Football season is one of the most exciting times of the year for sports fans all across the world. With the slow approach of football season’s kick-off, we have all become conditioned to expect a Madden release in late August. This year has been no different, as EA Sports has released Madden NFL 16, which brings with it a brand new mode by the name of Draft Champions, as well as significant gameplay enhancements. These improvements and additions have been billed as huge upgrades, ones that make Madden NFL 16 the best Madden in years. But, as we all know, those sorts of promises are as predictable as the release of the next year’s game. Is this the year where smart additions come together to create a wholly enjoyable product?
Madden has never been a franchise to release a poor product. The long-running series has always had a technical precision that enticed fans of the sport, even if we knew that the gameplay or surrounding modes were not living up to the game’s potential. This year, that “simulation” feel has been increased, not through complex controls that will leave newcomers confused, but rather in expert upgrades to the presentation. Though the visuals were never something that seemed like it needed improvement, there have been slight camera adjustments that will bring the player closer to the action. This gives a better shot of all the movement in front of you, while also making you feel a part of every blindside hit or miraculous catch. Some of the other slick presentation additions include stats popping up directly beside your players, almost like chat bubbles, instead of just having them flash at the bottom of the screen. This is something that you could imagine implemented into every network TV station’s coverage of sports, technology permitting.
Before even hopping into the game, you will quickly notice a huge improvement in Madden NFL 16’s UI. For years, one of the biggest, most frustrating complaints is that EA’s sports games has been the atrocious menu design. It would make simply moving from quick play to dynasty an absolutely unapproachable chore. Thankfully, that has been fixed with a new design that has almost no new issues. The design feels similar to Microsoft’s Metro style menu design. Most importantly, it moves quickly without hitches. You can navigate from deep into the settings all the way into team rosters without having to put your controller down to watch a blank screen. It is something that has been a long time coming, but I welcome this new UI with a smile and open arms.
There have been countless times where gameplay additions to the Madden series have felt miniscule. This year, EA Sports has assured that will not be the case as they have completely overhauled how the player catches passes. While the ball is in the air, you now have three options available. Your first choice is an RAC (run after catch), which means your receiver will catch the ball and focus on gaining yards. Second, you have a possession catch, which is best used in situations where you just want to gain a few yards for a first down, or if you think your receiver is about to step out of bounds, you can make him do a possession catch and there is a strong chance he will tap his feet in-bounds, just barely coming down with the ball. Third, you can make your player go up for an aggressive catch. This means you are trying to catch a ball that the opponent has a shot at intercepting, or you could be running a deep route that requires you make a tough catch.
For the most part, these new catching options just give you more control of what you want your receiver to do. They do not revolutionize the way you play, but precise players will really appreciate the ability to control the receiver, something that has been needed for years. If there is one complaint, it is that the aggressive catch feels a bit overpowered. You can have some instances where the ball is thrown forty yards down the field, in double coverage, and somehow the receiver still makes the play. Sure, that does happen in the NFL, but it is incredibly rare. For the most part, these controls are very helpful and an addition that fits into the game perfectly. It could also be a way to help incoming players know what to expect when the ball is in the air.
EA Sports did not discriminate against the defensive side of the ball, however, as it features some new additions as well. The defensive line and linebackers are mostly similar, but the cornerbacks, not unlike the wide receivers on the offensive side, are much easier to control. When going against a receiver to whom the ball is being thrown, you can now decide if you want to go after the receiver in hopes of stopping the catch or be aggressive and go for an interception instead. It’s a pretty fun risk/reward feature that can kill a player’s game if he does decide to take the risk.
Running-back play has also been improved in Madden NFL 16. For years, it seems like there have been smaller upgrades that make playing as the tailback more enjoyable. That continues this year, as you will no longer find your running back getting stuck on the offensive lineman. In previous games, you would spot a hole in the offensive line and want to burst through it, only to get caught on your right tackle as you tried to run, turning a fifteen-yard gain into a two-yard gain. This year, your running back just effortlessly slides off of him. There is still a certain amount of speed that is lacking, which makes the aforementioned bursting through holes more difficult than it should be. As these incremental upgrades continue forward for the running backs, hopefully speed will be the focus next year.
The big new feature in Madden NFL 16 is the “Draft Champions” mode. This feature blends fantasy football and EA’s much-beloved EA Ultimate Team. You begin the mode by entering a fifteen round draft. As each round goes by, you choose a player in hopes of shaping your team around your strongest play style. The players you choose from are some of the best in NFL, as well as legends of the game. This means you could easily end up with a team consisting of Randall Cunningham, Julio Jones, and LeSean McCoy, a very eclectic but effective lineup. Once you have a team built, you can take on a computer AI for three straight games, which nets you a bonus in Ultimate Team. Unless, of course, you lose, which forces you to draft a whole new team again. The more enjoyable (and challenging) option is to hop online and take on players from across the world. This presents some of the more enjoyable matchups to be had, such as how would a legend like Jason Taylor contend with the speed of Cam Newton?
The Ultimate Team mode has never been one that resonated with me in any way. I always hated starting with a group of horrid players, with hopes of having slightly less horrid players after spending some extra money and putting in five hours. This Draft Champions mode eliminates that annoyance effortlessly, and brings in a new group of people into their card-focused secondary modes. Draft Champions captures the feel of a fantasy draft perfectly, and makes every selection, even after a defeating loss, fun to partake. Draft Champions is a brilliant feature to a series aching for some originality.
As with the past few years, Madden NFL 16 retains Jim Nantz and Phil Simms as the commentary duo for each football game. This go around, the two are really beginning to beg for replacements. Their input into the game is vague, disjointed, and sometimes just plain wrong. There have been a few situations that saw my running back having a dominating day on the ground, only to have Nantz and Simms discredit him and say the success of the offense was all on the quarterback. It is one thing to be an annoying commentary team, but to be wrong is just unacceptable. While so much of the presentation in Madden NFL 16 is spot on, the announcing booth does its best to bring down the experience.
Draft Champions is not the only addition to be found outside of gameplay, as the franchise mode has also experienced some exciting changes. As you progress through a full season, you will see different objectives pop up (such as gain 100 rushing yards in one game, 300 passing yards with your QB, etc.) that will increase your team’s confidence going forward. It introduces an RPG system that, at first, seems odd, but quickly feels just right. These objectives can vary from being full season challenges, or just something to strive for as you go through a defensive stand. The objectives popping up mid-game helps give you some more direction, as opposed to just the simple goal of “do whatever it takes to get into the end zone.” Instead, it makes you want to hit the generated challenge because it will help your team in the long run.
While the franchise mode additions are greatly appreciated, the Be a Player segment that allows you to strap on the cleats of a specific football superstar, still weighs heavily behind every other feature in the game. It is a barren wasteland of what the mode was in previous games. You no longer get drafted, you no longer have agent interactions, and you must call all the plays –something no player does. While the franchise mode has taken a huge step forward, the Be a Player mode needs that focus next year.