It's hard to really sell anyone on picking up the newest iteration of Madden prior to the launch of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One this year. In part, this is because Madden NFL 25 does very little to differentiate itself from last year's version. You might wonder how that's different from any other year of Madden, but it seems like innovation is exceptionally lacking this time around. With Madden NFL 25, EA seems pretty content to polish up a few bugs from last year, reintroduce a couple of mechanics across different modes, and call it a day.
If you're jonesing for some gridiron action, waiting for the next gen to arrive might not sound ideal. Madden NFL 25 eschews the yearly numbering system in favor of reminding everyone how long we've been playing video game football under the John Madden moniker. That celebration doesn't equate to much more than loading screen info that talks about features or controversy surrounding previous releases, often painfully reminding us of historic entries that were actually fun instead of a tired rehash of previous content.
Like every version of Madden, this year's release has a handful of changes over the previous entry. This is the second time with the Infinity Engine that debuted last year, improving physics and collision detection for character models on the field. Last year, we saw a number of humorous, post-play animations with players constantly tripping over each other, but that has been cleaned up in this iteration. The physics definitely seem improved, but character AI isn't. You'll see a lot of missed tackles, misdirected players, and defenders who inexplicably miss the runner who's right in front of them. It can be increasingly frustrating to play against the game and other players.
The primary focus for this year's Madden entry comes from the "Run Free" and "Precision Modifier" tools, which boost your ability to control the ball handler by allowing for improved versions of typical skills, like dives, jukes, spins and stiff-arms. The changes seem slight at first, and they stand out more when you're focused on a running offense instead of the passing game, but they are noticeable. There's also an improved tutorial system that shows off these new abilities, giving new Madden players a chance to catch up on the series and learn the basic mechanics, including returning options like hot routes and audibles.
As far as playable modes go, there are definitely a number of things to see and do in Madden NFL 25. Connected Franchise returns as the primary career or season mode, and it's broken down by coach, owner and player franchises. These franchise modes aren't too far removed from last year, but improvements have been made to allow for more consistent and tangible upgrades for each franchise. Of the three, coach and player remain the best. Owner sounds incredibly interesting on paper but your performance has little impact on your ability to perform certain tasks, like stadium upgrades.
Also returning this year is the excellent Madden Ultimate Team mode, and once again, it's my favorite thing about the game. I've heaped praise on this before, and I'll do so again since it remains my favorite sports video game mode in this console generation. Madden Ultimate Team is a modified version of fantasy football, using digital collectible cards of different rarity to build a squad of players for a user-controlled team. You can take this team on- or offline, engage in weekly challenges to earn in-game currency, and purchase new packs of cards using that earned currency or real-world money. Each pack contains a number of cards with different rarity values, with every member of the NFLPA available. You can even auction or trade cards with other players, helping ensure that you build the team you want.
While this entry doesn't see many changes to the Madden Ultimate Team mode, I still love the heck out of it. This year sees the return of a function that's been absent for a while: Chemistry. This breaks down into eight different categories, like long pass, man defense, pass rush and short pass, with one category assigned to each player to simplify the team-building process. If you want to build a team around a long pass quarterback, you can search for players who will complement your team leader. It became such an important function for me that I'm surprised EA ever took it out of the game.
As far as complaints go, I have a few — aside from the marginal changes made this year. The main menu has been redesigned, and I assume this was done in an effort to simplify the navigation, but I think it has the opposite effect. There are menu sections that are devoted to particular achievements, so pressing an option brings you to the gameplay function or mode that earns the achievement. It seems like needless clutter to me. I like that the menu remembers the modes I last played and puts them front and center. This overly stylized approached is more cumbersome than anything else since it opts for flash over convenience, and it's a remarkably sluggish user interface.
Another issue I have comes from the post-play animations, which are awfully repetitive and seem at odds with Madden NFL 25's otherwise superb production values. I'd see the same sequence after every timeout, with a coach or trainer walking over to a player and pouring a bottle of Gatorade through a player's helmet. I'd call another timeout and see the same sequence. I get that these guys are probably thirsty, but let's change it up a bit. It really stands out against the fantastic-looking player models on the field. Alas, character models on the sidelines look downright atrocious, with poor proportion, ugly hair, and low-resolution textures. It looks amateurish for an EA Sports production. It stands out in comparison to the on-field action, which looks pretty nice.
Finally, I found the quality of online play to be pretty hit-and-miss. On the plus side, the EA online servers seem less prone to randomly dropping me than they were last year, but when I played online, I'd often run into lag. I tried using wired and wireless connections to troubleshoot network issues on my end, but to no avail. Regardless of connection, just about every match I played had some lag, which wrought havoc on my passing game.
Madden NFL 25 isn't a huge step forward for the series — at least until we get our hands on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions. This feels more like an incremental upgrade to Madden '13, since it focuses on bug fixes and minor improvements. If you can hold off for a couple of months, I'd suggest skipping this and seeing how the next-gen version turns out. At best, it's an incremental upgrade to Madden '13, and while it's a solid effort, it's hardly worth getting excited about.
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