The two most important moments of the last NFL season are without question, and EA Sports palpably incorporates their lessons and theatrics throughout a gloriously challenging Madden NFL 16.
I can instantly replay both in my mind’s eye. In the first, at the end of Super Bowl 49, New England’s Malcolm Butler recognized the Seattle Seahawks’ offensive pattern, stepped in front of quarterback Russell Wilson’s pass at the 1-yard line at the right moment, and muscled the receiver out of the way to secure the ball and the Patriots’ fourth world championship.
The second play was the how-did-he-do-that catch the Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. pulled off against Dallas in a Sunday night game. Beckham, his left arm grabbed by a Cowboys defender, leaped, stretched out his right arm like a bullrider hanging on for dear life and, nearly supine, made a one-handed grab as he fell into the end zone.
In Madden 16. not only are you given specific tools to make your defender do the same things as Butler, if your passes are not thrown with extreme care, and use at least one of the passing commands quarterbacks have, your play will likely end up as bereft as the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. Even from the 1-yard line. The very same thing happened to me. Yet you’ll also be given the tools that Beckham displayed to make seemingly impossible plays.
There are other modest refinements the career suite where most Madden gamers spend their time, and there’s a new, fiendishly entertaining fantasy-draft game that links to Madden’s long-running Ultimate Team mode. In the end, it’s how this edition of Madden handles the obligations and hazards of passing and catching, forgiving some big-play excesses, that set it apart from its predecessors, and make the whole game a newly respectable challenge even to the most jaded power user.
Receiving in Madden 16 is a breakthrough
Directional passing — that is, leading a receiver to one side, or throwing a ball high or low — has long been a feature of the Madden series; so have bullet (holding down a receiver’s button) or lob (a single tap) passes. Madden NFL 16 now incorporates a set of receiving commands that don’t just optimize the outcome of a pass, they’re in some cases necessary to make a completion — or avoid a dreadful interception.
As a result, I was more actively involved in catching the football, where in years past it was acceptable to button a receiver and let the AI haul it in. Receiving has long been a stepchild of the game’s three phases (throwing, running, catching) and the simple way in which Madden NFL 16 has made it necessary is a breakthrough.
Madden’s designers have made all the components of a very specialized sport pull their weight
The new commands allowed me to decide whether I wanted the receiver to simply take control of the ball (giving up the chance to run further after the catch), turn upfield just before the catch in order to gain extra yards after bringing it in, or make them leap or otherwise fight for the ball to make the catch.
All of these have their tradeoffs, and misusing a pass or catch command is as likely to end in failure as not using one at all, particularly at advanced difficulties.
The “run after catch” command, meant to give you an extra step, will result in a dropped pass if used with a poorly rated receiver, or one running a difficult pattern. Choosing to make a possession-only catch will see a receiver often go to his knees to secure the grab, even with no one around.
Defending a pass in Madden 16 is similar to receiving one in that a defensive back may be commanded either to play the ball (the equivalent of an “aggressive” catch) or the receiver (hit the guy when he catches it, more or less.) The wrong choice there will have consequences as well. But it’s not simply a rock-paper-scissors question of making the right command against how your opponent is playing the ball. Computer-controlled defensive backs, just like Malcolm Butler at the Super Bowl, are smarter than ever about sniffing out plays and thwarting the primary passing target.
Early in a career playthrough, my Colts against the CPU’s Jets, I was on the three-yard line and called a play where my tight end, Coby Fleener, would take three steps and turn around. I threw the ball low, as it should be for such a pattern. I considered no other target when I snapped the ball, and still the pass was intercepted by a safety who had sneaked into the play. I felt Madden 16 somehow knew I was looking at only Fleener, just like Malcolm Butler did in the Super Bowl.
The true measure of a sports simulation’s quality is not in its highlight-reel performances or jaw-dropping statistical totals, but in the failed plays, where the human player understands he or she made a bad choice, and learns from it. Further, Madden’s worst sin over the years has been the flab in its gameplay, the huge, unused parts that were so difficult or esoteric that a player was better off turning them over to the CPU. In defensive play with last year’s Madden NFL 15. and in receiving and passing this year, Madden’s designers have made all the components of a very specialized sport pull their weight, and not be simply a game of throwing and running.
