It's harder than ever to review sports sims these days.
Take Madden NFL 17, for instance. In just the past few months, Tiburon has radically rebalanced the gameplay, added in a host of improvements to Madden Ultimate Team, and dramatically upgrades the commentary. These are the kind of updates that simply can't be captured in a traditional review.
And yet, there are still a few key takeaways to be had from this year's crop of sports sims. Like this: This is both an incredibly strong and incredibly flawed year for sports games. No game is a complete trainwreck, but every one of them is flawed in some way, whether it's a lack of a real career mode or a reliance on microtransactions. But with that said, there's a ton of merit to be found in, say, Madden 17's Play the Moments and FIFA 17's The Journey.
So let's go back and take a look at the year in sports games for 2016. What was the best? And what was the worst? Let's find out!
Best Career Mode: The Journey (FIFA 17)
Normally this would be NBA 2K17 in a walk, but MyPlayer hasn't held up as well as I would like. For one thing, it's too grindy, the decision to integrate MyPlayer with the rest of the game's microtransaction-driven currency fundamentally compromising the design in many respects. FIFA 17's The Journey, on the other hand, is a much more digestible story with better actors and better writing. Alex Hunter's arc is reminiscent of many classic sports movies; and while the beats are predictable, they're also warm and familiar. It ends up feeling similar to a single-player shooter campaign, which works really well for a multiplayer-driven game like FIFA. If this is the way of the future for sports games, then I welcome it.
Best Franchise Mode: NBA 2K17
On the other hand, NBA 2K17 still has the best franchise mode going. It has an excellent presentation, lays out its objectives clearly, and does a phenomenal job of surfacing potential draft gems from its randomly-generated classes. This year's version adds two new outstanding features: An expansion draft that makes it exceptionally easy to add new teams to your league, and the ability to start in tandem with the current NBA season. On top of that, NBA 2K17 builds out its online franchise rather nicely, even if it makes some odd choices in how it handles contracts. All in all, it's the most complete and interesting franchise mode around.
Best Presentation: NBA 2K17
Same as last year, basically: NBA 2K17 consistently has the best, most accurate commentary, includes lots of in-game cutscenes, and features multiple openings for each team. Following in the footsteps of NFL 2K, it has been the series that has done the most to push forward the notion of a TV-style presentation for its games. Moreover, its smooth and attractive presentation is more in line with modern triple-A gaming than most sports games, which tend to skimp on menus in favor of focusing on the in-game action. Madden's presentation is much-improved this year, but NBA 2K17 is the only sports game that actually makes me feel like I'm watching basketball on TV.
Best Representation of a Sport: MLB 16 The Show
Again, like last year, most sports games these days can at least approximate the feel of their real-life counterparts, but none of them come closer than MLB The Show—still one of the best-looking sports games around. Powered by a top-notch physics engine and some of the best animation of any sports game this generation, everything about MLB 16 The Show just feels right. This one is actually pretty close: Madden feels better than ever this year, and NBA 2K has cut out many of the automatic animations for a much smoother experience. But MLB The Show still wins by a nose.
Best Ultimate Team: Madden 17
Diamond Dynasty (MLB 16) is definitely on the rise, but FIFA Ultimate Team and Madden Ultimate Team still rule the roost here. Each variant brings something different to the table: FUT has a huge array of players to choose from, while MUT makes it easy to get high-quality players through single-player challenges. Of the two, MUT does a better job with a single-player content, so it gets the nod this year. If you're afraid of diving into Ultimate Team because of the microtransactions... well... I don't blame you. But with the single-player challenges, rotating sets, and other features, it's easier than ever to build a strong team without spending money.
Best New Addition: Play the Moments (Madden NFL 17)
The Journey should probably go here, but I think it's important to acknowledge just how much Play the Moments refreshes Madden NFL 17's franchise mode. In the past, I've found myself unable to complete single-player franchise mode seasons because the games would simply take too long to complete—up to an hour in most cases. But at the same time, simming was cumbersome and unsatisfying. Play the Moments solves this issue by condensing Madden's games into 20 minute chunks, making it easy to cruise through a season or more at a run. Just this year, I wound up playing around four seasons by myself, which was unimaginable before Play the Moments (I would always prioritize my online leagues). In that, Play the Moments has transformed the way I enjoy Madden.
Most Improved Sports Game: FIFA 17 (With a Caveat)
Most of this year's sports games were pretty reserved with this improvements. NBA 2K17, as usual, brought out the big guns, but many of its changes were met with controversy in the community. That makes FIFA 17 the most improved sports game by default, with The Journey alone counting as a massive step forward for the franchise and sports gaming in general. But that comes with the caveat that there are still plenty of technical kinks to work out; for example, input lag has dogged FIFA 17 for much of the year. As I said, every sports sim was flawed in one way or another this year; but in the end, FIFA 17 has made the biggest leap compared to last year.
