*Cue the classic Andy William’s song “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”* Do you hear that? I realize that it isn’t quite December yet, but for fans of sporting games, it might as well be our holiday season. As always, EA’s Madden franchise is the tip of the proverbial spear, ushering in a magical eight-week window where athletically-aspirational controller jockeys are inundated with enough awesome experiences to tide them over for damn near an entire calendar year. Sticking with this admittedly terrible analogy, I guess that would essentially make Madden NFL 20’s release date our own personal Black Friday. Thankfully for all parties involved, the only people actually getting trampled have large numbers on their shirts. But the question remains, will this be another quality haul of gridiron goodness, or should we wait for the real holiday discounts before making the plunge?
Avoiding the Rush
When we last saw our favorite midway juggernaut, the series was knee-deep in the middle of a transitional process. While it was visually looking better than ever and making further steps to cement the realism through enhanced physics and animation systems, there were still plenty of areas where the lack of progress continued to be a lightning rod for criticism. An unexpected target of this ire (at least for me) was EA Tiburon’s second whack at scripted storytelling, Longshot: Homecoming.
The continuation of the narrative-driven experience pioneered two years ago was met with a mixed reception. It’s unknown if further adventures of Devin Wade had been in the pipeline, but it should come as little surprise that this release had taken a decidedly different direction. This time around, the dose of storytelling takes the form of the new Face of the Franchise: QB1 mode.
In QB1, much like the prior two stories, players are immediately faced with overcoming adversity. The only difference is that this time it’s occurring at the collegiate level. After initially selecting from one of the ten most recognizable football programs in the country, including the likes of LSU, USC, Oregon, and Texas, the main character is then benched for the next four goddamn seasons. Apparently, the #1 most recruited high school quarterback in the country also committed to attend the same institution you’ve selected.
Instead of using common sense and transferring to one of the nine other high-profile programs that openly wooed him during his high school career, this dipshit decides he has something to prove. Seemingly jeopardizing the entire prospect of a football career beyond the collegiate level, this numbskull rides the pine pony for four solid years, eagerly awaiting his chance to finally show the world his full potential.
It Finally Kicks Off…
Fortunately for our favorite under-performing hurler, the team’s star QB suffers a campaign-ending injury, after managing to guide the squad all the way to the semifinals of the College Football National Championship. After many years spent languishing on the practice field, our hero finally gets his chance to shine.
Taking the reins of college teams was an unexpected blast from the past that harkens all the way back to EA’s long-abandoned NCAA Football franchise. It’s hard to say if EA is tepidly dipping a toe back into the undergraduate gridiron experience, but rest assured that it served to more than whet my appetite for this series’ return. While it absolutely managed to deliver on portraying the rebirth of your player’s career, it was almost overshadowed by simply how much it made me wish that this digital déjà vu was its own stand-alone experience.
Against all odds and logic, our boy somehow manages to secure a national championship, enrapturing a bevy of scouts and media personalities in the process. Striking while the iron was hot, he then made the most of this unanticipated spotlight and thrived during the combine. Fortunately, these exercises amounted to nothing more than glorified training sessions, so success was virtually guaranteed. After suffering the misfortune of being drafted by the Miami Dolphins, this is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.
A Failure to Communicate
Aside from participating in the obvious on-field shenanigan every week, there are also the obligatory narrative interactions with the coaching staff, media, opposing players, and even random fans. Every time one of these moments occurred, I found myself cringing. I understand that they were the main reason for the mode existing, but the majority of these moments felt painfully forced.
The voice acting was solid enough to feel authentic, but the limited number of dialog options on my side of the conversation was crippling. I felt like I couldn’t choose what I would’ve wanted to say in a given scenario. Bluntly put, everything outside of the field felt awkward and wooden, especially when compared with the MLB The Show and NBA 2K’s more authentic offerings. This may have been the next logical progression from Longshot, but for me it didn’t resonate anywhere near as effectively.
Luckily, it wasn’t just QB1 that was getting all of the attention. As you might predict, there have been plenty of improvements between the tackles as well. Easily the biggest addition to the “on field” experience are the new X-Factor players. Essentially the 50 most elite players on both sides of the ball have special abilities and performance perks that can be unlocked by completing the athlete’s signature tasks.
Changing Up the Scheme
While not delivering gigantic, superhero-esque enhancements, activating an X-Factor ability has the potential to make you feel like a genuine badass. Throwing further, being impervious to interceptions, or the ability to shred opposing linemen are just a small sampling of these 50 unique boosts. Fortunately, they’ve also managed to strike a balance between feeling special and avoiding going “off the reservation,” so to speak. Every power is grounded in reality, which inherently prevents everyone from abusing a specific player’s ability.
Further emphasizing the balance is the fact that in order to activate X-Factor, it takes a fairly substantial accomplishment that takes a genuine concerted effort to achieve. Counterpoint to this is the fact that it doesn’t take much to lose this same boost. As a play caller, trying to determine if you want to play it straight or shoot for the perk becomes the conundrum de jour. Overall, this is a well-designed add-on, that genuinely builds on top of the already solid mechanics that you will find in every Madden installment. After spending so many season controlling garden-variety athletes, who doesn’t love being “in the zone” from time-to-time?
There is a yearly ebb and flow when it comes to Madden feature enhancements, and it appears that franchise mode is still in relative stasis. Hopefully that means that next year’s game will include a much-needed refresh, because it’s beginning look a bit long in the tooth. Aside from a handful of extremely minor tweaks, this is startlingly similar to what was delivered last season. While the ability to renegotiate contracts was an interesting new wrinkle, this was clearly a case of trying to make the most impact to the gameplay, through the most minimal amount of effort. What remains is still plenty of fun, but for those looking for new ways to lead their organizations into the future, this iteration will likely leave you with a serious case of déjà vu. Have you played this before? Yes… yes you have.
Guard Your Wallet
Last up on the hitlist is my annual disclaimer that Ultimate Team still feels a bit too money grabby. Microtransactions are littered throughout the UI, constantly driving home the fact that there is a “better” way to build your squad. Unfortunately, that method involves investing even more hard-earned cash into a game that is already premium priced. I’ve been saying it for years, so I may be beating a dead horse at this point, but the sheer number of ways that this mode attempts to bilk you of your hard-earned bills leaves me with an extremely bitter taste in my mouth. I fully understand that the Ultimate Team modes are a huge cash cow for EA across all of their sports titles, but would it hurt them to take a fraction of the attention away from selling card packs, in favor of delivering a more streamlined UI?
What’s even more frustrating is the fact that there have once again been significant improvements to the structure of the MUT single-player missions, while other modes like Franchise continue to languish in the periphery of the development team’s attention. This season, instead of being forced to play through a laundry list of scenarios while attempting to accomplish a single objective, players can now decide what level of difficulty to attempt. This selection then drives the objectives that need to be reached. It certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel, but it helps prevent less talented players from reaching a progression ceiling, simply due to lack of interactive pigskin prowess.
Bluntly put, I found Madden NFL 20 to be a fairly vanilla entry in the franchise. The one exception to a somewhat lethargic installment is the new X-Factor system, which helps give everyone a glimpse into playing the sport at a truly elite level. Factor in the continuous visual enhancements and a new hybrid run-pass playbook schema, which feels more like an evolutionary step than a revolutionary advancement, and it almost feels like this season is a wash when compared to its predecessors. The hardcore enthusiast will still undoubtedly want to pick this up, but I don’t see any compelling single reason for the more casual audience to pick this up. You will find no better football experience on the market, but when you are the only show in town, that bar isn’t that difficult to clear.
Madden 20 review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.