Madden NFL 15 review: It's not Ryan Leaf, but it's not Peyton Manning. It's more of a Tony Romo
I'm going to be blunt; Madden NFL 15 does not live up to the expectations I had after playing the game at E3 and following the announcements since. Simply put, it's an improvement over Madden NFL 25, but makes questionable decisions as well. It's not a bust -- far from it. But it's not what I was hoping for. If I had to compare it to a real NFL quarterback, I'd say Madden NFL 15 is Tony Romo. He does a lot of things well, will have you playing meaningful games in week 17, but, ultimately, you won't make the playoffs and it's because of the players around him.
Madden NFL 15 starts off really strong. We get our first interactive experience to start the game, where you play as the Panthers in a fictional playoff game this upcoming postseason, going against the Seattle Seahawks and the Legion of Boom. It has an awesome cinematic feel to it, a bit of a storyline, and voice work from actual NFL QB Cam Newton. You take over late in the fourth quarter, leading the Panthers on a drive. If you score, you win the game. Queue celebration and trip to the Super Bowl. If you lose... I don't know what happens. I'm a winner, so I won. I'm told that Richard Sherman will scare Erin Andrews as the Seahawks celebrate a back-to-back Super Bowl appearance. While this is the only instance of the interactive experience in this year's game, it's encouraging to know that EA Sports is thinking about a future story mode. I think playing through a couple of NFL seasons with actual storylines would be amazing.
After looking toward the future, we are pulled back into the present by choosing to partake or bypass the Skills Trainer. It's pretty much drills and tutorials to help players understand football concepts and the advanced controls of the game. I've played every Madden game since the Sega Genesis days, and even I found some of the drills helpful. Then there's the Gauntlet, a series of 40 challenges that you have five lives to advance as far as you can. I don't think the inclusion of these drills and Gauntlet are going to convince past Madden owners to buy this year's game, but it's a nice feature nonetheless.
The biggest improvement of this year's game comes in the form of presentation. Working with NFL Films, EA Sports has finally made Madden NFL 15 look like an actual NFL broadcast. The stadiums are beautifully rendered, camera angles get in on the action, and there's a cool pre-game and half-time show that shows match-ups and highlights with commentary. In-game, the first and distance to go is shown on the field in the offensive team's colors with their logo. You'll also notice that there's actual NFL footage shown for quarterbacks when they take the field. It's a much-appreciated effort in an area of the franchise that needed improvement.
While presentation is nice and all, gameplay is the most important aspect. Thankfully, the game improves over last year's version, too. Granted, there's still some issues -- opposing quarterbacks, even back-ups, being godlike in accuracy, and defensive backs having a hard time covering corner routes -- but there's a ton of positives. Line play feels better than ever. You're rewarded for your patience and following the blocks, just like real NFL runners. Passing feels really great; there's more variety to the passes you can throw, and leading your receivers in combination with varying accuracy leads to some amazing catches, as well as some horrible Matt Schaub-like passes. Animations as a whole are more robust and improved.
The biggest changes to the gameplay comes on the defensive side of the ball. I like playing as a defensive end -- always have. No longer are your finesse and power pass-rushing moves tied to the right stick. They are now assigned to the A and X button, which I like, but don't love after extensive time with the game. I don't know if it's possible to feel like I have both less and more control over pass rushing with this new system, but that's what it feels like. I feel like I'm waiting for the game to tell me when it's okay to try to get by the offensive lineman. What happens is after jumping the snap (which is a fun little mini-game as the computer switches up their snap counts), A or X will appear of the pass rusher you're controlling at a certain time. The rest of the time I feel like I'm just waiting, running at or around the lineman waiting for something to happen. Nothing happens if I press A or X before the visual cue, except there's a chance I get knocked down.
The other big, new defensive feature is the tackling cone, which appears in front of a defensive player when a ball carrier is near. It will show you the conservative and aggressive area in which you can make those types of tackles. It's a bit mind-boggling in execution, though. I've had players in my cone, pressed A for a regular tackle, and just had the defender do nothing. Other times I press X to do an aggressive tackle, well within the cone, and my player does a little dive that doesn't even come close to taking down the defender. It's a little frustrating that the cone is also giving me cues on which button to press. I just feel a bit out of control on defense. I like the idea of the cone, but the execution needs some tweaking. Like I said, though, gameplay is much improved. AI is better on both sides of the ball, and I'm actually losing games to the AI, which is something that didn't really happen in past Madden games.
