Madden NFL 20 Review: Rebuilding for Prime Time
Like many annual sports games, Madden NFL is often cast as a copy and paste job. There have been years where that's closer to the truth, but the last several years have seen Tiburon and EA Sports try to implement some sweeping changes, putting that truth in question.
The problem is that not all of those changes have worked, and some have even disappeared from games within a few years.
This year, Madden NFL 20 brings quantitatively fewer big changes, but qualitatively, the changes it does bring feel like the building blocks of a future champion.
Just Throw It Up There, I'll Go Get It
Though the game's cover star doesn't always denote its direction, Patrick Mahomes seems like a good fit for this year's iteration. Why? Because Madden NFL 20 is largely focused on the league's most explosive playmakers, and no one was more fun to watch last season than the Chiefs' instant superstar.
For Madden, his and others' game-changing abilities manifest as new X-Factor abilities. Superstars and their returning, lesser abilities are spread out to the point where you'll find several on every team, but only 50 players in the league have been designated as X-Factors. They're given special skills that can be activated during a game after certain parameters are met.
For Mahomes, it means earning an additional 15 yards of throwing distance after he throws multiple passes that travel 30+ yards in the air. For others, like Aaron Rodgers, it means disabling the ability for defenders to get an interception for a while. Twenty skills are assigned across 50 players for skill positions and defenders.
This focus on the league's best players is done in an arcadey way, but it's meant to represent the real-life explosiveness of players, letting them take over a game. It's a system that carries across all game modes: franchise, online, and even in Madden Ultimate Team (MUT), where you can assign X-Factor roles to your players.
Sometimes you see a new Madden feature and you know it isn't long for this world (see: QB Vision), but X-Factors feel like something that will stick, even as that's partly because it's an easy headline to market each summer.
Step Into the Spotlight
Over the past two years, Madden story modes went from bad to painfully worse. Thankfully, the Madden team must've agreed change was needed because this year's new take on narrative-driven Madden is the best it's ever been. Like X-Factors, this year's Face of the Franchise feels like it'll stick around for years to come.
By taking a more hands-off approach than Longshot mode, Madden NFL 20 allows the story to behave as a brief but interesting preamble, and then quickly shuffles it off stage a la' NBA 2K, all before it can get too absurd or make too many head-scratching plot decisions.
For the first time ever, you can also choose a college to attend from a pool of about 10 major programs and play the two-game playoff series as you push for the National Championship and eventually attend the NFL Combine. This background helps flesh out your draft prospects all before you get drafted by one of several eligible teams, each of whom are QB-needy in real life, like the Dolphins and Bengals.
In this year's mode, you're immovably cast as the quarterback, but one could easily envision this same sort of mode reappearing for years ahead. While not every position would be compelling — sorry interior linemen and kickers — upstart running backs, trash-talking wideouts, and defensive leaders could appear over the next few years and make Face of the Franchise a new series staple.
It's not perfect, and at times it's ironically almost too rushed, but as a first attempt, it's a lot of fun.
Ultimate Team Piles On
EA has made Ultimate Team the focus of all their sports franchises, but if you're not someone who got in with the series years ago, it can be hard to find the right jumping-on point. To EA's credit, MUT is the deepest experience annually, with more content than seemingly anyone could ever make time for. This year's game helps ease newcomers in with missions, a more guided approach that sort of holds your hand through the many menus of MUT.
MUT is a live service mode, so new challenges and players come to it all the time, but it's good to see at launch there are some chase-worthy cards already built into challenges, like 86 overall Baker Mayfield and Deacon Jones.
Outside of that, the mode does a lot more of what it always does: teases you with card packs to buy. The roadmap of missions help you stay on target better so you're not lost in the sea of MUT menus, but it's still difficult to resist the packs which promise all sorts of treasures and shortcuts to get your low-ranked team ready to compete.
I'd be curious to know what the statistics show regarding how many MUT diehards refrain from buying cards whatsoever. They certainly make it tough to dodge.
- Rebuilds story mode in a better light
- Better guidance in MUT mode, which continues to grow more robust each year
- X-Factors help bring real-life explosiveness to the game
- MUT still feels like it's too heavy on buying card packs to progress at an enjoyable pace
- Story is miles better than before but could still use better writing
Madden NFL 20 feels built for new audiences without abandoning the diehards that are there every year on day one.
Face of the Franchise erases the ugly past of Longshot and builds a much stronger foundation for the future. MUT introduces missions to hold new players' hands so they can navigate the dizzying menus, even as EA still clearly hopes everyone buys a pack or three. X-Factors help the game mimic the real NFL which has never felt more explosive.
The major changes this year mostly feel like course corrections for past mistakes, but they're the building blocks of a contender for years to come.
[Note: A copy of Madden NFL 20 was provided by EA for the purpose of this review.]