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GAME REVIEW: Madden NFL 17 – “An Improvement in Every Way”

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Madden is an institution of sports simulation, which often makes it the target for criticism. Once you’ve been doing your thing for decades, people stop running out of nice things to say and look for the negatives. In a way, Madden is like the Metallica of sports simulation games. They’ve both had their rocky patches, but almost always come out of the other end smiling and kicking ass.

Even though Madden NFL 17 isn’t a complete revolution for the series and it probably won’t silence all of its naysayers, it improves on its predecessor in every conceivable way.

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Coming into Madden NFL 17, the sudden obsession I found with American football thanks to Madden NFL 16 had faded away. It wasn’t anything to do with the sport in general, it’s just that timezone differences make it difficult to keep up with what’s going on. It didn’t take this new Madden long to suck me back in and have me roaming around the house in my tattered New York Giants jersey.

As this newest Madden booted up, I came to the sudden realisation that I had forgotten everything apart from the bare basics of gameplay and rules, which is hardly ideal considering how many of the latter there are. Panicking, I thought that I might have to spend a couple of hours reading up on NFL before a very welcome interruption: the opening interactive cinematic as the Rams took on the Redskins in a wildcard match.

Not many sports games take the time and effort to try to capture the drama and emotion of their respective sports, which is why it’s always so effective in Madden games. Other sports games have gone for the Hollywood angle with EA’s own FIFA 17 looking like it’s going down a similar avenue, but none do it as well as Madden. American football is arguably one of the most dramatic sports there is, so framing the opening interactive sequence as a movie is a masterstroke. It didn’t fail to shake me out of my NFL stupor and amp me up for what was to come.

You can’t underestimate the benefits of a good tutorial, especially for a game that has so much depth and variety that even seasoned Madden players probably get confused. NFL 17 doesn’t treat you like an idiot when it’s teaching you what it’s all about, but it does make it simple enough so that rusty players should have no trouble with transitioning back to the series with Skills Trainer. However, and I have made this point before, total newcomers should really have the option of checking out the rulebook for American football within the game. It would be a little touch that would be really appreciated by many.

Of the changes made, the improvements on animations are most noticeable. In Madden NFL 16, immersion would often be broken by colliding players almost entering each other, coaches sliding onto the pitch, and other small bugs that take you out of the fantasy that you’re the King of NFL. They are still present here, but not so frequently, and the animations have had an impressive polish. Launching the ball upfield from the arm of Eli Manning to the hand (he only needs one) of Odell Beckham Jr. for a TD is something that will never get old, especially when it looks this great. All of the neat little touches (extra camera angles, more lifelike facial animations) add up to make a seriously superior experience.

Madden NFL 17

All of these added features and animations seem to take its toll on the game’s performance, however. Loading times can be impressively lengthy and frustrating to deal with on PS4. Granted, a lot of things are going on in the background during these moments and it isn’t the only sports game with the issue, but an NBA 2K approach of having commentary analysis between would work well.

The commentary team has been given an overhaul for Madden NFL 17, and it’s a change that was worth making. Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis have a charming patter with each other as they call the plays and possess an obvious passion for the sport in general. They certainly aren’t phoning in their voice performances, either – it seems like they’re calling the digital version of American football just as well as they would the real one. Despite not working together before, they have a natural chemistry with Davis being the ex-player and Gaudin avoiding the stuffy, often overly-analytical commentary to talk more like a fan with a deep well of knowledge. Based on this, their spots for Madden NFL 18 should be assured.

Franchise mode should be the first port of call for returning and new Madden players. It’s the backbone of the series for a good reason, often allowing players to immerse themselves into the world of being an NFL coach, and lose myself I did. Before I knew what was happening, the birds outside were starting to wake up as I glanced at the time and realised that it was 4 in the morning. That didn’t matter, though – I had to get the Giants through the playoffs. Injuries had completely stripped the team, leaving Eli Manning (who I had benched for most of the season because of poor distribution) and Odell Beckham Jr. (my 20 TD WR and the king of my heart) as the only recognisable names in a sea of rookies and also-rans making up the rest of the roster. My ramshackle team managed to squeeze through each round until reaching the Super Bowl where we won by a margin of thirty. I was half an hour away from putting on a headset and pacing around my living room with a clipboard in my hands.

Madden NFL 17

Making progress in Franchise mode was often a toil in previous Madden games as one game could take anywhere up to an hour to complete. As realistic as this was, it would often result in burnout, meaning that it would be a stretch to fit in more than a couple of games in a sitting. Thankfully, the introduction of Play the Moments is a revelation – you get to choose how and when you play the game at your own leisure. More of an attacker than a defender? Choose to only play during offense. Want to be there for all the big moments but think you should let the CPU handle the grind that sometimes comes with the stop-start nature of NFL? Taking up third downs and two minute drills is for you. Leaving a match up to the AI can be a little dicey, but you have the option of backing out at any time and fixing what they broke.

The overall presentation of Franchise is greatly improved on, going for that trusty EA tablet-y design for ease of use. There’s a lot to delve into and I have yet to look through it all, but it is what you make it. You can keep things simple and let the AI do most of the heavy lifting or you can experience all that being an NFL coach has to offer. Discover a ruthless edge and cut that rookie who won’t realise his potential or negotiate with your stars to keep them at the team with ease. Another interesting mechanic for Franchise this year is the way it handles injuries – you can try to rush your big names back but run the risk of an even worse injury or let them recover; it all comes down to your desperation.

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Elsewhere, Draft Champions and the initial draft is a lot of fun. You get a choice of three different players across many rounds, so you need to find the right balance. I certainly did not. I went for only one accomplished WR during my first season, meaning that all distribution went to him which eventually made him the top target for the defense. Ultimate Team is ultimately not to my tastes as I played a couple of hours of it and felt like I was being pushed towards microtransactions, but I can see where the addiction to it comes from. Slowly building a team until I have the NFL equivalent of the Harlem Globetrotters is something that I might return to for the future, but Franchise and online matches are more my pace.

Madden NFL 17 is a solid improvement on last year’s edition and one that many Madden players should be pleased with. The improvements aren’t groundbreaking and might not convince the unconverted, but they all add up to create an immensely satisfying experience for series veterans and rookies as long as the latter can resist being overwhelmed by everything going on.

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