Wednesday, December 27, 2023 06:30 PM

Madden 24 can't even get nostalgia right

in Video Gaming by MegaBearsFan

Madden NFL 24 - title

Yesterday, I posted a new video to YouTube which critiques the Training Camp mini-games in Madden 24, and their pitiful attempt at playing off of players' nostalgia for the almost-20-year-old Madden games on PS2. I'm not going to reproduce a transcript of the entire video here, since most of the points in the video were already made in my full review of Madden 24 on this blog.

A critique of Madden 23's Training Camp mini-games is available on YouTube.

In summary, the video compares the execution of the mini-games in Madden 24 to the overall execution of the mini-games in Madden 2006, and how these new drills fail to replicate many of the design decisions that made those old drills good. Most notably, the new drills lack any of the classic risk / reward mechanics of the old drills, and the new drills seem designed for the user to just grind them for the maximum reward possible. The critique also compared each new mini-game with the analogous drill from Madden 2006, and how each individual new drill is poorly designed in comparison to the classic drills.

I also rant a bit about the lack of any mini-game for offensive linemen. To be fair to Madden 24, the old Madden games didn't have offensive lineman mini-games either. But then again, those older games also didn't have any mechanics or controls for playing as an offensive lineman. Madden 24 does. So there is no excuse for Madden 24 to not have offensive lineman mini-games.

I do wonder how this Training Camp feature is being received by the Madden community. If the rest of the community dislikes them as much as I do, then I wouldn't be surprised to see EA completely drop this feature from next year's game. Honestly, I don't even think I would miss it.

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Madden NFL 24 - title

Last year, I gave Madden 23 a scolding initial review due to an excess of bugs and A.I. problems, including the broken Interception A.I. slider that resulted in every QB getting picked off 5 times a game. However, after a couple months, many of the most egregious issues with the game had been fixed by EA, and I came to realize that I was still playing the game long after I have usually given up on it in previous years. And dare I say, I might even have been kinda sorta liking it.

In particular, I praised the game for actually taking critical feedback of previous years' games to heart and iterating and improving on old ideas that hadn't quite worked out. Targeted passing, tackle battle, throw-out-of-sack animations, and in-season college scouting were all mechanics that were introduced in recent years, but which weren't well-received in their debut games. Instead of completely abandoning those features, EA actually seems to have looked at the criticisms, re-examined those mechanics at fundamental levels, and improved them such that they all are both better-playing game mechanics, and also more closely model the sport of football. Further, the new motivations and tags feature managed to add a tiny degree of humanity to the player rosters, making the players feel slightly more like actual people with their own wants and desires, and less like simple commodities to be bought, sold, and traded by the old, rich, white men who run the NFL.

It seemed like EA and Tiburon were finally putting a degree of thought and effort into the game.

I eventually started to come around to kinda sorta liking Madden 23.

So if Madden 23 ended up being moderately successful at iterating on older ideas and actually making them work better, without really introducing a whole lot that was genuinely new, then I was open to the idea of Madden 24 potentially doing the same thing. If there's not very much new, but the stuff that is old just works better, then I might actually be willing to give Madden 24 a fairly positive review. And this seems to be the approach that EA and Tiburon took with Madden 24 ... except that it doesn't work better.

A patch for last year's game?

Almost everything new to Madden 24's gameplay takes the form of subtle, barely-noticeable upgrades to the "Fieldsense" and tackle physics mechanics introduced in last year's game. In Franchise, there are a few tweaks to free agency and trade mechanics, and coaching skill trees have been expanded. That's pretty much it!

This is little more than a $70 patch for Madden 23.

And ... OK ... that could be fine. I've long asked for EA and Tiburon to take a few years to rebuild Madden's fundamentals, instead of shoe-horning in new features that further complicate the mechanics and code base. If that results in a much better football game at fundamental levels, then it would be worth it. But this isn't better fundamental football. It's incremental, barely-noticeable upgrades over last year's game.

Supposedly, blockers are supposed to be smarter at picking who to block. Defenders are supposed to be able break on short routes, and supposedly can't make blind interceptions anymore. There's supposed to be new fumble recovery animations. The biggest supposed change is that defenses are supposed to be able to adjust better to the user's play-calling. But I just don't see much -- if any -- difference in any of these areas.

It's the same wonky physics that can be completely canceled if the game choses an incompatible animation, or which allows the ball to magnetically attach to players' hands.

It's the same play-calling logic that is overly-reliant on passing the ball 20+ yards down the field.

