While EA Sports has been dedicated to trying to bring a full, accurate football experience to video games for over 25 years, there are some intangibles that are still tricky to replicate. This is especially true with the passing game, which is why Madden NFL 16 is making some improvements in that area. On top of that, this year's edition of the game is packing in a new mode that shakes the game up in some intriguing ways.
Draft Champions is a new fantasy mode, consisting of 15 rounds. For each round, players will see one of three random players of varying positions pop up. Only one of those players can be selected, while the other two are discarded. The draft will continue until 15 players are chosen, with the AI automatically filling in any other empty slots on the team. That team will then go on the field for short mini-seasons. For fans of a certain popular card game, this may sound familiar.
"You might have noticed that some of us are fans of Hearthstone," was the response I received during my hands-on.
Yes, Draft Champions borrows from the Hearthstone book, particularly the Arena mode. As odd a blend as that sounds on the surface, it works extremely well. It's particularly wrenching when three Pro Bowl-caliber players pop up on the screen, each playing a different position. At one point during my time with this mode, I had to make the difficult choice between Brandon Marshall, Marshawn Lynch, and JJ Watt. Some rounds will see those choices get easier, such as my first round that saw me take Peyton Manning over two mid-tier players. And some rounds will even toss in legends, like one that saw me take Hall of Fame RB Marshall Faulk. ESPN's Adam Schefter will offer real-time commentary through each of the rounds and will offer a full draft evalutation after the final pick.
Players can then take these teams to the field for short campaigns, often lasting no more than a single night, and earn rewards based on the record they can rack up. Friends can even get together for multiple Draft Champion drafts and play in the same league.
As for the on-the-field game itself, EA will be placing a greater emphasis on air supremacy. To start, a quarterback's pocket movement has been adjusted, which will also be reflected through updated QB AI. As for passes, quarterbacks can now throw up passes to receivers based on their body types. That means you can air it up high for a beast like Calvin Johnson or slightly lower for shorter targets and for different routes. In aiming for these receivers, players can also utilize a new touch pass system. Double tapping on a receiver icon can allow quarterbacks to either throw bullets or lobs at their targets. On-screen text will also reflect what type of pass was thrown, in case any adjustments need to be made.
With quarterbacks proving slightly more mobile in the pocket, the focus becomes on receivers. Similar to the defensive line upgrade from last year that saw defenders perform different actions at the point of the snap, receivers will now have a set of options at the point of the catch. They can opt for an aggressive catch, a RAC (run after catch) play, or catch for possession. Those players defending those receivers will likewise get options, where they can secure the tackle after the catch, bat down the ball, attempt the pick, and more.
With so much focus on receiving, that means EA Sports is overhauling penalties... for better or worse. All those annoying, borderline pass interference calls you see every Sunday? Prepare to see those in Madden, as well. So defenders that opt to get too aggressive at the point of catch will run a higher risk of drawing a flag. It'll be easier to tell what's a penalty and what isn't, since animations are being updated to better highlight press and chucks, route hand fighting, and two-hand catches.
EA Sports will take the field with Madden NFL 16 on August 25 on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.