A couple of months back I had the chance to check out Madden NFL 16 at a press event. I sat down to play the build that was on display, and maybe five minutes into a game, series creative director Rex Dickson sat down next to me. We'd never met before, but as this was a media event, I imagine he was instructed to chat up anyone who sat down to play the game. I say instructed like it was some terrible, forced interaction, but apart from some slightly awkward chitchat about my previous review scores for the series and Metacritic averages, mostly we just talked about the game. The most interesting point that came out of that conversation had to do with EA Tiburon's approach to Madden in the modern console era. I'm paraphrasing, but Dickson more or less said that these days, creating a new Madden installment is more about subtraction than it is addition. It's about cleaning up old bugs and problems that have lingered throughout the series, about streamlining the experience to make it more accessible to players who aren't the die-hard Madden faithful.
It's an interesting point to consider when examining Madden NFL 16. This year's game actually boasts a number of new features, but when you squint a little, you can see the kinds of subtractions Dickson was talking about. Things that used to drive me crazy, like the awkward tackling animations that made players go instantly limp when hit, are much less prevalent. Instances of running backs getting hung up on linemen are way down from earlier games. Commentary has been reworked to be less painfully repetitive (though it's still pretty bad in certain situations). And the menu system, long the bane of this series, have been reorganized in a superior (if still imperfect) way. These are small changes, but they go a long way toward making this year's Madden a better overall experience.
Which isn't to say that Madden NFL 16 doesn't feature plenty of new additions, and that those new additions don't come with their own set of brand-new problems to be subtracted in some future sequel. Take, for instance, the new additions to the passing game. Quarterbacks get an added ability to throw passes high and low, which is nifty in and of itself, but factors in more heavily to the game's new catch mechanics. Madden 16 now allows receivers to catch balls in multiple ways. As you throw to a receiver, an icon will pop up above their head, indicating what the computer has determined to be the best option among aggressive, possession, and run-after-catch scenarios. RAC catches put you in position to get big yardage following the reception; possession catches essentially position receivers to secure balls while in traffic; aggressive catches send receivers leaping into the air, arms (or arm, if you're cover man Odell Beckham Jr.) stretched outward to make a spectacular play that could easily be broken up by a well-positioned defender.
This is by far the best attempt Madden has made toward making receiver play compelling outside of simply running after a catch. That said, the system has its quirks. Any receiver with a decent jump or spectacular catch rating will try to make some ridiculous-looking aggressive catches, and while they're more likely to be broken up than other catch types, they still work a little too often, especially in online play. You can tell the developers were deeply enamored with Beckham's spectacular grabs from last season, because now lots of players go for absurd one-handers and other unrealistic catches, and somehow end up catching them anyway.
Most of the defensive changes from last year remain intact and just as functional. EA is touting new, "organic" gang tackles, which boils down to allowing multiple defensive players to redirect a ballcarrier's momentum without locking into a bunch of canned group animations. Group tackles do look better, and again, you don't see quite as much of the goofy trips and limp falls as in previous years, but it's nothing revolutionary. Defensive backs now also have similar icons popping up as they gear up to defend a pass. You can either play the ball, which puts you in better position for an interception or deflection (but may also screw you if the receiver catches it anyway), or play the receiver, aiming to knock the ball from their hands as they go up for a catch. The differentiation here is good, but it doesn't completely cure the feeling that playing DB often results in bad things. I've never been good at playing corner in these games, and the new button options didn't negate that feeling. If anything, I mostly just leaned on playing receivers out of fear that I was going to give up a huge play otherwise. Based on my few forays into playing the ball, that fear is well-founded.
With all of these things combined, Madden's on-the-field action is arguably the best it's been in years. Abundance of aggressive catches and occasionally wonky animations aside, the game moves with a degree of precision that hasn't existed previously. Even little things, like penalties, are presented in more realistic fashion. False starts and encroachment penalties happen about as often as they do in regular games, though occasionally those encroachment/neutral zone infractions seem to come incorrectly, and the AI almost never calls pass interference, outside of the most blatant cases. You can, of course, mess with sliders if the default settings aren't to your liking, and those sliders seem much more sensitive this year.
Elsewhere, the connected franchise mode has gotten a bit of work this year. The big new feature is essentially an in-game quest system. It's a reworking of the hot and cold streaks from previous years, presenting you with specific statistical goals for each offensive and defensive drive. Holding the ball, you might be asked to achieve a certain number of rushing yards with your back, or score a receiving touchdown to close out the drive. On defense, you might need to call a certain number of blitzes, or get a sack with a specific player. Achieving them boosts the confidence level of your whole unit, and provides additional XP. It's a terrific system that is a great deal more fun to manage than the sometimes random streaks from before, but the specificity of these goals is, in some cases, a little much. There's no great reason for a particular linebacker to have to get two tackles for a loss on one drive, for example, when any player on the defensive unit getting those tackles would serve the team just as well. It's a system that I think could use a bit of reworking next year, but I hope that they keep it around, as it makes the act of playing individual franchise games a lot more interesting.
Draft scouting has also seen an overhaul, one that I imagine some hardcore players won't love. Each week, you're granted a number of scouting points which you can apply to any available rookie. Those points unlock letter grades for the player's top three stats. Because you have a set number of points each week, you can only scout so many players, but that information, mixed with their eventual combine results, give you a solid picture of the players you've targeted. I've seen some players grumble about this system not giving specific enough details about individual stats, and I think that's a fair criticism. The flipside of that is that a big dummy like me, who almost never has great drafts in Madden franchise modes, finally started to get some solid results via this new system. Maybe there's a happy medium still to be found, but for my part, I'm in favor of what's been changed here.
The last big new feature is Draft Champions, a mode that works somewhat in tandem with the ultra lucrative Ultimate Team mode. In Draft Champions, EA capitalizes on our culture's current obsession with fantasy drafts by essentially creating its own Hearthstone arena mode for football. You begin the mode by drafting a coach, who has his own set of offensive and defensive specialties. You then draft a team of 15 starters (the rest of the roster is filled out with low-rated mostly nobodies) from sets of three available players. Players that fit a coach's system help boost your team's overall rating more, but players not suited to those systems don't negatively impact your team.
Once you've built your team, you can take on a series of offline or online matchups against other drafted teams. If you lose, your team is done, and you start over with a new draft. With each win, you earn a higher reward--usually a better pack of cards for Ultimate Team. Maybe it's because I don't often spend a lot of time in Ultimate Team--the mode has only gotten bigger this year, with more challenges, classic scenarios, and the like to play through--but Draft Champions hit a sweet spot for me. It's just involved enough to make me want to keep playing with my drafted teams, but light enough to where I don't feel like I have to invest major time into it. The rewards being tied to Ultimate Team is where I lose a bit of interest, as I don't have the time or the desire to spend dozens of hours building up a squad every single year. Again, maybe there's a better happy medium to be found here as well, but as a first time feature, Draft Champions is a welcome addition.
In Madden NFL 16, EA has built upon last year's far-better-than-average game in meaningful and useful ways. It's an approachable game of football, still complex in myriad ways, but better at communicating those complexities than ever before. The new additions all come with their share of issues, but those additions nonetheless feel meaningful to the core game, like ideal fits into what is often feels like a monolithic, largely unchanging franchise. And where Madden has chosen to scale back, it ultimately feels better for it. The last two years have given me a modicum of hope that, even so many years into the era of NFL exclusivity, the Madden team can still find ways to evolve and improve the concept of video game football.