Last year, Madden NFL received probably the warmest reception it's been given since EA acquired exclusive rights to the NFL license a decade ago.
After years of near constant negativity, the narrative shifted to one of cautious optimism in the wake of better-than-average reviews of Madden 15. Players and critics praised the much-improved graphics, as well as the smart improvements made to elements like the line play. To be sure, there were still the people pining for NFL 2K5, but they were a bit more muted.
Creative director Rex Dickson is justifiably proud of the strides the series made last years, "Looking at the big picture, Madden 15 increased 7 points from the previous year on most review aggregate sites. This is one of the largest year-over-year quality improvements that Madden has ever seen. Focusing the team on long-standing legacy issues and top community requests has been one of the primary reasons we have been able to make such significant strides in overall game quality over the past two years."
Which is not to say that Madden 15 is perfect. In many ways, Madden still lags behind top-tier sports sims like FIFA and NBA 2K. But after a year that brought with it some noticeable changes, there's reason to believe that there's more to come.
With that in mind, here's a look at where series stands going into Madden NFL 16.
What Madden NFL Does Well
Having not played Madden in a few months, I decided to boot it up the other day to get myself back into the right mindset for the series. The first thing that stood out to me was how good it looked. It's really shocking how well Madden 15 animates, especially in comparison to previous entries in the series. The flow of the line play, the tackling, and the running all feel great. It's not hard to see what impressed critics and fans so much last year. And compared to the rather staid environments of past years, the stadiums look great, smartly weaving fully-animated spectators who are visible from the field with the more generic models of years past.
More important than that, though, is that Madden 15 feels much closer to actual football than games from years past. It's still possible to drop your entire line back into coverage and be successful, but the nanos and A.I. exploits are mostly absent. The defense is also more accessible, introducing a reaction minigame that makes getting around a guard for a sack more accessible. Dickson considers the defensive improvements Madden 15's biggest strengths, "For years the dev team endured review quotes like 'I don't play defense,' 'I sim defense' and 'defense isn't fun,' and we took that feedback to heart. By adding a collection of new mechanics, solving legacy issues, and making A.I. more authentic and effective, we made defense fun for people and that was a huge achievement for the development team."
When put against other sports sims, Madden continues to do an above average job of replicating the look and feel of its sport, which is impressive given the degree of difficulty in making a football sim. Given the demands of the A.I., the physics, and the presentation, it can be tough just to lock in a steady framerate, but Madden is consistently one of the better looking sports sims around.
Madden 15 also does a good job of meeting another challenge facing football sims - engaging new players. Though not always elegant, EA's dynamic playcalling - which crowdsources community selections and makes suggestions based on the situation - is a huge help for new players. When combined with skill challenges that go out of their way to explain concepts like Cover 2, Madden 15 does a better job than in years past of tutorializing its knottier aspects.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Madden is one of the few sports sims around to continue to boast a full-featured online franchise mode. Fans rightfully grouse about certain elements of it (I'll get to that in a minute), but the fact that it even exists has to be considered a victory in light of the dominance of modes like Ultimate Team. The ability to play in a league with my friends continues to be the main reason I usually play Madden well past the Super Bowl.
Where Madden NFL Struggles
There's no denying that Madden has made progress, but it's still dragged down by plenty of legacy issues. I was one of the hardest on Madden 15 when I reviewed it last year, and after a 150 hours or so with it, I stand by my original opinion. It does some things very well, but it has a lot of legacy problems.
Consider the defense. It is indeed smarter in some ways, but Madden has always had real trouble balancing both man coverage and zone coverage, and the most recent iteration is no different. Zone coverage is so powerful in Madden 15 that it's almost not worth using man coverage except as a change of pace. What's more, Madden 15's defense still has some real blind spots, most notably post routes over the middle, screen passes, and counters out of the pistol. The effect is a feeling of homogenization as everyone plays Cover 3 Press and throws deep over the middle.
