It's an important year for Madden NFL. With just a year to go before the beginning of the next generation, EA is busy laying the groundwork for the future. There's also pressure to finish this generation strong, especially after Madden 19, which many fans considered a bit of a letdown.
EA is responding with across the board improvements to both its gameplay and its modes. Franchise has a new "Scenario Engine" that generates challenges and storylines; Face of the Franchise is a major update to the old Superstar Mode, and new mechanics like "X-Factor" are changing up the gameplay. At base, the graphics still look pretty much the same, but there's a lot to dig into with this version.
During EA Play 2019, I got to get on the sticks and play as my beloved Minnesota Vikings. Here are a few items that stood out to me.
1. RPO is an interesting weapon for advanced players
Run-Play Option or "RPO" didn't make it into last year's version despite being the concept that helped win the Eagles the Super Bowl (that's still a weird sentence to type). Despite being somewhat similar to a traditional option play, which has been in Madden for several years now, EA had a hard time implementing it in a timely fashion. This year it's finally arrived.
While the RPO doesn't feature heavily in the Vikings playbook, I did get a chance to play around a bit with formations like "Lookie"—a simple concept based around either throwing a super quick slant or handing the ball off. Success is predicated on being able to read the defense before the snap and decide whether or not to throw the ball, as you have barely a second to decide once the play is in motion. For beginning players, it's apt to be overwhelming; for advanced players, it's a potentially excellent new tool.
With the RPO in play, disguising the defense before the snap will be more important than ever, as any uncertainty will make pulling it off that much harder. But anyone who mastered the triple option in previous years knows how nasty such plays can be. Be ready.
2. X-Factor is somewhat difficult to activate on purpose
X-Factor has been a major point of discussion in the Madden NFL community this year. Will it make Madden too arcadey? Will it be dramatically overpowered? Superstar abilities like Bazooka, which allow Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes to basically heave it the length of the field, don't inspire a huge amount of confidence.
With the Vikings, one of the main X-Factor players is star receiver Adam Thielen, who managed to routinely haul in double-digit catches despite a very uneven year from Kirk Cousins. His X-Factor massively increases his likelihood of making a catch if he's covered by only one opponent. Sounds awesome, right? Well here's the rub: you have to complete at least two passes for more than 30 yards first.
That might sound like a cinch to elite players, but it's not without risks. Any NFL coach will tell you that forcing the ball to one player is sometimes a very bad idea, especially if they happen to be in triple coverage. What's more, getting 30 yards or more in one play is no easy feat.
I'm sure there will games where certain players get "in the zone" and become a major pain in the ass. But in the short-term, deliberately going for an X-Factor activation seems a little more risky than it first looks.
3. There are little enhancements designed to make the games move faster
Madden has long had a problem with games taking too long to complete. A few years ago, EA introduced an enhanced supersim mode called "Play the Moment," allowing players to knock out games in about 15 minutes. In conversations with Madden developers at EA Play, they were full of praise for MLB The Show's "March to October" mode, which takes the "Play the Moment" concept and applies it to the entire season.
However it happens, it's clear that making games go faster is a priority for the Madden team. Here's one very small example of the form it takes in Madden 20. In previous games, each play would begin with players breaking the huddle and sidling up to the line. Now, when a play is selected, it cuts to the quarterback being directly under center. A small change, maybe, but one that definitely has an effect on the pace and flow of a drive, and potentially stands to put defenses at a disadvantage as they have even less time to input adjustments.
4. Running back skills are more powerful this year
Another small tweak to the gameplay that figures to be somewhat underrated: running back stick skills are easier to pull off. Trucking in particularly has received a nice boost, making it far easier to plow through defenders and gain a few extra yards. Don't be surprise if the 'ol "fall forward for five yards" becomes more of a staple in Madden 20's running game.
5. The overall strategy feels deeper, but EA is taking some risks with this year's version
My main takeaway from this year's version is that the on-field tactics are intended to be deeper than before. RPO creates a cat-and-mouse game between offense and defense, with one mistake on either end potentially leading to catastrophic results. X-Factor encourages teams to target star players more often, but at the risk of defenses rolliing toward them and potentially getting a timely pick. Many of these changes seem intended to get players away from a "money play" mentality and thinking more about how they use their stars and play to their team's individual strengths.
All of these updates are positive changes in my mind. While Madden 20 doesn't look much different from last year—graphically it looks much the same—it feels more polished and plays more smoothly than general.
The Madden folks always like to talk about how development is smoother than ever in a given year, but after a tumultuous year with multiple departures in 2018, it feels like things have stabilized. One developer I talked to observed that the current build has roughly a third of the bugs in the queue compared to last year (it helps that EA isn't trying to implement a whole new animation engine).
With that in mind, my confidence level for Madden 20 is pretty high so far. Between the updates to the gameplay, the extremely promising Face of the Franchise mode (which I'll get to a little bit later), and some interesting tactical changes, the experience feels fresher than before. If the intention is to finish the generation on a high note, then EA is definitely on the right track. Madden 20 will be out August 2. You can find our guide to Madden 20's new features here.
For more on the next Madden, check out our Madden 20 guide for trailers, previews, and more.