Last year, I criticized Madden NFL 25 for playing it too safe. While not being a bad game by any means, it failed to really push the franchise forward in meaningful ways and felt like a stagnation rather than a true iteration. Part of that was probably due to developing for the PS4 and XB1 for the first time, in addition to the then current generation hardware, but I digress. This year, Madden was developed for the PS4 and XB1 first and foremost and it truly shows.
Critics across the internet are quick to note that Madden is the same game every year, that EA is just milking their license, and that it’s barely more than a roster update. Some of that criticism is valid, it is, afterall, hard to argue without a valid point of comparison on the market. But I think dismissing this year’s game with that same air of indifference would be a disservice to not only EA, but to yourself as a gamer. Madden NFL 15 isn’t a revolution of the franchise with a brand new engine or a fancy new game mode that blows the lid off of what we previously thought possible in a football game. No, it’s none of that. Instead, this year’s game is a marked improvement in almost all facets of the franchise and the difference is immediately noticeable.
Every game now features an incredibly convincing and elaborate presentation. From highlighting key players on each team, to showing real-life footage of quarterbacks as they run out on the field, the entire experience is slick and fresh – it truly feels like a “next-gen” experience. Even the pre-snap menu has seen huge improvements, breaking down the tendencies of yourself and your opponent, providing you with a ton of information. It can be a bit overwhelming, but as you get used to the new “Coach Suggestions” system, you’ll notice that it slowly and subtly teaches you and makes you a better player.
This concept extends to the revamped Skills Trainer as well. Instead of just learning the basic controls (which you still do, of course) it goes a step further and teaches you real football concepts. Things like when to call certain defenses and how to recognize a defense when on offense are invaluable lessons that feel like they should have been in the Training mode from the very start. Moreover, the loading times for this and many other modes are virtually non-existent, which leads to a satisfyingly quick navigation of what the game has to offer. One of my favorite new additions is the Gauntlet, which tasks with completing a marathon of various different skill challenges back-t0-back-to-back. You’ll even face down “Boss” challenges, with things like hurricane wind field goals and having to out-maneuver and entire team of defenders.
Connected Careers probably saw the least amount of adjustments this season, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The biggest change is the eschewing of the traditional (and overly repetitive) practice mode before each game, instead with a new “Game Prep” mode. This mode lets you target specific personnel groups (Cornerbacks, Wide Receivers, Linebackers, etc) and throw them into specific challenges. You can then choose to upgrade players based on overall long-term performance, or short-term confidence boosts, which could be useful for playoff situations.
Richard Sherman’s physique across the cover and the tag line of, “Deliver on D” on the back of the box make it clear where the team placed the majority of their focus. AI defenders now track ball carriers and the ball much more realistically and the physics system is finally ironing out most of its kinks. The new “tackling cone” that plasters the ground of your controlled defender helps aim your trajectory and the pre-snap jumps and new block shedding QTEs help to improve playability. Finally being able to legitimately anticipate and jump a snap is way more satisfying than it should be.
Switching camera views on the fly mid-game is another big one for me, something I never really thought would matter much. On offense, getting a higher birds-eye style view helped me analyze the field more quickly, while being closer to the action on defense was great for reading blocking schemes and where holes are opening up. It’s also worth specifically noting that pass trajectories saw a big overhaul this year, which not only make it more difficult to be a couch version of Peyton Manning, but it makes the general game flow much more realistic. Not all of your passes will be thrown with pin point accuracy and the disparity between top-tier and backup quarterback is now much greater.
It’s not all sunshine and butterflies though, as there are of course shortcomings as usual. For some reason EA got rid of online team play completely, limiting your online choices to either head-to-head, connected career, or Madden Ultimate Team (a mode that is getting pushed more and more heavily as the years go by). I couldn’t find the ability to play some of the Gauntlet challenges separately on their own, which is a shame, because some of them were genuinely fun in and of themselves. And while the revamped passing mechanics are a move towards realism, it can be jarring for those that are used to bootlegging and whirling 60+-yard bombs down the field on a whim. Also, commentating is still incredibly uninspired. There were several instances that Phil Simms and Jim Nantz would literally repeat one another almost verbatim, or simple state things that were completely inaccurate. It remains to leave a lot to be desired, unfortunately.
At the end of the day though, just as football is a game of inches, Madden is a game of incremental changes. It’s a franchise that won’t see huge leaps and bounds each year, it just isn’t feasible on an annual cycle. With that being said, Madden NFL 15 is truly one of the best entries in the long-running series that we’ve seen in a long time. The PS4 and XB1 versions of the battle in the trenches is a sight to behold, reap with gameplay options and features. The new Coach Suggestions play selection and new Skill Trainer will make a Vince Lombardi out of the most casual of gamers, and that’s a true accomplishment. Strap on your headset and pick up your controller, because it’s Madden season, and this year EA brought its A game.
This review is based on a physical review copy of the game for the PlayStation 4 provided by Electronic Arts.