Another crop of annual sports games are now upon us. Madden NFL 17 will be out next week, and FIFA, NHL, PES, and NBA won't be far behind. But before we head into the new games, it's worth taking a look back.
Sports games, for better worse, are very much driven by first impressions. Most of their flaws don't really become apparent until days, weeks, or months after launch, which can make the initial review seem overly positive. It's also easy be blinded by the issues of a previous year's game and end up overlooking the real progress made by the new version.
With that, let's go back and time and take another look at Madden NFL 16. Was I too easy on it? Too hard? Was it a step forward, or a step back? Here are my thoughts.
What we said at the time
From my review: "If last year was so supposed to be all about the defense, then this year is so far about heaving it up and watching even average receivers come down with a spectacular catch. Nevertheless, it still represents a substantial step forward for the series. For the first time I can think of, receivers and defensive backs are actually interacting in a fashion that can be called realistic. And in many ways, it changes everything. But as with most things in Madden, it could use some tuning."
I ended up liking Madden 16 quite a bit. It made a number of striking improvements to the passing game in particular, and I was really impressed by its graphical improvements. In my final thoughts, I talked about the "clear sense of momentum" that had taken hold of the series. After Madden 16, it very much felt like EA Tiburon had a plan for the series.
Madden 16 ended up having a number of crucial quality of life problems after launch. On Xbox One, it struggled with desyncs and connection issues that plagued it through pretty much its entire run. Player progression in franchise mode was too limited, with only a handful of player XP being rewarded after each game. And as I expected, the aggressive catching system was indeed too powerful. In fact, it was so strong that it practically became a meme among the community.
As for Draft Champions, it didn't have quite the legs that I was expecting, which could be chalked up to the fact that it was too hard to build a good team, the rewards were too limited, and it didn't support play with a friend. It was also kind of easy. Unlike the Hearthstone Arena mode upon which it was modeled, it was quite easy to hit the maximum number of wins in Draft Champions.
In the end, Madden NFL 16 was quite innovative, but it had some serious issues to work through at launch.
The content since release
To their credit, EA Tiburon worked hard to address many of these issues. A new menu option was added to boost up the XP in Franchise Mode; Draft Champions received a new ranked mode that feature much better rewards, and the aggressive catch was tuned and re-tuned. Madden Ultimate Team also got a boatload of new content through the year, including a huge number of solo challenges with very good rewards. All in all, Madden 16 probably had the best post-launch support of any of the major sports games.
So where does the series stand going into Madden 17?
When I wrote about the best in sports games at the end of last year, I called Madden the year's most improved sports franchise, and I stand by that judgment. EA Tiburon has brought in a lot of fresh blood over the past couple years; and in the process, the series has slowly moved away from marketing-driven buzzwords like "Pro Tack." As a result, there have been a lot of really solid improvements over the past couple years, and Madden no longer feels quite as embarrassingly behind the likes of NBA 2K. You could even argue that it's surpassed FIFA, which is coming off a down year.
To be sure, Madden has plenty of legacy issues to deal with - issues that will remain in Madden 17. It's nice to be able to move your team around in Owner Mode, but its mechanics really need to be rebuilt from the ground up. The same goes for Player Mode, which has been virtually ignored by the team since its revamp for Madden 13. The gameplay is much more solid these days, but high-level play is still dominated by cheesy money plays, and it's way too easy to rip off huge chunks of yardage with inside zone runs and toss plays.
On the flipside, Madden has an extremely strong Ultimate Team with a lot of great cards and solo plays, which does a lot of extend its shelf life through the year. Madden also continues to support the most fully-featured and interesting online franchise mode, allowing more simulation-minded players to come together in long-running leagues. Taken together with the thorough revamp of the blocking, catching, and player locomotion, it's fair to say that we've come a long way since the bad old days of Madden 10 and its ilk, which were ruled by horrible nano blitzes and the cheesiest of money plays
With Madden 17 being the culmination of three years of work by EA Tiburon's current team, it's fair to say the series has come a very long way. And with the gameplay now resting on a much firmer footing, it feels like the sky is limit for the series going forward.