I’ve brought this up before but it bears repeating: while it’s easy to think of sports sims as lazy annual rehashes, upgrading or altering a few aspects of a game to justify their existence, the truth is that that’s rarely the case. Madden NFL 18 strode boldly into new territory, finally making the jump to EA’s Frostbite engine and implementing a cinematic single player mode in the Longshot campaign. Frostbite meant the visuals were given a substantial upgrade, the controls felt better than ever. Madden NFL 19 still includes numerous changes that work to the game’s benefit, but it dials back the thrusters a little. Because they made all their big plays last year, further experimentation is more or less off the table. This year’s entry is about refinement and improvement, which is why I’m afraid people will write it off as an aforementioned lazy annual rehash.
The bulk of Madden NFL 19‘s changes have to do with player animations. While last year’s iteration allowed for gorgeous, life-like character models and likenesses, the movement wasn’t quite done yet. It wasn’t terrible by any strech, but there was clear room for improvement. Madden NFL 19 introduces a new system called Real Player Movement, a new way for the game to calculate and display player movements, momentum, emotes and more. It feels like there’s a greater weight to your players this year. You’re piloting a team of muscular giants, and now they feel the way they look on the field. Tackles have a tactile crunch to them. It feels like you earned it when you break away from the pack, hauling arse downfield for a touchdown. If there’s a downside to the revised animation system its that it can still flip out from time to time. I’ve seen some truly strange looking tackles, more flailing belly flops and faceplants than players being hauled realistically to the ground.
Evading the pack and getting those passes to go the way you want has always been a challenge on offense and RPM goes a long way to making them feel more even. One trick I liked, and I’ve seen this shouted out by several other people, was being able to simply let go of R2 if I noticed a player coming to take a catch that would run him over the line and out of bounds. Releasing the button cuts his momentum, allowing him to instantly pivot away from the line and keep us in the game. Spinning, juking, ducking and weaving is much more intuitive, as is the catching game overall. Last year, I had tremendous difficulty in getting my players to actually take a pass. Frequently the ball would bounce off their outstretched hands even thought I was telling them to clamp down on it. This year, everything feels more honed, the catches drop far less frequently, leading to more aggressive running of the ball.
Franchise Mode and Madden Ultimate Team haven’t changed dramatically over the last few years. EA Sports seem pretty happy with both the way they are, and in fairness they do work as intended. The one change that’s been made is a good one — leveling up is now much more satisfying, with Skill Points dictating the way your players level up overall rather than dumping everything into one specific stat. This is done through what are called Archetypes, and there are four of these per position. You level up a specific Archetype to make your player more proficient in that style. This one change makes the entire experience a much smoother one and I’m very happy with it.
The only real change for MUT is the ability to play against the computer, which is a small but very welcome addition. Beyond that, it is exactly the same mode from last year as far as I can tell. I will leave it up to you decide if this is a good thing.
Finally, last year’s single player campaign Longshot returns for what EA calls its “second season” entitled Homecoming. While the performances remain strong across the board, it’s incredibly low stakes compared to its debut iteration. I felt like I spent a lot of time on college games and running practice drills than anything else. In the moments when the campaign does give you a do-or-die moment its most often of the “score a touchdown” or “perform this play to the letter” variety. I’m not terribly good at either, but I wasn’t really punished for it when I failed. No matter how many times the game would fade out, I’d restart and try again. I hope they get another crack at it next year because I quite like Longshot as a concept.
Madden NFL 19 is a game for the NFL purist. It’s for the people who love the series and pick it up every year, not the casual observer or weekend warrior. It spends its time on maintenance rather than big leaps forward in any direction and it’s an improved game on 2017’s entry because of it. Keep your expectations at a simmer and you won’t be disappointed.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Real Player Motion is solid across the board; Tweaks to leveling up and movement are welcome
Lowlights: Doesn’t iterate substantially on last year’s entry; Newcomers might be a bit confounded
Developer: EA Tiburon
Publisher: EA Sports
Plaforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Review conducted on an Xbox One X with a retail code provided by the publisher.