Last year’s Madden 16 was the first new game in the franchise in years, as well as the first iteration of the game on the current generation of consoles, that was actually worth picking up. Because let’s face it, when you put out a new $60 game every year that’s basically the exact same thing as the previous year’s, with only one or two notable new features, there’s just no point.
Franchise fatigue is a real thing.
But Madden 16 was a quantum leap forward for the longest running — and, since 2004, only — officially NFL-licensed video game franchise. With the game’s most robust franchise mode yet, as well as an all-new “Draft Champions” mode — a fun and, more importantly, free alternative to the popular but expensive “Madden Ultimate Team” mode — as well as its traditionally-solid on-the-field gameplay, it was the best edition yet in its almost-30-year history.
So where does that leave the newly-released Madden 17?
Not necessarily in a bad place.
With a revamped running game, smarter and more realistic AI on defense and added special moves to help on special teams, as well some work streamlining and expanding the already-awesome franchise mode, Madden 17 now plays smoother and better than ever before.
I’ll start with the real reason people play video games — the actual gameplay.
The Madden games have always been a decent football simulator, and with the additional processing power of the current gen consoles, the XBox One and Playstation 4, the game has taken some big steps forward on the field. In the past few years, the game has added gang tackling and revamped the passing game and calling plays at the line of scrimmage.
This year, the rushing game was the focus — and it shows. The ballcarrier’s momentum is a key, and their real-world ratings decide how fast they can cut, turn and accelerate. There is also a big focus on special moves this year — sure, spins, stiff-arms, jukes and hurdles have been in previous games, but now they’re also tied to the real world. A speedy agile running back isn’t going to truck over defenders as effectively, and a bruiser won’t be faking anyone out with his jukes.
Add all that to the improved offensive line AI from a year or two ago, and that makes grinding games out on the ground — my personal favorite way to play — more fun than ever.
But that’s not saying it’s easier. The defense is now more realistically intelligent, and players will cover gap assignments thanks to the run fit systems. Pass coverages are more intelligent, too — if you’re busy rushing the passer, you can actually trust your computer-controlled teammates to make plays behind you.
One so-so addition was on special teams. The game has new mechanics on field goals and punts to make blocking kicks easier, and the tutorial introducing those mechanics make you think no one will ever get a kick off against you again. But they still seem as rare as ever before — in the 30 or so games I’ve played during the EA Access pre-release trial, I’ve seen two field goals blocked, one by me and one by the computer against me. So again, it’s still realistic. It just shouldn’t have been featured so prominently in the new additions if it didn’t actually make a difference.
How about the modes? Draft Champions returns from last year, exactly like it was before. You’re given a random base team and then go through 15 rounds where you choose one out of three players to improve. Draft the kind of team you want, then play against the computer or play ranked or unranked matches against human players online. It’s like the Madden Ultimate Team — or MUT — mode, only without wasting real money and gambling. But more on that in the negatives.
Franchise mode has some great additions this year. Last year added player- and coach-specific goals not only for the entire season, but for every game. Everyone gains experience with everything they do, but this year’s version makes spending that experience much easier and more seamless. Weekly pregame preparation, new last year, has also been greatly expanded — now, you can run specific drills tailored to combat your opponent’s real tendencies, and if you perform well, you gain in-game bonuses when running those plays. A new ticker running at the bottom of the screen with scores from that week’s other games adds to the presentation.
What about the negatives? Madden 17 ditches play-by-play commentators Jim Nantz and Phil Simms — which, to be fair, hadn’t recorded any particularly new or fresh dialogue in a couple years — for two new guys, Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis. It’s billed as being the “most conversational commentary in any sports game to date,” but a boring conversation is still boring, no matter how realistic it is. Evidently they’ll be recording new commentary throughout the year that will be added with patches — my XBox actually downloaded one of those updates the day after the EA Access trial went live, so the game wasn’t even going to be officially available for another four days — so that’s a neat addition. But I still miss Nantz and Simms.
I’m not just saying that because I’ve been a die-hard New York Giants fan since Super Bowl XXI, either.
And unfortunately, MUT is still a thing. You build a team from scratch by opening packs of digital cards, which can be earned by completing challenges or bought with in-game currency — which sounds neat in theory. But the game is stingy with that currency, leading you to buy packs of cards with real money on top of the $60 you already shelled out for the game.
Microtransactions are just a fact of life now, sure. But they’re better suited to free-to-play mobile phone games. One pack of cards costs roughly $1.50 but only guarantees you one “gold-rated” player or better, while $5 — slightly less than 10 percent of the game’s full price — guarantees you an elite-rated player. And you’ll end up needing to spend real money sooner or later, because your players’ contracts will run out if you play it a lot.
I’ve spent an incalculable amount of money on video games — thousands and thousands of dollars — over the course of my lifetime. But I’m sorry. A pack of non-existent cards that may or may not give you something useful in a recreational game? Will never be as valuable as a combo meal from Taco Bell.
But is Madden 17 worth your money this year? It depends on what you want out of it. If you’ve held off on buying a new Madden game for a few years, this would be a great point to jump back in, as it’s the best version of the game on the newest consoles. If you have Madden 16 already? That’s tougher. It’s an upgrade, but arguably not a $60 one. If franchise mode is the reason you play Madden games, though, it might be worth it because this is the best version of that to date.
It is the best Madden game to date. Whether or not that’s enough to warrant buying yet another one? That’s up to each individual.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.