When you’re the only football game on the shelves, it can be easy to get too complacent, and that’s exactly what the Madden series had done for so long. With the release Madden NFL 16 last year, it felt as if for the first time in a long time, the series had begun to take steps towards improving itself rather than just remaining in a comfortable position. Critics and fans alike were surprised to see a franchise that is normally mocked for being nothing more than a roster update had actually begun the process of getting better. The only thing left to wonder was if the trend would continue. With the release of Madden NFL 17 today, that answer is an emphatic yes, as this game not only pushes the series even further into the future, but might just be one of the franchises strongest entries ever.
When you first start the game up, you’ll notice a familiar scene. As with the past two games, Madden NFL 17 starts up by dropping you into a tightly fought game between two teams (this time it’s the newly moved LA Rams and the Washington Redskins), and while the match itself (an NFC wildcard playoff game) is just fine, the point isn’t to win the game so much as it is to introduce you to some of the new mechanics in the game. More specifically, you’ll be learning about the updated running gameplay the team at EA Tiburon has developed.
What the developers have tried to do is to tweak the skills that running backs already have (spinning, juking, hurdling) and tailor each running back to how their real life counterpart would fare in real life. Thankfully this has been done incredibly well, with each back feeling as if it’s a totally unique player. Some players will be much better at hurdling than stiff-arming, and some might be better at spinning right past the incoming tackles. This is done by breaking down running into two categories, speed and precision, controlled by the R2/RT and L2/LT, respectively. Precision moves are generally stronger, but might have you fumbling the ball at a higher rate.
One of the biggest joys of playing a game like Madden is putting yourself in the players shoes. Deep down, we all want to feel what it’s like to spin past a defender and break off a large run. Thanks to a ton of improved animations as well as the changes in the running game, it’s easier to get that feeling. Newly added on-screen prompts help players by showing you what move might work best in a certain scenario. They’re quick enough that you might miss them, but should you managed to act in time, you’ll be shaking defenders out of their shoes and making a break for the end zone. While the changes to the running game didn’t feel as game changing as the changes made to passing last year, it still felt like it made it more difficult to run as easily, which added to how close to the real thing this game felt.
Last year, EA made no friends by tweaking how the passing side of the offense was done. Letting users select three types of catches as a receiver (Aggressive, Run After Catch, and Possession), it aimed to let players do more than simply catch the ball and fall down. However, the aggressive catch integration was supremely broken, which left many in game receivers (no matter their real life skill) making spectacular, not of this earth type of plays. Thankfully, zone coverage has been reworked so that quarterbacks have a harder time tossing the ball wherever they please. Players now have a wider variety of zone assignments, which allow them to create better schemes in order to counteract the offense. On ball defense has also been improved, and players can now expect to see less “hail mary” type catches and more defensive swats and stops, which is music to any player’s ears.
One thing that’s seemingly been reworked from the ground up is special teams. In previous iterations, trick plays on punts and field goals were basically broken down into “run” or “pass”. In Madden NFL 17, EA Tiburon has opened the playbook a bit and given players a chance to run some more exotic trick plays, as well as call for block specific plays, giving the defense an increased chance at blocking a punt or kick. While not game breaking stuff, it’s nice to that special teams wasn’t left with no love.
What is game changing, however, is the brand new kicking/punting meter that has been introduced in the game. Instead of simply flicking the analog stick up and down, you must now time three button presses in order to have a successful kick, which has made even a simple extra point seem daunting. Not only does this add an extra layer of pressure into every play, but it also ups the chances for some truly crazy matches to occur. While it doesn’t stay impossible forever (I got the hang of it after a couple of hours, although I do still miss occasionally), it’s a welcome change to something that felt so automatic over the years.
The biggest thing, to me, is that all of the above changes don’t ever feel like they’re forced in. Instead, they feel as if they were all natural progressions on Madden’s checklist of changes. After improving (and then successfully tweaking) the passing game, EA Tiburon set to work on fixing the defense and special teams, and they definitely did. The ground game is just as fun as previous years, only now it’s a more realistic football experience. Playing defense used to be a chore for me, but now it’s something I look forward to as much as I do playing offense, especially with the tweaked mechanics of how defensive players play the ball in the air.
