We all know the drill. During every EA conference there comes a time when the music erupts with determined, resounding bass, lights flash, blinding the audience and Peter Moore strides out to talk sports. Meanwhile, games journalists and most people outside of America take the opportunity to put the kettle on. Why? Well, while FIFA maintains its dominance in living rooms around the UK, Madden attracts less of a following. Also, it’s likely because there’ll be some chat about sports TV that we can’t even get. However, with the release of Madden NFL 17 it seems there’s never been a better time to try the series as EA Tiburon step up their game.
Even for someone the polar opposite of au fait with the NFL, it cannot be denied that initial impressions reveal Madden 17 to look fantastic. A showy opening movie - something common to most sports games as experience with MLB: The Show will attest - sets the stage for a sports game that revels in the presentation as much as the play itself. On the field everything looks fantastic with smooth animations complementing the detailed player models. Even the crowd is varied enough that the old trope of copy paste fans with different colour shirts has been long banished.
With experience to NFL limited to watching the first half of the Super Bowl while waiting for the halftime show (and the sweet release of sleep immediately afterwards), it was surprising to find that even this minor experience informed playing the game. This year a greater emphasis has been put on running as opposed to passing, evidenced in a nutshell with the addition of a run line showing you the ideal path to take. More options have also been added to use while running, allowing the player to spin (self-explanatory), juke (dodge) and stiffarm (battering ram) their way through depending on the best course of action. This gives the game a better flow, especially given the disjointed, stop-start nature of the sport. Executing a successful sprint feels satisfying - more so than endless passing.
This renewed focus on running is also informed by the teams themselves. It can quite often be the case that all teams in a sports game feel resoundly similar, allowing any team from bottom to top to win the playoffs. In Madden, if a team has a specialty - be it passing or battering through the opposition with brute force - then it comes across in the way they play. This then affects players on an individual case - if they aren’t good at penetrating through the opposition while running, their ability to stiff-arm is going to be diminished.
Even kicking has had a facelift, with EA Tiburon learning from other EA Sports counterparts and implementing a three-button approach. It makes it a bit more interesting - you don’t just set up the kick then do it as there’s now the direction to manually take into account. All of this adds up to a game that feels less dictated by the CPU than it could. You could very easily picture playing on the defensive could become dull but even this feels rewarding to play. Special teams also make an appearance - there’s opportunity to practice beforehand in the training mode, although to little effect in actual play. Perhaps it was personal unfamiliarity, but not having anything come of practice felt a little disappointing.
There’s also Franchise Mode wherein you can draft teams and scout players. This sim-heavy option includes Play the Moments where you’re dropped into crucial plays to see how you fare. Without an in-depth knowledge of the sport this mode could be rather overwhelming - there’s a focus on stats for one - but the CPU was impressively good at helping manage a franchise, drafting teams based on their needs. For fans of the sport it adds another strategic layer beyond the immediate game itself.
Other modes are recognisably standard EA fare including a version of Ultimate Team which is dull enough on its home turf of FIFA but holds even less interest here. Why you’d fuss with a glorified trading card game when everything else holds such depth is bewildering. There’s also a fantasy team mode which is a nice addition for those not wanting to dip into the Franchise mode, but feels rather extraneous when that experience offers a deeper version of the same thing. There are also deep customisation options across all modes, allowing players a personal touch on the game. It’s not exactly necessary but there’s no penalty for extra content when the rest of the title feels as strong as it does.
Praise is due for the addition of the Skill Trainer, teaching newcomers to the series about formations and the deeper strategies of the sport. It’s a daunting prospect to pick up a title that’s seen so many iterations, but this has refined it, creating the best of both worlds for pros and newcomers alike.
While there were no real problems with the game, there are a few pointers that detract from the otherwise stellar presentation. Commentators are fine but there were quite a few repeated lines encountered through play - something you’d have expected sports titles had eliminated by this point. There’s also the aforementioned modes that feel extraneous and unnecessary, especially when they repeat themselves. You can never have too much of a good thing but there is a point where you begin to dilute the experience and fragment players’ attention.
Aside from that, Madden 17 is a polished and deep experience that’s perfect for fans and the curious alike. Refinement has evidently allowed EA Tiburon to reach a sweet spot between accessibility, gameplay and the overall experience and their relationship with other EA Sports studios has reaped collaborative benefits. Of course, the inclusion of EA’s typical tat comes with this, but it can be safely ignored. Madden 17 is a must-have for any fan of NFL and a great entry point for others. EA has listened to the community and responded - make sure to give it a punt yourself.