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Madden NFL 19 is a game for longtime players, for better or worse

Running in ‘Real Player Motion’ shows this is a game for a core audience

EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

My barometer for Madden NFL has always been its running game. That phase of American football, running with the hand-off or after the catch, always tells me the story of this year’s game — where its priorities really lie and to whom, among the vast audience it commands, Madden is making this year’s sales pitch.

Madden NFL 19 is, therefore, a game for the core sports video gamer. In the granular options of the Franchise mode and the bewildering dictation of its Longshot story mode, it is a game reconditioned to appeal to longtime players. It starts with the running game.

Running in Madden NFL 19, whether from a handoff or after a catch, is a lot truer to life thanks to a new piece of technology called Real Player Motion, which was seen in FIFA last year. But in Madden, it demands more user interest and investment. Even a table-setting first-and-10 run requires some kind of special input to become productive. In past Maddens, I could steer, stop and start a player using the left stick alone. Real Player Motion, which polishes up last year’s introduction of the Frostbite engine, now obligates on-screen performers to meaningfully arrest their motion before they change direction. It makes them heavier and palpably slows their movement.

EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

I’ve always felt that Madden’s longest-running gameplay problem was being a game of down-at-first-contact, and Real Player Motion meaningfully extends plays after the first hit. I saw a lot of stumbles and staggers forward for extra yards, much more than in past editions. But in open space, users still need an innate awareness of the moves available and when to deploy them, thanks to the sluggishness imposed upon runners meeting the line of scrimmage and the automatic hesitation of a receiver grabbing a ball without the run-after-catch (square/X) command.

Madden NFL 19 has two new tricks to address this, but you’ll only know of them if you’re watching loading screens or have been reading developer diaries. There’s the “one-cut” move, which tries to replicate real pros’ ability to switch directions, leaving a defender and a clod of dirt behind. One-cut saps a lot of player energy, and it’s easily wasted by me, and anyone else, conditioned over the years to sit on the right trigger as soon as the ball carrier takes possession. There’s also “hit-the-hole,” which is basically a juke move (on the right stick) at the line that allows a player to burst through a running lane into daylight.

It took forever for me to understand that this is what I was supposed to be doing. In past Maddens, I tried to run through holes with the left stick alone. In Madden 19, I saw some truly impressive contextual movements when I flicked the stick toward a running lane. Without these moves, Madden NFL 19 can cause a controller-throwing fit.

Despite my frustrations at getting the hang of the game, I still hit an aha moment, where all I want to do is play this game, that I hadn’t felt for this game on this console generation. After giving it a few days, I felt like I understood what Madden 19 was asking of me and that the challenge it posed was one worth growing into, and the game makes a strong and varied appeal to keep trying across its multiple deep modes of play.

Let’s start with Ultimate Team, a mode I’ve given short shrift in the past. Madden NFL 19 introduces a development system (“training”) that lets users build up sentimental favorites and reliable performers. Gone are contracts, the timer that limited a player to a certain span of games unless the user acquired a contract extension card. This decision breathed so much personality into my team. Ultimate Team, whether in Madden or another EA Sports game, is at its best when it pulls at the player’s loyalty to those who carried them through the slog of the lower levels. Now, not only are these guys with me as long as I like, but I can keep them relevant with training upgrades.

Ultimate Team succeeds in another new area: Solo Battles. This is a new, weekly tournament format in which users can play against a curated list of others’ Ultimate Team squads without having to face that user online. In football, as in any other video game, human competition is much tougher and more unpredictable than any AI. Solo Battles give me and other trepidatious players a chance to play the endless variety offered by Ultimate Team against an AI we can cope with, thanks to the variable difficulty settings offered.

