Review: Madden NFL 19 is laying off the sprint button

EA SPORTS - 2018

EA SPORTS - 2018

Madden NFL 18 brought some of the biggest changes to the franchise’s annual installment in recent memory. It introduced the ambitious Longshot mode, unveiled “game styles,” and, oh yeah, it was built on a new game engine. Not bad for one year’s work. The result was one of the freshest-feeling Madden games of the past decade. Does Madden NFL 19 advance the work of its predecessor, or does it take a down year to recover?

Casey and Jimmy nabbed a copy and dug into the game’s numerous modes and offerings. Packers and Bears fans respectively, they’ll take their team’s rivalry to the virtual gridiron in an attempt to reach a consensus on EA Sport’s latest title. Both reviewed the game on a PS4 Pro.

Madden Ultimate Team

Reviewed by: Casey

Fan favorite game mode MUT didn’t undergo any drastic overhaul, but a bunch of small tweaks made the game mode a lot more accessible to the casual player. I never was a big fan of MUT, but it will probably be my most played game mode on this year’s installment (also due in part to the weaknesses of Franchise mode).

For those who don’t know, MUT is a game mode where players complete solo challenges or head-to-head matches against other players. They’ll earn coins for winning games and completing objectives. Coins can be used to buy player packs. Player packs contain “trading cards” of players which can then be used on a team’s lineup.

You can even upgrade your players with an in-game currency called "training."

You can even upgrade your players with an in-game currency called "training."

The most understated change to the game mode is the removal of contracts. Previously, each player had a set amount of contracts (games) they could play before they would not be able to be put into a lineup. Gamers would need to spend their hard earned coins to buy more contracts. This was a huge turn off for casual fans, who were incapable of simultaneously earning enough coins to buy exciting new players and affording the contracts to keep them in the lineup.

MUT also rolls out a new feature: solo battles. Each week, there will be a slate of opponents your MUT team can take on (the opponents will be other players’ MUT teams). This will be you vs. the AI controlling that team. Based on your performance against these opponents, you’ll earn “battle score.” At the end of each week, you’ll receive rewards based on your final battle score ranking. This is another great option for players who like playing against the AI and not dealing with some of the issues playing with other human players presents. It also helps level the playing field. There’s nothing worse than being placed in a head to head match with someone who has dumped hundreds of dollars into MUT and has a team 20 overall points higher than yours.

MUT still runs into some of the same lingering issues. The UI is unintuitive, and players are often swimming through menus. The dev team took some steps to streamline the UI by allowing you to upgrade and place players in sets directly through their player card, but there’s still a ways to go. Loading screens are numerous and halt the flow of gameplay. This is especially annoying when completing some solo challenges that only take a few plays to complete. You spend more time waiting for the solo challenge to load in (and for you to load back into MUT after completing the challenge) than you do actually playing. It would be nice if there was an auto advance feature that would place you directly into the next challenge so that you don’t have to bounce back to the MUT screen.

My other biggest gripe is EA’s microtransaction-heavy hand. As you can see on the screenshot, most of MUT’s store can only be bought with Madden Cash, the currency that cannot be naturally earned in-game. For a game that already costs $60 (and will only have a lifetime of one year) it leaves a bad taste in my mouth to see EA trying to capitalize so aggressively. Since players bought with Madden Cash directly improve your team, rather than being purely a cosmetic change, MUT quickly turns into a pay-to-win game (that you already paid full price for). EA should close the gap, perhaps be less stingy with coins and make less packs be Madden Cash exclusives.

So many player packs I will never buy.

So many player packs I will never buy.

Overall, MUT is a big improvement. The game mode has become more accessible and palatable for the casual fan without compromising the features that helped it garner wide appeal in the first place.

MUT Score: 7.5/10

Longshot: Homecoming

Reviewed by: Jimmy

It’s the second season of Longshot, Madden’s Telltale-esque story game. Last year, the mode was a neat, if inexplicable, addition to the game. I suppose in a game that users are meant to purchase every year, a new campaign mode is a small incentive, but what football fan was really clamoring for a solid Mahershala Ali performance in their sports game? Luckily, Longshot was a pleasant surprise. The story and characters were fairly compelling, with a lot of interactive dialogue and choices. My biggest complaint was your choices being near meaningless to the story. In Longshot: Homecoming that problem is gone. You don’t have any choices this time.

Colt Cruise. The best part of a bad game. 

Colt Cruise. The best part of a bad game. 

