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Madden NFL 20

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Sports
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: Aug. 2, 2019


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PS4 Review - 'Madden NFL 20'

by Redmond Carolipio on Aug. 2, 2019 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Feel like a Superstar in Madden NFL 20, featuring an all-new career campaign empowering players to take the Superstar journey and become the Face of the Franchise: QB1.

Buy Madden NFL 20

There's a video of Madden NFL 20 cover guy Patrick Mahomes throwing a football out of Arrowhead Stadium. It's impressive. To football fans, it only adds to the legend being built around the Kansas City quarterback's mythic arm strength. To people who view the annual Madden cover athlete as a sort of avatar who embodies the direction and identity of that year's game, it's a bit of a conflicted tell.

Mahomes and his myriad abilities have been described as unreal, ridiculous and yes, "video-game" like. His highlights en route to an MVP season make it look like he's playing arcade football as he alternately ran around tacklers and slung the ball all over the field at impossible angles. Conversely, this year's Madden has fed off that energy, offering a style of football that vacillates between gamma-charged football sim and cartoon. It leans on the special abilities of players like Mahomes, smartly turning them into gridiron superheroes. Strangely enough, the game doesn't seem to want to push boundaries anywhere else, leaving some of its aspects feeling completely untouched. Even its innovations feel like boosted remixes of stuff EA has tried eons ago.

The tie that binds the on-field football action this year is the concept of individualized superstar abilities that can be both latent and activated. It's a refined echo of the "weapons" system the Madden franchise tried to introduce many, many years ago to mixed results. In this system, NFL's very best players are gifted with tangible skills that set them apart from their peers. Skills include things like extremely sharp route-running or a proven skill of causing fumbles. The game even has a handy database so you can look up who can do what.

An even more elite player group has what are called "Superstar X-Factors," which are special abilities that get triggered if you meet some on-field requirements to get a particular player "in the zone." For example, a star running back like Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants might have to tear off a couple of big runs to get in the zone, and once he gets there, an X below his feet starts glowing orange, visually crackling with energy.

I'll admit, I was worried this would devolve into a gimmicky mush of arcadey, overpowered silliness. Instead, EA seems to have mostly found a balance here by making most of the X-factor abilities very refined and football-specific. Instead of a simple "speed boost" or power where a star pass rusher starts glowing and becoming impossible to block, you have X-factors like "Fearmonger," where a pass rusher can make a quarterback feel pressured even if he's being blocked. This speaks to the legitimate presence that players like Khalil Mack (Chicago Bears) or Aaron Donald (L.A. Rams) bring in real-life games, whether they actually get to the QB or not.

Another X-factor for wide receivers is "Double Me," which gives a receiver a boosted advantage making aggressive catches against single coverage. You usually find this talent with physical receivers or tight ends. Again, this made sense. Yet another X-factor is "pro reads" for quarterbacks, which visually cues you in to the first open receiver in a play — their icon starts glowing a second or so after the ball is snapped. It's basically what the elite QBs like Tom Brady or Andrew Luck do anyway.

Also adding to the balance is the fact that players in a zone can get knocked out of it, sometimes literally. If your QB is in the zone and ends up getting sacked, you now have to re-meet the requirements it takes to get him back into it. The same goes for defensive players who give up big plays or zoned-up wide receivers who don't get the ball thrown to them for consecutive plays.

Probably the most gimmicky x-factor is the "bazooka" ability, given to superstar-status quarterbacks who have exceptionally powerful arms. This one's the property of the aforementioned Mahomes. "Bazooka," once accessed after you complete a couple of 30-yard throws (no easy feat), allows a quarterback to throw about 15 yards past his maximum throwing distance, which in a twisted way, makes sense for a dude who, again, threw a ball out of a stadium. Other X-factors have names like "First One's Free," which gives a running back a slightly better chance of shaking or spinning past the first defender he meets, or "The Gambler," where a quarterback doesn't need to fear being picked off by a computer-controlled defender. This does not absolve you from making poor decisions and throwing incompletions, though. That's user error.

Taking all of this into account, I enjoyed most of the actual football being represented on the field. There were some weird bugs, like commentary thinking I scored on the goal line when, in reality, I was stopped just short. Also, I seemed to average at least one egregious face-mask penalty in every game. The internet is also rife with a variety of other gaffes, hopefully many of which should be patched. As any coach would say, "You've got to clean that up."

The on-field play is capable of truly beautiful things, like well-covered receivers being able to rise up and over smaller corners for an epic jump ball or a perfectly executed fade route. It finally allows players to visualize the axiom that even though some receivers are covered, they're still open, like Odell Beckham, Jr., or Julio Jones. Animation and fluidity were still relatively sharp, though the art of group tackling feels like it could be cleaner — there's a bounciness to some the action that isn't reflective of what happens in real football.

