There was once a time when the Madden series wasn’t a seasonal institution. That time was 1987. Seriously. The series has its roots back on the Commodore 64 and Apple II. In fact, there’s a serious chance that you, dear reader, have never seen a year of your life pass without Madden NFL gracing a game console of some sort. Thirty years and billions in sales later, we are on the precipice of the latest installment. Can the team over at EA Tiburon continue to innovate, or will this finally be the year they stall on the goal line?
Coming Back for Seconds
Last season was a fundamental shift in the Madden franchise, as they transitioned from their in-house engine to DICE’s Frostbite. To the development team’s credit, there wasn’t the dip in quality that you might expect when breaking in a new framework for the first time. Now that the growing pains were firmly in their rearview mirror, it was time to once again push for new gameplay advancements. Let’s just say that if you’ve ever complained about unresponsive controls, this will be the year for you.
The true star this season is the Real Player Motion system. This whole new way to approach controls emphasizes the skill of the person behind the controller. There is now a proper time and place to apply speed bursts, because it has an impact on the mobility of the character being controlled. Want to be able to cut on a dime? Just like in real life, this kind of an abrupt maneuver can no longer be done at a dead sprint. Human bodies can’t sustain that sort of stress, unless of course, you prefer to be stretchered off the field with a couple of broken ankles.
It’s now paramount to pay close attention the momentum of the ball carrier. In order to perform savage ninety-degree cuts, the direction of a player’s motion must be slow enough for it to be humanly possible. This emphasis on physics interactions also extends to how bodies react when a brutal hit occurs. In the past, collisions were inconsistent at best, with reactions ranging somewhere between rigid bumps and marionette slap-fights. The goal was to deliver an experience that was consistent, regardless of the whether both players were in mid-air or mid-pivot.
In practice, I found these updates to be somewhat a mixed bag. Sure, character models did tend to careen off of each other in a more natural and consistent manner. However, there were still far too many oddities, primarily revolving around the ball itself, that kept the physics from stealing the spotlight. It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility for entire body parts to clip through the pigskin, or for a hit to send it flying so far in the opposite direction that it was borderline comical.
I personally witnessed a twenty-yard pass that went horribly awry, with hilarious results. When this attempted pass was broken up by the defender, the ball went easily another twenty yards in the opposite direction, not to mention just as high into the air. Unless the defender was shot out of a literal cannon, that shouldn’t be possible. That is simply not how physics work. Granted, these oddities were far from commonplace, but did happen frequently enough for it to warrant a mention.
One area where the changes were an unquestionable success is in the franchise mode expansions. Introductions of both offensive and defensive schemes have a fairly dramatic impact on a team’s success both on and off the field. It’s extremely important to keep these factors in mind when building out a roster. If player is an all-star caliber talent but doesn’t line up with the coach’s areas of emphasis, this is something to seriously consider when configuring a lineup.
Schemes are not just limited to the coaching staff. There’s a similar mechanic that applies directly to players, called archetypes. Team members that have an archetype that lines up with the management’s key objectives can earn additional enhancement stat points, which will in turn allow them to progress quicker up the depth charts. Be sure to keep this in mind when trolling for talent on the free agency market. It can make or break an entire season.
Ultimate Time Suck
As always, the mode that still stole a vast majority of my time was the tried and true Ultimate Team. At our preview event a couple of weeks back, we had the chance to party up and take on the computer as a team of three. Each participant had one of three roles to choose from: offensive captain, defensive captain, and head coach. Responsibilities for each role range and are meant to allow for members of the squad with less experience to take on lesser challenge. The respective captains call the plays for their side of the field, where the coach is relegated to making decisions on penalties.
Additionally, each role has a direct impact on the lineup that actually takes the field. As might be expected, the offensive and defensive masterminds provide their players directly from their respective Ultimate Team starting lineups. Those that were shunned to the coaching box only get to contribute the head coach (which doesn’t impact the playbook), the stadium, and the uniform. Offensive captains also get one exclusive perk: controlling the quarterback. Aside from that single limitation, the rest of the game plays out exactly as would be expected. Everything is more fun in coop, and this is no exception to the rule.
One last improvement to Ultimate Team is the inclusion of Solo Battles. Each week, players around the globe will face off against curated teams that were designed by developers, notable members of the Madden community, or even celebrities! Leaderboards will keep track of everyone’s progress, while simultaneously progressing through the tournament. This is an easy way to earn big-time roster additions, fast. There are even difficulty sliders available in the pre-match setup, so that you can adjust the challenge mounted by the opposition. The higher the skill level, the more leaderboard points that are earned with a victory.
Far From a Longshot
The last pillar of the Madden 19 formula is the sophomore outing of Longshot. For the uninitiated, this new mode is a single-player only, narrative-driven football experience. Once again, the story will revolve around the two very divergent storylines of Devin Wade and Colt Cruise. Devin is continuing to follow his dream of breaking into an NFL starting lineup, while Colt is back to square one, returning to Mathis to lend a hand to their faltering program.
While yes, it’s weird to see a scripted cutscene in an honest-to-goodness gridiron experience, it doesn’t take long to grow accustomed to how the storyline weaves together seemingly disjointed in-game scenarios. The supporting characters have fairly meaty roles, and the outstanding motion and facial capture help add nuance and believability to each performance. Even Rob Schneider managed to make it through his scenes without gnawing on the scenery. Homecoming is far from Citizen Kane, but it certainly is more than sufficient enough to deliver a compelling experience both on and off the field.
Also, I would like to take a moment and specifically commend the writing for the Mathis Bullfrogs commentary team. Their dialog is meandering, yet directed. Flippant, yet heartfelt. Disarmingly earnest, yet effortlessly hilarious. And above all else, endlessly entertaining. Anyone who grew up in a small town knows these two characters, only under different names. I found myself just wanting to set down the controller and let these two local-yokel chuckleheads shoot the shit, instead of playing the next down. They even managed to weave pieces of the actual storyline into the narrative of each game. I would take those two lovable nimrods over Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, any damn day of the week.
A last point that is worth calling out is that this is a game that might as well require a persistent internet connection. Other than Longshot and the standard exhibition mode, the game is damn near unplayable without being able to phone home to EA’s servers. Online dependence isn’t necessarily a bad thing given that most people have access to at least passable broadband speeds, but it will significantly impact the experience any time a connection is lost. Specifically speaking, without the internet Ultimate Team is completely unplayable in any form and the franchise mode is heavily crippled without updated rosters and cloud assisted simulation results. Most likely this will affect very few, but know that you’ve been warned!
If you were to look up the word “consistent” in the dictionary, there should be annotation referencing the Madden franchise. EA has cranked out solid installments year-after-year, and this iteration is no exception. They’ve made strides forward on many fronts, including more realistic controls, new ways to interact with lineups in franchise mode, and several additional Ultimate Team experiences. Sure, there still might be the occasional physics quirk, but Madden NFL 19 still cements itself as the premier football simulation on console.
Madden NFL 19 review code provided by publisher. Version 1.0 reviewed on a standard PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.