The last time we truly had a great time with EA's Madden series was in the middle of the last generation when Madden NFL 10 was released. With this year's edition, as soon as the New Orleans Saints enter the field for a battle against the Seattle Seahawks, we realise that this is a really good-looking game, worthy of the new generation and more specifically the Xbox One we used for review purposes.
A few easy button clicks later, we make sure we know our chosen play type, committing to memory exactly how everyone's routes look on the field, fooling our opponent by showing off some false paths before we let Drew Brees send off one of his usual rock-hard throws to rookie wide receiver Brandin Cooks, who grabs it like it was destiny before he sets off on his run. Then - BAM! Downed by defence.
One of the things EA has been talking about leading up to release is the greatly improved defence; one of our recurring complaints in the last few iterations of Madden. It simply didn't matter what approach we used, there was nothing to prevent us from trying to pass every time, and completely neglecting our running game. Previously the defence has been so bad that offence could pull off pure fantasy moves, plays far removed from the realism EA Sports wants to achieve.
But this time it feels much more grounded in reality, and the weight and collision programming is far superior to previous editions. The thing we appreciate the most is that we now get to know exactly which button we need to use in collisions in order to beat opponents and/or get past a powerful sack aimed at the quarterback. It makes everything flow better and thus look more like a real game of American football. Even the snap moment in the game has changed and you now have the opportunity, through a mini-game with trigger buttons, to rapidly react to the ball being in play, which this time means it actually makes sense to be an active player in defence.
Small details like the ability to control the camera in defence and thus avoid the problem of being completely obscured by the offensive line or not see your linebacker if you are four or five yards behind the line of scrimmage. By simply rotating the camera man to secure "your" perspective, it makes you vastly more efficient when handing out punishment. The only thing we're not really happy with is how quick defenders have become more efficient than the rock solid master tacklers. Speed is simply the most important factor now (which, for my part, also led to more interceptions), and that's not how it should be. Something to balance out and improve for future editions, then.
Another thing that feels like a remnant of the recent Madden games is that players often behave strangely after the play has ended. Collision programming has certainly improved, but as soon as they hit the ground, it is as if the juice runs out of every muscle. Additionally, players get tangled up with each other and often behave in a way that pulls me out of the illusion that there is real sport playing out on the screen.
This is a shame considering the otherwise excellent graphics that thoroughly impressed us. The detail is incredible and lighting and effects make for spectacular visuals. Watching the replays of a last minute Hail Mary flung high up into the air, it borders on photorealism. This is also due to nicely recreated venues and meticulous work to make every last detail as authentic as possible. We're pleased to say that the Madden series finally stands up visually when compared to the NHL franchise or 2K Sports' NBA 2K.
This is a good foundation for the Madden franchise for the console generation ahead, and much better than last year's underwhelming effort that essentially was just an upgraded version of the Xbox 360 game. The only thing that really needs to get fixed is the aforementioned collisions after a break in play.
The Madden series has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride with major changes in each new instalment, and this time it feels more like EA has gone back to basics, and instead of flashy new features like the Vision Cone, they've focused on meat and potatoes.
Playing on the offence is thus relatively free from surprises, but it works flawlessly for the most part. That said, one problem we found is how difficult it is to simulate a good quarterback with the new and improved defence. Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco 49ers worked much better for us than a world class player like Peyton Manning. When the defence comes rushing in, a slow guy like Peyton is dead in the water, and the superior perception and ability is lost. Kaepernick, who is a master at improvising and really quick on his feet, however, can save himself (and the team) from the toughest of situations.
We hope EA isn't going to try anymore gimmicky one-offs (we don't want the Visual Cone back), but they need to work on improving the nuances of the quarterbacks; their ability to read the game must be simulated better. We're not sure how to achieve this, but as it is, some stars don't shine the way they ought to in the game. However, EA should be congratulated for the fact that it's possible to set up players quickly with no-huddle, or run out the clock when tactically appropriate, with all the advantages and disadvantages it brings just as it is in real life (fewer plays to choose from in Ho-Huddle).
Since many European players aren't used to the ins and outs of American football, EA have gradually become better at explaining all the finer details of the sport. It's a beautiful mix of brains and brawn, with lots of nuance and tons of tactical and strategic depth. Madden NFL 15 is better than ever at explaining the rules via the helpful loading screens as well as suggestions before each new game that clearly explain why a particular play is a good idea with the chances of success shown in clear percentages. It's an excellent system, which after a few hours will have you and your friends picking favourite plays from a playbook as if they'd been headset wearing NFL coaches all their lives.
In summary, Madden NFL 15 is in no way a perfect game, but it is a big step in the right direction. It's smooth, entertaining and really tight. The priorities here are right, and next year we hope EA just focuses on honing, polishing and balancing this foundation, and, for the love of all things holy, restrains themselves from throwing in a brand new gimmicky feature, the kind of which have plagued the franchise in recent years. As it stands Madden NFL 15 is a really entertaining game, and the first since Madden NFL 10 that we feel this positively about.