The first few minutes of Madden NFL 15 offer a tantalizing glimpse of what I would like to believe is the future of the series.
As the game begins, we're treated to a flash-forward to the final minutes of a hypothetical 2015 NFC title game between the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the Carolina Panthers (maybe a bit of a stretch given the offseason the Panthers recently suffered, but I digress). The Panthers defense forces a fumble and Cam Newton takes the ball on the Seattle half of the field with time running out. Will Carolina finally break through into their second Super Bowl, or will the Seahawks move on to defend their title?
Ultimately, what Tiburon terms the "First Interactive Experience" isn't much more than an excuse to teach a few basic mechanics and get you into the mood to play some football, but it's treated with a verve and a cinematic flair that I haven't often seen in Madden. Like the most recent edition of NBA 2K's My Career mode, it tells a story, but without the cheesiness of overly-caffeinated agents and rivals named "Jackson Ellis." It's a great little sequence; but unfortunately, Madden NFL 15 never takes it any further, which is kind of emblematic of this version as a whole.
If you're one of those fans who continually holds out hope that this will be the year that Madden finally makes the leap and becomes a contender (perhaps you're also a St. Louis Rams fan?), I'm sorry to say that you're probably in for disappointment. By and large, Madden 15 is about tuning up what's already there, which isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself. I just don't see it as that much of a step forward for a franchise that has historically lagged behind its competition.
Which is not to say that it doesn't have its strong points. Following the lovely opening sequence (win or lose, it's up to you), Madden 15 flows neatly into its tutorial-like skill challenges, which were first introduced in Madden 25. It's an approach that's meant to be friendly and accessible to newcomers, teaching them how to understand and beat opposing defenses via the skill challenges and ultimately have fun playing virtual football. And wouldn't you know it, it actually works.
This isn't the first time that Tiburon has tried to open up venerable series to newcomers—mention Gameflow to any longtime Madden player and watch as they roll their eyes—but it's by far the most successful. Credit goes not just to the skill challenges, which are entertaining and well-designed, but the new playcalling interface. In a rather novel move by Tiburon, Madden 15 is capable of crowd-sourcing plays from the online community and collating them based on the situation. So if you're in 2nd and Long, for instance, you can see which play the community prefers and how often it's successful. The new interface includes a handful of in-game suggestions as well, but the community plays are by far the most interesting, and I often find myself going back to them when I'm looking to change up my playcalling a bit. In this instance, a little inspiration can go a long way, particularly given that learning when and where to use a play is one of the biggest hurdles for new players to overcome when trying to learn how to play Madden (I know it was for me back when I first started).
Sadly, the rest of the game, particularly the Connected Franchise Mode, doesn't quite live up to the elegant new playcalling. Like most annual sports franchises, Madden has its share of legacy issues, and one of the biggest is its atrocious interface. It's an issue that rears its ugly head once again with the new "Game Prep" mechanic, which is meant to simulate rookie development as well as the mood of the team. Put simply, if you lose too much, your team will lose confidence in your abilities, and they won't play as as well as before. You can boost their confidence a bit from a pool of points, but only if you find the right menu, which is easier said than done. This is a personal bugbear of mine, so you'll forgive me for harping on it so much, but the menus make it a real chore to get anything done when managing your team. Lest we forget, this is the same series that took two iterations to figure out it's a good idea to allow players to be able to dump all of their XP into one stat, as opposed to forcing them to painstakingly buy one point of advancement at a time (credit where it's due: Tiburon fixed it for this version).
Beyond that, I'm concerned that there are some serious balance issues with the confidence mechanic. Much like the hot and cold streaks from previous games, a team with low confidence has a tendency to go into a death spiral from which it is difficult to recover. Given only a few precious hours per week to spend on boosting the team's development, it's rarely worth pumping them into confidence when you can instead spend them on earning XP instead. It's a mechanic that seems to take an especially large toll on young teams, with a few losses making it difficult to withstand a pass rush and complete even basic passes. It's not quite a game-breaker, but it was enough to make me want to quit and start a fresh franchise. This is one of those features that seems interesting and realistic, but in reality isn't a ton of fun to use.
