Every year Madden is the second-most popular game released, aside from Call of Duty. i In the past, every Madden launch felt like an event; a holiday, if you will. ii Nowadays? It really just signals the end of the annual video game summer drought and the bountiful winter harvests that are to come. Basically what I’m getting at here is that Madden doesn’t feel special anymore. Every year it talks a big game about all of the improvements that are about to revolutionize the franchise and while the game does certainly improve every year there are legacy issues that still persist to this day. There is only so much you can do with what really amounts to a 10 month development cycle, the inherent flaw of creating sports games, but even so, there are some issues you’d think would’ve been ironed out by now. Madden NFL 15 is a fine game, the key word being: Fine. It improves in some important areas while getting inexplicably worse in a few others. The crucial legacy issues that still exist are unfortunately not masked by EA’s first true jump to current generation consoles.
But I have to give EA some credit, they know how to open a football game. Madden begins with a fantasy iii scenario in which the Carolina Panthers are marching down the field in a crunch-time drive against the defending champion Seattle Seahawks in the 2015 NFC Championship Game and a spot in the Super Bowl hanging in the balance. After showing Cam Newton giving commands in the huddle, it zooms out as you control Newton and the Panthers and complete their game-winning drive. Suffice to say, it’s really fucking cool and lets you jump right to game and get a feel for how things work this year.
After this immersive introduction, Madden gives you the option of running through a set of quick exercises that serves as a way of learning the new mechanics if you are a Madden veteran or a flat-out tutorial if you are new to the game and football in general. These exercises explain everything from basic concepts like passing the ball and running, to advance concepts like reading the defensive end during the read option, calling audibles at the line of scrimmage based on how defensive backs are playing wide receivers, and even teaching you defensive packages like the Tampa Cover 2 and 3-4 defensive set.
This leads seamlessly into the Gauntlet mode which asks you to do a set of specific tasks based on your mastery of tutorial exercises. The mode gives you five lives throughout, and takes away a life when you fail a task. The insane thing about this mode is that every fifth task is what is basically a Boss level, which incluing such mind-boggling things as trying to kick a 100-yard field goal in hurricane winds or trying to trapeze your way across the field as literally 100 players, fans, and even cameramen and trying to slam you into the grass. It is absolutely bonkers and legitimately fun.
When finally getting into a game, it’s the hard to deny that the game looks very good. The player models look very nice and are exceptionally well lit. The HDR lighting EA touted years back does seem to be in full force here. What really caught my eye was the helmet reflections and uniform degradation. The reflections of the surrounding stadium on the helmets of the players are legitimately jaw-dropping and what’s even more impressive is the helmets will even scratch and ding as the result of collisions over the course of the game. Marry this with uniforms that stain with grass and logo paint with each tackle as well as this decent animation and presentation overlays and camera angles and you have what is simply the best looking football game to date.
On the gameplay side, the defensive play is much improved. The AI hides coverages much better, making harder to discern whether they are in zone or man and defensive backs are much more prone to jump curl routes and take lazily or hastily thrown passes the other way, which led to increase in interceptions due to my carelessness. Tackling has also been overhauled. Where in past games tackling has felt like an almost mundane experience, in Madden 15 it actually has a bit of a risk-reward function. When you go to tackle an offensive player, a green cone will appear underneath your player, denoting their tackling radius. On PS4, if you press X while the offensive player is in the cone, your player will wrap them up. However, if you press Square instead, your player will go for a more aggressive, hard-hitting tackle that possesses a greater chance of stopping offensive player in their tracks and possibly jarring the ball loose. The downside to this is your cone will shrink significantly, leading to a greater chance of missing the tackle altogether and gifting the offensive player more yards in the process. It’s an engaging mechanic which really brings a little bit more interactivity to the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive line play has also been reworked. What used be a frustrating tango of trying to beat the offensive tackle and inexplicably being thrown face first to the turf, defensive linemen can now jump the snap if you pull the right trigger as soon as the ball is snapped, giving a small speed boost and getting a leg up on the offensive line. From there, it’s mini-game where during the struggle with the 0-lineman, a button will pop up over his head. If you press it, your player will attempt a rip, swim, or spin move to try to shed the block and get to the quarterback which gives a feeling like you are actively involved in the process.