Devin Wade and Colt Cruise are back, but rarely on screen together. This is the dark, middle chapter of Longshot, taking our heroes on solo adventures that are far less interesting than their journey together in the first game. Regardless of what happened at the end of your first season of Longshot, a year has passed. Colt never made it out of NFL training camp, while Devin signed with the Cowboys and now struggles to stay on the team. Colt winds up back home, trying to break into football, or music, or whatever makes him fulfilled and famous. Devin’s story is as generic as it can be, with the game even forgetting him halfway through in favor of Colt’s stronger narrative. Colt’s story is a bit forced but at least it’s not aggressively mundane like Devin’s.

The grace notes are fun, but also underwhelming compared to the first Longshot. The high-school announcers are sometimes funny though some jokes don’t work at all. At one point, a conversation about a new buffet in town gives us the line, “When you’re a star you can just go up to the buffet and grab anything. They’ll let you do it.” For a game with already questionable ethics (censoring Colin Kaepernick's name in a rap song, no concussions in the game) the easy Trump joke falls really flat. Scott Porter’s performance as Colt is still very charming, though the real player cameos are far worse. Last year, we got a fun, in-on-the-joke performance from Chad Johnson. This year, we get Tom Brady saying two lines about as poorly as you would expect.

Tom Brady both looks terrible and is terrible in his short, boring  Longshot  cameo.

Tom Brady both looks terrible and is terrible in his short, boring Longshot cameo.

Any positive story moments are severely hindered by the lack of user interaction with the story. The dialogue mechanic appears for one question near the end of the game. I wouldn’t have gotten to it had I not been playing for this review. Losing the dialogue options takes the life out of cut scenes. As I passively sat through the questionable motion capture, I kept wondering how much better this might be as a normal, live-action movie.

In a June blog post, EA said, “One of the common requests was that gamers wanted to feel more involved with Longshot from a gaming perspective. With that, this season players will be taken through four times the gameplay and be thrown into even more on-field action.” Last year’s game definitely could have used more regular Madden gameplay and relied too heavily on a passing mechanic that isn’t used anywhere else in the game. These clunky non-Madden game mechanics are thankfully gone, but their absence with no replacement only exacerbates Homecoming’s problem: you’re playing typical Madden gameplay to earn excruciatingly long cut scenes that are, charitably, fine. The game is stuck on its rails, not letting users fail any gameplay. God forbid you ruin the story.

You’ll get a better version of this game by watching Friday Night Lights, making a custom Madden player named Smash, and playing him in the actually fun game modes. Story games don’t usually give users much choice, but they always have that illusion, and give users at least a few consequential choices. Longshot: Homecoming only presents one interesting choice: deciding when to stop playing.

Longshot: Homecoming Score: 2/10

Franchise Mode

Reviewed by: Casey

Franchise Mode has always been my go-to. I love the sim and team building elements of the game (for reference, I’ll play Out of the Park Baseball over MLB: The Show any day). For those of you out there like me, playing Madden for the solo, offline experience, let me save you some time: pass on this year’s title. The changes to franchise are slight and glaring holes remain.

The introduction of schemes is arguably the biggest change to this year's franchise mode. With schemes, each player fulfills an archetypal role. For example, your running back can either be an elusive back or a power back. Like in previous Maddens, your players earn XP through weekly training and for their performance in games. Unlike previous Maddens however, you aren’t given free rein to dump those points to upgrade any attribute you see fit. Instead, you use them to invest in a player’s archetype. If I use one experience point to upgrade my RB’s “elusive back” archetype, they may see a bump to their elusiveness, agility, and juke move ratings. Invest it in “power back” and trucking and stiff arm ratings will improve instead. I think this change works well, bringing balance to the player progression system. In past Maddens, you could dump all your XP into speed, inexplicably turning your average possession receiver into a bona fide deep threat overnight. Now, the game distributes your XP for you, raising play recognition and route running abilities instead (you know, the skills that would actually be improved by practicing).

So how does this tie back to schemes? Schemes have archetypes for each position that is deemed to be the “best fit.” For example, if you’re running a West Coast offense which is built on the short passing game, possession receivers are a scheme fit. Players whose archetype fits your current scheme will accumulate XP at a faster rate than those who do not. Where I think the game falls short is not forcing you to choose a playbook that fits your scheme. Despite changing to a 4-3 defense, you can still run your 3-4 playbook, making the game’s logic fall apart. Your players should not receive an XP boost for playing in a scheme that fits their archetype when you know… you’re not actually playing that scheme on gameday. Schemes are reduced to being a tool to funnel the game into increasing the attributes you care about, removing the teeth from an interesting decision that could have been consequential. Schemes also take a further credibility hit with their pre-loaded rankings. Mike McCarthy’s 3-4 defense has a scheme fit in the mid 70s. But when I switch to a 46 Defense, the scheme fit jumps into the 90s. I guess the Packers have just been calling the wrong defense for the players they have all along. Who knew?

