Friday, August 17, 2018

Madden 19 Thoughts and Musings

Sports video games will always be a passion of mine, no matter how much the modern games frustrate me. I've been a Madden player (and game purchaser) for more than 25 years now, and continue to buy the games yearly... despite my complaints about them, which I'm going to touch on shortly. 

I recently picked up Madden NFL 19 for my Xbox One X, after being impressed by how it looked and ran on the mid-generation console. The performance difference between the "old" PlayStation 4 and the "new" Xbox One X was huge-- so it was a no-brainer to go the Microsoft route for the new game. I got the Hall of Fame Edition VERY cheaply from Best Buy, paying just $10 out of pocket after trade-ins and reward certificates. I've admittedly bought the more expensive editions because it comes out "early". (What "early" means is that it comes out on its original launch date, as opposed to being delayed three days for those unwilling to pay extra.)

Let me get the obvious out of the way, and start with something positive: Madden 19 is gorgeous, especially running on the mid-generation consoles and on 4K screens. The detail and sharpness are remarkable, even if the player faces aren't always as clear as they should be. It can easily pass as an NFL telecast to the untrained eye, even if the presentation is iffy. NFL games have not, in general, looked any better than they do with this game. That's not hyperbole. It can be argued that they should be looking at least this good by now, and that's fair. 

The gameplay, I find, is very good. The running game is different this year; leaning on the turbo button isn't as effective as runner must find holes in the line to run through and must occasionally be patient enough for some to open up. I've been passing the ball a lot more as a result, and computer defenders are not pushovers. My struggles are on me; I'm not reading the defense well and making bad decisions with passes. I'll improve with time. Playing defense is as good as it's been for me in recent years. I tend to play as the nose tackle, with the goal of pressuring the quarterback or disrupting the running game. I'm not a very good pass defender-- and, again, that's on me. The game allows me to improve, if I'm willing to spend the time. I'm not as deep a student of Madden or of core football simulations as others, so talking about changing matchups or altering schemes isn't my strength. I just choose a play, a player, and go. 

So far, so good... right? Now it's time to start talking about the things I don't like. Buckle up. 

The overall presentation takes a big step backwards this year. While I've enjoyed the commentary team of Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis since they stepped in for Jim Nantz and Phil Simms for Madden 17, the level of accuracy for their commentary this year is way down. All too often, comments or observations are attached to the wrong plays or situations. I'm not sure why this is, but it's really disappointing to me, as someone who judges presentation very seriously in the sports games he plays. Replay angles continue to baffle EA Tiburon this year. There are times when replay shows an empty field as the wrong camera is used. Other times, the camera isn't centered on the action, aiming too low or too far left or right to properly pick up what's going on. I hate to say it, but EA Tiburon still struggles to master the level of replay accuracy and impact that Visual Concepts showed with NFL 2K5 14 years ago. Finally, the much-ballyhooed revamp of the Halftime Show is a letdown. Jonathan Coachman adds some energy to the "studio", but the halftime show is now little more than a scoreboard with some occasionally on-target action descriptions by Coachman. There's no footage of the big plays, the action from the game in progress is minimal, and the whole thing just feels weak and worth skipping. Not to bring up NFL 2K5 again, but that game had a strong halftime show, with highlights, scores, and even a notable player performance. We don't get that here-- despite EA having an ESPN license. What about the NFL Countdown set or Monday Night Football package? It's a waste. 

The follow-up to Longshot, which I really enjoyed in Madden 18, is a bust. There's no nice way to say it. So many things that made the original Longshot enjoyable-- from the choices in conversation paths to the mini-QTE events and football pass-steering exercises-- are gone, in favor of a constant and standard short version of Madden gameplay. Devin Wade's character sounds bored and uninterested, while the Colt Cruise storyline just isn't that interesting. Revolving the story around Cruise, while relegating the main character of the original Longshot to what amounts to a supporting role, was a poor choice. Not that Cruise's character doesn't have his moments, but it makes no sense to elevate him while the main NFL story is secondary. I played through the first Longshot in no more than two sessions, because it gripped me so much and I wanted to see what happened next. Here, I'm maybe 40% of the way through and don't really care anymore. 

Then we come to MUT-- Madden Ultimate Team. I'll be honest: This mode isn't for me. It never has been. Sure, I opened the free packs of cards and went through a few of the scenarios, but I am not into grinding MUT for hours and days to earn enough currency to open packs of cards which rarely contain anything significant that will make a team competitive against other players. Certain packs with the really good cards can be bought via cash microtransactions only, treading very close to pay-to-win (P2W) territory. It's not quite P2W, as skill does play a role and it's possible for a skilled player with weaker cards to beat a lesser-skilled player with a stronger squad... but at least some of the more skilled and veteran Madden players who are into Ultimate Team spend at least a bit of cash to improve. Ultimate Team is HUGE business; it's created the careers of some YouTube and Twitch personalities, who play and promote MUT as part of their living. 

Make no mistake: EA cares more about MUT than any other part of the Madden experience. Millions of dollars flood into Electronic Arts from MUT, and the publisher will continue to shove it down every single player's throat at every available opportunity. Publishers care as much about post-purchase revenue as they do about how many millions of copies they can sell... it can even be argued that they care more about this perpetual post-purchase stream of revenue that they receive.  

If I was to give Madden 19 a grade, it would be a B-. It looks amazing, the gameplay is pretty tight, and the Franchise mode is as solid as it's ever been. On the flip side, the presentation takes steps backwards. The commentary is average to broken, replays are still terrible, the Halftime Show is worse despite being "improved", and relevant stat overlays are still missing. Longshot: Homecoming is a serious disappointment, both as a follow-up to the first and as a single-player experience, and feels more like a throw-in than a focused, crafted addition. Finally, the continued forced focus on MUT is exhausting. If you've skipped Madden for a few years, this is a decent time to jump in. Otherwise, I don't know that I can recommend it, aside from the implementation of several rule changes that make Madden 18 and prior not play per the current NFL rulebook... if you care about kickoff rules and such. 

Speaking of football, look for the second part of the Unsealed miniseries featuring Madden and NFL 2K very soon on YouTube and here on the website. 

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