NOTE: Due to a publisher embargo, this review was initially published with no score on Tuesday, August 17, and updated with a final score on Friday 20 August
For anyone who's not a fan of sports games, it's common to think that "it's the same every year". But, those of us who do play every year would argue against that, preferring rather to pick apart an annual sports game on the merits of its new, if sometimes subtle, changes. However, the idea has rung true in one regard as it comes to the Madden series: the abandonment of Franchise mode. Going on nearly a decade since the last sweeping changes to one of Madden's most popular modes, the wait has been agonizing, but it's finally over. As a whole, Madden 22 is an inconsistent game, but Franchise is, at long last, the priority.
Perhaps the surest sign of renewed focus in Madden NFL 22 is that Ultimate Team, the very lucrative reason Franchise mode has been ignored for so many years, has this year been left by the wayside itself. While MUT players won't like to hear that, they've received ample updates over the last decade and will still enjoy the live-service delivery of content all year long.
The exciting thing is that now Franchise will enjoy a similar rollout of content, but even on day one, Franchise is the best it's been in years. It starts with the new coaching management system. Every Franchise player will have direct control over their head coach, offensive and defensive coordinators, as well as the player personnel department. This extends from basic hiring and firing decisions to the much more interesting skill trees making their debut.
Achieving goals in weekly matchups will earn staff points that can be distributed however players see fit. Just like in an RPG, players will find themselves creating custom builds for their coaches. A power run-heavy team may want to focus on improving their OC's ability to coach up pulling guards and protect the football, whereas a west coast offense would be better-suited improving QB protection and receivers' route-running and agility. Each skill tree is presented in branches and going down one branch will shut out its opposite branch, so smart, future-focused decisions are made every single in-game week.
Pre-game metrics and stats are impressively deep this year, leveraging the NFL's patented Next Gen Stats for the second year in a row. More information is now displayed in the updated HUD on any screen you turn to. This includes minor quality-of-life fixes like seeing how far from leveling up your players are in the roster screen, as well as more granular data on how your opponent plays. It feels like Madden has finally joined the moneyball revolution still slowly taking over the real NFL.
Training has been improved too, for the most part anyway. Noticing most players simulated training anyway, Tiburon streamlined this year's practice sessions, enabling players to earn their XP faster and in a more focused way thanks to finer details in weekly schemes, which keeps all on-field gameplay in games that matter, away from the rote but obligatory practice sessions.
Who needs a water break?
Where this system falters is in a way that actually affects the entire game. Stamina is meant to behave more realistically, punishing play-spam, but it's going to need some tweaking. In one game emblematic of the issue in my Franchise with the Titans, Derrick Henry rushed for 85 yards on just six carries, but strangely spent the whole second half exhausted, leading to him sitting out automatically at times and fumbling when he was playing. This is a new wrinkle, and it seems like something Tiburon can tweak, so hopefully this is an August problem and not a November or even September problem.
There's also an issue with the new "story engine" of Franchise, which is meant to sprinkle in small narrative-driven choices each week, mainly through press conferences and team meetings, but the stories don't add much and sometimes don't make sense. Once I was asked how my team would handle the downpours forecasted for the game ahead, only to play it out in total sunshine.
Beyond Franchise, Madden 22 returns the same eclectic suite of modes as last year's game, usually with some appreciable differences, such as more cosmetic rewards in The Yard, a new half-decent story in Face of the Franchise with a new linebacker option, and the everpresent upward ramp of slightly better visuals, commentary, and presentation than the year before. In each case, the changes all feel peripheral to Franchise's focused fixes.
Even the first major content update in September will deepen the college scouting system for virtual team owners, reassuring Franchise fans that Madden in the live-service era means the game's launch is not a one-off tip of the hat to the game's most-played but historically features-deprived mode.
Capturing the atmosphere of gameday
As it's also the second year on new-gen consoles, you may expect to find some enhanced AI behaviors, but on the field looks and feels largely the same, though new player archetypes do help steer the team-building meta away from the past necessity of speedy linebackers, giving bigger defenders greater impact by overpowering undersized blockers. If this is your first new-gen Madden, you'll notice a more realistic locomotion system compared to the Xbox One/PS4 version too.
The biggest on-field difference is actually on the audio side, but it's a rehash of features from the old NCAA Football days, where home-field advantage and momentum swings bestow special abilities to score leaders. Crowd noise is pumped to 11, and players will see more sideline and crowd interactions than ever before. It's a good second bullet point and can be appreciated even if you're among those who weren't clamoring for a return to Franchise glory.
Madden NFL 22 is the first iteration in years to go all-in on the community's most popular mode. While we can dissect the remarkability of that sentence another day, the truth remains that Franchise fans finally have something to get excited for this season. Coaching skill trees, metrics-driven presentation, and streamlined training give players a deeper sense of ownership. While other modes have few new layers to get excited for, and the story engine and stamina system will need tweaks in the weeks ahead, the core improvements to what has always been the diehards' preferred mode should be seen as commendable, albeit delayed, fan service.
Reviewed on Xbox Series X with a code provided by the publisher.