Sports games are a strange beast. On the one hand, those who don’t play them decry them as simple roster updates. On the other, a developer has just a year (likely less) to make adjustments to a game marketed as the “finest yet” upon release.
Madden has often been caught in the middle of these – for every revolutionary Madden title, there has been a subsequent evolution. Madden 19, however, feels like a huge step up from last year’s game.
The headline feature here is “real player motions” – essentially a new set of more fluid animations for every phase of gameplay. Instances in previous Madden games where a tackle would cause an awkward pileup of body parts now happens a lot less frequently. In fact, these animation details coupled with best-in-class broadcast overlays make Madden 19 (particularly on PlayStation 4 Pro) almost scarily close to watching an NFL game on your TV.
Gameplay-wise, these animations open up new avenues. Playing a running game based on your nippy ball carrier jinking between line-backers is now a more viable option, but simultaneously on defence, you’ll want to plug any gaps as soon as they appear for fear of missing a last-ditch tackle. There are animation glitches, sure – players will slide around as if they’re ice-skating (if only for a second), but these are often between plays and therefore don’t break immersion during gameplay. You won’t miss a tackle because the receiver went all “Torville and Dean”.
You will miss tackles, however, because the AI is smarter. They pick out runners with ease, and you’ll find yourself on “fourth and long” a lot more than before. All of this is welcome, easing what has traditionally been a difficulty spike between offline and online modes.
In terms of online modes, Ultimate Team returns with some new tricks – you’re now able to battle offline opponents in order to earn rewards, and you can also play 3 vs 3 online co-op vs the AI with other gridiron enthusiasts to complete challenges.
Offline, Franchise mode is as life-consuming as ever, strengthened by the aforementioned broadcast visuals to make playing your way to the Superbowl feel as authentic as ever. Smart additions for newcomers helps dial down what has traditionally been an obtuse set of stats and positions. You’re now able to specialise a player into a role using skill points earned through gameplay – think of them similarly to FIFA’s chemistry styles. Using these, you can slot players into new schemes you set for your team. All of these features combine to make Madden 19 a game that rewards knowledge of players and positions but also doesn’t make the player feel lost if this is their first game. It’s quite a balance to find, and impressively done.
You can also tweak Franchise mode Drafts to your heart’s content, adding in custom players. Perhaps most importantly, players can share these “Draft Classes” online, creating essentially modifiers for new Franchise starters. Expect to see Drafts populated by your favourite fictional characters soon!
With all of the positive changes to every mode, it’s disappointing that the game’s story mode falls short of Madden 18’s “Longshot”. Whereas that game built upon its characters in believable ways whilst indulging in some artistic licence with things such as the talent show required to win a roster spot, this year’s sequel “Homecoming” features an uninspired story. Voice acting is once again excellent, but the story just feels undercooked. Constantly being the underdog has given us some great sports movies, but there is a reason not many get a sequel. The stakes aren’t high enough and the story goes to some really bizarre places, ending up feeling more like a teen drama than anything.
Madden 19’s renewed focus on gameplay is commendable and remains as solid as ever. Real player motions bring the best out of throw/catch types and sneaking between two players and putting the afterburners on never gets old. It’s a shame that Longshot’s sequel doesn’t hold up to the quality of the package, but Madden 19 is firmly the best yet.
*Code kindly provided by the publisher for review*