EA Tiburon/Electronic Arts

Franchise, Madden’s bedrock mode of play, also invites the user to think about their team more than in past editions. That’s with the introduction of “schemes,” a feature that imposes a coach’s personality upon the team. A new coach inherits their personnel, of course, but choosing a scheme — whether something as dramatic as a spread or run-and-shoot or as standard as a West Coast Zone Run offense — gives players some role-playing choices in how they want to draft and staff up their squad. In taking over the Los Angeles Rams, I found that the Vertical Zone Run was in fact a better fit for my inherited personnel (92 percent, according to the helpful sign, as opposed to the 80 percent fit with Sean McVay’s West Coast Zone Run scheme), and adjusted my playbook accordingly, taking Jason Garrett’s from the Dallas Cowboys. For created coaches, this delivers an even greater sense of identity and control.

It can still seem a little programmed, especially with the new player progression system. Such as I understand it, players now buy a style suited to their position once they have earned enough experience points. That style raises the player’s overall rating a point but then distributes attribute points more to their style of play. Helpfully, a puzzle piece icon lets the player know if they’re picking a skill set that fits with their current offensive or defensive scheme. Schemes may be modified at any time, because yeah, you march with the army you have. And sometimes you end up drafting a disruptive talent. It will take some time to see how useful this is, but Madden NFL 19 includes the ability to create and share custom draft classes — which means, effectively, the community will likely develop and share a draft involving this year’s top college stars well before the real-world thing happens next April. I’m already seeing promises from some users that the current crop of collegians will be ready in a week.

Madden NFL 19’s lone shortcoming is Longshot: Homecoming, the second chapter to the series’ groundbreaking story mode that debuted last year. The abject lack of interactivity in its narrative — otherwise thoughtfully written and well-acted — makes it a disappointing follow-up to the remarkably creative first act introduced in Madden NFL 18. There is one (1) dialogue option, coming far at the end of this story. It’s supposed to be a distinct mode of play, but Homecoming instead plays more like a series of practices or tutorial drills interrupted by long cinematics.

Colt Cruise takes on a new responsibility as he chases his own dreams of professional football.
EA Tiburon/EA Sports

Homecoming’s cinematic interludes still do a good job of placing serious emotional pressure on its protagonist, Colt Cruise (who was the sidekick receiver in the first chapter), but the lack of interactivity keeps the player at bay. The Mathis High School sequences are the best feature of the story, especially the Bullfrogs’ well chosen quarterback and a meaningful backstory for his inclusion. Yet when the player takes over last year’s hero, Devin Wade, now a professional trying to hold a spot on an NFL team, the goal is, every time, to complete a drive for a touchdown. Some of these goals must be repeated until the player succeeds. Others, the user gets one chance only. There’s no indication to the player ahead of time how many tries they may have. This raised the question, to me at least, if a challenge had no repeat tries because it wasn’t critical to the story, why try it at all?

Homecoming was supposed to highlight more open-ended gameplay situations with these drives, but instead it makes those tasks boring and chorelike. And where the first Longshot was a touching, if a little schmaltzy, story about what one becomes by striving for big dreams, Homecoming is resolved with pure wish fulfilment, such that a third act seems unnecessary. The saving grace is that the exploits of Mathis High School continue in a dedicated set of solo challenges in Ultimate Team, and players also get a Devin Wade in the single-player career mode of Franchise, fighting to bring the 7-4 Houston Texans to the playoffs.

In Homecoming as in the rest of its modes, one clearly sees Madden NFL 19 making a call to longtime players of the game more than a pitch to new or lapsed ones. The granular choices now available in Franchise, the re-prioritization of gameplay (to a fault) in Longshot: Homecoming and the means of hanging on to treasured players in Ultimate Team all speak to the desires of a year-after-year player base. But it assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the player and a willingness to learn by trying its new systems. Undoubtedly, it’s a truer-playing game of American football, but it comes with a cost, in Real Player Motion physics that can spontaneously disrupt a perfectly developed play, and a running pace that deserves a post-launch prod.

Madden NFL 19 was played using a final “retail” Xbox One download code provided by publisher EA. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.