In examining this year's sports titles, one fact has become painfully evident to me: The interactive sports world requires the next generation of consoles if it's to take the next step in regards to immersion, realism and innovation. While it's true that significant progress can be difficult with an annual franchise, it's also true that one expects to see worthwhile upgrades with each new installment. Madden NFL 25 celebrates a quarter-century of video game pigskin fun with an effort that feels too much like last year's iteration. At the same time, the requisite depth and general overall solidarity probably make it appealing to hardcore football fans.
With more animations than ever before and more detail in the visual presentation, this year's Madden does look good. There's a lot to like; we see better character models for the players, smooth and fluid movements on the field, and plenty of camera angles that give you a TV-like view of the on-field action. However, there's still a disappointing lack of refinement. There's still too much odd sliding and crazy movement from the players (often best seen during replays), and they haven't yet ironed out the age-old clipping issue when players get stacked up at the line of scrimmage. These are minor drawbacks and I expect them to disappear soon. Like, next year.
One gets the feeling that despite the general stability of all the technical elements, they're still dated. The audio is a good example of that dichotomy, as the soundtrack simply consists of a few popular tracks from big-name bands like AC/DC and Black Eyed Peas. The effects are only a little better than average and the balancing isn't exactly perfect. Finally, the commentary – such a big part of football – is just mediocre. I've always liked the passion of guys like Phil Simms, but their observations on the plays are erratic and sometimes flat-out wrong. When they get it right, it's great to listen to ‘em. When they don't, it's comical…in a bad way.
I've used the word "refinement" a couple times already, so let me explain that term as it pertains to the gameplay. Madden NFL 25 does feature a refined palette of sorts, and one won't be able to locate glaring flaws. There are a few idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies, many of which are familiar to franchise fans, but nothing to get in a twist about. What I do get in a twist about is the end result; the fact that these admittedly small errors are still here, and in brief, it still feels like last year's model. On the plus side, it's ridiculously robust and football fans can experience the virtual gridiron in just about any way they choose.
There's standard single-player and multiplayer, with a wide variety of modes ranging from the classic Play Now to the far more complex options, such as those that task you with owning a team. You can also be a coach if you so choose and the insane depth available to you is staggering. It's also nice to be able to play in the Connected Franchise mode as an owner, which means you can now tackle the time-consuming Franchise modes with any player, coach or owner you choose. Me, I'm a 49ers fan so taking control of a rookie version of Jerry Rice is just a blast. If you're into the nuts and bolts of football, if you're the guy who yells specific orders at the TV screen on Sundays, you gotta go Franchise.
On display yet again is the Infinity engine, which debuted last year. As I mentioned when I addressed the graphics, the developers have worked to iron out a few visual kinks. There are more animations than ever before, which means the look of the on-field action is much more dynamic. The only problem is that you'll see a lot of the same animations during any given game, which I find odd. You have all these new animations; let's see ‘em all on a frequent basis! And until you actually get into a game, you're going to have to slog through a clunky, slow interface that greatly hinders your off-the-field actions. This is a big issue, too, because with so much depth, you'll be spending a fair amount of time dealing with those menus.
There's one element of this production that bothers me more than anything else. But before I explain, let me preface that statement by saying that Madden NFL 25 is not a bad game. On the surface, it has just about everything a die-hard football follower could want. It has the modes, it has the player advancement and customization, it has great multiplayer, and the realism is good, if not fantastic. Playing the latest entry often registered high on my Fun Factor meter, especially when I got more involved with the game's intricate, engrossing depth and detail. But the more I played, the more I realized that it's still not realistic enough .
For years now, the passing game has dominated in this franchise. Some may argue that the NFL is more of a passing league now, anyway, especially with all the new rules designed for a QB's protection. That's a legitimate stance, I suppose. But this isn't a simulated depiction of the current state of football; it's simply unrealistically skewed toward the passing game. It's still far too difficult to get through the offensive line, the defensive backs and safeties appear to have the worst AI (and worst hands) in the game, and as usual, certain pass plays work way too often. It isn't right when the freakin' Jets can have a decent game passing against the All Madden team.
Sure, it's exhilarating to be involved in so many shootouts. And I imagine that many players care more about offense than defense, anyway. But that's not a properly simulated experience in my book, and it annoys me that EA hasn't fixed this yet. They tried to bolster the running game with extra moves, like flashy jukes and spins; it's called "run free" and if you master it, you will certainly feel more effective on the ground. With so many moves available, it almost feels like a fighting game when you hand the ball off; i.e., you can string together the tricky stuff, just like a fighting combo. This is really cool but it fails to override the aforementioned pass bias, which is a glaringly unbalanced problem.
The new additions to defensive control can't really stop the passing juggernaut, either. It's nice that I can now lock onto the ball carrier, which allows me to track him through a mess of players and take him down before he hits the open field. Still, it feels somewhat gimmicky and if you're a decent defensive player to begin with, you probably won't use this fresh mechanic very often. So, in the end, we're basically left with the following: Madden NFL 13 with a few upgrades that don't actually fix the longstanding issues that have plagued this series for a good three or four years. I'm also not convinced that it's a lack of power that is stopping EA Tiburon…
The multiplayer is often where it's at for this game, as playing with others is always more entertaining than playing the computer. Such is the way with most sports games, right? The multiplayer modes function quite well and the servers seem stable. The Connected Franchise mode isn't completely fleshed out, but I'll give EA another year to beef that up. Everything else works very well and if you've got a few interested friends, I'm sure you'll enjoy some wild Madden nights. If your buddies are familiar with the franchise, they probably won't care much about the issues I've mentioned. Why? ‘Cuz they've been around for a while, so those fans are quite familiar.
I still find it difficult to believe that Madden has been around for 25 years. I would've expected a bigger effort with the game that celebrates this important anniversary. The game is chock full of content, the new animations are awfully sweet (despite the repetition of use), a few of the new gameplay mechanics are intriguing, and multiplayer with the right peeps is great. But why are all QBs Joe Montana? Why does even the best defensive line struggle to get any penetration? Why do all the crowd-pleasing moves and additions do little to fix this lack of realism? Why is the interface so slow? Why am I still seeing brain-dead AI?
All of that must be resolved when the first next-gen Madden arrives. I'm crossing my fingers.
The Good: Plenty of slick new animations. New gameplay additions add flair and more player options. Decent control and physics. Loaded with content from front to back. Fun-filled multiplayer.
The Bad: Lingering visual miscues. Outdated audio. Heavily biased toward the passing game. Clunky, slow interface.
The Ugly: "I just think they should've tried harder to celebrate 25 great years of Madden."