Connected Franchise mode has also been improved. There is a new gameplan and confidence system that has been implemented that allows you to be more hands on in your preparation for that week’s opponent. All of your players will now have a confidence rating that will fluctuate week to week based on individual performance, team performance, and their role on the team. High confidence ratings will give players attribute boosts while low confidence will impart attribute penalties. Each week, you are given a set number of hours with which you must decide how to allocate. Do you want develop that new cornerback you just drafted? Do you want to give your quarterback a pick me up after last week’s poor performance? To you want to give some extra lovin’ to your offensive line as they head into game against an elite defensive line? These are the choices and variables you balance from week to week and this is a welcome change from the blandness of the between game purgatory that typically occurs during madden franchise games.
But as I stated in the first paragraph of this review, Madden 15 is not all sunshine and roses. As immersive as the game can be at times, there are issues that crop up that utterly shatter it. The commentary team of Jim Nantz and Phil Sims is inexcusably bad, iv giving lazy and uninterested deliveries and occasionally flat out calling the action on the field incorrectly. This led to me turning off the commentary altogether within a few games and screams to me that EA needs to bring in a new team for next year’s game. Penalties are hardly ever called; during my time with the game only one penalty was ever called, an offsides penalty on me when I got a little too froggy before the ball was snapped. Challenges seem inherently broken as well, for example, in one instance a booth challenge was called on whether a receiver had both feet in bounds with the initial call ruling the play out of bounds. The replay showed that while the receiver got his first foot within the playing the lines, the second foot clearly landed out of bounds. The referee then came back and stated the the receiver had both feet in bounds and the call would be reversed, prompting me to tilt my head in utter confusion. v
Speaking of replays, the replays of the action have a strange habit of showing a play half way through its completion rather than showing it’s progression, which hurts the presentation. Often times on sideline strikes to Alshon Jeffery or Marcellus Bennett, the replay will start right in the middle of Jay Cutler’s throwing animation rather than right at the snap which is rather jarring and breaks any sense of flow. Replays have been a consistent problem for Madden and it does not seem as if this will be rectified anytime soon.
As engaging as defensive line play is this year, on the default difficulty it is utterly overpowered and broken. When using Lamarr Houston, an above average defensive end, I was able to sack a quarterback during a game a crazy 11 times without the defense making any adjustments to double or triple team me, the QB looking to get the ball out quicker, or the opposing AI calling quick three-step drops or runs to save their quarterback some punishment. Three games into the regular season, Houston had 19 sacks. For context, last year Robert Quinn led the NFL with 19 sacks. All. Season. It almost felt like I was cheating and led me ignoring defensive play altogether on occasion. When bumping things up to All-Pro difficulty, the problem of easy QB sacks still persisted, albeit not at the same insane rate.
However, the most damning flaws of Madden 15, and the reason the game rubs me the wrong way so much, occur in the passing game. Specifically the Quarterback/Wide Receiver/Defensive Back trinity. Cannon-armed Quarterbacks like Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford will routinely underthrow receivers downfield, something that never happens in real-life and an unacceptable flaw that renders that the deep passing game almost useless. An underthrown ball practically guarantees an interception but with Cutler and Stafford, who possess the two strongest throwing arms in the NFL, this should never be an issue. Yet here it is.
This was not an issue in past games so it appears as if EA has broken it in this game. This is frustratingly compounded by the fact there is little-to-no interaction between the WR and DB during routes, with WRs occasionally getting caught on a defender when running through traffic on a slant or crossing route leading to them simply running in place, prompting misthrown balls or helpless interceptions. This has been an issue with Madden for almost a decade and it still has not been addressed which is just maddening. vivii On top of this, receivers outright refuse to fight for balls in the air and seem to simply give up if the ball is not thrown right on the money when it goes deep. This leads to, you guessed it, interceptions. This renders elite jump-ballers like A.J. Green, Alshon Jeffery, and Calvin Johnson essentially worthless in the deep passing game. I repeat, EA has found away to neuter one of the most dominant wide receivers of all time by making what is possibly his most legendary skill, positively unusable. This, more than anything else, soured my experience on the game and makes me not want to go back to it.
It really comes down to this; even now in the 26th installment of the franchise, I still don’t believe it plays well as well as NFL 2K5, the greatest football game ever made. A game that made EA scramble to lock up the NFL license so that no one but them can make third-party NFL games, killing their competition and the football game market. Madden NFL 15, as unfortunate as it is and as much as it pains me to say, can’t stack up to a game that came out almost a decade ago when it comes to gameplay. Arguably the most important part of any sports game. A few times while playing, I longingly imagined what kind of game this could have been if EA still had the competition of 2K Sports to push them to new heights and drive them to be better then what they thought possible. But we don’t live in that happy universe. And this is not that happy game. But it is fine for what it is. And what it is, is an occasionally enjoyable arcade football game masquerading as a simulation. But it could’ve been so much more.
C’est la vie.