Last night was the moment that encapsulated a lot of Madden NFL 16's strengths and weaknesses for me. Staked to a 14-7 lead as time ran down in the 4th, I watched as my opponent heaved it up for grabs in the endzone. For a second it looked like his receiver had come down with it, but then it popped straight up and into the hands of my defensive back. It was a thrilling moment, and also the first time that my defensive actually managed to win one of those plays.
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.
In essence, the interaction between defensive backs and receivers has been automated. Advanced players have long known how to abuse the skills of their receivers with manual catches, but that knowledge has generally been beyond the grasp of the average player. By reducing catches to one of three options - aggressive, possession, or RAC (Run After Catch) - Madden has unlocked the potential of receivers like Calvin Johnson for everyone. Now even average players can throw it deep, click "Aggressive Catch," and watch as he utterly destroys some poor defensive back for a deep catch.
In addition to the new catch system, there are a handful of new throws at the quarterback's disposal. Holding L1/LB will cause the quarterback to throw a high throw that a receiver can go up and grab in the corner of the endzone - a common tactic in the NFL. Double tapping lets you throw a soft pass that can be dropped over the heads of defensive backs. Corner routes in particular are deadlier than ever, even when the receiver is being double covered.
With these new tools at their disposal, receivers can annihilate all but the best corners one-on-one, and that's not entirely a bad thing. After all, quarterbacks expect their receivers to win one-on-one. Right now, though, the balance of power is definitely on the side of the offense. There's almost no consequence to chucking the ball into coverage because receivers can often go up and get it anyway.
The issue, I think, is that defensive backs don't have enough tools at their disposal. They have more animations now, and they will sometimes knock the ball out of a receivers hands, but more often than not they get boxed out of the play and can only watch helplessly as a receiver makes another great catch. Receivers have some very powerful catches at their disposal, and quarterbacks have more ways than ever to get them the ball, but cornerbacks are stuck either going for the interception or playing the receiver, the latter of which is nebulous and doesn't seem to do much but ensure a tackle after the catch.
The thing is, though, it's a delicate line. Sports sim developers have long favored offense because, frankly, offense is more fun to play. Make the defensive backs too powerful and they start making stupid, incredibly frustrating catches. With that in mind, I think Madden 16 just needs some tuning to balance out the receiver catches. Otherwise, I think the new mechanics are probably the most significant addition since the introduction of the Hit Stick a decade ago, and they make Madden so much more fun to play. It makes me want to take more chances and test the coverage, and it makes for some really cool gameplay moments. When you see Megatron or Demaryius Thomas come down with an amazing catch, you can't even complain. You can only shake your head and try to get one back.
Madden's other big addition this year is Draft Champions - a rather ingenious new mode that resembles Hearthstone's Arena Mode. It begins by having you draft one of three players across 15 rounds, allowing you to steadily build a team around offense or defense. Then, you take your freshly-minted fantasy team online and try to either beat the CPU three times in a row, or beat an online opponent four times in a row. Sustained success brings with it cards and coins for Ultimate Team.
Having now spent a considerable amount of time with Draft Champions, I'm amazed that it never made it into Madden before now. In hindsight, it's a total no-brainer for the series. Drafting a really strong group is a delight - I've got a particularly good team right now consisting of Cam Newton, Mike Evans, Terrell Davis (yes, you can draft legends), and a handful of other great players, and I'm well on my way to winning four in a row. The second game was where I was able to pull off the game-winning interception that I mentioned earlier.
Going forward, I expect it to be my preferred mode alongside Ultimate Team when I just want to sit down and relax with Madden a bit. It's a fun, low impact challenge, with games that take about 30 minutes to complete - roughly half the time of a standard Madden match. What's more, it alleviates the boredom of playing with the same rosters over and over again while circumventing the grind that is inherent to Ultimate Team. I wish that I could play my friends, but I expect that will be coming along next year. For now, it's a fantastic start.
Having spent so much time praising Madden's new additions, you'd expect that I would score it higher than I have; but as always, there are still legacy issues to smooth out. On the whole, Madden's Connected Franchise Mode is smarter than in years past, bringing with it a much slicker interface, but it's still encumbered by an XP system that requires you to individually attend to every player on your roster - a process that quickly becomes a chore. And as always, owner mode is still broken.
Not to downplay the strengths of CFM too much. Its online multiplayer leagues are far more robust than anything you'll find in its competition, and it's made strides in making its systems more transparent. Until Madden 16, for example, I never quite realized how poorly integrated the weekly and monthly goals were into the overall framework of the game. But with the new pop-ups and dynamic goals, they are now front and center, and it's much easier to tell what I need to do to progress my players. There's also smarter, much more streamlined draft scouting featuring combine rankings and the ability to unlock the three best attributes for a prospect. Unlock all three stats, and you will be told their actual ranking among all the prospects, which lets you know if you're pursuing a gem or a bust. For the first time ever, scouting actually makes sense.
Madden 16 is full of smart additions like these, continuing the positive momentum generated by last year's edition. There's still tuning to do, and a host of bugs to iron out (CFM's player stats are currently broken), but I really like the direction its going. Going forward, I'd like Tiburon to continue building on the foundation of Draft Champions, streamline player progression, figure out what to do with owner mode, and make ranked head-to-head more interesting. I'd also like them to figure out how to make their CFM feel a little more alive. I'm not saying it needs to go the full NBA 2K and develop a story directed by Spike Lee, but Madden is like a lot of sports sims in that it neglects making me feel like I accomplished something by winning the Super Bowl. There's no continuity, no trophy case, and no storylines. As always, Madden is so focused on the sim portion of the experience that it often forgets what's fun about following sports in the first place - it's a real-time soap opera with stars who can accomplish superhuman feats of athleticism.
But one step at a time, I suppose. Putting aside the bugs and the balance issues - both fixable in an inevitable patch - Madden NFL 16 feels closer than ever to an actual simulation of a football game. I don't know that I would put it among the very best sports sims yet, but if the transition to the current generation of consoles represents a lengthy drive toward sustained excellence, then Tiburon has reached the goal line. Now they just have to punch it in.
Ultimate Team's user interface requires a lot of tiresome menu switching to get anything done, but CFM and Draft Champions are smooth and look great. Madden has definitely made big strides in this area.
Draft Champions ties in beautifully with Ultimate Team and offers a great excuse to keep playing long after winning the Super Bowl. if you're willing to really dive in, Madden can offer hundreds of hours of enjoyment.
Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are drab as ever, and the commentary is riddled with mistakes. The crowd and stadium ambience could be stronger, especially in big moments.
It's fair to count Madden among one of the best-looking sports sims around. It animates much better than in the past, and the stadiums now have what may be the best-looking crowds of any sports sim.
Madden NFL 16 takes another clear step forward this year, featuring some fantastic additions to the passing game and an excellent new mode. After being maligned for so many years, Madden now has a clear sense of momentum that should carry it through the rest of the generation. Absent the bugs and balance issues, which should be addressed soon via patch, this is the best Madden I've played in a decade.