It has been easy to rip into the Madden NFL franchise over the past decade or so. Ever since the exclusive deal with the National Football League was made back in 2004, the franchise has been mercilessly called out for stagnant gameplay and little year to year improvement. Some of this criticism has been warranted, of course, however, it can sometimes feel like people are bashing on it because it is popular franchise that doesn’t need to change due to its massive sales. That hasn’t stopped EA Tiburon from constantly tweaking the formula, though, with this year’s Madden NFL 16 representing another year forward for the series.
Before you even get the chance to hop into training camp or online play, Madden throws you into a semi-scripted SuperBowl 50 match-up between pre-season contenders, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals. Playing like a more advanced version of last year’s Panthers/Seahawks showdown, the scenario lets you not only play out the outcome of the match-up, but also get a hands on taste of the new and improved gameplay mechanics. The whole scenario feels a little goofy, with clichéd pump-up talk from Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger and Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson, but it serves as a nice introduction to the game. It would have been nice if the framerate didn’t feel like it was struggling during the non-gameplay bits, though.
After years of putting it off, EA Tiburon has finally decided to improve the receiving game for this year’s Madden. While the ground game has been reworked over the years, receivers have more or less been shunned. However, that’s not the case with this outing, as gamers are given more control than ever in order to reel in passes. Using a series of new commands, you can now Possession Catch, Aggressive Catch or Run After Catch. Possession Catch is helpful for securing the ball and getting out of bounds, while Run After Catch is for increasing the yards gained following a play, and Aggressive Catch is for making a play on a risky throw. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages, so it’s important to recognize which approach will work best.
Despite my love of the passing game, when it came to actually catching the ball, I typically let the A.I. do its thing in past iterations of the franchise. Not so this time around, as this is the first time I felt that I wanted full control over my receivers. Learning how and when to utilize each catching mechanic opened up a plethora of new approaches for me to use in-game. Do I go for the simple catch in order to secure that first down? Or do I try a more aggressive approach, and hope I can burn the defense for a back-breaking TD? Receivers are such an important part of the modern NFL, it’s kind of crazy that it took this long to see significant improvements in this department.
For the most part, the new passing mechanics work as they’re intended to. Run After Catch is great when the receiver can get free, but you’ll see players make crucial drops if they aren’t properly focused on the ball. Likewise for Possession Catch, as if you aren’t properly focused on where you are throwing the ball, you’re more likely to toss an interception. The only one I have some qualms with, for the moment anyway, is the Aggressive Catch.
As of right now, it seems a little too easy to abuse, when it really shouldn’t be. Sure, certain receivers such as Dez Bryant or Calvin Johnson should be able to manhandle less-skilled position players. However, when unproven players such as Kevin White or past their prime stars like Miles Austin are snagging tough throws, it’s a little unfair. Play a few games online, and you’ll see opponents frequently pull off 4th down conversions with these plays. It’s frustrating and unrealistic, and I hope EA is working on adjusting it in a future patch.
The other side of the passing game, Quarterbacking, has also been re-tooled. Previous entries in the series have allowed QBs to toss bullet or lob passes, as well as being able to lead receivers into passes. That hasn’t changed, but EA Tiburon has added more options for players to take advantage of. Signal callers can now throw bullet, lob, or touch passes, as well as whether or not they are aimed higher or lower. Now more than ever, you’ll need to study the defense in order to decide which pass will get you that necessary yardage, or, as often in my case, another interception.
With all the new tools the offense has, defenders needed some new tricks in order to keep up. Similar to the new receiving mechanics, defenders can make better plays for the ball. The two main options are either playing the ball or playing the receiver. Playing the ball is best for getting a jump on a pass and making an interception, while playing the receiver is great for making sure you tackle the receiver after a catch is made, which either can result in a crucial third down stop, or perhaps, a fumble. While not as game-changing as the other new mechanics, the addition of gang tackles is a cool new feature. Now several players will join together in order to stop a ball carrier, as opposed to just one man. This may sound like more of a cosmetic addition than anything else, but it does make a difference when you are trying to make a goal-line stop.
From a pure gameplay perspective, Madden NFL 16 is among the best in franchise history. The refinements made in the passing game not only make the title feel more realistic, but it’s just better to play now. I actively avoided using receivers or cornerbacks in previous iterations, but now I want to get right in the thick of things in order to pull off that one spectacular, game-changing play. And while I’m worse at QB than ever, thanks to having to consistently alter how and where I’m throwing the ball, I can recognize where I screwed up, and work on improving my game for the next go-around. These improvements are made on top of the already solid ground game, which had previously been a focal point for the team at EA Tiburon.
