Review by Nick H.
With any game that releases on an annual basis, one has to question whether or not that release even needs to happen. Sports titles get something of a pass, not because they substantially change from year to year, but because of the cyclical nature of sports in general. Each season the average team makes a handful of changes in hopes that the new version of the same team will be different enough to either retain their greatness or take the next step towards it. Madden NFL 19 fits this mould perfectly, taking an already really good product and found the right places to improve upon an already winning formula.
Last season’s Madden NFL 18 took some chances that generally paid off. However, the developers did a great job of doubling down on most of those items, adding some polish to them and continuing to make notable improvements along the way.
The first and most notable of these changes is in the gameplay itself. Madden was introduced to the Frostbite engine last season, and there were some growing pains with it. I found passing easier and running a good deal harder. It looked great despite a handful of janky animations that occurred now and again, but there was some real impact on the gameplay. Some of those trends have carried over this season, but they are more refined. Blocking along the offensive line in older games had a tendency to ‘suck’ defenders into the blockers. Frostbite made those collisions more natural-looking, but at the expense of good blocking. It was too easy for the defenders to peel/ slide off of the offence, creating some sloppy or non-existent running lanes. In Madden NFL 19, the o-line has gotten its groove back. They have not reverted to their ‘suck the defender in’ ways, but they do hold better, and there are lanes if you are patient enough to look for and use them properly.
The run game feels different than in the past generations, and the end result is more realistic than ever. Instead of really clean running lanes, they take time to develop. Sometimes if the defence calls the right formation, there are no lanes to be had and that happens in reality too. Once in a while the offence makes just the right call and it seems like the entire defence caves in and there is nothing but daylight. However, the majority of the time an offence lives in a sloppy middle area where the mass of moving bodies may or may not create small openings. In older Madden titles (and really, all football games including the classics from 2K and Tecmo), you went full-tilt towards the expected opening, holding down the sprint / turbo button (if there was one) for maximum speed. This season I find myself taking the ball, scanning how the lines are interacting, looking for the opening and trying to hit it at the most opportune time. If there is a good opportunity, then I hit sprint – but I don’t just hold it down from the handoff, and this ties into the perhaps the biggest overall change in this year’s title.
Dubbed “Real Player Motion”, the sprint/ acceleration is handled differently than in years past. it is treated as straight-ahead speed when you hold it down. This greatly reduces the effectiveness of a joke or spin move and your player’s ability to stop or turn is also impacted. Instead, the button serves as more of a burst. Hit that hole and burst out of it afterwards. If you have a power runner and a defensive back is coming at you, hit the burst and lower and shoulder to try and truck through them. Or, if you are in the running lane and a linebacker is coming to fill it, hit the burst button and flick the juke stick at the same time to make a really hard jump cut. These seem like minor things, and they are, but these are nuanced controls that can make or break the running game, and once I took the time to master them, I saw my yards per carry and overall rushing success improve dramatically. It is a lot of fun and a big improvement to how the ball carries, and even the defence as these bursts of speed play out on that side of the ball as well – execute.
The passing games is still where big chunks of yardage come from most frequently, which is reflective of the pass-happy state of the NFL today. However, the defenders seem to do a better job of sticking to their offensive counterparts, so while I can still gobble up huge plays now and again, I throw more interceptions than in the last couple of years. Indeed, one of the areas where it feels like the Frostbite engine performs best, is in the physics around the football itself. Again, older generations of sports games had a sort of magnetised effect on the ball as it would sort of ‘warp’ into a player’s hands (both on offence and defence). However, anyone who actually watches these sports knows that the ball or puck has a life of its own and does not adhere to straight lines right to a player, and the ball has definitely taken some more creative bounces last season and this one as well. Watching a pass bounce off of an offensive player’s hands due to contact with a defender as it then bounces off of another nearby defender’s helmet only to be caught by a different diving offensive player before it hit the ground is a pretty extreme example that only happens once in a great while in real life – but it can now happen here as well. Again, small and subtle changes to how the game itself actually plays goes a long ways towards making the experience more entertaining than ever.
