You can tell Madden 19 is an obvious improvement over its predecessor from the get-go. My opening play sees New York Giants signal-caller Eli Manning, his unique gait replicated down to the smallest twitch, throwing a deep pass to Odell Beckham Jr. The frost-tipped blonde leans into the pass and, almost absurdly, plucks the ball out of mid-air, turns on a dime and, in doing so, sends a safety careering into the sideline. You’d not notice it at first glance, but it was all new: new animations, new movement and, most importantly, a brand-new feeling as a smug smirk crept across my face: this is football – where EA has wisely preached subtle evolution over bombastic revolution. Despite some of the same old Madden flaws creeping up, this is an experience that’ll have you engaged from your first snap through to your thousandth (and then some).
Those who were worried developers EA Tiburon would essentially take a knee this year, safe in the monopolistic environment Madden finds itself at the tail-end of a console generation, can put their fears to rest. The actual football is the star of the show. While the game is relatively restrained in terms of bells and whistles, it’s the minutiae that’ll capture the hearts and minds of the Madden crowd.
Moving on up
Real Player Motion, for example, takes the styles from several household name players and supplants them onto their virtual counterpart. It makes each game infinitely more exciting because of it. No longer does Jacksonville Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette run like any old Joe Schmoe, nor the shiftier James White carry with him the heft of a stocky running back. Each player – within reason – plays just how you’d expect them to, right down to certain quarterbacks and their superstitious routines before grabbing hold of the pigskin.
It’s not just the refined movement, with its greater array of unique animations, that creates the impression that no two snaps ever feel the same. Hard hits are now harder than ever. It’s probably not EA’s intention to draw attention to brain-bashing action with the furore surrounding head injuries and concussions in the sport, however. But that, when coupled with the emphasis on speedy cut backs and jukes on the offensive side of the game, neatly fuses both the balletic and brutish sides of the NFL, something which years upon years of Madden games have failed to imitate.
The natural grace on the field, however, is marred by a few irritating quirks off (and around) it. Recycled commentary is reaching an inexcusable level at this point, with nearly a third of all commentary lines from duo Branden Gaudin and Charles Davis being coughed up from previous entries during my first game alone. There are other weird design choices abound, too. The kick meter – often a crucial tool and the difference between winning and losing a hard-fought game – is more times than not covered by the scores from around the league at the bottom. It’s something that should’ve been fixed in beta and, yet, remains.
One of the most egregious, and instantly telling, presentation issues stems from something that has seemingly plagued every title from God of War downwards – yep, black boxes and eye-strainingly small text rears its ugly head. Just so you know: don’t adjust your television set but do get on your soapbox to EA about it. These aren’t errors that should ship when the game goes gold and (hopefully) can be buffed out by the game’s release.
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But enough about on-field action. What about the modes that encapsulate all that is great about each year’s Madden? Franchise Mode has gotten a pretty sizeable addition in the shape of scheme fits. Offensive and defensive team shapes are now presented in an easy-to-change, even easier to understand format wherein each player either ‘fits’ (as evidenced by a puzzle piece next to their name) or doesn’t fit into a system. If they fit? Great, they’ll receive certain boosts and help your team overall. If they don’t? Well, either upgrade their archetypal stats so they have more of an impact in your unit or put them on the chopping block and bring in someone who is more used to your scheme. It adds an extra dimension to managing your team this year, and it’s one more in line with how Head Coaches and front-room staff handle things in real life. More of that Football Manager-style dynamic complexity in Madden 2020, please.
Drafting in a replacement
Draft Day, too, has been overhauled somewhat. The biggest marquee change is undoubtedly the introduction of Custom Draft Classes. If you wish, you can take EA’s crop of fake players graduating from college and swap them for real-life NCAA players making their way up the system as we speak, should a player from the community put in the hours to make it (and you betcha they will upon release).
It harkens back to the glory days of being able to transfer your NCAA team straight into Madden drafts – and should spice things up a bit, whether you’re a diehard Big Ten fan or just someone who wants that little bit more realism injected into the game. The sport’s most hectic week also comes with an added element of pomp and circumstance thanks to the new FIFA Ultimate Team pack opening-style presentations when you draft some of your biggest picks. Again, it feeds into the ethos of Madden 19: it may not look or even act like much, such as the ability to choose your Team Captains for the year, but it all adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts.
Longshot, the single-player quasi-boxset feature in the series, is also back for its sophomore outing. EA has weirdly swept this one under the rug this year which reads as a bizarre choice when the tale of wannabe quarterback Devin Wade, along with BFF wide receiver-cum-singer Colt Cruise, is so compelling.
From the intimately told and surprisingly-heartfelt cutscenes – even if the story does get a little hokey in places – to the camaraderie between the two protagonists both on and off the field, it actually betters last year’s effort and acts as a watermark for sports narratives in gaming. In fact, it’s so good in places that the actual act of playing football tends to fumble its way into the foreground, often grinding the beauty of a story to a halt – especially when relying on brain-dead AI to help Devin progress in his career.
Finally, Madden Ultimate Team, unsurprisingly, keeps things under lock and key in terms of sweeping changes. The only real spanner in the works is MUT Solo Battles which, if you’ve played FIFA’s Squad Battles, you’ll know exactly what you’re in for. It’s the same thing, just under a different banner – which may disappoint some fans of the pack-happy game mode.
Despite a few niggling issues, Madden 19 is going to be a game you’ll be playing well into the Super Bowl and beyond. It effortlessly makes its way onto the series’ Mount Rushmore; every swaggering step and ankle-breaking shimmy all the more reason to want to return and replay a game at the peak of its powers on the pitch. Madden has never been better in terms of cleats-on-the-ground nitty-gritty gameplay. Its periphery content, such as Longshot: Homecoming, shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Care and attention has been poured into the game from opening coin toss to final whistle – and you’re going to love every minute of it.