Madden 15 review: victory formation

For the first time in years, all I want to do is play Madden

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher EA Sports
Developer EA Tiburon
Release Date Aug 26, 2014

EA Sports' Madden series celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. This year's Madden NFL 15 observes another important milestone: the 10th edition under the exclusive license of the National Football League.

That deal fundamentally altered the relationship between sports gamers and developers. The exclusive license made the annual, iterative nature of sports video gaming a primary topic of criticism. With no alternatives on the shelf, skipping a year of a series was now a grave choice for a fan, between picking up something that didn't earn the money or going without that sport for a year.

Ten years later, Madden NFL 15 validates its iterative process as a game that improves rather than repairs or attempts to reinvent itself.

Too many times over the past 10 years, Madden's response to skeptical gamers was to hastily build splashy, marketing-friendly features that either were rolled back or left unimproved in future editions. This year, Madden's best additions aren't big, ambitious game-changing modes, but smaller features that help users make more informed decisions and play more under control. It is not an enormous leap forward, but Madden NFL 15 does show the most polish, year-over-year, that I have seen in the series since 2004.

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Visually, the game is the best it's ever looked, and a new approach to the TV-style broadcast really draws out the game's beauty. The models of players and coaches are improved, and look more lifelike thanks to better overall lighting that reduces the over-metallicized look of the helmets seen last year. But you'd also be surprised how lifelike Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks seems when the camera isn't lingering on him doing nothing on the sideline for eight seconds.

In terms of broadcaster commentary, Larry Ridley, a regional sports personality from Florida, supplies the most oomph with a halftime report that, remarkably, sounds like he was really watching the game with specific references to performers and stats. He also backs a studio introduction that is miles better than the head-scratching, no-dialogue beginning to games in Madden NFL 25. I'd still love to someday see an around-the-league look at scores, like Madden's dear departed sibling NCAA Football.

Unfortunately, the camera work doesn't help the generic commentary of announcers Jim Nantz and Phil Simms. Playoff games with these two are still called with a disappointing blandness that lacks context, to say nothing of individual plays in one-off games. The best example was when I took Ryan Mathews of the San Diego Chargers 59 yards on a do-or-die screen pass. "He's looking for extra yards!" was all Nantz said over the entire play, before handing it over to the eternally unimpressed Simms. This is the duo's third year together, and their dialogue — or how the game serves it — absolutely must be upgraded next year, if they're going to stay in the game.

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This is the most user-friendly and fun-to-play Madden to date

Fortunately, the polish and improvements put into Madden NFL 15's solid and enjoyable gameplay may mean the development team will have the luxury of working on other things next year. This is the most user-friendly and fun-to-play Madden to date, and that's thanks to new inclusions that help players make more informed choices, both before and during a play, in a sport distinguished by strategy.

The new play-calling menu — which doesn't make for the sexiest of sales pitches — is a solid example of this. The introduction of analytic data, to suggest plays and help you choose and even implement them, makes it the game's most valuable and even overdue improvement.

Knowledgeable, longtime players can still navigate the full playbook manually, though it does require an annoying extra button press to go back to its main directory. Most players will take suggested plays, and these will come with data explaining why they were chosen. There are three types: strategic, community and user. Community suggestions are drawn from the millions of Madden players in recent years, and what they have called in the situation facing the user. User suggestions show the player what they've called in the same situation. Strategic suggestions come from the real-world tendencies of NFL teams.

It's the strategic suggestions that are most enlightening. For example, when Madden NFL 15 suggests that I call a particular pass play because the Chiefs use a certain defensive formation in this situation, it does several things. The first is it tells me to look for that defense — and if it's a blitz, I'm being extra alert. But if it's another type of defensive formation, say against a pass, if the Chiefs do show that formation, then I have high confidence that this play is going to work. But if the Chiefs show a different formation, I'm ready to change the play to deal with it. Maybe I change to a running play at the line of scrimmage, or change a receiver's route if he has an advantage on the defender covering him. (These matchups are identifiable by a new "coaching wheel" that shows you how much faster, taller and overall better or worse one player is versus the defender on him).

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This kind of thought process was not happening with me in last year's game. And I recognize this stuff thanks to a very well-structured, well-paced skill training mode that focuses your attention to these concepts over repeated plays and then judges your ability to execute against them. Past Maddens didn't necessarily make me feel stupid, but these two improvements in Madden NFL 15 make me feel smarter, especially against human players who can do unorthodox, high-risk/reward things.

Some additions to defensive play don't help performance as much as has been touted, but they do make it appealing enough to look forward to playing defense instead of simulating plays until you get the ball back. A close, third-person camera locked to a single defensive player (which can be changed before each snap) makes defense more playable. The main camera perspective has always made playing skillful defense very challenging, because it's hard to judge a defender's distance to the runner, leading to things like missed tackles or simply over-running the play. The defensive player lock camera provides a more precise view of the action, at the cost of being unable to switch to another player once the ball is snapped.

