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Madden NFL 16

Platform(s): PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Genre: Sports
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: Aug. 25, 2015


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Xbox One Review - 'Madden NFL 16'

by Redmond Carolipio on Sept. 9, 2015 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Madden NFL 16 is the latest installment in the football series boasting gameplay and feature innovations, while delivering everything fans need to own their rivals on both sides of the field.

Madden NFL 16 is coming at a blessed time, since the real-life NFL has been riddled with bullets of scandal and controversy. Here are some of the issues: Domestic violence, concussions and CTE, ball-deflating Super Bowl champions accused of rampant cheating. One or all of these issues are enough to turn off any number of NFL fans, which is what inadvertently made this year's edition of Madden a little more important.

With Madden — the only game in town when it comes to pro football — both casual and die-hard fans find a sort of mirrored, pseudo-escapism from the national pastime. It's NFL football, of course, but some like to think of Madden as the NFL without all the bullshit. It's a vessel that allows us to build our NFL experience our way.

In a way, given all this drama, Madden NFL 16 had to be good. Where else would video-game playing Football Nation go if it stunk? Well, fear not. This is most solid version of Madden to date, but it's not because of a singular revolutionary feature or mythic overhaul. Instead, this the first Madden I've played in years where I feel like EA has addressed and improved every facet of the football-playing experience. It hasn't hit all the marks, but playing Madden 16 feels fresher and different, and it's needed to feel different for a while.

Visually, Madden NFL 16 is superior to its predecessor in almost every way. The faithfully re-created stadiums seem carry a kind of individual life to them, and the player models and faces are the best I've seen. Look closely, and you'll see just a little bit of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's neckbeard peeking out past his chinstrap. Cover boy Odell Beckham's arms are covered in his actual tattoos.

The faces of most of the players I saw, especially the stars, also looked accurate and moved well without having too much of a spaced-out look. Madden's had a weird history with faces, with some players looking like they were restored by the same people who painted Beast Jesus or did the Tom Brady courtroom sketch. Some facial scans looked a little better than others. For instance, Peyton Manning at certain angles seemed to have black pupils, which means he was possessed by dark spirits or was actually a messenger from an alien race of quarterbacks.

At least Jim Nantz and Phil Simms are gone. Well, their voices are still here, but they are now heard rather than seen, which is good for everyone. In last year's version, you actually saw them talking in the booth, and I found it a little creepy and disorienting. It also seemed like too much work to animate two people you weren't going to see much of anyway as you played.

Speaking of animation, part of the reason the game feels different to me is that it moves differently, especially when it comes to the running game. Anyone who played last year's version can probably supply a year's worth of YouTube footage of guys bending or falling at impossibly strange angles due to the EA engine's approach to tackling. It's a lot cleaner this year, and at the expense of sounding too anal about detail, I found myself nerding out slightly about some of the more nuanced animations in the running game. Even the way the quarterback hands off to the tailback for between-the-tackles running plays has changed. On some plays, QBs will take the snap, pull the ball close to their chests, hop slightly and spin around, place their feet and hand the ball off. It's textbook QB footwork for run plays, and I don't remember it being there before. On the right difficulty settings, you'll rarely see wide-open alleys, running lanes or even pancake blocks. Creases and cracks are more likely, and there's now a button (right shoulder button) to make yourself "small" to fit through those cracks. Running has always been a bit of an art, and while it proves to be more difficult, Madden 16 at least gives you the right brushes.

The NFL, however, has become a passing league, and it's in this aspect of the game where players will notice the biggest changes.

The game is trying to add some art to the art of quarterbacking, implementing touch passes, high passes for jump balls and throwing low to avoid some safety or linebacker smashing your receiver into infinity when he comes over the middle (unless you don't like your receiver, then by all means, hang 'em high). All this is explained in the opening tutorial, which simulates a Super Bowl matchup between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was my team until they signed a dog killer. It's a pretty solid tutorial if you can get past the horrendous voice work involved from players on both sides. Truly, their passion is football, and not the performing arts.

The new passes are meant to work in tune with a variety of catches your receivers can make. Hold down X while the ball is in the air for a RAC (run after catch) reception, so you can turn upfield with haste once your receiver catches the ball in stride. There's the "possession" catch (A button) where the receiver secures the ball with two hands and taps the feet inbound or falls to the ground, which is perfect for end zone grabs or catches along the sideline (and also keeps it away from the prying hands of the defensive backs).

