Madden 20 is officially out, and right about now is the time that I would ordinarily be sitting down to pen my review. I keep putting it off though. I have a lot to say about this version, and the series as a whole, but the review format feels stifling this year. I just can't bring myself to go through the motions of running down the features, talking about the various omissions, and assigning an arbitrary score that hopefully fits my text.
It's not that I'm bored with Madden. Actually, I've been playing it pretty consistently for most of the week, and not just because I'm ostensibly supposed to be covering it. I've been playing a lot of Madden Ultimate Team challenges, taking on random opponents online as my beloved Minnesota Vikings, and in a month or so, I'll be jumping into an online league with friends. I mean, it's Madden. You kind of know what you're getting from the series at this point.
If you want my real thoughts, I think this is a functional update that does some interesting things with the high-level metagame, especially in the way that "X-Factor" abilities are activated. It begins the process of reforming franchise mode and superstar mode, but it does barely more than lay the foundation. It also has the Pro Bowl for some reason? If I were to give it a score, it would probably be in the 3 to 3.5 range: an update geared toward the hardcore that leaves many key issues from past entries unaddressed.
Truthfully, it wouldn't be that much different from my Madden 19 review... or my Madden 17 review. Yes, there are new features to pick apart and discuss, but a lot of my previous critiques remain the same. Running is better now, but the animations still feel oddly stiff, as if I'm steering an action figure rather than a football player. Glitches continue to abound. Franchise mode is way behind the times and has been for years. Every year I hear about how Madden's gameplay is so much better, and then I play someone online and watch as they do the old trick where they run to one side of the field and heave it to an open receiver on the other.
In a month, or maybe even just a week, the first patches will begin to hit. If they follow the trend of previous EA sports games, they will make my observations on the balance of the gameplay woefully out of date. Hardcore fans will complain about how running was fun until the patch made it impossible to bounce outside. They'll grouse about this formation being broken or that formation being unbalanced. EA will take careful notes, confer with the one percent who play competitively, and the cycle will begin anew.
All of this is to say that I'm a little tired of writing the same review year after year. Madden 15 put the series on a more consistent schedule of improvements, but after five years on that foundation, its progress appears to have stalled. We're at the end of the generation, so the graphics are about as good as they're going to get. Longshot, which was supposed to take the series in a bold new narrative direction, is pretty much a bust. We're witnessing some kind of pivot with the introduction of the new Face of the Franchise mode—a very simple version of NBA 2K's immensely successful MyCareer, but it's early days yet.
Developers will often tell me that it's all about the gameplay, and that online cooperative play is the future of the series. But then large amounts of resources will inexplicably be spent on building out the Pro Bowl because, you know, everyone wants an interactive version of the most irrelevant sports event of the year. I guess the team is trying to throw a bone to the simulation crowd, but I can think of about a hundred other places where I'd rather see the resources devoted.
Internally, there's been a fair amount of turnover. Carlos Guerrero was brought in from Blizzard to be a senior producer, but was fired months later under mysterious circumstances. Former designer Rex Dickson, who did as much as anyone to chart Madden's current course, departed early last year. Tiburon GM Roy Harvey left in September to take a position with an EA initiative called SEED, or the "Search for Extraordinary Experiences Division." Sean Graddy, who was supposed to be focusing solely on getting NBA Live up to speed, is now the executive producer for both series, which is a huge amount of responsibility for one person.
The shakeup seems to have left Mike Young at the wheel of the franchise. As the principal architect of Longshot, Young has a reputation for wanting to craft narratives. New features like the Scenario Engine and Face of the Franchise are his ideas, and while they are still extremely early, they potentially point to the future of the series. Well, maybe. Call me in a couple years.
For the sake of EA, I hope Young brings some long-term vision to the series, because I'm not seeing it right now. Every decision seems to be reactive rather than proactive—a quixotic quest to finally find the perfect mix of gameplay balance. To the extent that it has an identity, its mostly a hardcore competitive game with some odd narrative elements glued on, making it the video game equivalent of College Football's $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy.
Every sports game necessarily has a lot of disparate audiences to please. Madden has to be one big tent for hardcore simulation fans, online competitive players, and parents on treadmills who just want to get their team to the Super Bowl. Finding a way to make all of these fans happy is extremely hard. But NBA 2K has succeeded because it has a very clear idea of what it wants to be: a way for players to express themselves as fans in an interactive environment. EA needs to remember that all of Madden's different fanbases have one thing in common: they're football fans.
I'm not done reviewing Madden NFL, or sports games in general. I'll keep striving to cover them as best I can. But as this is a tweener year for the series, I don't feel like there's much I can add to the conversation with a review. New consoles will be here soon, so hopefully we'll be seeing the future of Madden sooner rather than later. Until then, I'll see you next year.