Video Games Review: Madden NFL 16 (PS4, 2015)

With American football rapidly gaining popularity in Australia due to the rise of online streaming services (and a longheld belief that we were missing out on something due to all the American media we consume), the Madden series of games is becoming less and less of a curiosity here. With Madden 16, EA is playing hard to the fantasy football crowd as well as those after a realistic football sim. But can they win over a nation that’s only just now catching football fever?

In the interest of full disclosure, prior to playing Madden NFL 16 for review I had never played a Madden game nor had I ever actually seen an American football (or gridiron, whatever nomenclature is your cup of beer) game played in full. To say I knew next to nothing about the game would not be a stretch so please understand that this review is coming from the perspective of someone completely new to this.

The game opens with an exceedingly dramatic recreation of last year’s nailbiter finale at Superbowl XLXI between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. I swear to god it plays like the third act of every football movie you’ve ever seen – swelling, heroic music, a plucky team hoping for a come-from-behind victory against the marauding supervillains they’re up against, the whole (proverbial) nine yards. They all but scream “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” They then ask you to alter the course of history by winning the game for the Seahawks. “But … I don’t know how to play your game yet or anything about gridiron at all,” I wail at the TV. Every shot I miss or fumble due to complete ineptitude results in the Seahawks assuring each other that they’ll get the next one. But they don’t get the next one, or the one after that because I don’t know how to play the game. For fans and people familiar with the sport I’m sure this will be a cool way to open the game but if you’re a newcomer, it’s an inexplicably hostile and infuriating way to start things off.

After giving you the mother of all bad first impressions the game finally, mercifully, shifts into a training mode and begins repairing the damage the intro did with great speed. The training in Madden NFL 16 is extremely well put together – comprehensive without being overwhelming, clear but fair in how it reacts to your inputs. It moved onto the next module on the list a little quickly for my liking but you can always go back and do certain drills again if you don’t think you’ve got something down pat.

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From there you have the entirety of the game’s many, many modes opened up to you. You can jump into quick matches against the computer, an adversary online or even someone with a controller on the couch next to you (and it’s nice to see the old couch vs. mode survives in 2015). Online multiplayer was not yet up and running at the time of this review so we weren’t able to give it the kind of thorough going over we would have liked due to the low player count pre-release. You can get into the game’s fantasy league that lets you cobble together a team of superstar players past and present through what are essentially trading cards and booster packs. These can be earned through playing the game or through (the now ever-present) microtransactions.

Your players will level up and improve through good play and you can keep them, sell them or trade them for new one or credits with ease. There’s a regular season mode as well that functions similarly and this was probably my favourite. You pick a current team (with rosters kept up-to-date through EA’s online NFL servers) and begin the long hard slog toward the Superbowl. There’s a mode that lets you create a custom player too and, while it let me create an absolute horror show of a human being, there were not enough physical custom options so that I can make him truly nightmarish. There are abundant sliders to adjust your custom player’s skills and abilities so it’s possible to make them scrawny and godlike in equal measure which is nice.

Regardless of the mode, on the field is where Madden NFL 16 really comes into its own. Moving your players around the field is as responsive as you are. Move them in the right direction and they’ll go where you need them to, respond properly to onscreen commands and they’ll follow through on a catch or a punt. For someone who’d never been exposed to this brand of football before, it seems implausibly simple: read the play because the play will tell you who is going to be where and when.

Graphically, Madden NFL 16 is … to say it’s a mixed bag might be a bit unfair because it is very pretty, but there are a few hitches here and there that can really pull you of the atmosphere the game works so hard to create. Player models are lifelike and resemble their real world counterparts in that uncanny valley-ish way only a sports game can create. Animations are generally very fluid and the motion capture on offer is of a typically high quality for an EA Sports title. Stadiums and crowds are also great and recreated in surprising, loving detail. The problems arise in player interactions, where you can get some really awkward exchanges during collisions and altercations. They sort of twitch and dance around each other when the hit detection doesn’t quite know how to respond and it’s pretty amusing to watch these burly dudes jitter all over each other. There’s also a real disparity in frame rate between prerendered video and in-game visuals. In-game, everything glides along at a really smooth, relaxed frame rate. The moment the game switches to one of it’s prerendered cutscenes, the frame rate drops to 25fps or below and the effect is jarring.

Once you’ve read the play, you will be given control of the quarterback who must get the ball to those people running the play, who are highlighted by one of the face or shoulder buttons. It’s a crazy amount of information to process in an instant – are your linemen keeping the other team at bay? Are your players where they need to be to take your pass? Is anyone marked? Is anyone open? This is possibly the most stressful aspect of the game because so much hinges on you making the right call. From there, if your player makes  a successful catch you need to move. It’s this aspect that drives home just how much of a game of inches American football is. Every yard you gain is hard fucking work and losing so much as a foot of ground is infuriating.

The AI in the game is extremely well balanced and on the lower difficulty levels, the game pretty much plays itself. Players are smart enough to work with you to complete a play without you having to worry about them or being too hands on. Pushing the difficulty up will be essential for those who want a greater challenge or simply greater control over each match but for newbies, the lower difficulty is a great way to ease yourself in. Not that the opponent AI will roll over and let you take the game, of course. There were multiple games where no-one scored until late in the third quarter. We just played hard defense, pushing each other up and down the field without a whole lot to show for it until players start getting tired and a little sloppy. Then the cracks in the defense can be exploited – but don’t forget that the same is happening to you.

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I went into this review without a lot of interest in Madden NFL 16 at all. Despite a truly bizarre opening that could turn a lot of new players off immediately, Madden NFL 16 is well worth a look for anyone who likes sports games at all and is an essential purchase for fans of the game. With constantly updated rosters and deep online play, it’s a deep and rewarding simulation that will absolutely keep fans going until next year’s installment.

Review Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Heaps of modes; great training; surprisingly addictive
Lowlights: Some graphics issues; terrible opening
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Released: August 25, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Reviewed on PlayStation 4