Dickson highlights another issue with Madden 15's defense, "The Madden community has made it clear that a pressing need is 'WR/DB interaction.' The overall issue came down to lack of awareness between receivers and defenders in the passing game. It led to legacy issues like face-catching that have been in the game for far too long."
Outside of the gameplay, certain elements of Connected Franchise continue to be poorly thought out and occasionally outright broken. Owner Mode is great for moving a franchise to Mexico City or Dublin, but the moneymaking mechanics are brutally unfair to teams like the Jaguars, and are also not that realistic. It should be apparent by now that NFL teams don't make their money at the gate, but through outsized TV deals.
In my review of Madden 15, I also highlighted my concerns with the confidence system - a mechanic introduced in Madden 15 that's supposed to realistically impact a player's ratings depending on how happy they are. "I'm concerned that there are some serious balance issues with the confidence mechanic. Much like the hot and cold streaks from previous games, a team with low confidence has a tendency to go into a death spiral from which it is difficult to recover."
As it turned out, I was right to be worried. Low confidence is huge killer, especially for quarterbacks, who will start to sail their passes almost immediately. What's more, it can be next to impossible to raise the confidence of certain free agents who come in from other systems. Even when I was going 12-4, my free agent strong safety hovered somewhere in the 1 to 10 range... out of 100. In general, Madden has a problem with overcomplicating its systems. Confidence and XP are but two examples.
Madden 15 ultimately won strong reviews for being a major improvement on the dire Madden 25, but it continues to be hard to see where Madden stands out in comparison to its competition. It looks really good, but NBA 2K has better A.I. and FIFA has better physics. Its presentation has gotten much better, but its hampered by dreadful commentary from Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. In almost every category - from Ultimate Team to ranked online play to franchise mode - there's a sports sim that's much better than Madden. Thus, while Tiburon has made strides this generation, Madden still has a ways to go before it can be considered a truly top-tier sports sims.
This Year's Outlook
Having said all that, I'm actually quite optimistic about Madden NFL 16. Based on what I've played, it's faster, smarter, and far more fun than Madden 15.
As much as it managed to improve in comparison to previous iterations, I was surprised how quickly I burned out on it. I think my core problem with it, aside from the usual legacy issues, was that it vacillated between plays that worked too well and plays that didn't work at all. Posts and slants were often a guaranteed 15 yeards, but out routes were a license to get intercepted. It encouraged a particular way of playing that soon began to feel stale.
So far, at least, Madden 16 feels different. The pass rush is more powerful and man coverage seems smarter. It also has a new reaction system in which you can choose how your corners and receivers go after a pass, resulting in more realistic battles for the ball. Dickson refers to them as "multiplayer catch interactions." It makes airing it out deep to a player like Calvin Johnson or T.Y. Hilton a delight.
"Not only were we able to address these complaints, we revolutionized the way Madden is played in the process," Dickson boasts. "The depth, strategy and balance involved in the catching mechanics is, in my opinion, a success story that will change the way Madden is played from this point forward. I am very proud of how this theme came together for us in Madden 16."
Developers are always going to lean toward hyperbole when introducing new features, but in this case, he might not be wrong. It's undeniably more realistic. Add in Draft Champions, which is the best idea the series has had in years, and it's apparent that Madden 16 is shaping up to be a particularly strong entry in the often divisive series.
Madden undoubtedly still has a lot to prove. The last generation was a disaster for a series, full of ill-advised features and gameplay mechanics. A difficult transition to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 hurt the series badly, and it really never recovered. In moving to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Tiburon has been much more deliberate, steadily building up their technology base and making smart additions. Their reward has been a much more positive reception for their most recent games.
We''ll see if Madden 16 gives the series the boost it needs to catch up with the rest of the pack. There's still plenty of work to be done. After years of struggle, though, it's fair to say Madden is in the strongest position it's been in since 2005.