Summer is coming to an end, but no matter, because as the sun starts to fade and the leaves begin to fall, it can only mean one thing. Football season is finally here, and Madden season is officially upon us.

Gameplay

Madden NFL 16, EA Tiburon’s third effort on next-gen hardware, represents a series of refinements to multiple core gameplay mechanics, ultimately culminating with the most authentic, most well designed, but not necessarily the most well balanced Madden to date.

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The enhanced WR/DB interaction is a major addition to Madden NFL 16.

Madden 16 breaks the huddle with all new receiver/defensive back interactions that attempt to lend greater authenticity to the passing game while simultaneously seeking to mitigate legacy issues and exploitations found in prior iterations. The “multiplayer catch system” allows receivers and defenders to fight for the ball in the air while using ratings, mechanics, and player positioning to deliver the appropriate outcome. The system incorporates hundreds of new animations that account for various interactions, including knockouts, tipped balls, simultaneous possession catches, interference penalties, hand fighting during routes, and more. The mechanic also permits choice with regard to the type of catching animation when playing as a defender or receiver. The interactions look realistic, if not downright gorgeous, but more importantly, they are well balanced, well designed, and allow for the user to influence these new interactions, all of which are appropriately dictated by player ratings.

The enhanced receiver/defensive back interactions constitute the greatest, most overt change in this year’s edition, but multiple improvements to foundational engines and mechanics have more subtly elevated Madden 16’s gameplay to new levels of realism. Passing accuracy has been tuned to more accurately reflect the varying skills of NFL quarterbacks. In this year’s version, pass accuracy is rarely subjected to the binary nature of perfectly accurate or wildly inaccurate throws; instead, the passing system permits greater variation in degrees of inaccuracy. Madden 15 introduced the concept of calculating the degree of inaccuracy of any given pass, but Madden 16 expands on this concept, and in conjunction with increased catching animations, the passing game is considerably more dynamic than ever. It’s still not perfect, as quarterbacks are often far too accurate, but the programming that dictates the outcome of the ball’s landing spot grants greater differentiation amongst virtual quarterbacks. And that’s never a bad thing.

Other improvements to the gameplay include enhanced quarterback and running back AI,
new types of throws, improved physics based tackling, and slightly more responsive and fluid locomotion controls, among other, more ancillary developments.  Ultimately, the underlying mechanics in Madden NFL 16 are improved over its predecessor, but is the game more well balanced?

Unfortunately, NO. In particular, the gameplay has been re-tuned along the line of scrimmage. Four man fronts rarely pressure the quarterback, regardless of disparities in player ratings between defensive and offensive lineman. Defensive ends scarcely get upfield before engaging with tackles, and interior lineman seldom drive the pocket backwards. The lack of pressure enables quarterbacks to unrealistically scramble outside of the pocket and throw the ball downfield, but perhaps more importantly, quarterbacks can stand tall in the pocket and dissect defenses with little repercussion from aggressive, yet futile defensive fronts. Ironically, defensive lineman are better able to disengage from offensive lineman on running plays, and as such, running the ball is disproportionately more difficult than passing. Such tuning imbalances pose tremendous consequences for both online and offline affairs, and while gameplay sliders can neutralize perceived deficiencies in gameplay, the game – in its current state- excessively favors the pass over the run.

The nature of the lineman interactions is still far too dependent on win/loss animations; defensive lineman either remain tied directly into the animation they are currently stuck in, or they are able to disengage and attack the quarterback. Generally, the pocket doesn’t collapse so much as an individual lineman will simply disengage and pressure the quarterback when the game deems it appropriate.

Likewise, defensive fronts are comprised of minds that act independently from one another rather than acting as the collaborative force they are supposed to be. For example, defenses rarely look to force ball carriers inside or bounce them wide, and defensive lineman still exhibit no gap responsibility when attacking the line of scrimmage. Additionally, defensive ends seldom seal the edge unless a particular animation dictates a specific behavior that resembles “setting the edge.”

Finally, while improved, the locomotion engine still does not allow for precise player movement, and the movement itself is not particularly smooth. Furthermore, the animation system attached to the right stick when running remains underdeveloped. The feature lacks animation variety and the animations themselves lack fluidity. The controller does not serve as a playground for user creativity with regard to navigating past defenders; instead, the controls impede player movement. They don’t facilitate it.

Presentation

Madden NFL 16’s presentation takes another leap forward this year. Most notable is the continued transition from pre rendered cutscenes to real time presentation. Real time wipes and stat banners, along with seamless in-game camera cuts help cultivate a more realistic broadcast style presentation. The camera angles again help drive the presentation; story elements are visualized between plays and breaks in the action, immersing the gamer within its NFL-esque presentation.

Graphically Madden NFL 16 is the most impressive title to date.
Graphically Madden NFL 16 is the most impressive title to date.

Graphically, the game is beautiful. The textures are smooth. The colors are crisp. The lighting is dramatic, yet realistic. Player models are meticulously detailed and even virtual faces look eerily similar to their NFL counterparts. In screenshot form, Madden 16 is perhaps the best looking sports game available, but in motion, the substandard animation quality exposes its realistic facade.

The commentary is improved over last year’s edition. The virtual Phil Simms and Jim Nantz inject greater emotion and more insightful commentary to the broadcast and their dialogue is more complementary and less dissonant than before. However, the commentary can be egregiously generic, and the engine does not allow for branching dialogue, rendering the broadcast feeling scripted and lacking in adaptability. The commentary is better, but it is still not approaching the quality that is exemplified in other sports games on the market.

Game Modes

Connected Franchise returns as the most enticing offline mode. New this year is the ability to scout players in the NFL draft in a streamlined fashion. Spend “Scouting Points” on a player, learn more about their abilities, and decide whether you want to select them in the upcoming NFL Draft. Just as there are busts, so too are there diamonds in the rough. Do your due diligence, decide how you will allocate your scouting points, and seek out the next Tom Brady in the later rounds. He’s certainly there. Additionally, there are new weekly goals that influence player confidence, as well as the iterative refinements to user interfaces and simulation engines, but not much else.

Finally, a new Draft Champions mode borrows from the concept of fantasy football and allows users to draft from a roster of premier stars from today’s league, as well as stars from past eras.The mode is simple. It’s fun. And it is extremely accessible. A perfect mode for casual fans.

Conclusion

The core mechanics of Madden NFL 16 are undoubtedly improved over its predecessors, but is it the best game in the series? Mechanically? yes. But functionally? Not exactly. The gameplay in its current state is slightly less balanced than last year’s version; the offense possesses far too great an advantage over the defense. Likewise, the passing game is too strong in comparison to the running game. That being said, Madden 16’s improved receiver/defensive back interactions elevate the gameplay to new levels of immersion, and the multitude of refinements to the core gameplay engines ultimately yield a more realistic, more dynamic experience. Madden continues to head in the right direction, and it won’t be too long before Madden is back on top of the sports gaming kingdom. Just where it should be.

Madden NFL 16 for the Xbox One and PS4 receives a 7.8 out of 10.

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