Video Game Review: ‘Madden 25’ is Compelling But Careless

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Average: 3.5 (2 votes)

CHICAGO – I don’t know if “Madden 25” wanted to slap me in the face each time I loaded a game, but it did, and my cheeks are still red. Practically every load screen in the game features some tidbit of “Madden” history, things like “Madden was the first football game to feature 11 players on both sides of the ball” and “Madden 2006 featured the now infamous vision cone”. Which, in theory, is cool - I’m a gaming enthusiast who’s bought this game every year since 2003, sometimes twice depending on the platform, and the chance to relive the memories of “Madden”s gone-by is a welcome experience. Until you think about it. For all the features these loading screens tout, few remain. I lament the loss of my precious “Weapons” system, Madden IQ, surprise onside kicks, and, yeah, even that bastard yellow vision cone. Video Game Rating: 3.5/5.0
Video Game Rating: 3.5/5.0

Which is a roundabout way of saying that, for the second year in a row, Madden Football and I got off on the wrong foot. Last year I lamented the lack of personality in “Madden 13”, saying that for all its promises and enhancements, the game, like most EA sports titles, was devoid of soul. However I also said that the on-the-field product is most important, and that was of a high quality, creating a reversal of the “more fun than it is good” trope. Frankly, “Madden” has always been more ‘good’ than it is fun.

Madden 25
Madden 25
Photo credit: EA Sports

This year, perhaps in an effort to increase the fun factor, “Madden 25”’s gameplay is wide open. The on-the-field game is bezerk. On the default settings, CPU Quarterbacks will consistently do things like complete 26/29 passed for 469 yards and 5 TDs. You’ll get running backs with 200+ yards every game. When you’re in control of the offense, and have access to the new running back moves that are activated with the left bumper and left stick, you’d be hard pressed NOT to get over 150 yards a game, and break off 15, 20, and 30-yard runs to the outside with such regularity, that passing the ball seems like an unwelcome risk. Throughout my first year in “Franchise” with the New England Patriots, both teams scored over 35 points a game every single week.

I’m of two minds about this. One of my minds thinks this is good. For casual players who sometimes struggle with the complexities of Madden; making defense reads, running, timing, play action, and coverage, it makes it a little easier to get the ball moving, and have a little more confidence in your game. Pro football is really intimidating sometimes, and having the ability to succeed at it consistently makes casual players into diehards pretty quickly. Who hopefully soon realize football isn’t that easy.

Madden 25
Madden 25
Photo credit: EA Sports

On the other mind, for hardcore players like myself, who enjoy running a weak-side counter against a strong side blitz, it makes any sort of game-planning feel a little undercooked. Especially when you can just run up the gut, or to the outside, every play, for assured first downs. It’s even worse when I got chumps like Geno Smith or E.J. Manuel passing for four bills a game, and B-listers like Chris Ivory picking up 200 yards on the ground. It’s simply not realistic, and it ruins the fun in the same way playing slow-pitch baseball ruins the excitement of a home run. Sure it looks pretty, but you didn’t really earn it now, did you?

On the bright side for the hardcore among us, “Madden 25” features a lot of customization, and the ability to adjust sliders has never been easier. After downloading the most popular sliders, setting the game to slow, and ticking the game up to All-Madden difficulty, I suddenly found myself in the midst of perhaps the best football simulation I’ve played in quite some time. In a franchise with the Arizona Cardinals, I picked up Willis McGahee and Randy Moss, and proceeded to go a fairly realistic 11-5, with Carson gunning it to the tune of 20 TDs and 25 Ints, Larry Fitzgerald with 1300 receiving yards, and McGahee with 1300 rushing yards. The CPU stats were realistic too, no one threw for 60 touchdowns, no wideout had over 1600 yards receiving, and by and large everything came out as perfectly as you could hope at the end of the season. Go figure.

The franchise options surrounding that near-perfect simulation on the other hand, could use a bit of work. This year’s franchise mode allows you to take on owner duties, in addition to coaching and playing as a created or legendary player. The ability to set ticket prices, move the team, select which concessions you want to sell, and for how much, are all neat in theory.

Madden 25
Madden 25
Photo credit: EA Sports

Unfortunately, they have seemingly little impact. As a little experiment I jacked up the ticket prices to ungodly amounts, and my stadium was still mostly full. Similarly, there seems to be very little value in making any of these choices, as simply winning football games makes you lots of money. There’s no situation here where your team can be really good, and still lose money, thus making the owner-centric features a little weak since if you’re good at playing Madden - as the folks eager to play Owner mode would be - there’s little benefit to tinkering with the business aspects of the game.

