Not what I was expecting. That pretty much sums up my feelings on Madden 25, last year’s edition of the long-running football sim franchise. For a game that was supposed to celebrate the 25-year history of the franchise, as well as bring it to the shiny new next-gen consoles, to say it was a disappointment would be a major understatement. It was really just another iteration along the same trajectory the series had been going along; certainly nothing uniquely celebratory about or anything particularly “next-gen,” including the nominally improved visuals. So, when Madden 15 was announced, reverting to its usual numbering system, I was worried it would also revert to its ways and deliver more of the same-old, same-old. And it does do that in some areas, but there are enough improvements and enhancements to help this edition feel, especially on the next-gen systems, like something that’s headed in a fresh direction. There’s a solid foundation to build on year for the coming year and a fun football game as well; on both sides of the ball.

That’s right, I said that Madden 15 is fun to play on both sides; offense and defense. The many enhancements to the defensive gameplay makes it feel, for the first in the franchise that I can remember, like playing defense can make a difference in the game. This is no longer just waiting for the offense to make a mistake. This is an opportunity to change the game, or keep the momentum, depending on whether you’re ahead or behind. I feel like I can make impactful plays on defense just like on offense by getting to the quarterback with a big hit to knock the ball loose, by sniffing out that screen play quickly enough to snuff it, by getting position on a wide receiver so I can make a play on the ball. All of these things are made easier and more intuitive in this year’s Madden, making defense actually fun to play. Things like a zoomed in camera that’s behind your defensive player, giving you a better view of where you’re attacking, help a lot. Toss in some tight controls that either let you get past lineman or make it a bit easier to get into the right position to make a play help as well. On the downside, you don’t get the improved camera angle when playing with someone next to you on the couch, and when playing franchise mode, AI quarterbacks are bit too efficient to be realistic. I’ve had a few games that, despite my best efforts, have QBs with 95 to 100% completion. Overall, this is the best the defense has ever been in Madden. I suppose that’s fitting, considering who’s on the cover.

Offense hasn’t been entirely neglected. While I would like my receivers to be a bit more aggressive in going after the ball (defensive controlled AI seems far more apt to fight for position, and get it, then my AI controlled receivers), they do make better catches both on the sidelines and in traffic. The running game actually feels like a running game, meaning if you are a bit patient and wait for the blocks and holes to develop, you can have a devastatingly effective running game. Screen plays aren’t the big play guarantees they were for the most part last year, and for the first time in quite a while, I actually feel that play-action can be useful. The biggest improvement to the offense, which applies to the defense as well, but has more uses on the offensive side of the ball, is the new play-calling menus. I used to never let Madden recommend my plays. Now, I’ll follow its recommendation maybe 60 or 70% of the time. Why the change? Because now Madden tells me why it’s recommending these plays. It gives strategic insights like the fact that the defense likes to call such and such a defense in 1st and long or whatever the situation may be. It’ll also give stats like the play is effective such and such percentage of the time for so many average yards. It’ll tell me what happened the last time I ran it and against what defensive coverage. It shares how many times I’ve run plays, in what situations, and then starts to recommend my favorite plays. It’s smart, streamlined, informative, and helpful; everything a play-calling menu should be in a game like Madden. I hope this feature stays around and gets refined for many years to come.

Indeed, I think many of us could use some form of informative game plan when it comes to life. madden-15-tips-620x400I don’t know about you, but I’d certainly like to have not only some idea about what play to run, but also, why I’m running it. Although it isn’t as specific as game planning for football, or as specific as some would like, I have found the Bible to be a remarkably valuable game plan for life. Oh sure, it doesn’t specifically spell out exactly what do in every minutia of circumstance we experience in life, but then, expecting it to do so would be unrealistic. No, what’s remarkable about it is no matter what direction you move in life, the Bible always has some guidance, insight, principles, and help for us. In short; a game plan. Not only that, but it also tells us why this game plan will work; because God loves us and cares about us.

Other more tried and true elements remain. Connected Franchise mode is as great as ever and has been freshened up a bit to make it even better. Madden Ultimate Team remains great as well, though progression feels frustratingly and artificially slow, meaning if you want to get the most out of this mode, you’ll have to pony up some real cash to buy worthwhile packs with worthwhile players. The skills coach is back and does a real excellent job of not only teaching the new mechanics of Madden but also helps you learn concepts of football as well; like how best to attack a Cover-2 defense. And the presentation this year is fantastic, feeling more like a real game on TV than ever before. There are also several annoyances that remain. Commentary is as hit or miss as ever; perhaps more miss as it often comments on things that are just flat out incorrect (once calling out my struggling running game, despite the fact that I had over 60 yards and 2 TDs). Player physics, especially after the play, can be a little strange at times. Plus we already mentioned the struggles of the passing game, which makes that aspect more frustrating than it should be. I’m not saying that the bombs should fly and be completed every play, but I’d still like to see my receivers outplay the defense for a contested position or ball every now and then. Granted, some of these quirks have been around so long they’ve almost become part of Madden’s “charm,” but seeing as we’re moving into a new generation of consoles, I think it’s time to fix them.

For many football fans, Madden marks the unofficial start of the football season, which made the fact that this year’s edition was such an improvement over last year’s such a welcome surprise. It looks good on the next-gen systems, it has improved defense to the point where that’s actually fun to play, tweaked the play-calling system to the point where it’s easily one of the best versions of that yet, and maintained all of the great elements from previous versions. Unfortunately, it’s also maintained many of the annoyances and hiccups of previous versions as well. Still, this was more of what I was expect from a “next-gen” Madden, and it has me excited to see where the franchise will go from here now that it’s gaining some fresh momentum in some new directions.