Madden NFL 15 UK Review: Let's Play Buffalo Chess

Madden 15 is out now for Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4.

Key Features:

  • Improved graphics (especially on next-gen)
  • Redesigned play calling menus
  • New defensive mechanics
  • Restructured career mode
  • New full tutorial mode

The Verdict:

The more I think about 'Madden 15', the more sorry for EA I feel.

Back in the days of two-dimensional sprites and 16-bit cartridges, sports games all had about the same level of complexity, regardless of the actual sport. FIFA had a pass and a shoot button. NHL had a pass and a shoot button. Madden NFL games had a one-press pass system and a sprint button. That was about it.

But in the case of many sports games, including FIFA, while the jump from the SNES to modern consoles has revolutionised their graphics, it hasn't required a similar leap in conceptual depth. FIFA is not a simplistic game, but it is still largely possible to play it with pass and shoot as your main two strategic weapons. Soccer is a flowing sport, tactical but not really strategic, and reliant more on improvisation and flow than out-witting your opponent. It feels easy to make a fun game about that.

By contrast, American Football, gridiron, NFL - whatever you call it - is insane. Ostensibly, it is a game about pitting very large men against each other in a test of Newtonian momentum - as John Hodgman put it, "how to violently deploy the meat of [players'] bodies against the meat that is running at them". In reality, it's just about the most complex and intricate strategic sport in the world.

Every play is a battle of physicality, prediction, improvisation and tactical will. Can you spot the three safeties in the backfield of the defence, and choose the correct deep gutter pass to exploit the space between them? Can you recognise a run play, and then adjust before the snap to switch to a blitz when the opposing quarterback audibles a pass?

Can you even learn what those words mean? Or nod convincingly when someone else says them?

Add to this the other complexities involved in making a game about chess played by buffalos: the physics of huge dudes hitting each other in unpredictable ways, the movement of a ball as a real, flying object in idiosyncratic stadiums, the insane banality of the NFL draft, salary cap and roster system… how the hell do you make a decent game about that? Oh and one which is also fun to play, under the scrutiny of HD graphics and an online community ready to tear the game to shreds for the slightest inaccuracy?

You make 'Madden 15', that's how.

Madden 15, like most EA titles, is an incremental but clear step forward from the version released 12 months ago. On next-gen consoles the graphics are largely excellent, with amazingly realistic players and coaches, evocative stadiums and brilliant presentation of highlight reels and replays.

Admittedly the game still stutters from time to time: the frame rate is a little unpredictable, glitches are frequent and the 'forced' focus used to replicate TV cameras still looks plain weird. But in the main it's a breathtakingly good-looking game, and worth the upgrade especially for XBone/PS4 players.

It also retains and tightens the key elements that go into the 'feel' of a game of digital gridiron. The play calling menu has been redesigned intelligently, and this year adds a new level of stats and probabilistic calculation into the game. You can now check for promising match-ups and adjust your tactics accordingly, for instance.

Best of all, Madden 15 improves the way defence works in some very important ways. It's now much easier to (a) tackle and (b) choose how to tackle, while offensive line play is also boosted by adding hair-trigger off-the-line bonuses, and simplifying how your pass rusher can get to - and crush - the quarterback.

The result is a more fun, engaging game which - at least on easy - doesn't have too high a barrier to entry.

For UK fans - or rather, players inexperienced in either gridiron or Madden - the best feature by far is the addition of a new tutorial mode which seeks - and succeeds - not only in educating you how to play Madden (how to pass, break tackles…) but how to understand, watch and play football. That doesn't mean how to look for a receiver. It means how to look for a defensive pattern and exploit it. It means how to use your team's advantages to best effect, and choose the right play for the right moment, and execute it.

The tutorial mode takes you through the key areas of the game - offense, defense, kicks - and gradually pushes you to go beyond the basics. You'll start with passing drills, move through full team practice, and end up devising your own plays to match you opponents tactics.

And it's only when played in this manner - something which eluded this reviewer in years past, but is far easier to pick up this time around - that the game really shines. Because when played in this way, you realise what an achievement Madden is. It's not a sports game, really. It's a strategy game. An intense, fast, systematic and brutal strategy game which rewards dedication, thought and skill. That it can do this to almost the same depth as the real NFL is extraordinary. That it does it while looking like Madden and not Football Manager is almost a miracle.

There is much more to enjoy here, including a full career mode in which you can play as a single player, manager or even team owner (and yes, you can relocate your team to Wembley, even choosing the old London Monarchs livery if you want). Ultimate Team returns too, if that digital card-collecting Sisyphean monster is your thing, and the new Gauntlet mode - training turned into a randomised grab-bag of do-or-die drills - is great as well.

There are also things missing we'd like to see addressed: a straightforward play-16-games season mode, for instance, is a stupid missing feature. Realistic crowds, an absence of hilarious glitches, and better commentary are needed. And the in-game menus and presentation can still be improved.

But at its core, Madden 15 is able to accurately resemble the inexplicable complexity of the NFL while also capturing the razzle-dazzle of its coolest moments. It's genuinely fun and patient with players of all levels, and it looks authentically next-gen. That's quite something.

When playing it, it's hard not to feel that making a good next-gen NFL video game is just about impossible - but that somehow, EA has pulled it off.