Madden NFL is now a 25-year-old franchise. Since the late '80s, Electronic Arts has been pumping these games out at a yearly clip, bowling over numerous competitors to become the only major football franchise left standing since the last console generation. Throughout those 25 years, Madden has seen its share of lofty ups and depressing downs, but there are enough highlights among those moments to make the concept of something like Madden NFL 25, an intended celebration of the franchise's history and acclaim, basically palatable.
The problem is, Madden NFL 25 isn't anywhere near the best or most memorable edition of the game released. Hell, it's barely much better than last year's flawed, but generally playable game. This likely being the last meaningful installment of the franchise on this generation of hardware, it's not altogether surprising that the developers at EA Sports wouldn't completely revamp the game yet again as resources begin drifting toward new consoles. But for a game that aims to celebrate Madden's storied history and its various innovations over the years, 25 feels oddly sterile, slapdash, and generally unremarkable.
The noteworthy changes to the gameplay this year are few and far between. When running the ball, an additional modifier has been added that lets you do more powerful versions of the jukes, trucks, and spin moves inherent to the ball carrier. They aren't exactly different moves so much as just more effective versions of the same moves you already have. All you have to do is hold down a trigger button and use the same stick movements/button presses you normally would, and now that stiff arm is stiffer, that juke jukier, and so on.
Maybe this is a meaningful addition to players who aren't good at pulling off the existing ball carrier maneuvers, but if you've been playing Madden at all in the last few years, the trigger pull is just one more step to add to the typical array of moves you're already accustomed to. The running game as it is already skews heavily in favor of the offense. Even with middling backs from pass-crazy teams, I was pretty regularly able to rip off large chunks of yardage in any situation outside of an obvious stacking of the line by the defense. The passing game is pretty breezy as well, with receivers regularly creating crazy amounts of separation and blowing past corners on deep routes in ways I don't recall being quite as prevalent last year. Granted, interceptions tended to pop up a lot more than they do this year, so that might be part of it.
Madden's defensive AI has had its share of problems over the years, certainly, and I'm not saying Madden NFL 25 is that much worse than any of the last few entries. Still, in this year's game, it often feels like defensive plays are more often the result of shoddy blocking than any actual useful defensive strategy. Receivers and tight ends have gotten arguably lousier about taking down linebackers and DBs on run plays, and the offensive line has a real bad tendency to bunch up in idiotic ways that leave delayed blitzers wide open to obliterate the QB if you're not insanely quick on your feet. A little of this stuff certainly makes sense in the context of the real life game, but here I kept running into these mistakes and miscues with almost absurd regularity.
As with all major simulation sports games, there are numerous settings and sliders one can adjust to fix some of these problems. And in the one single, solitary great new addition to Madden NFL 25, now you can download other people's settings too. Community creations, including slider settings, playbooks, and roster updates, can be easily downloaded from a menu within the game. Though the day-of-release group of content isn't necessarily easy to sift through, a ratings system included should help the best stuff float to the top eventually.
There's not much difference in how the game is presented on the field, compared with last year. Player models are as bulbous and stiffly animated as ever, though at least the physics-based tackling animations--introduced last year with the addition of the Infinity Engine--result in a few less insane looking non-injuries on the field, and a lot less random pratfalls by players who, last year, couldn't help tripping over any nearby downed player on the field. Commentary from Jim Nantz and Phil Simms returns, though repeated lines, inconsistent dialogue (Simms chiding a team for throwing a short pass that yielded a first down, then complimenting another short pass that only gained two yards a play later, for example), and occasional straight-up miscalls are frequent and annoying.
While all these issues don't necessarily conspire to ruin the game of digital football, they're disappointing, and emblematic of the larger problem this game suffers from. Namely, a total lack of a single, standout feature to point to in order to say, "Yes, this game deserves to be purchased if you already own last year's game."
Not even the new version of the connected careers mode, Madden 13's big revamp of franchise and superstar mode into one glob of simulated NFL management, makes such a case. Yes, a few things have been improved or added here and there. For one thing, owner mode returns, allowing you to create your own megalomaniacal billionaire to head up any of the league's 32 teams. The usual owner junk, like setting merchandise and ticket prices, is joined by the ability to move your team to one of several different cities, and rebrand them using preset logos and names. Elsewhere, players taking control of coaches and superstars can run through the usual paces, albeit with the returned inclusion of fantasy draft, for those who bemoaned its exclusion last year (myself included).
The problem is, the bigger issues with the mode--namely, its ungainly user interface and sometimes busted logic when it comes to things like signing and drafting players--remain just as problematic this time around. The free agent menu is a bit better now, but players are still highly capricious when deciding whether to go with your team or pick another offer, and usable information on your team needs isn't as immediately available as it should be when you're in the signing period. This is one of those cases where a total overhaul of the mode's menu systems is likely needed, as the navigation systems are just too unwieldy for the number of things you're theoretically supposed to keep track of, and constantly delegating tasks to the CPU just because trying to get around the menus is a pain in the ass is no fun at all.
On a side note, it's worth mentioning that this is the first PS3 version I've played of the game in a while. Typically EA sends us Xbox 360 code for review, and in playing the PS3 version, I found the in-game menus to be extremely laggy, even when compared with last year's game on the 360. Is this something PS3 owners have been enduring for a while? Or a recent issue? Either way, the sheer sluggishness of the menu navigation in this PS3 version is pretty brutal. I also ran into my share of crashes and minor bugs, though I don't know if those are platform specific or not.
Other modes, like Ultimate Team and the skills challenges, are generally better served. Ultimate Team still runs on the card-trading system EA's been using for years, but now there's a more useful structure to the mode that lets you compete against both AI and online teams to both unlock new cards and improve your team's chemistry. Completing skills challenges also provides unlocks, while serving as a decent tutorial for some of the game's new control systems. Online play isn't really any different than what you'd expect. You can still do the online version of the connected careers mode with multiple friends, and online matches still vary pretty wildly in terms of lag and playability. For what it's worth, when I did get into a match against a nearby opponent, the game seemed to be perfectly responsive, outside of a few weird physics glitches now and again.
Presenting Madden NFL 25 as a big, celebratory anniversary makes a degree of sense, given the rarity of such significant anniversaries in video game franchises. But having this game serve as that celebration maybe wasn't the best move. It's clear that EA is already prepping itself to go full bore into the next generation of systems, and that Madden NFL 25 is little more than a stopgap solution to plop into that August spot where Madden games are predestined to go. This is most certainly a functional, fully-featured game of football. But if you already own Madden NFL 13, think long and hard about how badly you really want to set concession prices, and download user-made rosters and settings, because there's little else of note here to suggest that Madden NFL 25 warrants yet another $60 of your money.