Hi coach, I fixed your defense for you.

Hi coach, I fixed your defense for you.

Other changes include the introduction of custom draft classes. I could see this appealing to fans who want to load in historic classes. As next year’s draft comes around, I’m sure the internet will generate a custom class for the upcoming rookies. The other big change is the introduction of animations to the Franchise screens. Now I can see Mike McCarthy lounging around his office while I navigate between menus... cool?

We're not worthy, EA.

We're not worthy, EA.

Franchise’s dearth of core features continues to be an embarrassment to a game that is well-realized in other respects. For example, resigning players is mind-numbingly basic. All you can negotiate is length, salary, and signing bonus. No incentives, no front-loading or back-loading contracts. Forget about having unrestricted/restricted free agents, restructuring contracts, compensatory picks, or a supplemental draft.

Hello, I am head of player finance and know a lot about business. Let's make a deal!

Hello, I am head of player finance and know a lot about business. Let's make a deal!

Scouting is primitive, nearly copying last year’s format. You are given a list of players and a set amount of “scouting points” each week. You spend the points to unlock an approximation of a player’s top 3 skill ratings, and are then given a rough draft projection for the prospect. Why not give players a scouting department where they must hire scouts with specific strengths and weaknesses? In an age where fans pore over every bit of draft coverage, why doesn’t Madden lean in? I’d love to have a “media center” for draft prospects where I could review every article and test result about a specific player. Give us team interviews to learn more about a prospect’s character: will they be greedy at contract time, or be a locker room leader? Maybe even add a team morale system while you’re at it à la MVP Baseball 2004. Madden already has the foundation for this with their confidence ratings.

This was all the information I needed to hand out a multi-million dollar contract, thanks scouting department.

This was all the information I needed to hand out a multi-million dollar contract, thanks scouting department.

Of course, this won’t happen because EA needs to stay in the NFL’s good graces to avoid doing anything to jeopardize their exclusive license (I’m still not over it). The shield’s unwillingness to confront the ugliness within its organization will always serve as a barrier, preventing Madden from being a serviceable sim that reflects the realities of the league. Franchise mode will never have holdouts, suspensions for criminal misconduct (heck, even the real NFL barely has that) concussions, or anything remotely negative about the sport if the NFL can help it.

All in all, franchise mode is like drinking a lime La Croix when you really want a Sprite. It has hints of what it’s supposed to be, but is ultimately watered down and lacking. It’s hard to write a review of Franchise mode that doesn’t devolve into a wishlist, because the more you look at the mode, the more you see what’s missing.

Franchise Score: 3.5/10

 

Color Commentary

Reviewed by: Jimmy & Casey

 

This is Madden’s second year running on Frostbite, any big changes visually/physically? Did you notice Madden learning and taking advantage of the technology more?

Casey: At first glance, this game looks exactly like Madden NFL 18. If anything, you might think it looks worse due to bugs that the dev team most likely plans to patch in coming weeks (for example, players occasionally clipping through each other, scrambling QBs rubberbanding back into the pocket, players moving sluggishly and ungracefully into position when running a hurry up offense or audibling into a different formation). But if you look deeper into the details, you will see a lot of things better executed than previous games. Tackle animations are improved, and hit sticks are visceral and violent, albeit unrealistic. Defenders pull off filthy strip moves, punching balls out of the arms of ballcarriers. Swat animations and contested catches are also a huge bright spot. Madden really captured the authentic explosiveness of a DB and WR going head to head for a jump ball. On a related note, pass defense AI seemed to be greatly improved. Computer opponents present a stout pass defense that felt natural and realistic. Zone defenders seem harder to overwhelm while DBs in man coverage are harder to burn or shake off.

Hit sticks let you break out your best bar fight moves.

Hit sticks let you break out your best bar fight moves.

When you don't come down with a catch, it feels a lot more realistic.

When you don't come down with a catch, it feels a lot more realistic.

 

What game mode will you play most and why?