As usual, Madden is full of these niggling little issues, and they have a way of piling up after a while. The blocking is good, for example, but every once in a while the AI linemen will let a pass rusher go through untouched for seemingly no reason and yield a crushing sack. Attempts to streamline game intros by removing the coin toss—now selectable in the team setup screen—are foiled by the fact that you can't skip large chunks of the intro and halftime, nor even challenges. The playcalling, as much as I like it, can be a chore to navigate if you're looking for something specific. And of course, Owner Mode is still terrible, with the sole reason for using it being to fullfill Jacksonville's destiny and relocate them to Dublin. I could spend the rest of the review explaining why it's really bad, but suffice it to say that the navigation is almost unusable and funds earned selling t-shirts are virtually worthless.
As for the action on the field, I suppose that the jury is still out. Madden NFL is a monstrously complicated game, and trying to fix its various issues is sometimes like playing whack-a-mole. Try and fix man coverage, and you'll inevitably make passing too powerful, or you'll break blocking, or one of a million other things. Going in, I was half afraid that I would be grabbing two dozen sacks a game with the new minigame-like pass rushing techniques where it's possible to time out the snap and beat the blocker to the quarterback. Frankly, I'm still afraid that will be the case once I've had a couple more months to really get used to the timing, which is the sort of thing that happens a lot in Madden.
Pacing wise, the action feels a bit faster than last year's game on next-gen consoles, and the defense is definitely smarter. I've had an extremely hard time throwing curl routes on the outside, for instance, because cornerbacks almost always jump the pass and take it back for a touchdown. As expected, the pistol and the read option—both overpowered in Madden 25—have also been toned down considerably. I've found myself having to be much more methodical than usual, using the new coaching wheel (which is a godsend, by the way) to check for favorable matchups and move my receivers around the field. Even then, I've had to punt more often in Madden 15 than I ever did in Madden 25. I'll admit, I'm the tiniest bit frustrated that I can't just go out and dominate with my guy Teddy Bridgewater, who looks and feels like a rookie on the field; but then, I suppose that's football. Given how arcadey the series has felt in the past, I suspect most would count that as an improvement.
Ultimately, Madden 15 is a step forward from last year, though I'm hesitant to say that it's a large one. The presentation is better (there are real graphics on the jumbotrons!), the players animate just a bit better, and the new playcalling is in fact pretty slick. More importantly, it does its part to teach prospective fans about the game of football, which is something I've been wanting to see for years. As usual, though, the next level remains illusive. NHL, NBA 2K, MLB: The Show, and FIFA all have that one thing they do better than anyone else, whether it's presentation or just being a pure sim. By contrast, I still have a hard time discerning what Madden's core competency is outside of the fact that it has the NFL license. I suppose it's nice that it still has (really good) online leagues given how that feature is rapidly becoming an endangered species.
With luck, the "First Interactive Experience" will prove to be a preview of the future and we'll get more of those great in-game cinematics soon. It would be a nice callback to NFL Films, which once helped to popularize the sport with Americans. Maybe we'll even see them in a revamped Superstar Mode in Madden 16 (please revamp Superstar Mode, Tiburon). As for Madden 15 though, it's the same mix of interesting ideas and maddening legacy issues it's always been. As usual, fans will have to wait another year to see if a true contender emerges.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: Madden 15 is a nice step up from Madden 25. The textures are better, the stadiums are livelier, and the presentation is more cinematic. It fits right in with the new generation.
- Sound: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms return to deliver the dullest commentary of any sports game. Given the strides being made by NHL and NBA 2K, these guys should be replaced sooner rather than later.
- Interface: Madden 15 is much better at ushering in new players, but the nuts and bolts are lacking. Menus are poorly organized, key information is lacking, and everything takes one too many button presses to access.
- Lasting appeal: Madden can last hundreds of hours depending on how invested you get in its flagship Connected Franchise and Ultimate Team modes. Most people will win the Super Bowl and move on, though.
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