I could make a million jokes about infamously conservative LA Rams coach Jeff Fisher calling for two with time expiring and a playoff berth on the line in Madden 17's prologue. It's a flatout crazy moment that could potentially say all kinds of unflattering things about Madden's realism. But here's the thing: Madden's actually pretty good these days.
Over the past couple years, EA Tiburon has made marked progress in improving Madden at the fundamental level, investing a large amount of resources in building blocks like line play, catch interactions, and running locomotion. It hasn't always been better, but take a look back at 2013's Madden 25 or even the far superior Madden 15, and the difference is stark. Madden 17 is a better game in pretty much every way.
Madden 17 is meant to be a culmination of the revamp that began with Madden 15. Next year, EA Tiburon hopes to take what they've built and start adding in some truly cool new features. The question is: How well does the foundation hold up? Let's take a closer look.
For those who are new to the series
Madden NFL is a massive and intimidating game for those coming in for the first time. If you're not already versed the in formations, terminology, and strategy of football, you're apt to feel pretty overwhelmed. To its credit, though, Madden does a better job than pretty much any sports game in familiarizing you with its concepts and getting you comfortable.
It begins with an imaginary game between the newly-relocated Los Angeles Rams and the Washington football team in which you get to enjoy an NFL Films-style story while learning the basic controls. Madden then takes you into the tutorialized Skills Trainer before finally dumping you into the main game. Spend some time in the Skills Trainer and Madden will patiently explains concepts like Cover 1 and Cover 2, as well as the often impenetrable jargon surrounding the game. As tutorials go, it does about as good a job as possible in explaining the insanely complicated game that is American Football.
Once you get properly going, you can choose to play franchise mode, ranked online play, Ultimate Team, and Draft Champions, or you can just play a quick exhibition game with the teams of your choice. Madden 17 also includes a somewhat janky but serviceable custom playbook editor - a holdover from the now prehistoric Madden 12 - and a roster editor. Sadly, there are no historical teams to choose from, and you can't create your own team from scratch, but Madden's customization options are otherwise adequate.
Where you end up spending the bulk of your time in Madden depends on how you like to play. Simulation nuts will likely opt for franchise mode, which allows you to run a team as a coach, an owner, or a player. Ultimate Team, meanwhile, is a card-collecting mode in which you play through solo challenges and build up your own custom team. Finally, Draft Champions allows you to quickly draft a team and take it online.
Of them all, Ultimate Team is probably the strongest, though it is admittedly a bit of a grind. As Madden 17's primary moneymaker, it's the mode that gets the bulk of the attention throughout the year, continually picking up new content and cards each week. It's easy to knock it for being too microtransaction-oriented - MUT practically begs you to buy its various bundles in order to obtain high-level players - but it's not too hard to build up a good team by completing the various solo challenges. Out of all the Ultimate Teams, it has the most to do outside of taking your team online and playing other people.
Franchise mode, for its part, does a decent job of simulating the day-to-day of running a football team, though with the caveat that it's a bit dry. Players grow with the help of XP earned by playing games, and there are lots of little updates and news items to keep you engaged. It's single best feature is the ability to invite friends and form an online league with drafts, free agents, and championships. If you want, you can even move a team and create the Mexico City Diablos. Sadly, there's no way to play a basic season with none of the headaches of franchise mode.
Franchise mode is also plagued by a number of legacy issues. Choosing to play as an owner, for example, means being stuck with inane decisions like whether to raise the price of concessions; and if you're the owner of a team like the Jaguars, you're almost guaranteed to run out of money and find yourself unable to sign new players. Player mode, meanwhile, is sterile in the extreme - a narrative-free mode that does absolutely nothing to make you feel like you're an actual player in the NFL. If you want to enjoy everything franchise mode has to offer, then playing as a coach is really the only way to go.
On the field, Madden is an attractive and vibrant football simulation. The stadiums are impressively detailed, and new commentators Brandon Gaudin and Charles have a smooth and natural rapport. If you're at a loss as to which play to pick, the playcalling interface does a good job of recommending context-appropriate plays. When the ball is snapped, on-screen prompts will tell you when to juke or spin, and it's even possible to hand complete control over the CPU and let them do skill moves for you. As in the real NFL, success is a matter of learning how to quickly diagnose defenses and make the right play.
You can nitpick a lot of little aspects about Madden's gameplay - aggresssive catches are arguably still too powerful, for example - but as a football simulator it actually feels pretty good. And if you're willing to really go down the rabbit hole, there are hundreds of hours to be found in Ultimate Team and franchise mode. But at the end of the day, most fans will only be playing to take their favorite team to the Super Bowl (and maybe run up the score on their rivals); and in that capacity, Madden can be a lot of fun.