Fans will also appreciate the attempt to intersperse more modern football concepts into teams' playbooks like RPOs, or "run-pass option" plays. As the name indicates, these plays give you the option to either hand the ball to a back or throw to someone after the snap, within the same play. Keeping up with what's happening with the Arizona Cardinals and their new coach installing a new-age offense, there are now "Air Raid" concepts available, which offer us armchair QBs just a different set of routes and formations to digest. The controls are tight and intuitive, and I also found myself strategically thinking more about how I wanted to attack teams based on the amount of powered players they had versus the ones I had. I also tried to find ways to play so that my players' X-factors would trigger at opportune times in the game, like the fourth quarter. I'd never really thought of playing Madden this way, as it engaged my game and football brains every time out.

It's fortunate that actually playing football is probably the most fun part of Madden 20 because I found very little new material in the Franchise mode, which is quite disappointing. It mostly felt the same and was mapped out the same as last year's Madden, but now, before some games, coaches text you about their concerns about an X-factor player on the other team. The messages feel laughably simplistic and cheesy in addition to being repetitive, their only function being to help you decide whether you want to disregard, slow down or neutralize the player they're so worked up about. Each option provides a different game day goal: If you choose "disregard," your only goal is to win. If you choose "neutralize," you might have a goal to not only win, but also hold the player in question to a certain number. Can you slow down Brady and keep him under 250 yards passing? If so, you can a bigger boost of XP. This adds a bit of spice to the week-to-week humdrum of the season, but that's about it.

The franchise feel also extends into this year's "story" campaign, called Face of the Franchise. It replaces Longshot, which focused on burnout quarterback Devin Wade's long, long road onto an NFL roster. Face of the Franchise puts players in the cleats of a quarterback you create, a five-star recruit out of high school who was then stupidly benched for four years only to resurface in the College Football Playoff after the starter for his school goes down with an injury. The journey to the pros is the coolest part of this feature, as you're able to pick from one of 12 real schools and play your way to the national championship, then the combine, and then wait to be drafted.

What you do on the field and how you interact with the variety of characters you encounter can help you start to build your quarterback. For instance, a reporter asks you to describe your playing style, and how you answer updates your QB archetype (strong arm, scrambler, etc.). The narrative isn't bad, where you run into endearing people like your star college receiver or a young girl from a hospital who becomes your number one fan, even well into the pros. Again, there's some slight cheese here, but it's endearing cheese. I also enjoyed the sense of competitive pressure, such as performing at the NFL combine. I managed to play my way into the bottom of the first round, which is great, but you can also bomb at the combine and find yourself drafted in the later rounds, even the seventh.

As you progress through your pro career, you'll receive text messages from people, even opposing players, that give you XP goals that are similar to the ones in the Franchise mode. In my short run, I noticed that my player's story more or less stops in a narrative fashion, and that I was basically experiencing a player-lock version of the Franchise mode. That's disappointing, considering there was much more room for cinematics and character development. When I reached the pros, I got the feeling that I left some of those people behind, aside from the odd text message. I also despise player lock. Maybe it says something about me and control, but I hate handing off the ball or throwing to a receiver only to watch them run strangely in the open field, possibly fumble or anything else. If I'm going to screw up, I'd rather do it myself. I don't need to see my tight end running laterally and backward on a drag route after the catch. I don't like throwing deep and watching the ball and receiver fade into the distance, leaving me reliant on the commentary to hear whether my guy actually made the play. This is especially weird in contrast to when I was playing in college, where it played like a regular game and I could control everything. It made no sense.

I lightly dabbled in Madden Ultimate Team to find it to be a little more seamless than in past editions. Because it's so reliant on meeting different on-field challenges, I enjoyed being able to move from one challenge to another without having to hop back to the menu screen. There's also a new mission-like system that helps you focus on the challenges you need to complete your fantasy player deck.

If you're looking for good-to-great football, you'll likely find what you're looking for in Madden NFL 20. The game plays faster, the new superstar power system adds a dimension of fun that doesn't compromise the spirit of the game, and its third year in the Frostbite system has given it time to refine its overall aesthetic. I also feel like every year, we're still waiting for Madden to make some kind of next-level jump, and it hasn't quite gotten there yet. There were plenty of yards left on the field in terms of the Story and Franchise modes, but I have hopes the next Madden experience will be the one that puts everything together. Until then, I'll be trying to no-look throw the ball over the field as much as possible.

Score: 7.8/10

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