Secret Best Sports Game: Pocket Card Jockey
Oh man, I love Pocket Card Jockey so much. It's a throwback to the days of 16-bit Japanese sports sims like Captain Tsubasa (and Inazuma Eleven) where players would score with flash-sounding moves like the Tiger Kick. Pocket Card Jockey is like that, but with horses... and solitaire! Trust me, it makes sense when you play it; and yes, I do consider it a sports game. Horse racing is the sport of kings, after all. Cartoony as it is, Pocket Card Jockey is surprisingly faithful to the sport that it represents, and its card mechanics do a shockingly good job of capturing the rhythm of a race. It's also hilarious, starring a back-from-the-dead jockey who is literally using his or her god-like solitaire powers to win races. It's one of the freshest, most amusing games I've played all year. Buy it. Buy it now.
Kat's Favorite Sports Game of 2016: Madden NFL 17
As I said, sports games are a moving target these days. Since launch, all of them have seen a multitude of patches and content updates, with some being radically rebalanced. NBA 2K17, much as I liked it in my review, hasn't held up as well I would have liked, and many of its additions have sparked controversy for being overly obtuse. Worse, a lot of people are still having server problems that severely hamper modes like MyPlayer. With that, I feel pretty comfortable in saying that Madden NFL 17 is my favorite sports game of 2016. It may not have a big "back of the box" type feature, but it really does a nice job of rebalancing the gameplay, tuning up the AI, and improving on modes like franchise and MUT. This is honestly the strongest Madden has been in years, and the most fun I've had with the series since I picked it up again back in 2010. Tiburon has built a great foundation this generation, and I'm really eager to see where they take the series next.
Kat's Personal Power Rankings for 2016
- 1. Madden NFL 17: A really fun, well-balanced football sim with a lot to do (assuming you're not looking for a proper career mode, anyway). Online franchise mode is still the best in the business. New commentary from Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis is very welcome, if still a tiny bit repetitive and cheesy.
2. MLB 16 The Show: The play on the field is as strong as it's ever been, even if the actual modes are getting a little creaky. Diamond Dynasty has taken a huge step forward over the past couple years, as has the online play. MLB The Show is still a note perfect sports sim.
3. NBA 2K17: NBA 2K17's outstanding franchise mode and presentation keeps it from being dragged down too much by its reliance on a (often unreliable) server connection. No sim does a better job of capturing the playstyle each individual superstar. If it would just do away with Virtual Currency (or at least radically rethink it), it would be perfect.
4. Rocket League: My Sports Game of the Year from 2015 continues to roll along with a host of high-quality improvements. It's not in the spotlight as much anymore, but its take on three-on-three pickup soccer (with RC cars!) is addictive as ever.
5. Pocket Card Jockey: As I said, I count Pocket Card Jockey as a sport sim. And you know what? It's great. Find me a better horse-racing sim. I dare you.
6. FIFA 17: FIFA 17's modes help to elevate its otherwise pedestrian gameplay, which is hampered by input lag this year. FUT and The Journey are both great, and the franchise mode's customizability still stands out, even if its presentation is in dire need of an overhaul. It's not the juggernaut it was last generation, but it's still quite strong.
7. Pro Evolution Soccer 17: PES has the opposite problem from FIFA 17: great gameplay and pedestrian modes. Its lack of licenses is also a pain, even if you decide to go online and import the uniforms and logos. But when you really get going in PES, its strengths definitely shine through. If only FIFA 17 and PES weren't two separate games.
8. EA Sports UFC 2: MMA fans tell me that EA Sports UFC 2 is much-improved from the last version. That's nice.
9. NHL 17: Hockey is probably my favorite sport; but for whatever reason, NHL has just bored me to tears this generation. Maybe they should consider bringing back Be a GM Online? EASHL is great, but it's too hard to get a group together to play. Alas! I need a better hockey sim in my life.
10. Steep: Man, I really wanted to enjoy Steep, but it was just too inconsistent. The flying is interesting, but Ubisoft would have been better served locking down the snowboarding and skiing first (and the collision detection). Still, I want it to get a sequel: I love tricksy extreme sports like these.
11. WWE 2K17: Same as always: Still struggles with glitches, bugs, and crashes, and the wrestler A.I. is more predictable than it should be.
12. NBA Live 17: Just kidding. There is no NBA Live 17... yet. Apparently it will be out in early 2017. I'll believe it when I see it.