It’s doubtful that anyone expected a 1988 PC game featuring a portly retired American football player on the cover to ultimately spawn one of the biggest game franchises in the world. The series has sold over 100 million copies to date, and, in America at least, is regularly in the top three selling games each year. As with many yearly franchises though, fatigue can set in, and often the incremental changes EA wheel out make players wonder why they should bother buying this year’s version. However, whilst Madden 15 doesn’t reinvent the wheel, this year’s update is a genuine game-changer.
Madden 15 looks and feels like the first true next-gen outing for the franchise. Player animations, graphical fidelity and presentation have all been improved over last year’s Madden 25, putting to use the extra grunt of the PS4 and Xbox One to deliver the most realistic entry in the series so far. At times EA Tiburon have realised their vision so well that you can almost forget it isn’t a real sports broadcast, and perhaps if the game’s replays didn’t tend to focus on moments where the performance or physics engine is less than realistic, you’d be able to forget entirely. In general motion though, the action looks fantastic and is genuinely enjoyable to watch.
From a gameplay point of view, first impressions are that very little has changed. You select your favourite team, and are then presented with the different game options. These range from exhibition games, through to the connected franchise mode where you can take your created player, coach or team owner through an offline or online season to hopefully achieve Super Bowl glory. Even the first moments of your starting game can seem unchanged, with the game offering you a single suggested play which you then aim to execute.
It’s selecting enhanced play calling that really makes a serious difference. You’re presented with three different options to play, along with the reasoning behind each one, with a strategic option, a community option and an option based on your own play style. It’s a fantastic system, giving you insight into how those teams respond in different real-world situations, as well as how other Madden players approach them, along with their potential success rates and average results. Even if you’re not an American Football expert, Madden 15 can make you feel like one when you make the right choice and shut down the other team’s efforts or gain a first down.
It’s when you take on the role of the defense that the most significant changes become apparent. On the whole, in previous games defense was playable by mashing the select button and the hit-stick whilst the computer took care of the rest. You did it while you waited to do the ‘fun’ part of trying to score whilst on offense. Madden 15 utterly rewrites the rules, by making defense just as enjoyable to play, empowering the player with the ability to actually make a difference.
The new defensive player cam brings you closer to the action, but it comes alongside button prompts which help your defender perform the correct moves and an indicator when you’re in range to perform a tackle, making defensive play a pleasure. The ultimate result is that a game of Madden can now be wholly enthralling, as opposed to only intermittently.
Returning this year is Madden Ultimate Team, the fantasy football mode where you collect player cards to build your dream team which many of you will be familiar with from the FIFA series. Ultimate Team is touted as the fastest growing mode in the franchise, so it’s perhaps dismaying that this is where Madden’s micro-transactions raise their ugly head. Packs of cards can be bought with the in-game currency you gain through winning games, but with a pro-pack taking seven wins to earn enough it certainly feels like EA are pushing you down the route of least resistance. Given that the company recently stated they hope to make a billion dollars from DLC sales this year it’s not that surprising.
The in-game auction house helps to alleviate some problems, with players able to sell their unwanted cards to other players for in-game currency. Thanks to the excellent search tools you can look for the exact type of player you need to shore up your defence, or to boost your offence, though bidding can become very fierce for highly rated or popular players. It’s a welcome point to note that fundamentally you can create the exact team you want just by utilising the auction house, and thus steering clear of Madden’s micro-transactions. It’ll just take you longer.
Weaker elements do naturally still exist, with the play calling of Phil Simms and Jim Nantz lacking in emotion, variety and accuracy. The number of times in one game where you’ll hear the same line repeated or that scoring a field goal was terrible execution by the offense does begin to grate, though fortunately not enough to take too much away from the experience. Equally, the excellent graphics can still fall apart when the Ignite engine can’t quite cope with the action with players flailing about on top of each other or bouncing off each other in unexpected directions. Luckily these aren’t deal-breakers, and are hopefully issues for EA Tiburon to work on for next year’s release.
In the course of my review I took in both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 editions. Beyond some extended loading times on Xbox One the releases are virtually identical, with only the PS4’s remote play functionality a significant difference. Madden remains perfectly playable on Vita, though it would benefit from the ability to alter the controls, with the vital sprint move assigned to R2 on the touchpad, and kicking becoming a much trickier affair on the handheld’s diminutive analogue sticks.
Madden 15 is easily the most complete release in the series so far, with all of the improvements tying together to create an enjoyable and enthralling game of American Football. Even if you’re not that knowledgeable about play-types or the difference between a half-back and a full-back, Madden 15 will have you playing like a pro and feeling like one as well.