The Madden NFL series is at an interesting crossroads this year. Those of us who are fans of the series generally accept the fact that each annual iteration will be a glorified roster update with a handful of tweaks and new features added, and that’s fine. It’s an annual sports game, and it is what it is. This year’s game, however, has me confused, and not necessarily in a bad way. This brings something in both polar opposite ends of the spectrum; both good and bad.

But before we get into that, let’s talk about what’s immediately noticeable when you fire up the game. The menu UI has changed…again! It’s not the most difficult thing to navigate, but sheesh, EA…would it kill you to keep a menu design for more than one season? No, it doesn’t affect too much, but it gives me an uncomfortable feeling that the devs just don’t know what direction they want to take year after year. And one of my pet peeves from the past few years is still present; the painfully slow and sluggish navigation through the menus. There’s a tremendous amount of lag when going through the menu items, and it makes for more than one instance where the wrong thing is selected, which then means you have to sit through even longer loading times.

All complaining about the menus aside, all the staples of Madden that you expect are here. You have your standard exhibition games, online modes, a bunch of setting to play with, Connected Franchise, and the darling of EA Sports for the past few years, Madden Ultimate Team. Considering almost every major EA Sports release has Ultimate Team as a major feature, it’s no surprise that MUT is essentially the focal point of this year’s release…going so far as to offer additional packs in the Deluxe Addition as opposed to anything else. I’m not the biggest fan of the whole Ultimate Team concept, but I will admit it’s fun, and I can definitely see where the appeal is.

This year’s MUT doesn’t change too much from previous entries. Newcomers to the game mode will still have a pretty decent checklist to walk them through their first time playing (getting your first pack, setting you optimal lineup, etc). MUT vets should find plenty to sink their teeth into upon first firing up the game mode. It’s the same thing that we’ve had for the past few years, and MUT is a case of :if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

For those that may find MUT a bit too much (or, like myself, don’t like the fact that your cards “expire”) Madden 16 has a new game mode that might be right up your alley. This year sees the introduction of Draft Champions, a sort of cross between a fantasy football draft and MUT. You start Draft Champions off with a 15 round draft consisting of both current players and NFL legends. After you build your team, you set off on a series of games, either against an AI team or other human drafted teams.

Once you play through a “gauntlet” of games, you can face off against a 3 game challenge against the CPU or a 4 game challenge against human teams. Once you’re done, you start over and draft again. It’s short, fun, and brings about the best of the fantasy draft aspect of MUT without worrying about collecting/buying packs and replacing expired players. In fact, other than Connected Franchise, Draft Champions was probably the one game mode I played the most.

I mentioned earlier that Madden 16 brings something new from boths ends of the spectrum, both good and bad. Let’s start with the good. In the past, as long as I could remember (I’ve been playing Madden since the SNES), throwing a pass went like this: hike, press button for receiver, watch as ball is thrown and caught, immediately take over as receiver and run, juke, spin, etc.

You could always “take control” of your receiver and press a general catch button, but there was never really any payoff, and the mechanic never seemed to work all that well. This year, there are a bevy of new receiver catch mechanics, and I’m happy to report that work VERY well. I am legitimately impressed with how much control I have over my receivers now.

In Madden 16, as soon as the ball leaves your QB’s hands, you can choose to take over as the targeted receiver. You can tap the Y button for an aggressive catch (receiver performs a high risk, one handed or leaping catch), press the A button for a possession catch (receiver secures the ball at the expense of flash and gaining extra yards), or press X to run after catch (receiver turns upfield to gain more yards).

Madden 16 news 2015

It seems like a simple system, but having these three simple options dramatically changes the QB/WR relationship in Madden. Now when I’m playing with my beloved Buffalo Bills, if I see Percy Harvin beat his defender on a streak, a can simply float the ball into his hands, press X as the ball is getting to him, and not miss a beat as he catches the football and continues to run after the catch. Or if I have Charles Clay on a crossing pattern and see two defenders about to converge of poor Charles, I can press A and force him to secure the ball without risking a fumble. Or my personal favorite…if I see Sammy Watkins with only one lonely CB covering him, I can chuck him the ball and time an aggressive catch to have him leap up and make a fingertip, one handed catch.

Along with the new WR catch mechanics, the QBs also get a few new tricks up their sleeve. In the past, you had two options: tap the receiver button for a lob pass, or hold the same button down for a bullet pass. These two methods are still there, but are now joined by the touch pass and high/low passes.