The additions don’t stop on the field, though, as the new Draft Champions mode has the potential to become a real fan favorite. Similar to the ever popular form of gambling known as fantasy football, Draft Champions has players draft their team over a 15 round period, with each round featuring three different players. While it would be easy to just go after the best rated players in each round, you’ll also need to try and find players that fit the playbook of the coach you select prior to the draft. You’ll often find yourself making tough decisions regarding the personnel and play style you want to have. Do you go with the star wide receiver? Or do you go with the less-heralded, but better suited to your playbook, right guard?
Once you finish crafting your team, you can then test it out against either the CPU or go online and face another drafted team. The goal is to finish a series of games against either opponent, with a prize, such as a pack of cards for Madden Ultimate Team, being the reward for successfully running the gauntlet. Following each series, you then redraft a new team and head back into the arena for another go-around. I think what brings me back to this mode so often is the fact I got the chance to constantly experiment with different players and play books, with little penalty to be had. Not to mention that it is fun building a stacked team of not only modern stars such as Richard Sherman, but also legends like Terrell Davis.
The other two popular modes for Madden NFL 16, Connected Franchise and Madden Ultimate Team, boast some new features this year as well. The big new addition to Connected Franchise is the excellently implemented in-game drive goals. Every time you take the field, whether on offense or defense, you’ll be given a new goal to be completed during each drive. On offense, one of the goals could be completing four passes in a row with the QB, while on defense you may be told to sack the opposing QB with a specific player. Successful completion of each goal rewards you with bonus XP and confidence for the player that completed said goal. There’s no downside to failing a goal, so you can just ignore it if you’re not interested. I feel, though, that it provides incentive for playing your best, while also letting you experiment with different members of your roster.
Unfortunately, the Connected Franchise mode is also a little buggy in its current state. Besides the shaky online play, which isn’t terrible, but certainly inconsistent, stats and ratings for players are all over the place. Ratings are either regressing or jumping to absurd levels randomly, which if you are trying to run a team over several years, is just a little annoying. It’s odd that such a random and game-breaking bug made it into the final retail release, but that’s just the state of the industry I suppose. Thankfully, it appears that EA Tiburon is already prepping a patch for this issue.
The new addition to Madden Ultimate Team is a tad less significant, but still a neat plus for those that love the sport. A new series of brief challenges known as Ultimate Moments tasks players with completing challenges based around memorable moments from the previous NFL season. Obviously the game-winning play from the Super Bowl is included, but each NFL team gets its own moment in the sun. EA Tiburon is also planning on featuring challenges based around moments from this year’s season as well, so the fun should keep coming over the course of the next year.
Ignoring the lackluster Madden 25, last year’s release in the franchise marked the first full-fledged release on current-gen consoles. The bump in technology helped the title achieve a visual fluidity it hadn’t had in years.. With that said, Madden NFL 16 manages to look even better, with major upgrades being seen in the improved player models. Everyone from QB savant Eli Manning to rotund coach Andy Reid looks great, with the lone exceptions being the folks who don’t license their likeness to the game. Even the crowds, which to be fair, is a weak point for just about every sports franchise, are improved, which is always nice to see.
What I think really amps up the look of the title this year, though, are the improvements made to the overall presentation. During each game, on-screen stats and milestones pop up on screen in a way that never felt intrusive or annoying to me. I found it especially nice to see during my franchise, as I like being able to see how many touchdowns a certain player has, or how many tackles a lineman has over the course of each season. It adds a layer of realism to the title, while also making me feel better or worse about my in-game performance.
It feels silly to say year after year, but, and I mean this, Madden NFL 16 may just be the best entry in franchise history. The refinements made in the passing game are excellently implemented, and gives would-be athletes more control over the action on field than ever before. The addition of the Draft Champion mode is also another solid addition to the well-rounded suite of modes the franchise already offered. The only major issues the title faces, specifically the over-powered Aggressive Catch and shaky online play, are hopefully in line to be patched over the next few months. If you fancy yourself a fan of the sport, you owe it to yourself to check out this year’s premiere football sim. Even if you’ve been burned by the series before, now may be the time to get back on board.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the title, which we were provided with.
With impressive refinements made to the passing game and a significant bump in the visual department, Madden NFL 16 may just be the best entry in the storied franchise's history.