Madden 19 Review: Running Back(wards)
For a lot of gamers out there, the Madden franchise (and by extension, most sports franchises with yearly entries) is simply an empty cash grab, a game preying on sports fans with iterations that don't amount to much more than roster updates.
Now, you all are smart enough to know that this isn't true. A ton of effort and money goes into making a game like Madden 19, even if it's not blatantly obvious when you look at the character models, or even when you watch the game being played. There's much more going on than meets the eye, which is why it's appreciated when a necessary gameplay tweak is made.
Sure, Madden plays basically the same way, but that's because it has to. You can't revamp the core tenants of football.
All that is to say I'm generally a sports games stan. I'll defend iterative franchises on the grounds that most of the time, they add enough features and make enough quality of life changes to justify a yearly purchase. That said Madden 19 is a game that has taken most, if not all, of the elements that made the last few games in the franchise so great and tried to ruin them.
Let's get the good out of the way first. Longshot: Homecoming is an entertaining play. It won't take you long to play through -- about six hours -- and it's a continuation of Madden 18's Longshot mode.
For those new to the Longshot single player mode, it's Madden's version of a campaign, only it plays out more like a movie. If you're used to FIFA's single-player mode, this will come as somewhat of a shock. There are no menus to be found and no breaks in the action. If you want to quit, you'll have to pause in the middle of a cutscene or during gameplay and head to the main menu.
This might sound jarring, but it's actually pretty novel for something like this. Longshot: Homecoming wears its influences on its sleeve -- it's trying to be something like a cross between Friday Night Lights, Hard Knocks, and Nashville, so it makes sense that the designers pretty much turned the mode into a playable movie.
You'll step into the shoes of Devin Wade and Colt Cruise in key moments throughout their journeys (proving your worth in the preseason, a 7-on-7 game at a high school, etc.), but you're never really given any player choice. This means that there's no tacked-on morality mechanics, which have always seemed really odd in sports games to me, anyway. There's no ludo-narrative dissonance and -- crucially -- no lulls in the narrative arc since it's been crafted so carefully.
With all that said, the writing isn't great. It gets cringey at times (an early scene where Colt Cruise, a relatively young guy, has never heard of Tumblr springs to mind), but if you like cheesy sports movies, you'll find a lot to like in Longshot: Homecoming.
The actors do a pretty great job, and you'll find yourself sucked into the world pretty quickly. Now for the stuff you won't like.
One of Madden 19's big back-of-the-box claims is that its new one-cut mechanic makes running the ball more fun and explosive. This is true. The small turbo boost you get when you make your first cut is definitely a big quality of life improvement, and it makes the game feel more true-to-life.
What the back of the box fails to say is that one of the other changes to the running game makes carrying the ball insanely frustrating.
Madden 19 added the ability for ballcarriers to "push the pile", meaning that if you run into the back of a blocker, you can help him out by pushing forward for a few yards on a power run. This sounds great in theory, but in practice, ball carriers now gravitate to their blockers and slow down if they run too close to them, all because the game thinks you're trying to push the pile.
This makes runs up the middle insanely frustrating, and also makes running sweep routes really tough, since this will happen as you run past your blockers even though you're running sideways.
In general, this makes running the ball just feel... off. Runners and receivers' momentum feels off, and the controls just feel chunky and imprecise whenever you get close to anyone else on your team. It makes controlling the ballcarrier not fun.
If that sounds damning, well, that's because it kind of is. Players that are used to the way Madden controls will find a steep learning curve here, and it's really frustrating to see your ballcarriers move in a different directions than you pointed them.
Of course, Madden Ultimate Team, the microtransaction-laden mode that attempts to bottle the same lightning FIFA Ultimate Team had, makes a return here in Madden 19. However, the mode still doesn't seem suited for a football-sized roster. For the most part, it still feels like a slog, and few of the changes made to the mode alleviate that pain.
The only exception to this is new 3v3 MUT Squads mode, which sees one player helm the offense with their roster, one player helm the defense with their roster, and one player step into the head coaching role, managing the clock and using their stadium, scheme, and uniform cards. Again, it's still not as fun as FUT, since the increased roster size makes microtransactions feel necessary even though the game is relatively generous with MUT packs -- but MUT Squads gives a bit of hope for the future.
On top of that, there's Franchise mode, and that's largely untouched aside from two things.
First, there's the addition of coaching schemes that add player bonuses. Second, there's the fact that finally (thankfully) player progression has been overhauled. Instead of scrolling through menus and painstakingly picking stats to dump XP into, the game pretty much does all that for you, assigning stat boosts based on what type of player is being trained, and what their role in the scheme is. You'll sometimes be able to choose a stat to boost after a particularly good practice, but the process has been streamlined.
And for fans of the college game, Madden 19 has at long last added the ability to import custom draft classes -- something that fans of the franchise (and the long-dead NCAA Football franchise) have been clamoring for for years.
To EA Sports' credit, they have really streamlined the UI so that all the game modes are easy to find and jump right into, but does that really matter if playing the game isn't terribly fun?
What An Upset
At the end of the day, the reason people put up with iterative games is that there's a sort of social contract there. If you buy in and play the game every year, the developers will improve it, learn from what they've done before, and put out a more polished product next year. That's the deal.
Madden 19 is a strange case when looked at under this lens. It takes many steps back from previous installments in terms of improvements made to ballcarrier controls, while not fixing long-running issues with the game.
Offensive- and defensive-line play still isn't fixed, and the TE/HB angle route is still a guaranteed eight yards almost every time. Also, in my time playing a fully patched copy of the game, I ran into crashes multiple times, as well as a few glitches. On multiple occasions, the QB threw the ball directly to the other team with no receiver within reach -- I experienced this both on offense and defense, lest you think I'm just really bad at Madden.
In addition, the complete absence of Colin Kaepernick (and the redaction of his name from a song on the soundtrack) is absolutely not a good look. Sure, it doesn't affect the gameplay at all, but Madden is about making your own football fantasies real. Kaep is a free agent. The fact that he's not in the game is disappointing, though completely unsurprising.
While Madden 19 has some lamentable aspects, there's an insane amount of polish here. Longshot: Homecoming is meticulously produced. The commentary team is amazing. The new stadium and city models look impeccable. MUT Squads is an inspired addition, and the small tweaks to Franchise Mode really do help make the mode feel like it has taken very real steps forward.
The central problem here is that the overall game has also taken a huge step back. If you can get used to the running mechanics and deal with waiting for EA Sports to patch up some of the bugs, Madden 19 really is worth your time. But if you're, say, a Steelers fan looking to rush for 3,500 yards per season with Le'Veon Bell? You might want to rent this one first.
You can buy Madden 19 for the PS4, Xbox One, and PC on Amazon for $59.99.
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[Note: The developer provided the copy of Madden 19 used for this review.]