Twenty five years ago I sat with my brother and spent hours on Madden ’92; the music still sticks in my head, as does the joy of a player suffering an injury and half the field being ploughed down by an ambulance. Quarterback Rushes were mixed up with Hail Marys, and the digitised commentary was limited to barking out “touchdown” or “fumble”. Skip forward to the present day and the series has transformed in a way that nobody back then could have envisaged. Player models are more lifelike than ever, animations are (as you expect from an EA title) unbelievably accurate and commentary is far more lifelike. Yes, this is natural progress from 25 years of gaming advancements, but it’s the smaller changes from the past few years which has made Madden NFL 17 such an impressive game.
I’ve played a fair few Madden games since 1992. Not every single one, not even most of them, but enough to get a good impression of how regular changes have made an impact, and certainly enough to not make a serious comparison between now and then. I’ve also seen how the series has stagnated in the last few years, leaving fans of the series feeling a bit disheartened by what is being offered from the latest generation of consoles. So it feels pretty good to be playing Madden 17 and finally seeing the series coming good again, with both some large and small changes which come together to create a game which is hugely impressive as both a playing experience and a visual spectacle.
The most immediately obvious improvement that you’ll see is in the visuals, which have had their usual annual stroke of polish and added a few new animations, some of which are shown off in the intro video just in case you miss the subtle extras during the games themselves. As with last year’s game you’ll also start to see various prompts during games, and even as soon as your very first kick off return you’ll probably notice the running guides, suggesting where to head for to make the most of your blockers. Button prompts will pop up briefly to help you spin out of challenges, push defenders away or get your head down and barge your way through a crowd of players, and hitting these at the right time will see your players gain valuable extra yardage. This year though, to help those new to the game, some fancy moves will even be done automatically if the player is good enough, letting you jink around players without even needing to give it a second thought. They can be turned off, and aren’t available at all on the higher difficulty settings, but go a considerable way to make this a more accessible version of Madden than anything we’ve seen before.
While we think about ways of breaking into the game with less resistance, the are additions to the Franchise mode to allow players in who don’t want to get engrossed into a game mode which is likely to take almost as long as a real life season. Play the Moments lets you enjoy the more meaty game mode without having to play entire games; instead of spending most of your time battling your way up and down the field, the matches are mostly simulated and drop you into the action when things get interesting – a first down on the 15 yard line, a long play in the final few seconds of the match, or a last minute field goal to grab an unlikely victory to give a few examples. The game is extremely good at pitching this just right, leaving you to watch the game unfold quickly and step in at just the right time to prove yourself the hero. Or, obviously, screw it up and annoy all of your fans, obviously. You can even choose to only take part in offensive or defensive plays too, so if you’re one of the many who don’t tend to enjoy the defending side of the game you can abandon it all together if you like, which is pretty cool.
There’s the Big Decisions option too, taking on a similar role as Play the Moments but on a larger scale over the season. This takes the management side of the Franchose mode and only asks for major input when something pretty big needs your attention; general day to day stuff is handled automatically, and lets you zip through seasons in far less time and focus more on getting your team of unlikely muppets through to the Superbowl within a couple of seasons. Both modes can be ignored in favour of playing and manageing your way through every moment of every game, but this is another step towards allowing more people to enjoy everything that the Madden series has to offer.
Despite all of these nice extras to make the game more approachable, Madden is still a very tough game – dial in the difficulty to the right level for you and there’s no chance of winning every game. The AI has also had some tinkering applied to it and reacts with remarkable intelligence to any patterns which emerge in your play choices, and defenders will spot gaps which could be exploited by runners and work to close them off more proactively. Human error in the players means that perfectly good passes might still get dropped, players fumble the ball after crunching tackles and the improved running game works both ways when playing against other people – it’s also now trickier to stop a runner in full flow, or a receiver throwing themselves for a pass. The ball is also far more realistic in how it behaves, meaning fumbles, kicks and blocked passes can now react in any number of ways, making it every bit as unpredictable as a real ball would be. What’s great though is that it isn’t an unrealistic challenge; yes you’ll be losing games, and struggling to break down certain defensive lines, or getting caught out by clever passing plays resulting in humiliating 60 yard touchdowns, but it’s not unfair. You never feel cheated out of a victory, and there’s usually something you could’ve done better to improve your chances of winning.
In fact the only downside I can find is one which took me by surprise, and that’s the quality of the commentary. We’ve become accustomed to EA Sports games carrying the most incredible commentary during matches, but this year is a bit of a step back. I’m not overly concerned by this, after all EA have already said the commentary will be updated throughout the season, but right now it’s not as good as we’ve seen in recent years. It’s not terrible by any means, but it feels more wooden and forced than what’s come before, so hopefully a few updates to the recordings will give things a more natural feel.
So it’s no surprise that I’m finding it very easy to recommend Madden 17 to people I speak to. It’s incredibly polished, looks fantastic and has a range of new features designed to allow more people than ever to enjoy the Madden series. We might not get the early 90s joy of of that ambulance, but almost everything else is totally on the money.
Reviewed on PS4