Madden 16 ‘s lone indulgence is in the acrobatic catches all receivers routinely make. Like its FIFA cousin, the game seems to stage-manage big plays.
On one hand, it’s good to see a player’s “spectacular catch” rating acquire some meaning in standard gameplay. On the other, Madden 16 overconditions players to throw deep balls and lay on the triangle/Y button to lay out like Odell Beckham Jr. and try for — often making — the impossible grab. This could have bad consequences in online gamer behavior. Pulling off a one-handed catch with one of the NFL’s elite receivers is fine; when I do it with Denver’s 73-rated Cody Latimer, covered by two defenders, it feels cheap and forced.
The overall balance Madden 16 brings to the passing, receiving and defending phases of the game is on full display in my new favorite mode, Draft Champions. It’s a wickedly clever challenge — there’s no way to build (or buy) a super-team and annihilate the opposition on ratings alone. I am told the best that one can do in the 15-round draft that initiates the mode, where you’re given the choice of three players per round, is create a team rated 84 overall (out of 100) and you’re more likely to top out at 81 or 82. Inevitably there will be some part of your team you couldn’t upgrade, as you choose players that comport more with your coach’s strategy (rather than a better overall talent) or, worse, when you take an even more talented player at a position you already drafted in an earlier round, and play someone out of their natural position.
After building the team, I took it against human or CPU competition in several attempts to win three straight games, with any loss ending the challenge. (Difficulty increases in successive games versus the CPU.) It’s a lot harder than it sounds against the computer, and against live competition, where everyone’s team is effectively equal, you see who really has knowledge of their playbook and the ability to execute it. Draft Champions goes at the new trend in fantasy football of short-term leagues and applies it to video games marvelously. For the variety of competition, and teams I can create with it, I would play Draft Champions even if it didn’t pay out the Ultimate Team bonuses one earns for winning games.
Ultimate Team and Madden’s other bread-and-butter mode, Connected Franchise, are upgraded mainly in how they present information for a player to manage. Connected Franchise addresses the warped progression system of its predecessor, though not as thoroughly as I’d hoped. Player confidence, a bonus (or nerf) to overall player performance, seems to have been minimized during a game. The kinds of death spirals one would see after a bad start (particularly for a running back) are not as prevalent in Madden NFL 16. Players also have more opportunities to earn extra experience points during a game, in addition to practice scenarios, to be applied to upgrading ratings and traits.
Yet the new “drive goals” (awarded for specific acts on each ball possession) and XP payouts for season-long milestones are still scant compared to the cost for increasing (or maintaining) the core attributes of a position, or acquiring a true boost (like the “superstar” trait). Also, there’s still nothing to address the time-consuming task of managing XP for 52 players when you’re hoarding the 53rd’s to give him a super upgrade. You can only automate XP progression for every player on your roster (which delivers incremental upgrades to their attributes) or individually address each one.
Madden NFL 16 also takes a small step back in how it subverts a huge user assist introduced last year. The new pass defending commands and the “drive goals,” often focused to an individual player I had no intention of using, drew me away from using the player-lock feature that debuted in Madden 15. Player-lock was a significant improvement, as it delivered us the means to play defense from the same camera perspective as on offense, which greatly cut down on common gaffes like over-running a play or trying to tackle too soon. The tradeoff is the user can’t switch players after the ball is snapped. To take advantage of the new XP goals and defensive commands, I was calling defensive plays and letting the CPU do everything until the ball was in the air, switching to a defensive back to play the pass.
Madden 16’s hard-earned successes feel that much more satisfying
Of course, it could also be said that Madden NFL 16 is prodding the player to use all the components of the defense, instead of leaning on a crutch. Past editions of Madden have introduced new features only to retreat from them the next year. But Madden NFL 16 has taken unused and long-forsaken parts of the series’ gameplay and given them meaning, delivering a truly consistent, understandable and enjoyable game after a decade in the wilderness. Madden NFL 16 is noticeably more challenging, but successes that feel earned are much more satisfying.
Madden NFL 16 was reviewed using a retail PS4 copy provided by EA. You can find additional information about Polygon’s policy here .