Jimmy: If you haven’t guessed from our ratings, MUT is easily the best mode in the game. With a system of coin earning and card collecting, the game is addicting more like an app game than a triple A title. That’s backhanded, but a compliment. MUT delivers a compulsive way to stay engaged in fun, low stakes Madden play. I find myself playing far longer than I’d like to, playing “just one more round” over and over. The options for gameplay are vast, so you can keep earning coins while playing a variety of ways. I played fourth-quarter situational scrimmages over and over. I’m very good at kneeling the ball now. The fantasy football aspect of collecting different star players makes the mode really fun. Every time I get a sack as Michael Strahan I scream, “Good morning America!!” One surprising thing for me this year was the realization that I really enjoy the arcade game mode over simulation. Some MUT modes force you into arcade. Madden is buggy and dumb anyway, why not make the gameplay ridiculous and big play heavy like the good old Madden ‘07 days?

 

What has frustrated you most about Madden so far?

Casey: I have a bunch of gripes (as you saw by my Franchise and MUT review) but I went into this game knowing I’d have those. I think there’s two frustrating things I didn’t see coming. One is all the bugs. I’m coming off Madden NFL 18 which they slowly polished up over the course of last season. I thought all those touch-ups would transfer over to this title, but I thought wrong. Right now I have to manually adjust my MUT lineup because the game’s logic is broken and can’t accurately set my optimal depth chart (it ignores my 82 Davante Adams, opting to start a mid-70s Kendall Wright instead). The other is the lack of explanation the game provides. There’s new mechanics that are introduced that aren’t well-explained, and the skills trainer doesn’t give you a good grasp of how or when to use them.   

Jimmy: The menus in MUT. Getting around them is just brutal. They look pretty, but I don’t think they’re very intuitive or user friendly. Casey and I spent a good 10 minutes trying to figure out how to play an exhibition game with our MUT teams. This just reinforces Casey’s lack of explanations note. Occasionally the load screens advertise checking out the Madden rule book. I know I said I wanted to remember Madden ‘07, but I could do without the experience of digging through the rules to figure out how to play the game.

 

If you could get one feature request approved for next year’s Madden, what would it be?

Jimmy: Give me back Superstar mode. Running from Madden NFL ‘06 to Madden NFL 25, the mode is everything I wanted Longshot to be. I like a single player campaign mode, but I want more control in what kind of player I am. Let me talk shit about my teammates in the press, be a bitch to negotiate with, and eventually get my comeuppance when no team will draft me. The NFL doesn’t seem interested in giving the true football experience (maybe rightly so looking at all the domestic abuse and life-ending brain injuries) but I’d love to play a single player mode that actually gives me agency. Madden’s position-specific gameplay has really improved, so this is a mode I’d love to see return.

 

Madden has touted “real player motion technology” for this release, aiming to have players handle more realistically. Have you noticed any big changes in the way players move about the field?

Casey: The real player motion takes awhile to adjust to. At first, it’s easy to just think your players are sluggish and missing some points in agility and acceleration. Don’t worry, this is by design. The “one cut” and “push the pile” mechanics will be very beneficial to have in your arsenal, so take the time to learn them before you fall into bad habits. Madden is moving players away from holding the sprint button down. Unfortunately, it does this by making the AI cheat. If you hold sprint as soon as you receive a handoff, defenders suddenly become very adept at shedding blocks. However, if you hold off and don’t press sprint until you hit the hole, you’ll find a lot of success (and fun) in abusing your running game. The one cut mechanic will help you sharply change direction on the field. Just moving your analog stick will lead to your ballcarrier taking wide, leisurely turns. The one cut mechanic has been one I’ve struggled to adopt, but its value will become evident once you start playing. Unfortunately, most of the things I mentioned in this paragraph are not explained in the game (or are explained poorly). Even after completing the skills trainer, I still didn’t have a firm grasp on the timing for any of these mechanics or the best situation to deploy them in. This will lead to some frustration, but some google searches and experimentation should be enough for most players to get over the hump. Overall, I find the real player motion to be a worthy addition, one that adds some momentum and physical “realness” to your players.

 

What’s the most fun thing about Madden?

Jimmy: It’s football. Madden isn’t the best sports game. It isn’t really the best football game. But it’s the only one. We might not like a lot of it, but ultimately it’s fun to read a defense like you try to on TV. It’s fun to score the game winning touchdown as time expires. It’s a freaking blast to lay on the shockingly violent hit stick to force a fumble. Football is fun and Madden is fun. They could both just be much better.

Casey: It's gameday everyday. While Madden is arguably one of the worst current sports franchises, there's no other way to get your football fix. No other game or mobile app will be able to capture the electricity of NFL football.

5.5Rating.png

Pros: Despite bugs, gameplay is still excellent, MUT is addictive and more accessible

Cons: Franchise and Longshot are insultingly basic, improvements from last year's game will be minor to casual fans