Another year, another Madden, and the premier football game is back. EA promises that Madden NFL 20 will be the best, most-authentic football experience yet. But they say that every year, don’t they? In the past, many have accused this series of just being an expensive, yearly roster update. Is that the case here, or has EA developed something that significantly improves on its predecessors?
Madden’s gameplay has been thoroughly improved and feels way more authentic than last year’s edition. Passing is much smoother and you can now make those 50 yard bombs that would have been picked off or fallen incomplete in previous years. Linebackers no longer make those impossible jumping interceptions that plagued prior games either. I also found that receivers do much better against single coverage this year; they can catch the ball now without dropping it as soon as a defender breathes on them. Yes I still experienced some perplexing drops but on the whole, it’s a big improvement.
Running is also much better as the mechanics are smooth and responsive. It actually feels like a viable strategy this time around. A large part of this is down to the fact that EA seems to have fixed the speed thresholds. In past editions, opposing defenders could easily catch the fastest of players, and it made for an extremely frustrating experience. Now, if you manage to hit the open field with a running back like Christian McCaffrey, you’ll be able to rush for 50, 60, or 70 yards.
There are issues though. The AI forces fumbles at will, even when the player carrying the ball is a superstar like Alvin Kamara or Todd Gurley. They also seem intent on grabbing your facemask at every available opportunity. Both fumbles and facemask calls are way too common and really border on the point of ridiculousness, and this means you’re going to have to mess with the sliders (again) in order to get the best Madden experience.
Madden 20 also sees the introduction of the Run/Pass Option (RPO). Basically, it’s a play where the offense can either run or pass, based on how the defence is lined up. I’m not a great Madden player by any stretch of the imagination, so I wasn’t really able to get to grips with these, but you need to read the defence and make an almost immediate decision on what you’re going to do. Still, I have no doubt that more experienced players will put them to good use. It’s also great to see them finally added because they are the clearest indicator of EA’s commitment to modifying Madden playbooks so that they better reflect real football. And that can only be a good thing.
A common complaint in years gone by was that there wasn’t enough of a difference between the best players in the league and everyone else. You could put a back-up next to a generational talent and feel almost no difference between the two. They didn’t feel like the stars that they are in real life. Madden 20’s biggest addition addresses this issue. The top 50 players in the league are now designated as ‘Superstar X-Factors’. They have each been given a bunch of perks, including one special ‘zone’ ability, which reflect the playstyles that put them head and shoulders above the rest of the NFL.
Their ‘zone’ ability needs to be activated in-game by completing certain objectives, such as a set number of receptions, passes or sacks. Once you do that, that player is ‘in the zone’ and has the potential to dominate and dictate proceedings. For example, if you activate Pat Mahomes’ Bazooka ability, he’ll be able to throw 15 yards further downfield. Meanwhile Jalen Ramsey will start picking more passes off once his Shutdown ability is activated. There are 20 of these abilities and they all shake up the game in one way or another.
There was a worry that the X-Factors would destroy the game’s balance. They don’t. You can knock an opposing player out of the zone quite easily by completing an objective of your own.
Instead, they keep each game fresh by forcing you to adapt. If an opposition player enters the zone, you need to keep an eye on them because they have the potential to really ruin your day. Richard Sherman will pick you off if you throw near him, Khalil Mack will sack you over and over if you spend too much time in the pocket, and Tom Brady becomes near unstoppable once he gets going. In that sense, it’s just like real life and elevates Madden 20 into a much more authentic and complete football experience.
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Ultimate Team (MUT) is back and once again the focus of EA. It’s really nothing you haven’t seen before and MUT veterans will be able to jump straight in. There are some changes to take note of though, one being the new Missions tab, which is a good way for new players to get to grips with the mode. There has also been an overhaul to the Solo Challenges. Now called Ultimate Challenges, they work on a star system with these handed out for completing solos on higher difficulties and meeting bonus objectives. Each challenge set also has milestone rewards built in, unlocked when you reach a set number of stars.
It has to be said, this mode is like marmite – you will either love it or you hate it. And I get it. Some of the hate is warranted. You can never really escape the rampant monetisation that MUT runs on, and those who spend real money will have better squads and much more success online. But there’s a lot to like. You can still have fun without spending a single penny, or even playing online. EA practically throws coins at you and there is always something to do. You can make steady progress, and I suspect that those who can put the sufficient time in will find themselves with a team in the mid-90s come the end of this game’s life-cycle.
Franchise Mode has taken a back-seat to Ultimate Team… again. That’s not to say there aren’t any new additions though. The Pro Bowl returns but the major one this year is the ‘Scenario Engine’. It’s a narrative driven mechanic where you have to deal with new and developing situations as they occur. How you respond directly impacts your team by affecting team morale, individual player stats and specific goals for upcoming games. Its aim is to make your franchise mode a more immersive experience. It doesn’t quite manage to do that though.
Don’t get me wrong. In some areas it really succeeds. A lot of the scenarios are particularly well thought out, and consistent with what a real head coach might experience. Your coordinators will ask you about the game-plan and how to deal with the X-Factor Superstars on the opposing team. Veterans will text you and offer to help out rookies. A player might ‘breakout’ after a good run of form and improve his development rate. Certain players can become frustrated and ask to be involved more going forward if they feel they are being side-lined.
