STAFF REVIEW of Madden NFL 25 (Xbox One)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013.
by Scott Fowler

Madden NFL 25 Box art Twenty-five years in the making. That’s actually quite insane if you think about it, isn’t it? There have been 25 years of Madden Football on gaming systems and computers ranging from Commode 64 and Apple II through Nintendo and Sega 1st-gen systems through to the current iteration, Madden 25 for Xbox One.

The birth of the franchise, John Madden Football, came to life in 1988. That’s actually a real milestone in the industry, especially in the sports realm, since titles and franchises often come and go. Their success/demise is usually relegated to a particular console or feature that starts off as innovative in a sports franchise (real voice play-by-play! Instant Replay! New Camera Angles! OMG!) but quickly turns gimmicky as these things evolve and become more polished over time.

Those of you paying attention at home probably went “Wait, isn’t it supposed to be called Madden 14?”. You wouldn’t be wrong, in one sense. Instead of taking their more traditional stance of naming each iteration of Madden after the year of the upcoming season, EA went all nostalgic on us this year and called the game Madden 25 as an homage to their lineage, their history. This walk down memory lane isn’t limited to the games naming convention, either, as all sorts of throwbacks to previous titles are found throughout Madden 25. Loading screens pull up tidbits of trivia from the history of the franchise, such as when specific game elements came into being, and little behind-the-scenes development issues. I found this to be actually quite fun out of the gate, and it’s better than just the traditional “This years new engine allows for massive hits!” sort of banter previously used in these games.

The UI has been revamped, and I found navigation to be fairly straightforward, if not a radical departure from years before. The home screens are awash with tiles and sliding navigation menus that work somewhat well. I found it a bit laggy and inconsistent in some aspects, though, especially within season modes, as the UI took a while to sort of refresh. This is more of an issue with the 360 iteration of the game, since it's sort of end-of-life for that console.

With the Xbox One just out of the gate, the UI takes on a more polished feel, more consistent approach. The concept is in tune with the rest of the Xbox One platform and the desire to be tile drive and horizontal navigable. Menus and navigation screens on the One feel newer, hipper, and more professional, overall. Even more intense, using darker themes, more mechanical (in a good way) animations, and just a fresher approach. Gone are the silver-ring-on-white "EA Sports, it's in the game" intros, and that was probably long overdue.

From a true gameplay perspective, the Infinity Engine is in its second iteration, has some new tricks up its sleeve. The running game is significantly improved, at least from my perspective. I’ve become accustomed to having my running backs targeted and tackled fairly quickly, with finding any hole in the line to take advantage of becoming a bit of guesswork. I find that’s changed a bit in this years Madden. I seem to be able to adapt to opportunities, especially on the run, much more realistically.

Seems to me, also, that the physics involved on the One have been re-visited by the developers. Instead of a straight port of the other version, there's some new math going on here, because quarterbacks ability to throw on the run is SIGNIFICANTLY more realistic, which is kind of a bummer. I loved getting Peyton on the run with two 350+ pounders chasing him down, only to have him dance out of the pocket and hit Welker in the end zone on the 360. It might be a difficulty change, or a physics/AI tweak, but that on the run throw just doesn't work at all anymore, which is probably more accurate, but doesn't mean I love it.

It just means I have to play real football.

The running game seems to have similar updates, because some of the ankle-break inducing juke moves that running backs put on guys just don't have the same cartoonish success level on the One as they seemed to on the 360. Maybe there really IS more going on inside this console.

There's some overall improvements on both sides, too, from an engine/AI perspective. If I chose a running play, and the quarterback is set to hand off to my running back. Let’s call him Adrian, maybe, Adrian Peterson. That sounds like a good running-back. The play selected had him bursting to the outside and following blockers up the right side of the field. After the hand-off, I notice that one lineman’s on his back, creating a secondary hole. Instead of the planned play, I opt for the new route and burst through the line, for a big gain. In previous iterations of the game, the running-defense felt too restrictive, too locked down. It seems to be more realistic now, more functional, and more exploitative, when the opportunities arise. It’s a subtle change, to be sure, but it’s one I think has a big impact on the overall game play.

Within a similar vein, I really like the stumble recovery feature, and it seems like stiff arms really did get some added oomph with the new physics changes. There have been a few defenders dropped in incredible fashion, both on my side and the AI side of things, with a well-placed stiff arm.

The other enhancements in the game fall back into the baby-steps category. On the 360, the overall graphics are roughly the same, the audio feeling a little more real in terms of experience. One of the things I do like is the game into graphics and cut scenes, customized to the specifics of every team, with historical and current footage. The 25th anniversary vibe seems really consistent in that respect, and the homage seems legit and not overly self-congratulatory. It’s definitely focused on the history of both making and playing the game, with some definite “Oh yeah I remember that!” moments.

On the One, graphics are obviously better. It looks like the developers and EA went to great lengths to really add nuances to things like grass, and stadium features. The stadiums themselves, and fans and sidelines included, look much improved over the 360 side of things. The fans react better, too, getting riled up as appropriate with big plays or big moments draw them into the on the field drama. Sadly, most of this stuff is hard to really notice while playing, because to look around, while focused on the game, just doesn't happen, so the graphic changes, from nuanced and subtle to really extreme (OMG! Grass is multiple shades every 5 yards! I see it!), fall a little flat when it comes right down to game time.