Continuing on the theme of “improve”, the folks at EA Tiburon seemed to have decided to spend some extra time on Madden‘s Franchise Mode, a mode that was in desperate need of fixing. In order to streamline the process of running your own NFL team, the developers created the “Play the Moment” mode, which as the name suggests, lets players sim through various parts of the game and play only the crucial bits.
For example, instead of playing through an entire drive of your offense, you can choose to skip to where the team is the in the Red Zone, or facing a critical third or fourth down. EA compares the mode to the hyper popular “NFL Red Zone” channel, which showcases every red zone moment during Sunday. While that may be enjoyable to some, I find myself wanting to be a part of every play, although I can appreciate the addition of the mode.
The games Franchise Mode has also been the beneficiary of some additions that the community has been requesting for some time. Players now have access to a practice squad, which will allow franchise owners the ability to sign and develop players that might not be good enough to make the team. Tweaks like this only enhance the feel of actually owning a team, and for fans of that kind of simulation as well as owners who have multi-year careers, it is a very welcomed inclusion. Also brought into Franchise Mode was a brand new “Big Decisions” screen. Instead of having to navigate through a myriad of menus, players can now see all important in one place.
Players that need to be re-signed, positions that need to be improved and even players coming back from injury are just some of the things you can see from the screen. One extremely useful tool lets players offer quick contract negotiations to players, as it lets you see what they think of the deals and how close you might be to an agreement. Sure, these changes don’t break the mold and probably should have been in the game a long while ago, but the fact that EA Tiburon is listening to its community is a great sign.
For those that enjoy what has become the main draw of the game, Madden Ultimate Team, you’ll be happy to not that there are no huge changes. Solo Challenges have been changed a bit to allow for faster completion rates; instead of playing a whole game, challenges now have you trying to score a TD or stop a team from scoring. The ability to quickly restart challenges is also a welcomed inclusion, as it cuts out a bit of loading time that hinders play. The games Draft Champions mode remains largely unchanged as well, which is good because there wasn’t much that needed changing in that department. It’s still just as fun going through and drafting a team as it was last year.
As far as online play as a whole goes, I’m happy to report that, at least in my own experience, there seems to be no problems. The launch of Madden NFL 16 was marred by some pretty bad server issues that not only disrupted people form playing online, but also messed with players Connected Franchises that were Cloud based. There seems to be none of that this year, though, as the multitude of games I played against online opponents all went off without a hitch.
Finally, we move on to what is probably the biggest, most welcomed, and most excellently done change to the Madden franchise this year: the presentation. The graphics are stellar, which is to be expected in today’s day and age. Players, however, look incredibly life like, and it’s kind of eerie to see just how much like their real life counterpart some players look. Animations have also been included that add to the realism of it all, with some coaches getting angry on the side-lines, and players pushing each other around after plays. There were some visible clipping issues, where players would morph into one another, but that seems to be a main stay in the Madden franchise, and I can’t see that being fixed any time soon.
Minor gripes aside, the biggest revamp of the year has come by the way of the commentary. Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis are your new commentators for Madden NFL 17, and they couldn’t have done a better job. It might be because of how dull and bored the previous speakers (Phil Simms and Jim Nantz) sounded, but Gaudin and Davis are absolutely astounding when it comes to calling the plays. Dialogue between the two doesn’t feel as flat as it did in year’s past, and the play calling itself feels like it moves right along with the flow of the game; the low moments of the game featured subdued commentary, while the highs are full of raucous announcing.
After last year’s release of a solid, definitely improved upon game, it feels as if the Madden NFL franchise is finally beginning to return to its former glory days. Features that are added to the game actually feel like they serve a purpose, and where the game is already shining (MUT and Draft Champions), there are just few tweaks. Changes to the often overlooked game modes show that EA Tiburon is very much intent on making sure all aspects of the game receives love. The brand new commentary breathes fresh air into what were often dully called games. While there are still problems, especially when it comes to certain animations and gameplay, Madden NFL 17 is about as close to perfection as we’ve seen in any football game.
This review is based on a review copy of Madden NFL 17 for the PlayStation 4 provided by Electronic Arts.