This disconnect between the things you do in Franchise and the on-the-field gameplay has always been a problem with “Madden”’s typically lackluster presentation. Phil Simms and Jim Nantz return with more babble about specific players on specific teams and specific things they did, all of which is rendered useless roughly four years into Franchise when all of those players have retired and they have nothing specific to talk about, and still reference the 2012 season like it was the most important thing to happen to football since the forward pass. It’s not just deep into Franchise. “Madden 25” is dense with audio glitches. Calling an interception a terrible pass when the ball was tipped twice, and various other inane commentaries are the norm again this time around, and the odds are you’ll turn the audio off and listen to a podcast, song, or nails on a chalkboard pretty quickly.

Speaking of nails on a chalkboard, let’s talk about how screwed up “Madden Ultimate Team” has become for a few hundred words. When this feature first popped up as a free downloadable add-on to “Madden” a few years ago, I fell in love. There’s something unquantifiably compelling about collectible card games, and “Madden” aped it splendidly. Start with a crappy team, earn coins, use coins to buy packs with players, boosts, outfits, and other various goodies. The more expensive the pack you bought, the better chance you had to get a good player. As a cool bonus, since you’d be playing “Madden” online with relatively bad teams at first, you’d have to actually hone your football skills; forcing players to learn about when to throw an out-route, when to run up the middle, and when to punt, versus tossing the rock up to CJ2K every friggin’ down.

Madden 25
Madden 25
Photo credit: EA Sports

This core loop of playing games to get coins, to get better players, to win more games and more coins was fantastic. As anyone who’s ever collected baseball cards or played “Magic: The Gathering” knows, there are few experiences as joyful as opening a pack of cards and getting something really cool, and really rare. As a bonus in “MUT,” the rare cards were also the best, making the experience even better. I’m not ashamed to say that when “MUT” ran a Breast Cancer Awareness promotion, I dropped ten bucks toward the cause. I mean, how could you go wrong fighting cancer AND getting awesome cards. I remember getting Ronnie Brown and feeling like I won the lottery.

But with each new edition of “Madden,” this mode has become more complicated and a lot less compelling. For starters, when you create your MUT now, you’re forced to choose a team captain — be it Tom Brady, or Chris Johnson, or Peyton Manning, which is cool, but their stats are all leveled out to 75ish. This is stupid. I don’t *care* about being Tom Brady if he’s not actually Tom Brady. In real life, this would be like putting an Aaron Rodgers mask on Mark Sanchez and expecting people to believe The Jets pulled off the trade of the century. Worse, when playing against another team, you don’t know if the Peyton Manning or Adrian Peterson you’re facing is the real deal - and should be planned for accordingly - or just a fantastic simulation.

The UI is also now a complete disaster, with so many different modes, packs, options, and ways to spend money that you could learn to spin around on your head in the time it takes to understand, and be competitive at it all. And considering my “loyalty pack” consisted of about 4 players I never heard of, I simply didn’t bother. I don’t understand what they were thinking when they made all the changes to this mode, especially considering MUT is a license to print money. If you consider that a lot of the people buying “Madden 25” are kids and casual gamers, making this mode as accessible as possible would seemingly be the best way to print the most money.

Look, I don’t mean to get worked up about this game and jump on it like a one-hole game of Whack-a-Mole, but but these errors are glaring and farily easy to fix if my limited knowledge of programming is true. Commentary can be fixed with a flow chart, presentation can be fixed with a separate database that calls values from franchise while in game to create interesting presentation nuances. It’s just so intensely frustrating that we finally have a game where, with sliders, the on-the-field game feels *just* right, and all of the stuff around it doesn’t make me feel anything at all - except for those load screens, which make me feel angry and sad and longing for the thousand bucks I’ve dropped on this franchise over the last 11 years.

Thus, like that bright kid in class who’s absent a lot, doesn’t do his homework, and switched majors like 6 times, “Madden 25” lacks consistency, making the same careless mistakes over and over and over again. All the moving parts are good, but unrefined, simply because EA keeps changing out the moving parts for other, slightly different, moving parts. If you get your hands on the right sliders you’ll have yourself a fantastic game of football on the field. And when you’re off it, waiting through loading screens featuring what came before, you’ll find yourself wondering what could have been. And with a new set of consoles ready to debut, if that kid in class manages to gets his head right, a la Ricky Williams, what great fortune the future can hold.

“Madden 25” was released by EA Sports on August 20, 2013. It was reviewed for the Xbox 360 but is also available for the PS3. video game critic Paul Meekin

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