It's the same blocking and defensive logic that can be easily exploited with money plays or hot routes, and which never learns or adjusts to what the user is doing.

CPU QBs still run around and take massive sacks.

It's the same cheating, rubber-band A.I. that inflates scores and stats, and which isn't properly balanced for full-length, 15-minute quarters.

It's the same idiotic team-building logic that causes CPU-controlled teams to release their MVP franchise QB and then use up even more cap space to sign 5 over-paid, mediocre replacements.

It's full of the same stupid shit like quarterbacks dropping deeper into the pocket and taking 15 yard sacks against blitzes, defenses being completely incapable of defending inside-breaking routes, linemen being unable to block outside running plays, and all the same stuff that has been frustrating gamers for years.

And every one of those things listed above is something that was supposed to have been improved in this year's game. But I don't notice much -- if any -- difference.

In fact, about the only things that I notice that seem different about the on-field action is that there are now referees on the field again. And hey! One of the refs in each game is even a woman! So there's finally some tiny amount of gender representation in Madden. And the other change that I've noticed is that players like to push and shove each other around a lot more after plays, but the new refs never bother throwing flags for personal fouls.

Referees are back on the field, and there's even a few variations of women referees.

Oh, and I guess running quarterbacks are better at holding onto the football. So I'm a lot more secure in running designed QB runs, options, and bootleg scrambles with the likes of Lamar Jackson or Justin Fields. So that's something, I guess...

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Madden NFL 23 - title

I have a confession to make ... a confession that I don't make lightly...

I'm actually kind of enjoying Madden 23.

No, I'm not ready to say that Madden 23 is better than NFL 2k5 or All Pro Football 2k8, or Madden 2006. Nor am I going to say that it currently represents a "good" football simulation. I wrote a scathing review back in September, and I stand by that review. Especially as a time capsule of the messy state of the game at release. Don't worry, I'm not about to become a Madden apologist or fanboy, and my criticisms of the series (such as my video series "How Madden Fails At Simulating Football") will continue into the foreseeable future.

Madden 23's biggest issue at launch was the broken "Interception" A.I. sliders that caused both CPU and user DBs to make frequent impossible interceptions. This one bug completely defeated the entire purpose of the new passing mechanics. It doesn't matter where I place the ball, or how hard I charge the accuracy meter, if a DB can, in a single frame of animation, overcome 5 yards of separation to make a blind swat or interception. It took until October before that was fixed, and the game was made reasonably playable -- which is, frankly, inexcusable.

And beyond the broken Interception sliders, there's still a litany of complaints which have not been fixed, and which I do not expect to see get fixed anytime soon.

But I'm not here to complain about all of these problems -- many of which have been in the game for years now. And I don't blame you if any one of these, or the combination of them, makes Madden 23 dead on arrival for you. I'm not going to try to convince you to give Madden 23 another shot, and I still recommend that if you do buy the game, that you please buy it pre-owned so as to continue to put financial pressure on EA to show consistent improvement. Believe me, there are plenty of people eager to get rid of the game on eBay.

Instead, I want to express my surprise that I'm still playing the game. I want to share some of my observations about the gameplay. And I want to highlight some of the subtle indications that EA and Tiburon might actually be learning from past failures and criticisms of the game -- including criticisms that I, myself have levied against them.

I've posted this as a video on YouTube already, and I'm not going to transcribe the entire video here. I will instead just summarize my thoughts on the game (as of the time of this writing), and will encourage you to watch the full video for a more detailed explanation of how I feel about the present state of Madden NFL 23.

The full video is available on YouTube.
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Chicago Bears alt logo

With every new coaching staff or general manager for the Chicago Bears, I think they can't possibly be more disappointing and embarrassing than the last. But somehow, this organization always finds a way. Ever since firing Lovie Smith (and aside from one stand-out season in 2018), the Bears have been a slow-motion train wreck and can't seem to do anything right.

Drafting Justin Fields with the 11th overall pick in 2021 seemed like a slam dunk. But the Bears have squandered the pick with coaching staffs who seem completely unwilling to play to Justin Fields' strengths, and the offense has floundered.

I get that it's Fields' second year, and the Bears just hired a new coach and are in a rebuilding year. I've tried to temper my expectations and be patient. But it's hard to remain patient when there is a complete lack of any signs of development or forward progress. This is one of the worst offenses in the league, and it seems to be getting worse.

Justin Fields frustrated
Photo credit: Micheal Reaves, Getty Images
I'd be frustrated too if I were Justin Fields and have to put up Eberflus' and Getsy's awful play-calling.

