As the NFL continues its slide towards a future where defenders that side-eye a star receiver may very well be tagged with an illegal contact penalty (it's okay folks, it's just the preseason), Madden stopped at the fork in the road this year to do a little soul-searching. The man on Madden 15's cover, Richard Sherman, made headlines for calling out the league's mandates after his team's defense shut down a league-best offense in the Super Bowl, and he's emblematic of the game's renewed focus on defense.
Madden 15 is a big step in carving out the series' identity as a video game first and a football simulator second, driving a much-needed wedge between the game and the sport, while retaining what fans crave from both sides.
The most obvious change in the game's formula is on the side of the ball that the NFL cares less about these days, defense. Whether on offense or defense, players can use the d-pad to switch to various camera angles before the snap, but those on defense have an extra angle to toy with, set at a point behind the defense from the sideline. Similar to the camera angle used in Road to Glory mode in the NCAA Football series, players don't get a full view of the entire field, but a closer look at their defender while keeping the ball in view. It's a great angle to use when rushing to the quarterback or tackling a runner, but compromising when expected to cover a tight end or receiver, so you'll want to judge your situation and position accordingly.
Having a tighter view of your defender is beneficial when using the new defensive mechanics. The pass rushing tools mapped to the right stick have been replaced with face buttons and on-screen indicators (which can be turned off) that offer a window of time to bull rush, swim or spin past a blocker. As you approach a runner, a small cone of light stretches out on the ground, turning with your defender, indicating the distance you need to close before attempting to take the runner down. Pulling the right trigger at the snap of the ball to get a jump at the line, accurately timing a bull rush move and then patiently picking my spot to lunge at a ball-carrier was fluid, and after a little practice became second nature.
Madden 15 brushes up a few presentation elements as well, including well-detailed player models with exceptional likenesses given to the more popular athletes. The slick half-time show package pulls highlights from the first half of matches with spliced-together voiceover descriptions. More importantly, players are more lively after the whistle, as they jump, fist-pump and celebrate after each play, both collectively and individually, all of which is animated in the game's engine to make the visual experience much more lifelike.
While presentation elements like the half-time and pre-game broadcasts aren't all truly "skippable " until you're practically half-way through the videos, they do help make up for lackluster commentary and the often robotic nature of players on the field following collisions (not to mention some occasionally strange rag-doll physics during tackles). In general, Madden 15 offers a great view of football, particularly when you stop to smell the roses a little and take in the cut-scene-style materials.
The tutorials and accompanying drills in Skills Trainer help players understand the differences between, say, Cover 3 and Cover 4 defenses while also encouraging more realistic quarterbacking behavior with passing concepts and progression training. Even as a dedicated football fan and amateur strategist, there's some enlightenment to be had in the training mode. It also encourages sound playing habits as opposed to the back-pocket, trick-play-spamming you might find with other players. Skills Trainer also features a fun, arcade-style challenge called The Gauntlet, in which players beat as many drills as possible before failing five times. The Gauntlet includes some wacky "boss battles, " like kicking a field goal from the opposite end zone in hurricane-force winds. Even if you attempt The Gauntlet just a few times, it's still a great inclusion that brings a little levity to the game.
The card-collecting Madden Ultimate Team returns, and it's been tidied up this year. EA trimmed away some of the unnecessary sorting players had to do with their digital cards in the past and opted for a simpler, easier-to-manage binder and sets system, in which players can efficiently send cards to collections from their binder menu. EA also discarded its injury items, so players that get hurt during a MUT match will only be hurt for that game. And while MUT was streamlined, Connected Franchise mode got a tad clunkier by replacing its practice sessions with Skills Trainer drills and study sessions designed to increase individual athletes' experience and confidence, respectively. The changes to player progression and improvement in the career mode work fine, but there are a lot of menus to plod through.
Even with the infrequent hiccup, unavoidable video segment or occasionally tiresome menu, Madden 15 has taken major strides in defining its place in the series. Hammering QBs after slipping past a blocker is all the more invigorating thanks to a flattering, defense-minded camera. Indicators like Coach Stick help you find an edge while the strategic parts of Skills Trainer offer some excellent guidance. The whole package comes together with the best overall presentation Madden has ever seen (save for the droning play-by-play commentary). Madden 15 may not be an "authentic " football experience, but it proves that it doesn't need to be.
This review is based on a pre-release retail copy of the PS4 version of Madden NFL 15, provided by EA. Images: EA.
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