Madden NFL 17 review

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher EA Sports
Developer EA Tiburon
Release Date Aug 23, 2016

Each edition of a sports video game poses and answers a question of the series preceding it, making its developers' choice of the question just as important as the reply. The makers of Madden NFL 17 have again chosen well, and responded earnestly, for the third straight year in EA Sports' glamour franchise.

A fleet of subtle inclusions and upgrades combines with a new highlight-reel mode on game day to make Madden's virtual NFL seasons more believable and exciting, and their off-the-field intrigue more accessible and less chore-like. On the gridiron, Madden continues to improve, particularly in a beefier running game and some smart choices on special teams to make that phase more meaningful.

Combined with an earnest focus on educating a user, whether it's about the sport in general, the coming week's opponent or how to play effectively, Madden NFL 17 is a rewarding experience that, counterintuitively, begins by asking you to play less of a game, not more.

Madden 17 occasionally asks you to play less of the game

Madden NFL 17's new mode of play, Play the Moments, is based on it simulating a Franchise game in the background, "watching" it for the user, and whistling them into the living room to take over when a key opportunity is at hand. The idea as it applies to the season mode is that time spent on monotony that even video game football can't avoid — three-and-out drives in a tied game's second quarter, or administering a huge lead in the fourth — is returned to the user for behind-the-scenes aspects of franchise management that are more varied and interesting.

Play the Moments is mostly successful, particularly in defense. There are big differences between defending a drive starting on the 20-yard line to begin the game, one in the final four minutes to try to win it, and one in the middle of the game after a team has scored to gain significant momentum. Play the Moments seems to understand these distinctions and is most judicious about asking for the user's attention when it involves the defense. Also, defensive moments frequently begin near the start of a drive, and rarely on a second or third down. That's also good; a defensive user needs live play to build up a context for decision-making and for the AI players to perform well. Offenses will routinely be called in on third down and other one-off situations to keep a drive going, but they're more able to complete those hotshot jobs.

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This means most of the moments surfaced are on the user's offensive side of the ball. Players with a taste for defense may feel robbed, and they should, because Madden NFL 17 provides its most enjoyable game of defense ever, particularly for novices, thanks to better AI and some truly educational drills available in the weekly practices of the career mode.

For example, "gap assignment" — where a defender either breaks through the offensive line or protects a running lane opened within it — is one of those ESPN-analyst terms I pretend to understand. But it's also a behavior that Madden NFL 17 incorporates better than its predecessors, and then shows its homework in the practice drills to the benefit of offense and defense alike. Controlling an edge defender whose team was trying to stop a run, or taking the guy whose job was to shut off a cutback, I felt like I was working more purposefully than just slamming full-speed into the offensive line and trying to kill anyone on the other side of it. On offense, seeing linebackers play according to type, instead of both playing a running lane and then tracking the runner as I flee for the outside, helped me understand who was really involved in the play instead of just feeling swarmed.

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Passing, which got plenty of attention last year thanks to new receiving controls, is largely the same experience, but I did notice plenty more drops and balls knocked free, seemingly in compensation for the overpowered "aggressive catch" button introduced in Madden NFL 16. Still, it too is helped by the ball-carrying upgrades, meaning a stiff arm at the end of a big catch and run not only feels great in the extra yardage gained, it looks awesome as receiver and defensive back tumble out of bounds together.

In special teams, there's a ton of new trick plays, and jumping the snap on a block attempt helps make that a more reasonable possibility. The most important thing, however, is the ability to put backspin on a punt to deaden the ball. Without this choice, players were aiming for the sidelines and hoping for the best; punting now feels more productive even while giving over possession. There is, once again, a new kicking meter, but the three-button press makes longer field goals more missable.

Madden NFL 17 also helps out runners with some wonderful on-field visual cues to perform a move, or even making them contextual altogether and letting a lesser-skilled user focus on steering the runner. The moves are also more useful, the stiff arm and spins in particular. These are available by default at lower global difficulty (Rookie or Pro) and not at All-Pro (the difficulty of a ranked online match) or higher. Assists and overall difficulty settings can be mixed and matched, though the game doesn't make it obvious. New or lapsed players might want to go through the options to tweak assists to their taste — it's fun to meet a challenge like All-Pro with a thumb on the scale only where needed, instead of dumbing down the entire game or going through the trial and error of gameplay sliders.

