bought a used copy off of eBay instead of giving any money to EA. I can only assume that the regressions in gameplay and A.I. are a direct result of the X-Factor system. My best guess is that programming the X-Factor players to stand out with exceptional performance required programming everyone else to play worse. Or maybe EA just released the game too early, before it was properly tested and polished? They usually wait till the end of August, but this one released in the first week of August. I don't know. Your guess is as good as mine.

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And check out my colleague, David Pax's novel Without Gravity on his website!

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I actually like playing the preseason in MaddenI actually like playing the preseason in Madden10/07/2019 If you've already read my review of Madden 20 on my personal blog, then you know that I consider this year's release to be a massive disappointment. In fact, the last Madden entry that I actually liked was probably Madden 17. Despite my misgivings about this year's game, I do want to start off by talking about something in recent...

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Should Chicago welcome back Kyle Orton?Should Chicago welcome back Kyle Orton?11/22/2011 A few weeks ago, I stressed the importance of a Bears' victory over the Detroit Lions on November 13th following their week 9 defeat of the Eagles. That win was a big one, and with that win and a victory of the San Diego Chargers last week, both the Bears and Lions are tied for the top contenders for both of the NFC wild card...

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