One last mixed bag for me is the new playcalling system. It's been completely redone, and you're either going to love it or hate it. I both love it and hate it. Whether it was Gameflow or Ask Madden in the past, I've always preferred to choose the formation and play myself, scrolling through Shotgun, Ace and I-formations. I feel like this year's system isn't friendly to players that prefer that. It took longer and found myself just using the recommendations. There's a new vertical layout for the plays that takes some getting used to, but the recommended plays are based on strategic picks, community picks, and your favorite plays for those down and yardage situations. I like that it's giving me a couple of different options, but I see the same play appears time and time and time again. At the end of the day, I maybe ran 20 different plays while the rest of my playbook was ignored. There's only so many times I want to run all slants or all curls. There's also options to choose plays based offensive concepts and play types. I found that using a combination of all of the play-choosing options worked best for me. Maybe the answer lies in creating my own playbook with fewer plays.
I've never been a huge fan of Madden Ultimate Team, but that makes a return, as expected. My game mode has always been Connected Franchise, preferably as an Owner calling the shots and playing the games. The big addition to this year's Connected Franchise is Game Prep, but it's unchanged outside of that. It's actually worse in some ways. First, relocation was a big gripe of mine last year. You'd choose from 10 cities, each city has three predetermined name options with a logo, and each name has three options of a uniform. It's all the same. The same cities. Most of the same names. And only a few different uniforms (they have those Oregon Duck wings on a few of the uniforms). There's no naming your own team or choosing your own colors or logos. That stuff I can even live without, but not being able to design your own uniforms? Even the media questions and stadiums are entirely the same. But seriously, how is there not team builder or create a uniform in there by now? Must be the scare of a lawsuit because a gamer created a uniform that looks like the Hurricanes' uniforms, or something like that.
Another mind-boggling decision came in the free agency period of the offseason. When you're bidding on players, you can't see any of their ratings besides their overall rating. If I want the fastest runningback in free agency, it's a guessing game from the free agent signing screen. You can see how much a player is interested in your bid, but you can't see how much arm strength a QB has? This is quite an oversight from EA Sports. That said, you have complete control over the dollar amount, years and bonus you offer the player. Just be careful when; it starts at what he's asking and if you lower the years, the dollar amount doesn't lower. If you're not careful, that $10M/4-year contract could turn into $10M/1-year. What's nice is that if the only offer a player has is your one-year, $800K offer, he'll take it.
The big addition to Connected Franchise this year is Game Prep and confidence. Game Prep gives you a certain amount of hours every week to prepare your team for the upcoming game. With that time, you can choose to raise the confidence of certain players, or you can perform drills to get XP to later raise the ratings of players. It's a balance of whether you want to raise your players confidence so they perform better in the short term, or try to make them better in the long term. Some of the drills you need to perform yourself, aiming for bronze, silver and gold XP rewards; others are simulated for you if you wish. Confidence is a tricky mechanic. Mine has hovered between 40 and 80 for players, and it's been hard to see how much worse they perform if their confidence is really low. That said, does Demaryius Thomas perform better than Emmanuel Sanders because he keeps having better games, causing his confidence to go up, causing better games? Or is he just better? It's an interesting mechanic and one that I'll keep exploring.
Overall, I am enjoying my time with this year's Madden NFL 15. As a football and sports video game junkie, Madden 15 is a fun game. But personally for me, Game Prep and confidence aren't the big sweeping changes that I was hoping for in Connected Franchise. I can't look past the fact that the mode has been largely ignored; Game Prep and confidence are two neat additions, but if they weren't there I probably wouldn't care. Based on the presentation and improvement in the gameplay and animations, Madden NFL 15 isn't everything I hoped for, but it's still fun. It's Tony Romo. It just needs to get past that hump.