It would be easy to blame Fields, and say that he's just a bad player and a bust. And yes, he does have some mechanical and accuracy issues to clean up, and he also needs to make decisions faster. It's just his second year; those things will hopefully come in time. But I don't think it's that simple. Matt Eberflus and Luke Getsy are refusing to take advantage of Justin Fields' physical talents. He runs a 4.44-second 40-yard dash. He is one of the fastest players on the team, and one of the fastest players on the field. Yet the Bears are not calling any designed QB runs, or read options, or even much in the way of rollout passes or designed bootlegs to get him out of the pocket where he excels as a dual-threat passer. They did a little bit of rolling out here and there in the loss to the Commanders, and were generally successful. So why aren't they doing more of it, especially in critical situations?

In the loss to the Commanders, Fields ran 12 times for 88 yards, and almost scored 2 TDs on the ground. Yet I don't think a single one of those runs was a designed QB run or read option. When he gets outside the pocket, it's also rarely because the play was a designed rollout. Usually, it's because he's flushed out by the pass rush and lack of an open receiver. Yet these plays are often his most successful, as both a passer and a runner. Some of his best highlights of the year have started with him getting outside the pocket.

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Madden NFL 23 - title

When John Madden was originally approached by EA about consulting with them on a new 7-on-7 football video game, he insisted that the game be "simulation football". He wanted authentic, 11-on-11 gameplay that could potentially be used as a tool for teaching the sport of football. It was the only way that he was willing to put his name on the product, and EA held fairly true to the philosophy of "simulation football" through the 90's and into the 2000's.

I think John Madden's last major contributions to the video game were around 2008, when he provided commentary and narration for the "Madden IQ" Skill Trainer. It wasn't long after this that EA's dedication to "simulation football" began to wane. A few years later, Ultimate Team was added to the game, Franchise Mode was gutted and replaced with a stripped down "My Careers" mode, and Madden himself stopped providing commentary for the game. Franchise Mode and core gameplay have been largely neglected in the years since, in favor of introducing terrible story modes, expanding the arcadey Ultimate Team mode, and adding even more arcadey game modes like SuperStar KO and 5-on-5 The Yard. The Madden video game series has fallen far from the goals and priorities of its namesake -- a fall that is made even more tragic and frustrating by an exclusivity deal with the NFL that bars any other company from producing an NFL-licensed "simulation" football game.

Madden 23 starts off with a tribute to the life of John Madden, who passed away this past December.

It's fitting that, with John Madden himself having passed away this past year, EA Sports and Tiburon seems to be trying to honor him by taking the video game back to basics and finally, after years of neglect, trying to address long-standing issues with the on-field gameplay, physics, and A.I.. Is it enough to satisfy the "simulation" expectations of John Madden, himself? Spoiler alert: NO.

Back to Simulation Football?

Madden 23 starts off well enough. The very first thing that the game asks the user to do is play through a tutorial of the new charge-up passing mechanics (largely ripped-off from Legend Bowl). Madden doesn't simply throw the user into a live game situation and expect new players to just know how to play -- though, expecting users to already know how to play the game from last year was always a sad testament to how little had changed in Madden from year to year.

After finishing the tutorial and deciding how difficult I want the passing mechanic to be, Madden 23 threw me directly into a demo "Legend Game". It's a Pro Bowl of All-Madden players from throughout NFL history, with 2 versions of John Madden coaching each respective team. The entire game is largely an excuse to let the commentary team of Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin give a history lesson about John Madden's career and celebrate his accomplishments. My partner commented that I'd been playing for 15 minutes and she was already sick of listening to the game flagellate John Madden. Personally, I was more annoyed that the game defaulted to Pro difficulty, so scoring was relatively easy for me, and the CPU Tom Brady threw 3 interceptions. Each score and turnover interrupted the commentary about Madden's career, preventing me from hearing the unique dialogue, which the commentary team would not return to if an interruption occurred.

Madden 23 tutorializes its new mechanics before throwing users into a game situation.

Whatever. The game itself is mildly entertaining. It uses clips and graphics from older Madden games as part of its presentation, some NFL Films music, and it includes old commentary clips of Madden himself introducing some of his favorite players, from Brett Favre to Tom Brady to Tony Gonzalez. It's as good and fitting a tribute to the ol' coach and commentator as I would have expected to see in a video game, short of playing through some kind of story mode and re-living moments from his actual career.

But that's just the tutorial and demo game. Is the rest of the actual game as fitting a tribute to the man who demanded "simulation football" from video games bearing his likeness?

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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