But there are a ton of issues with it at present, and the whole engine seems so half-baked. Playing as a QB was where I had the most trouble. You’ll quickly find the same canned messages popping up time and time again. Every DE texts you the same thing, as does every corner, safety, QB and DT. And it’s always trash-talk. It would have been nice to have seen some variety, and the game taking into account who is texting you. You’d expect a corner like Jalen Ramsey to lay a little trash-talk on you. But why would Andrew Luck or Tom Brady do the same? It’s completely out of character and doesn’t make sense.
Some of the targets that it ends up giving you are insane too, and need to be tweaked. A receiver might text you, frustrated at their lack of action and ask to be involved more. Makes sense, right? But if you agree, the game will ask you to either achieve 150+ yards receiving or 3 TDs with that player – a career day for many. But if you don’t hit that, the player’s morale drops and they text you moaning about lack of involvement.
Even worse, I found the Scenario Engine to be completely broken in some cases. In past Maddens, I’ve enjoyed creating QBs that aren’t instant starters. They either sit for a year or work their way up and earn the starting job. I like to think that it makes for a more realistic experience. But it seems that the game doesn’t anticipate anyone doing this, and the Scenario Engine makes it impossible anyway. Even if you’re the second string QB, the engine thinks you’re the starter anyway. So even if you have never taken to the field, your head coach will text you complaining about underperformance. He will set you a target which you can’t meet because, you know, you’re the backup. After that, you’re cut and forced to retire at the end of the season if you don’t get picked up by another team.
Tiburon have expressed their desire to update the engine with new scenarios as the season progresses, so there is some hope that the Scenario Engine can be improved as the game goes through its life-cycle. At present, there are some good ideas, and the potential for something great is clearly there. It just needs to be built upon and allow for more situations, variables and playstyles. Scenarios for other positions and owners need to be introduced at some point too.
The Scenario Engine is a solid step towards a more complete, immersive Franchise Mode. But we can’t escape the fact that Madden’s offering is still so far behind other sports games. There are so many things missing that really should be included; Create-a-Franchise, Stadium Builder, League History, Team and Player Records, Better Stat Tracking, Coaching Carousels, Customizable Contract Options, In-depth Scouting, Dedicated Retirement Page and Mock Drafts, for example.
It’s particularly annoying when you consider that most of these features have already been in past editions of Madden and been removed over the years. Franchise is in desperate need of an overhaul, and has been for the past four or five years.
But hey, at least the Pro Bowl is back, right?
And then we get to Longshot, which is gone, and in its place is a new story called QB1: Face of the Franchise. It’s similar to its predecessor in that it’s all about overcoming adversity and ‘making it’ as a pro football player. Basically, it’s one big cliché.
You get to create your own character this time around, and the story opens with him psyching himself up in the bathroom. You’re about to commit to play QB for one of ten major college programs. The head coach of whatever school you picked wants you to be the day one starter. You’re a five-star recruit, after all. So far, so good.
But then disaster strikes. The undisputed number one QB prospect in the country, Marcus Washington, has de-committed from his previous school and is coming to play for your program instead. Even worse, coach has put him top of the depth chart. You’re determined to win back the starting job. Skip to four years later and long story short, you haven’t. In fact, you never even got to take a single snap in college (does EA even watch college football?). But now Washington is injured and you have to take his place and win the College Football Playoffs.
No matter what happens in the playoffs, you’ll then go through the combine and draft process to end up playing for an NFL franchise as either a first, mid or late round pick. From there, the game turns into a modified QB franchise mode and you have to ‘forge your legacy’. As I said, it’s all really cheesy.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun though. Face of the Franchise starts off strong and you’ll likely have a blast in the few hours before you reach the NFL. I became invested in my character. I wanted him to succeed. I thought carefully about every decision I needed to make. I loved being able to mould him into the player I wanted through the dialogue options. I loved that I could finally play some college ball, even if it was only two games. The humour infused into the combine and drafting sequences lifted those parts of the story.
But after that all good stuff, everything just fades away and the experience ends on a disappointing note when it just turns into a generic player franchise mode. I wanted to see some more character development or cut-scenes during my career, and was surprised to see there wasn’t any. Instead, you just get a few text messages from the characters you met during your journey to the NFL as the season progresses. These conversations never go anywhere meaningful and it’s simply not enough to keep you engaged. I expect players will finish a few games before quitting out and going to do something else.
To me, Face of the Franchise ultimately screams missed potential. It could have been so much more. Still, it bodes well for the future and is a solid step towards a fully-fledged career mode, akin to something like NBA2K’s MyPlayer mode.
Playing Madden 20 on Xbox One, I can’t help feeling that there is a ton of missed potential. Face of the Franchise is great fun and a solid step in the right direction, but it could have been so much more. The Scenario Engine is a great idea that is executed poorly. Franchise is still in need of an overhaul…
But even with these issues, I have still had a blast playing Madden 20. The gameplay is so much better than last year. Running is extremely satisfying and passing is smooth. Receivers make big plays and speed stats finally mean something. ‘Superstar X-Factors’ are a brilliant addition to the game that finally gives an identity to the league’s top players, keeping individual games fresh and adding an element of strategy to proceedings. Quite simply, if you’re a football fan there’s a load of fun to be had with this game and Madden NFL 20 is a solid experience with a massive improvement over last year’s offering.