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Games played with Play the Moments in Franchise mode can be finished in less than 30 minutes, even watching all of the broadcast cutscenes and commentary from the new announcing team. The fresh-faced booth pairing of Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis, obscure to real-life NFL broadcasts, is more natural and conversational than the establishment talkers Madden has used in the past. I heard Davis and Gaudin argue over why a play succeeded, which gave them a meaningful rapport I remembered in later games. That said, their chemistry can be dissolved by games that have large portions simulated, so users who take Madden NFL 17 up on its Play-the-Moment offer will often feel like they're hearing the same let's-pick-up-the-action phrase.

Gaudin and Davis were hired because they live near developer EA Tiburon and can make commentary updates throughout the season, much like rosters are updated weekly. Indeed, one came in that added a line about the Baltimore Ravens watching hometown swimmer Michael Phelps in the Olympics. However, this is really only heard in one-off games, rather than modes that are creating their own realities.

Ultimate Team

Ultimate Team and Draft Champions, Madden's online fantasy football suite, doesn't make as big a splash this year, but it's not neglected. The auction house and trade block return to Ultimate Team, which should please die-hards. Also, in challenges, once a player meets the statistical or play outcome goal, there's no need to play to the end of the game. It seems like a no-brainer, but that helps out the grinding, high-volume player a lot. "Chemistry" replaces the playing and coaching styles system of last year in a way that doesn't force users to sacrifice a highly rated player simply because he can't supply the style bonus. This makes the overall roster decision-making less rigid and more fun while still delivering attribute boosts to everyone.

Players are more aware of the unique narrative behind their leagues in a couple of subtle but key ways. One is a new score ticker that runs during a game, contemporaneous to the user's. This is really interesting as the league winds up and the playoff order is sorting out, but on the whole, it improves an awareness of league events that had seemed detached in the past. The game's fake Twitter feed doesn't assume the user will go read it, either; informative tweets are surfaced after a week advances or other events take place, giving the user a better idea of players available for trade or, in my case, one I should get rid of, and did.

Among the many wrinkles of team management is a 10-man practice squad that highlights how much stuff there is to do. (It also enlightened me about how the squad works in real life.) Squad players can be signed by any other team to their game-day roster, though, so users need to keep an eye on how good these guys might be getting.

Also fun are things like negotiating with players whose contracts are expiring, and scouting players for the draft. Scouting in particular helped me get a better awareness of my team's shortcomings in the current season as it guided me on a plan for the draft. Haggling with a player in his contract year seems gratuitous unless a user is really committed to the financial game; it's more likely to piss off the player, leading to some hard choices in the offseason about getting value for him in a trade, or saying sorry with dollars.

All of this combines to make Franchise the closest it has ever been to a have-it-your-way sports fantasy supported by plausible chapters of conflict and resolution. Play the Moments removes the perfectionist urge to restart or punch off the machine when the user fumbles or trails by a lot. The results were very close, very exciting games where defeat was gut-wrenching but not unfair. I played as the Rams and, uh, mighta restarted a couple of games but still finished 9-7 to make the goal I set for coach Jeff Fisher in the preseason.

I picked the Rams because I wanted to see what the Los Angeles Coliseum looked like in a current football video game. It's not called that, probably because of licensing, but it's gorgeous and a great showpiece for a game that's a joy to watch. It's not just the way Cam Newton's fashion-model good looks are delivered in cutscenes; animations are lively and fluid even when going to hurdle a defender at the very last second.

Wrap Up:

Madden NFL 17 does so much it's hard to speak of all its appeals and improvements

After three years of improvement, and two of them improving without having to fix major shortcomings, it feels like the Madden NFL franchise has returned to the glory days of a dozen years ago. Features that are added to the game justify their existence and the result is very little dead weight, exemplified by the serious, long-term crack EA Tiburon has taken at improving the commentary. There are still smudged areas on Madden NFL 17's shine — trades are often tedious, for example, and the game could provide more means to prepare for an opponent. There is so much to do in Madden NFL 17 that it's hard to speak to all of its appeals and improvements. The best I can say is it's the most fulfilling experience one can have with the NFL, short of being one of its players or coaches.

Madden NFL 17 was reviewed using a pre-release Xbox One code provided by EA on retail multiplayer servers, including with EA Access customers. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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