Then there's the only one most people will use, the Y button, the "aggressive" catch, where wide receivers fight for the ball and snatch it out of the air, aggressively of course. This button is the one that often leads to the catch you see on the cover — Beckham Jr.'s nearly unfathomable "fadeaway" one-handed grab.

Let me get this out of the way first: This is very cool to see when you do it, especially against perfect coverage. Speaking of coverage, defenders also have a toolkit they can use. They can play the ball and try to match the receiver's aggressiveness to deflect or pick off the pass, or play the receiver to make a secure tackle. Actually, this whole catch/defend dynamic generally succeeds in turning each pass into a potential duel for the ball, if the right combatants are in play.

There's an adage Kurt Warner used to describe Larry Fitzgerald and other big receivers with sticky mitts: Even when they're covered, they're open. Madden 16 makes that a reality, so a receiver doesn't have to be an epic burner to be a real downfield threat anymore. Last year's version, and other versions before it, featured DBs who always seemed to be able to jump like LeBron and swat the ball out of the way unless the receiver had about three steps on his man. It was maddening. Now, thanks to the array of new mechanics and animations, you can see more of the kung fu that happens between corners and receivers, with DBs poking out or swiping at the ball at the moment of the catch.

However, it also often feels like the pendulum has swung the other way. With the advent of the "aggressive" catch this year, the level of one-handed grabs has now approached Oprah-level generosity: You get a one-handed catch! And you get a one-handed catch! Everyone can catch one-handed! Anyone with solid hands and a decent "spectacular catch" rating now seems capable of pulling off the Beckham catch, which, as many football people have said, is a catch they had never seen before in their entire lives. So why make it feel so common? I can understand Beckham, Julio Jones or other elite wideouts do it, but running backs? Tight ends? Receivers who are 5-foot-9 consistently winning jump balls against taller corners? Come on. This can lead to some games feeling a little arcade-y, with guys leaping up for catches the way basketball players jump for rebounds on almost every passing play. For a football simulation, that can look silly.

As is custom, Madden 16 comes loaded with a lot of different ways to explore football and how to play it, which appreciably takes the casual fan into mind. There are a variety of drills and minigames for a player to refine his or her skills, all of which I found to be useful, especially the drills related to run concepts (zone reads versus stretches, that sort of thing). Modes like Madden Ultimate Team and Franchise mode have undergone some refinements. Franchise mode's draft scouting system is leagues ahead of where it was last year, as it's more generous with scouting points and much easier to use. The more you scout players, the more you find what their actual draft round should be versus what they are projected to be. For example, if you spend enough points to scout a projected first-round pick, you might end up finding out that player actually has third-round talent, while someone projected to go in the fourth-round might actually be a first- or second-rounder. All this will appeal to the hardcore football fan's inner GM, a mini-fantasy that can be so addicting that I found myself fast-forwarding through seasons just to scout guys and get to the draft.

There are more aspects to the whole Madden 16 package to explore, like the strangely compelling Draft Champions mode, where you put together a team fantasy-football style and take them through a mini-season to win the Draft Champions title. The catch is that you can't simply load up with elite players. Instead, you have a limited number of spots to highlight and fill, since each position on your team already has a depth chart with lesser players in those spots.

But who'll start and star at what spots? It's like player roulette. Your first-round pick could be from a selection of J.J. Watt (defensive end), Antonio Brown (a wide receiver) or Tyron Smith (an elite left tackle). You'd have to pick one of them without knowing if you'll get a shot at another really good player at their respective positions. Do you take Ryan Tannehill to be your starter at QB and hope someone like Aaron Rodgers doesn't pop up later, or do you focus on taking someone like Watt or a linebacker like Von Miller and hope your pass rush will be enough to overcome a potentially awful secondary? I wasn't expecting to think too much about those questions, but Draft Champions would have none of it. It's easily the most simple-fun mode in the game.

Madden 16 feels like EA has finally caught up to the current generation of gaming and can now start to improve the venerable football franchise by even greater strides. There's still some work to be done, but I feel like I'm playing Madden this year because it's fun, and not because I felt obligated as a football fan to have it. Compared to the hurricane of dark perceptions surrounding the National Football League, I'd much rather be playing this.

Score: 8.4/10

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