So that that end, Madden NFL 19 does a fantastic job of replicating the product on the field as the technology supporting the game is better than ever. The packaging around the core gameplay has received some tweaks as well, though the framework is largely unchanged. I still spend the majority of my time in Franchise mode as I try to lead my Lions to virtual success, given they never seem capable of attaining in real life. The progression system has been tweaked to be more accessible, and is frankly one of the bigger disappoints for me personally. Instead of earning experience to put into individual statistical areas like agility or catching, you pick a bucket to put that point into and it increases a handful of stats all at once. This is great for newcomers because it really does keep the process from becoming too overwhelming. It also makes progression a little snappier than it has been in the last couple of seasons, which is probably more palatable for casual players. However, I am one of those people who really enjoys tweaking small, specific stats, so this is not a change made for someone like me, but it probably will appeal to the broader audiences.
One new feature added to Madden NFL 19 this year is the Draft Class Creator, which is fantastic. I know that this is a feature that has been requested for some time now, allowing players to build their own customer draft classes that then get imported into the game. Want to recreate the great Barry Sanders? Go for it. Want to try and recreate upcoming college rosters? Feel free. Best of all, you can share them out as well as download those made by others. This is going to be a hugely popular addition that will keep Franchise mode feeling fresh for longer I suspect. Now all I need is for EA to start making NCAA football games again so I can play out my classes in that game and import them into Madden like I used to do during the last console generation.
Madden Ultimate Team is back as well, for better and for worse. I think by now everyone expects this microtransaction-heavy tactic of EA’s to be in every sports game it releases (FIFA, NBA, etc), and there are plenty of ways to earn virtual currency along the way that I never feel compelled to throw more real world money into the mode, but it nonetheless the focus on it irks some people that I know. Still, I was never really big into the mode until last year where it became probably the second most heavily played aspect of the game outside of Franchise mode, and that is the case here again this year. Ultimate Team has added some pretty considerable depth with ways to enhance existing cards and provides a nice sense or progression outside of just opening more packs for more cards that you may or may not ever play. That is still one of the biggest aspects of the mode, but there are more ways to customise and improve your favourite players and cards as well now, which adds a lot of strategy to how I developed my team. I have to say that for the second straight season, this mode has really pulled me in when it failed to appeal to me in the past, and I like the direction it is going.
Last but not least, Madden NFL 18 did something new last season with its introduction of Longshot. This was a narrative-heavy mode that focused on two best friends from high school named Devin Wade and Colt Cruise who were clinging to their last hopes of making NFL rosters. It was a high production effort by EA that I found entertaining though flawed. I did not care for some of the very non-Madden like mini-game elements that got sprinkled in with zero instruction or context, essentially setting me up to fail unless I played the mode through two or three times in a row or quit to reload the game once I knew what was being expected of me. Perhaps most egregiously, there was very little actual football being played during the mode.
This season’s iteration of this mode is called Longshot: Homecoming, and it rights most of those wrongs. The story is something I won’t dive into heavily, except to say that both Colt and Devin get to see their tales continue as they start to live out diverging narratives that see them grow in different ways. I actually liked this year’s story better, as I felt there was a bit more heart to it. However, my favourite thing is that it was much more focused on the actual playing of football. All in all, it is great to see the second season of this mode get the love it deserves and I hope EA continues to provide this type of experience into the future.
Madden NFL 19 is not a perfect football game, and I doubt there will ever be one. There is so much chaos that happens on the field with so many bodies flying around and colliding with one another non-stop during plays, but I came away from this year’s version of the game convinced that the development team put its focus on the right area. That is to say, the gameplay. The results are obvious, and for those who decry the annual release cycle as nothing but a roster update, they are not giving enough credit to the locomotion improvements and continuing Longshot story.
– Nick H.