Any shortcoming, or lack of real visibility on the changes are accounted for, though, because the game play is just perfectly smooth and much more natural in it's overall flow. Players still look a little funny, and some look downright weird, especially compared to their real-life counterparts, but the game is a great football game, visually, with these performance changes. Players actually take up their own space, no more clipping through people at the line. Hitting someone on the right doesn't make them fall to the right as often as it used to, either. Those sort of changes, also subtle, make for a super clean experience.

The game's features are roughly the same as you’d come to expect, with some changes worth noting. Season/Franchise modes are now rolled up into “Connected Franchise” modes. Take the role of player, coach, or owner, each with nuanced levels of management and functionality. Full disclosure, here, I’m a giant franchise nerd. I love the nuances of trades and ownership, adjusting ticket and concession prices, and even the potential to more the team to new locales. EA has gone into great detail here, especially in Owner mode, as you can start as a rookie owner, a current owner, a historic owner, etc., and each flavor has the some pros and cons associated with it accordingly.

One of my favorite things improvements in the game though, and it’s minor to game play in some ways, is moving your franchise team to a new city. Instead of picking colors and uniforms from generic standards and customizing them accordingly, you get a choice of 17 cities to move your team to, including such locations as London, England, Dublin, Ireland, Toronto, and the football desert known as Los Angeles. (I’m from Orange County, yes, I might be a bit bitter that we don’t have a team). With each city come pros and cons for fan involvement and three options for team names and uniform design. What is great is that each option is specific to the location, so in LA, we get the Stars, Aftershocks, etc. In Dublin, you get the Shamrocks, and so on. What’s great about this is it gives the level of customization you’d like, but it also gives a better overall experience, because stadium design, cut scenes and branding are all ready to go for each design choice. If you pick the Aftershocks as your team in LA, you get a grey and gold uniform, and the logo already done. Cut scenes, back-story and game footage, though obviously more toned down than “real” franchise versions, make some really great efforts in this area. Stuff like “The first NFL team outside the US makes its home in the north, Toronto” type audio feels a lot more complete as a product, and is definitely an improved over past "create a team" offerings, and just makes it more immersive while giving you the freedom to carve out custom aspects.

The Ultimate team components and standard game features still exist in their general capacity on both the 360 and the One. I'm sure there are legions of dedicated football-ites that can't wait to build historic teams based on the best players of each generation, and this year Madden gives them the opportunity to really cash in on the legacy the 25 years has created. Choose from any of the starts of by gone Madden games, including this little bit of trivia, from one of the loading screens. The 2004 Madden version of Michael Vick, with a speed rating of 95, is the most offensive talented player in the history of the game franchise. What say you, NFL fans? 2004 Vick the best ever? Go debate that one in the forums! The one has some key Ultimate team cards that are exclusive to that console, and seems to be a theme with EA with this years dual-console titles.

On the Xbox One, the real "game changer", pun sort of intended, is CoachGlass. Using a tablet with Microsoft's SmartGlass app, you get some really great defensive scheme review features. Apparently, too, it's crowd sourced, so it's based on real game time plays that have happened throughout other gamers playing the game all over the world. It's really like having a LEGITIMATE defensive coordinator in your ear giving you advice, because it definitely made my defensive game more successful and less of a guessing game. "Sure, whatever you say, suggested play". I really like this and football is the perfect vehicle for it. I don't know how much it translates to other sports, but that's ok, because it's a great step in a very cool direction for just expanding the reach of games and consoles alike. I'm really curious what other items developers bring to the SmartGlass app moving forward.

Kinect on the 360 let you do some basic things, call audibles; that sort of thing. On the One, you get real control on the field. I mentioned that I like to use Peyton Manning, right? Well, on the One, you can act like the field general himself and call out audibles or play changes, defensive coverages, individual players, and all sorts of things. Just in messing with the feature though, I got a little sideways, literally. One play, I tried to say something like "Prevent Deep" or something, and the Xbox heard "prevent run to the right", so my entire defensive line lined up to the right, at the last minute, right before the snap, and suddenly their tight end on the left side of the field had all day to run his route unopposed. I don't blame the game for that, I blame the coach. Kinect does have some potential gotchas, as it is almost a little too sensitive, but it's still tons of fun and really an improvement over the previous generation consoles use of voice controls. Just Miss my Motorola-Head-Coach-knock-off Headset/Mic that I had on the 360. Nothing like looking the part, right?

In the end, this is still “just” football, and it’s still football on Xbox, whether its the One or the 360, so there’s not a lot in the sense of “OMG THIS IS SO AMAZING.BEST.GAME.EVAAAAARRRRR” sort of moments involved in these. It’s more iterative as a process, taking last years model, building/tweaking accordingly, and going from there. The unique position of the new console on the horizon and the 25th anniversary edition made for some challenges, I’m sure, for EA, but I think they’ve done the brand a real solid here as a parting gift to the 360 and a foundation for the Xbox One to come. Overall, it’s a great football game on both consoles, as fans of the franchise have come to expect, and I suspect that all the launch parties, and cult following associated with Madden will continue strong, hopefully (I’m sure for EA, anyway) for another 25 years.

I'm eager to see what EA can do once they are truly developing for the Next-Gen (I guess they're current Gen?) consoles once the 360 is no longer something they're writing for. With CoachGlass and the new game as any indication, things are just getting started.

Cut the 360 cord and get to some real developing! Just kidding. Can't wait to see what else SmartGlass brings to the Xbox One!

Overall: 8.5 / 10
Gameplay: 8.4 / 10
Visuals: 8.6 / 10
Sound: 8.7 / 10


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