The Madden NFL series poses a challenge. What meaningful statements, if any, can be made about a series now in its 28th iteration with no real competition that simulates a sport that has remained relatively consistent for decades? It feels like one of the many constants in the annals of the NFL: the Cowboys will continue to be a spiteful monument to man’s hubris, we will always question whether Joe Flacco is elite, and Madden is the only game in town. But there’s something else that I thought about as I was playing Madden NFL 17–the intersection of sports games and story.
A League of Your Own
See, in many ways Madden is a microcosm of the NFL itself. The league will tell you football is a game of excitement and passion where anything can happen on any given Sunday. In reality, much of football is built around cautious management of a manicured public image with little to no room for expression outside (or inside) the lines, and the electronic version of the real thing does not differ.
Yet the narratives and mythology that grow around the real game become bigger than its mundane commercial reality, and Madden explores this in its own way in the Franchise mode. This year, EA offers an optional new “Play the Moments” mode where you can fast-forward through most of the game to get to the hero moments–major stops on third down, red zone scoring opportunities, blocking last-second field goals–that make football exciting and also keep your league games bite-size while still affording significant control over the outcome. A Franchise game can be finished in about 20 minutes with this option turned on, meaning busy players could knock out a playoff run on their lunch break–a feature I appreciate more than maybe anything else EA has ever added to the franchise.
Combined with the returning XP system that allows players to be leveled up and improved over the course of a season, it is very easy to craft stories around these experiences and connections with particular players. Even though my championship run with the Packers saw star quarterback Aaron Rodgers knocked out with a dislocated elbow in the NFC title game, his season-long connections with receiver Jordy Nelson over the course of the season helped Nelson turn my backup quarterback into a Super Bowl winner. Feeling like my choices during the course of a Franchise season mattered and added to the legend of the 2017 Super Bowl champs gave me some of the same thrills of a lengthy RPG in a fraction of the time.
Rush n' Attack
Helping to craft the on-field story this year are new gameplay changes that lead to a more balanced game. Traditionally, Madden has been heavily weighted toward passing offenses. Last year offered the intriguing idea of different catch styles for different scenarios but ended up making the risky Aggressive catches all but unstoppable. This year, Aggressive catches are more likely to result in tipped balls and turnovers as intended, and the running game has been upgraded with new Precision and Speed moves that give more options for getting around defenders. While not always perfect and heavily reliant on timing these moves make a run offense much more viable.
EA was smart enough to make some long-needed changes at the special teams level of the game as well. I nearly clapped when I saw this year’s version introduced a much more standard three-click swing meter for all punts, kicks, and field goals. Not only does this replace the loathsome analog kick meter from previous years but it also makes field goals and punts a much surer strategic bet. Thanks to the precision of the new meter I was able to win some games I would have otherwise lost. There’s definitely more to keep track of on both sides of the ball than ever before, but this year’s Madden also provides constant prompts and tooltips to keep the more memory-challenged of us aware of all possible moves and options. Even with some occasionally wonky collision detection and player physics, the game feels more balanced and accessible than it has in a while.
Keeping It In-Bounds
Draft Champions was arguably my favorite addition to last year’s Madden and frankly a mode that should be standard for all sports games going forward. This year, in addition to the standard mode, Draft Champions makes its Hearthstone inspiration official by offering a special Ranked mode. Ranked mode requires entry tickets that can be cashed in for a shot at bigger prizes than the standard modes. (Naturally, you can give EA money to get more tickets if you are so inclined.) While the thrill of potentially gambling real money on your Madden skills to get you to the promised land of better Ultimate Team packs is probably appealing to some, I struggled to find significant success in this mode and I shuddered at the idea of throwing actual money at the game only to be fed into the online meat grinder. If only I could blame my misery on net code, but I can’t–the rounds I played were largely flawless, with only a couple instances of lag.
Finally, the most important part of any story is the presentation, and here is where EA’s focus on iteration over outright improvement becomes most apparent. For every clever tweak like regular downloadable commentary updates and new broadcast graphics and angles, there are legacy problems like lengthy load times, animation glitches and questionable sideline models. The dead-eyed low-poly Jim Caldwell model uniquely captures his sense of depressed futility but looks jarring next to the shiny helmets and dynamic jersey dirt on the field. This far into the console life cycle it’s harder to justify such disparity. It’s also worth noting that I experienced a few lockups that required a restart when selecting menu options, though the vast majority of the game ran smoothly.
Take a Knee
Of course, all stories need an ending. To the point, Madden NFL 17 is a quality Madden game. It does a lot of things right, and fixes most of the major shortcomings of previous editions. If you’ve lapsed in the series or just want to know if you should grab this year’s game, go forward knowing that you will get a lot of mileage from it. It’s good. At the same time, however, it is still absolutely a Madden game, and in the 12th year of EA’s exclusivity deal with the NFL it’s hard not to pine for a little competition. Sunrise, sunset.
This review is based on a Xbox One download code provided by the publisher. Madden NFL 17 will be available in retail and digital stores on August 23, for $59.99. The game is rated E.