The player-locked camera also makes playing defense flat-out more fun. Shoving aside an offensive lineman with the Texans' J.J. Watt and destroying the quarterback is a high-five-yourself moment reminiscent of Backbreaker's great roadie-runs at the quarterback. Players who select a defensive lineman or linebacker are also greatly helped by two minute additions, a reticle lighting up under the player that shows when his target is in range to attempt a tackle, and on-screen button cues that simplify the moves a defender can make to shed a block. In the past, most users would just slam a fat guy into the offensive line and spam the sticks, or the buttons for the "swim" or "rip" move. Hands up if you know what those are or what the difference is between them, or when one is more effective than the other.

Thought so.

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The player-locked camera brings additions that make for a much easier approach. Overall, this package of overdue improvements to defensive play reduces the button- and stick-spam that made defense so inscrutable, and skippable, in the past.

Making defense more viable and enjoyable also adds strong value to the mode most people play: Connected Franchise. This is the suite of career modes that lets users participate, alone or together online, in an ongoing, multi-season campaign as either a single player (a quarterback or running back, for example), a coach playing as the entire team and managing its personnel decisions, or an owner who gets to do ownership things like set hot dog prices and renovate the stadium in addition to playing as the entire team.

Introduced two years ago, Connected Franchise is Madden's crown jewel — no other sports video game provides this kind of environment, much less online — and it wasn't expected to get major upgrades. Madden 15 does make a change to how players advance and hone their abilities that seems unbalanced, though, and replaces an open-ended practice system through which XP was acquired with a very repetitive grinding drill that had me slack-jawed midway through my rookie season.

Bad losses for a young team can put them in a death spiral

In Connected Franchise, players improve one of two ways: By acquiring XP that is applied to permanent attribute improvements, or with "confidence" that delivers more of a game-to-game skill boost. The time you can allocate to either is limited, and in the case of managing an entire team, you never have enough in a normal week to address more than three or four players.

This is a problem because bad losses will quickly erode a team's confidence, make the players perform more poorly, and the team will quickly enter a death spiral that no amount of practice or "watching film" (a background activity) will stop. Confidence is most easily maintained by winning, of course, which is nice if you have a strong club, but a lot of Madden's appeal is taking your favorite team — who may not be any good — or a perennial underdog and going all the way.

For those playing as one player only, the effect of confidence is opaque on your own career, and you're unable to change it when your teammates suffer several bad losses and everyone gets down on themselves. I was with the Browns as a rookie running back, unable to do anything about Johnny Manziel, Ben Tate or Josh Gordon (suspended for the year in real life) as we went through a hideous stretch of fourth-quarter defeats. Further, as a backup seeing limited playing time, confidence was largely irrelevant to me. I needed to acquire experience points to rank up my abilities more than I needed a one-time buff for a game I wouldn't start.

The minigame practice drills you can perform as a player are a poor substitute for the practice scenarios of the previous year, which always included a full game, so players could still get playing time with a created star who was a low draft pick working his way up. Now, if you're playing as a single player in Connected Franchise, there is no incentive to create anyone other than a high draft pick who will start immediately, or to use the menu option that forces him to start regardless of his ratings.

The inability to practice as an entire team in Connected Franchise, for those playing as coaches and owners, also is a mistake, and the obligation of maintaining high confidence inevitably shortchanges developing some other part of your team that really needs it. Coaching the Chargers, I went an entire season spending zero time on my defensive backs because I had to keep propping up the offensive line and skill position players. We still won, but the benefit of high confidence is most seen when large units, like the line, have it — but you can't coach an entire positional group, only individual players.

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It says a lot about the strength of the basic gameplay that Connected Franchise remains an appealing mode despite the misfired changes made to practicing and the unnecessary introduction of confidence. I would have rathered Madden make no changes to Connected Franchise than this one, but it isn't a deal-breaker.

Elsewhere, Ultimate Team remains a game unto itself, though its changes are aimed at bringing more people in by removing procedural barriers to acquiring and managing the stars on your fantasy football team. A one-button command now delivers the highest overall-rated lineup without sorting through them yourself. Overall, though, Ultimate Team's biggest boost, like Connected Franchise, comes from the gameplay serving it.

For some, the changes to career progression will seem like the same old Madden, in that we can't get any leap forward in improvement without some unnecessary change holding another mode back. For me, if the choice is between the career system in last year's Madden, without the upgrades to play-calling and defense, and this year's game with unquestionably better gameplay and a boring practice system in the career mode, there is no question which I'd take.

Wrap Up:

For the first time in years, all I want to do is play Madden

This is the first time since Madden NFL 10 where I've had that a-ha moment where all I want to do is go play Madden, and it's not because of some role-playing device in the career mode, or a nifty collection of throwback uniforms, or the fact there was a military flyover before the Super Bowl.

It's because the gameplay is focused to raising my knowledge and skill rather than accommodating or minimizing the lack of it. Madden NFL 15 looks like a series that's done making excuses for itself, too. The run blocking took a critical beating last year, and instead of bolting on some solution like "steering" a lead blocker (an old feature, also abandoned after a single year) the game sucked it up, smartened up, and came back with an AI that creates running opportunities as dependable away from the line of scrimmage as the holes it has always opened in the trenches.

Without that kind of care, we'd really be back where we were with Madden, and a game defined by one year's shortcomings rather than the combined value and improvement of the past three. Just getting us to see that may be its greatest accomplishment of the past decade.

Madden NFL 15 was reviewed using a retail PS4 disc provided by EA. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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