The touch pass is performed when you double tap the receiver’s button, allowing your QB to perform a finesse throw that is high enough to go over the heads of a LB, but still short enough to keep it out of reach of a wandering safety, for example. High/low passes are exactly what they sound like; by holding the LB or LT buttons respectively, you can change the angle of the pass, when if you used in conjunction with an aggressive catch, can produce some pretty awesome results.

Giving the offense more weapons is all fine and good, but it would make for a pretty unbalanced gameplay experience if the defense didn’t get some goodies as well. Luckily in Madden 16, the defense comes with a new collection of goodies as well. As a defender, you now have the option to play the path of the ball, or to play the receiver by pressing Y or X respectively.

By playing the ball, you defender will focus on the path of the ball, attempting to go for an interception, whereas playing the receiver will be the more conservative of the two options, allowing you to lay a tackle as soon as the receiver catches the ball, or attempt to break up the pass. In addition to those two receiver defenses, the overall gang tackling has also received an overhaul (again, it seems). This year claims organic gang tackles where additional defenders can join in on stopping a ball carrier, influencing the runner’s direction and momentum.

That’s the good. Now for the not so good, which mostly seem to stem from Connected Franchise mode. First off, a disclaimer; I know Madden is a big seller every year, and I would assume that a constant struggle every year for the devs is to determine how much to go in a “sim” direction, and how much to simplify things for the more casual player.

Focusing too much on a sim experience will turn off the casuals, whereas making a game too simple will upset the hardcore fanbase because we’re not looking for the second coming of NFL Blitz. With that being said, I can understand why certain changes are made, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it. Case in point, this year’s college scouting and draft process. My goodness, has it changed, and not for the better.

Too call this year’s scouting process “dumbed down” would be an understatement. This year, you use your scouting points to unlock three attributes; which three attributes is up in the air. You see, the game will decide for you what the prospect’s three highest attributes are, and those will be the three you unlock.

As far as scouting goes, that’s it. There’s no more to do. You accrue scouting points, unlock the top three attributes for each prospect, and basically just go down the list. When you get to the NFL Draft, you just go down your list of scouted players, which is basically ALL OF THEM. You pick the best one, and repeat for seven rounds.

Simplifying things this much takes all the strategy out of the scouting and drafting process. In past iterations, you had nearly two dozen attributes to unlock, and part of the scouting strategy was figuring out how many points to spend on each player you were interested, and how many unlocked attributes was enough.

You could spend three weeks worth of scouting point to unlock every attribute for one player if you wanted, or you could unlock just the attributes that you deemed important enough across several players. Come draft day, you went into the seven rounds armed only the the info that you put work into. Drafting a good or bad player was squarely on your shoulders, and you knew any success or failure was the result of you and only you. You know…kind of like real life.

But now? Your hand is held through the whole process, and come draft day, you just go down your list of unlocked prospects and start picking the best ones. No strategy is needed, and your chances of drafting a dud are pretty much nonexistent. It’s very clear that EA wanted to attract a more casual fan to the Franchise mode, and in that, I believe they have succeeded. There’s no way to mess this up; the game will basically make these drafting decisions for you.

Some other random issues I ran into during my review:

You’re often presented with your stats compared to the previous week but the previous week always reads “0” across the board. “Here comes a quarterback with SOME experience” is still in the game, the commentary is still repetitive, and most of it sounds carried over from last year. You’re going to have to relearn where everything is in the menus, especially in Franchise and MUT is starting to resemble a mobile game with IAPs, especially in the menus where buying extra packs is featured very prominently.

I mentioned in the beginning of the review that this year’s Madden offers features that are extremely polarizing. While I appreciate the new receiver/QB/defender mechanics and hope these aren’t removed down the line, I can’t help but raise my eyebrow at the dumbing down of features in Franchise. Madden is a huge seller every year and permeates into popular culture; even celebrities are massive fans. I wouldn’t have thought that there was a such a need to target the casual audience, but as you have it, EA went that route.

The result is something that just isn’t as fun. Now keep in mind, I spend 99% of my Madden time every year in Franchise mode, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

If you never touch Franchise and only ever play online or with MUT, then you’ll find much to like here. But if you’re a Franchise mode devotee, you’re going to feel crippled. Madden has long been the only option as far as football games go, so it’s Madden or nothing. It’s not like I can turn to 2K for a more “sim” football game or anything, so the toning down of features stings just a bit more.

more info: