Madden 17 checks all the boxes of a proper sports simulator: Up-to-date rosters, accurate depictions of real NFL stadiums, and real-world TV announcers commenting on your every move. As longtime players have come to expect from the annual update, we’ve seen a lot of this before. But the familiar presentation and just-a-little-nicer-than-last-year graphics belie some dramatic and much-needed changes to how you actually play the game.
Madden has always existed in a strange space between the real, sometimes boring NFL, and the high-octane insanity of NFL Blitz. The franchise bills itself as a simulation, but with game times sliced down by default, and an emphasis on the passing game that leads to huge scores, matchups aren’t nearly as strategic and plodding as they often are on the real NFL gridiron.
Hoping to make these virtual contests more balanced without sacrificing the excitement of big yardage plays, Madden 17’s ground game has gone through a complete overhaul. Gone are the days where you point the running back in a direction, wiggle the stick, and hope for the best; you now have much greater control over the runner and can actively engage defenders with more variety than a simple stiff-arm or spin move.
Once you’ve made contact with a tackler, you now have a real opportunity to break their grasp with some well-timed button mashing. It might sound silly, but in practice it leads to more realistic running plays, as modern NFL backs rarely go down at first contact, and frantically tapping on your controller to squeeze out a few extra inches for a first down can make even the smallest plays feel like a big deal. It’s a welcome change, and makes the rushing options much more appealing than in years past.
The passing game has remained largely untouched. Timing your pass to hit a receiver at precisely the right moment, avoiding the pass rush, and occasionally tossing the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack are all key to a successful drive on offense. Playcalling is a simple affair, with a half dozen sorting options to quickly find the play you’re looking for, or you can trust the AI coach and pick one of the recommended plays.
For those who are less into the on-field grind and more into the meta of an NFL season, Madden 17 has made some solid upgrades to the love-it-or-hate-it Franchise mode. You pick your team and ride it through an entire NFL season, acting as an omnipotent football genius as you set a season goal, negotiate contracts, and even force your players to play through injuries. The new “lingering injuries” feature lets you push a player back onto the field after they’ve been given the OK by the team doctor, but before they are fully healed. Doing so puts the player at greater risk of reinjury, but getting a superstar back onto the turf can save a season.
A neat addition to this year’s Franchise mode is the new Play The Moments feature. It’s totally optional, but allows you to take direct control of the outcome of a particularly pivotal play. Say, for instance, that your Wild Card playoff spot depends entirely on a 4th-and-goal play. Instead of simulating the outcome, you’ll be tossed into the game and given the chance to play that specific down, putting your team’s success or failure entirely on your shoulders. It’s a nice way to feel connected to the outcome of games even when you’re more focused on big picture decisions like signing players or managing your new practice squad.
Madden Ultimate Team, where you buy player packs akin to trading cards, fill your roster, and play against others who may or may not have a much, much better team than you, is largely identical to its previous iteration. The pack-opening animations are new, and there are now fireworks, so at least that’s something, right? MUT is definitely for the most hardcore of the Madden faithful, and the payoff for building an unstoppable team is the ability to relentlessly destroy online opponents.
Speaking of online play, Madden 17 continues the series’ recent tradition of typically lag-free matchups, though if you’re a particularly skilled player you’ll still often find yourself on the receiving end of a “Your opponent has disconnected” error message. There’s not much EA can do about those, unfortunately.
But as solid as Madden 17 is, there are still a few issues that, like a pulled hamstring, continue to linger. The new announcers, like the old announcers, suffer from stilted conversation and cheesy dialogue. Listening to a pair of football gurus mindlessly banter during a real NFL game is cringe-worthy enough as it is, but when that same inane chatter is distracting you from picking your next play, it’s even more annoying. If the bad commentary is an attempt at realism, I think we’re better off without it.
Then there’s the player animations, which will repeatedly remind you that you’re playing a sports game with digital, plastic players. When standing up from a tackle, players will often slide and pivot while their feet remain frozen, and after a group collision you’re likely to see at least a few of them lay flat on their back with their hands at their sides, waiting for other players to move so they can perform their own stand-up-and-walk-away animation. These are issues that have existed in sports games for many, many years, but if you were hoping for a more immersive and believable experience this time around, it’s simply not here.
Those relatively minor niggles aside, Madden 17 makes a convincing argument that it’s not just another annual roster update. With sole ownership of the NFL license for over a decade now, EA’s Madden franchise has long since had any kind of real competition. In the time since acquiring those exclusive rights, the series has been occasionally accused of phoning it in and failing to make significant progress, year to year. With major changes to some of the game’s core mechanics, and an impressive revamp of the now marquee Franchise Mode, Madden 17 has done its best to avoid any such accusations, and succeeded.
Madden NFL 17 was reviewed on Xbox One.