It’s that time of year, as NFL training camps have been open for a few weeks and there have been two weeks of preseason games. That means EA Sports‘ is back with its annual love letter to the game: Madden NFL 20. As with most sports games, the annual releases are less about significant changes and are more tweaks to existing game mechanics and the engine, with a few new features and updated rosters to round out the package.
As can be expected, Madden NFL 20 brings the game of football to the masses. Developer EA Tiburon seems to constantly tinker with play control, and the days of one or two button play executions are long gone. Now, players are expected to perform multiple button combinations and use the R and L sticks to not just control the players on-field, but to also perform runs, catches, and more.
If you’ve stepped away from the game for a few years, it could take some practice to get back into “game shape.” EA Tiburon counters this by including an arcade difficulty, but what has always made Madden so fun is in the balance struck between arcade and simulation, and it feels like that balance has been outright exorcised for strictly enforced play modes. This could be good or bad, based on your level of experience in this franchise for the last 30 years.
Personally, I have found myself throwing my controller at the wall a lot during my time with this game. The new player animations are meant to add realism to the game, but they are forced, so instead of just throwing the ball, the on-field quarterback will go into the programmed animation of setting his feet, cocking his arm, and maybe even looking off a defender or two before finally throwing the ball. All of this happens in real time, and it cannot be skipped.
How hard is it to throw a pass to an open WR, or for an NFL running back to burst through a whole for a big run? In Madden NFL 20, I have to use different buttons to do the simplest things, and it is an unwelcome distraction in what is supposed to be a fun experience. To complete a low pass, you have to press two different buttons and use the right stick — all in about the 1.5 seconds between the snap and having a defender eating your lunch.
I get that EA Tiburon wants to make this seem as real as possible, but sometimes, that can be a detriment to the experience as a whole. If I wanted to play an arcade NFL game, I’d dig up my old copies of NFL Blitz. There has to be a better balance here.
Luckily, EA has countered this mind-numbing gameplay experience by stacking Madden NFL 20 with new and exciting game modes to stoke my love of football, even as I now have throw away my favorite controller after it was smashed against the wall of my game room one too many times.
The two biggest changes this year come with the emphasis on the quarterback and in the new X-Factor perk system. The new game mode Face of the Franchise: QB1 lets you create a QB and you get a woefully truncated college career, ending in the College Football Playoff, with 10 licensed NCAA teams to play for and play against in the short tournament. Winning the national championship leads to the NFL combine and skills assessments, which, in turn leads to the NFL draft.
QB1 replaces the “Longshot” story from the last two Maddens, and also serves as the career mode narrative here. While not as full-featured as other sports games’ career/story modes, like NBA2K and MLB: The Show, QB1 does offer players somewhat of a fun career story. Sure, it’s cheesy and cliche-filled, and you have to conveniently forget a lot about what you may already know about the machinations that go on behind the scenes in an NFL franchise, but if you can look past that, the QB1 mode can be fun and rewarding as you grow as a player to ultimately become the “face of your franchise.”
The X-Factor perks in Madden NFL 20 are a new wrinkle that could have gone sideways fast. Players can assign various X-Factors — hence the name — to their real-life players to give them certain boosts on the field. To counter what could easily become squads of supermen playing football, X-Factors can only be triggered when certain condition are met.
If your team is down by two touchdowns in the middle of the fourth quarter, Drew Brees will have an X-Factor triggered that allows him to take control of the offense and to nail passes with utmost perfection, as an example. Getting three sacks with Aaron Donald in a game triggers one of his X-Factors, giving him monster momentum to dominate the D-line and wreck offenses.
The best part of X-Factor is that it doesn’t always equate to on-field perfection. If Brees’ perks are triggered, it doesn’t turn the game into Tecmo Bowl. He can still get picked by a solid, high-rated DB, who may have his own X-Factor working, so the mode checks and balances itself. Player icons at their feet indicate if their X-Factor is activated, so at least you know before chucking that ball downfield.
And these X-Factors are decided on by the gamer. You can customize and swap out perks depending on the game, the match up, and the gravity of the situation, like playing in the Super Bowl. It’s a neat feature and a welcome addition to Madden NFL 20.
Returning modes include Madden Ultimate Team (MUT) and Franchise. MUT continues to be a highlight of the Madden franchise, as the card-based team building is addictive. Getting newer and better player cards drives this mode, and then taking your team of veterans, legends, and role-players into tournaments both online and off to earn XP and rewards brings players back over and over. The X-Factors are also a key here, giving you more to manage as your MUT career goes on.
Franchise mode in Madden NFL 20 is slightly tweaked from previous seasons, at best. You can opt to play as a player and just participate in games when your number is called; as a coach, where you make all of the on-field calls — and you actually control the plays; and GM mode, where you wheel and deal, signing players, building teams, and even mastering your franchise’s bottom line, by managing the stadium, merch, and more.
I chose to coach my Redskins, as Jay Gruden just isn’t getting the job done in real life, and I found it somewhat hilarious that the in-game tutorial came as a text conversation between Gruden and running back Adrian Peterson, who proceeded to tell me how to do my job as a “veteran” of the locker room. Sometimes, art imitates life.
Madden NFL 20 brings together all the things that makes football fun, and then adds new wrinkles to make it less fun. While some may find the enhanced control of the game a win, I was put off by it. I just want to throw the ball to a WR and not have to hit a combination of four different buttons to complete the pass. The new games additions, like QB1 and the X-Factors, do a lot of good for the franchise as a whole, and there is a ton of love for MUT and franchise. But until developer Tiburon Studios can find a better balance in nuts-and-bolts-gameplay vs. execution, this game feels stuck in the huddle waiting for a better play call. Hopefully, it will come is sooner rather than later.
Madden NFL 20 is available now in both standard and Superstar editions for the PS4 and Xbox One. You can purchase that game here. This review is based off the PS4 version, with a code provided by EA for the reviewing purpose.