A year after one of the worst iterations of the long-running series, could Madden get back up and reinvent itself again in the face of adversity?
Title: Madden NFL 20
Developers: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Platform: PS4 (version reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Release Date: August 2, 2019
The concept of tradition can often be a double-edged sword. Doing the same thing over and over again can often envoke a sense of pride for the way things were for some, or lead others down a spiraling road to madness and literal insanity.
This isn’t much different for sports games, specifically the Madden NFL series. Currently one of, if not the longest, annually-released sports titles, the franchise has seen its share of ups and downs over the past three decades. Since the soaring highs of the mid-to-late 2000s, however, cracks began to form in the familiar formula.
Since the move from hardware generation to hardware generation and engine to engine, loyal players saw more and more features being removed as the years went by. It all came to a head last year, as Madden 19 became by far the most reviled entry the series saw in quite some time. It lacked features and its infuriatingly buggy gameplay didn’t win any confidence in the court of public opinion. It followed a string of games with similar issues, and the community began to feel that their requests were not being heard.
Now that another year has passed, another Madden is now out. EA and Tiburon’s marketing for the game has been much more prevalent than in recent years, with a presumed goal of bringing the franchise back to universal prominence. Unfortunately, Madden 20 serves as more of a reaffirmation of the franchise’s ongoing issues rather than a quick remedy to cure them.
These ongoing issues are anchored by the most important aspect of any Madden entry: gameplay. Legacy problems continue to plague the series to the point where it’s nearly unenjoyable to even watch someone else play it.
Modern Madden’s biggest issue seems to be that on-field action is dictated by animations rather than physics. Patrick Mahomes shouldn’t be stiff arming J.J. Watt out of the way like he did several times in my experience, nor should every single catch downfield from any receiver be a one-handed leap. These sorts of things constantly happened through various game modes and it’s far from the first time these issues have been this apparent.
Also like previous versions, the game has a huge issue with AI awareness. Whether players are playing with or against you, sometimes players just tend to forget they’re playing football. Offensive linemen can completely miss a blitzing linebacker or edge-rusher for just standing still. Zone defense is also a death sentence again this year, as the same problem can happen to a linebacker or secondary player to give your opponent easy yardage on slants or other cheese-filled routes.
Superstar X-Factors and Zone Abilities are the big new gameplay features this year and they honestly feel like a mixed bag. The effort to make elite players stand out more is appreciated, but the specific abilities leave a bit more to be desired.
Some are fairly benign and don’t feel like they do anything, while some X-Factors such as Aaron Rodgers’ (who, when activated, can’t get picked off by AI defenders) or Patrick Mahomes (who can chuck the ball nearly the length of the field with near-consistency) feel incredibly unrealistic and overpowered for no real reason at all.
Running backs and receivers also don’t get a huge variety of abilities that cater to them specifically, and generally, these things would fit right at home on an NFL Blitz-type game rather than a game that aspires to simulate true-to-life football like Madden.
There is also not a single X-Factor or Zone Ability for an offensive lineman in the game, which is crazy considering how integral they are to any NFL offense (just ask the Colts and Andrew Luck how that’s working out for them). If defensive linemen can get stuff like Fearmongerer and Unstoppable Force, then certainly offensive hog mollies like David Bakhtiari, Matt Paradis or Queonton Nelson could have gotten something in this new feature.
That all said, the feel of player movement has been largely improved over last year. Evasion moves are much easier to pull off but don’t inherently feel overpowered. And as much as players have been vocal about it, the new system of player ratings is a welcome change. Paired with X-Factors and Zone Abilities, elite players do stand out as big playmakers, but Madden‘s issues with animations and AI continue to show that the series has a long way to go before bringing it all together in a completely acceptable package.
In-game presentation is largely unchanged as well. Pre-game, halftime and post-game all essentially feel like a lacking copy-and-paste from previous years. The new score bug is also just downright hideous and obtrusive and is unlike anything you’d see on any given Sunday. Some player face and body likenesses are also wildly inaccurate when looked at up close (i.e. Panthers tight end Greg Olsen), and bulky shoulder pads are also an odd sight on players like Mahomes. Lighting has been improved again this year, though and some gorgeous stadium shots remained as well.
Chief among the game’s other issues are, once again, the lacking amount of features and modes compared to previous versions. Franchise mode has gotten very minor, incremental upgrades like an enhanced fog of war player development system and the more-marketed Scenario Engine.
The engine supposedly allows for more unique situations and challenges to come up. The concept itself does show some promise, with specific players of schemes being focused on to create goals for your team to complete in-game. In my time with the game, however, it didn’t present anything wholly unique that could be considered a selling point.
EA and Tiburon have both stated that it will be continually updated throughout the year, but it’s still not enough when so many other features and options have been gutted from Franchise. Relocation and customization opens are still extremely limited, coordinators are still generic placeholders and training camp is still gone amongst many other missing things that made the old Franchise modes so deep and engaging. The re-inclusion of the Pro Bowl is also nice, but this was the year to give Franchise some much-needed attention.
It also fails hard with the new QB1: Face of the Franchise mode. The franchise’s first career mode in quite some time, it takes you through the journey as a four-year backup in college getting the chance to take your team to a national championship before heading to the NFL. Once you get through a pretty scaled-down character creator, it’s time to hit the field with one of a select group of colleges in the College Football Playoff.
While the allure of playing any glimpse of a college football video game again sounds tempting, the novelty quickly wears off when you begin to see the mess gameplay is and shades of the failed Longshot story mode rear their ugly head in the form of unskippable, cringe-filled cutscenes.
Once you’re done with the Playoff, the game takes you through the “Combine,” which is just a set of challenges you can find in the Skill Trainer before you get picked by whatever team gives you a shot. From there, the mode devolves into just an offshoot of the aforementioned lacking Franchise mode and the experience quickly runs stale. It’s a refreshing step to see a custom career mode return, but it honestly pales in comparison to competitors like MLB The Show and NBA 2K, all of which don’t lock you into a single position from the start.
Ultimate Team, for better or worse, is probably the brightest spot of other modes this year…again. Solo challenges have been completely retooled, with mercifully no load times between games in the same challenge ladder. Higher difficulty settings with better rewards are also a nice touch, managed by a star-system based on your main or bonus objectives completed. Missions also make things easier when figuring out what to do; whether you want to complete a set, rack up some coins and rewards or finish out some other objectives.
And while those might be good things, Ultimate Team continues to be a polarizing topic amongst the Madden community and even those outside of it. Yes, the solo experience is another improvement, but the microtransactions are still very much there and thrown in your face when you open up the game. For some, it’s an easy sell but for others, it’s a reminder of how far the series has fallen.
Simply put, Madden NFL 20 just isn’t all that enjoyable as a whole. Gameplay still has unfixed issues that have been prevalent for years and Franchise is still lacking the complete overhaul and player control it’s needed for years. Face of the Franchise is a total flop, serving as more proof that it’s time for EA to give up cinematic sports stories. Sure, Ultimate Team got some needed improvements and some X-Factors are fun to mess around with – but this year is more proof than ever that Madden needs a serious overhaul in nearly every aspect.
A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.