No team starts the season thinking they’re going to be average. Coaches and GMs believe they can get the most out of their players. Incoming free agents and rookies improve the roster. Coaches try to out-think the competition with new plays. It all works on paper until it doesn’t. Madden 20 claims to improve aspects of its core gameplay. It adds mid-season scenarios in hopes of bolstering both a new career mode and the stagnant franchise mode, and Madden Ultimate Team continues to be one of the best fantasy card modes around. It’s a sound game plan, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Madden 20’s gameplay makes a decent first impression. Controlling players in the running game and out in the open feels nice. Both smaller movements with the left stick and gregarious special moves let you weave around and assert your authority. You’ll still see animations not sync properly (like when receivers go up for the ball), awkwardly sped up animations, wonky ball and player physics, and oblivious blockers, but for the most part it’s satisfying to grab the ball and take control. Users must adjust their pursuit angles and tackles to account for stick skill pros, and the new command to pull down the ball in the pocket increases the threat of mobile QBs. Super-jumping linebackers snagging interceptions has even been fixed.
This year’s X-Factor players and superstar abilities integrate well with the overall feel of the gameplay, making you account for special players on both sides of the ball. I like having to release the ball quicker knowing Khalil Mack is coming, just like it’s fun to knockdown passes and people with Bobby Wagner. Thankfully, they’re not so powerful they overtake the game. X-Factors don’t occur super often since they require meeting specific goals before they’re activated, and they turn off when the player scores a TD or gets tackled for a loss, for instance.
The superstar abilities, which more players have than the X-Factors, are arguably more dangerous since they are always on. For example, they bestow QBs more accuracy, WRs better catching in specific situations, and defenders surer tackles. But on any given play, there are enough variables so an X-Factor or superstar ability isn’t working in isolation. Todd Gurley might be able to stiff arm one defender out of the way, but if you’ve called the right defense and are swarming to the ball, he can’t get past everyone. These new abilities help give the game a big-play feel that mimics what we like about the NFL, and since they can be swapped in and out of players in Ultimate Team, they add value and new strategic opportunities to the mode.
These abilities translate to the new QB1 Face of the Franchise career mode where you star as a starting QB, but the mode doesn’t make for an illustrious career. The scenario engine that generates conversations with coaches, teammates, and other players doesn’t create an interesting story for your character. For instance, the cinematic cutscenes that help give you a backdrop stop after the beginning of the mode. QB1 also doesn’t capture the drama and pressure of the NFL. It’s simply a mechanism to feed you XP to grow your player. The mode is caught in the middle of trying to tell an interesting story and being a full-blown player career like NBA 2K’s MyCareer mode, and it succeeds at neither. Furthermore, on the field, your QB has to rely on not-so-smart A.I. teammates who often don’t pick the right hole in the line or catch type for passes.
The scenarios and the XP they generate are cross over into the regular Franchise mode (as do the abilities), but these additions don’t transform the areas that have needed updating for years. Free agency and the draft are boring. The sim engine can’t tabulate realistic game or season stats or trade intelligently. The teams and the league as a whole are void of the intrigue and machinations that fans love. Contracts’ total dollar amounts are more realistic, but with simple signing mechanisms and A.I. that can’t manage its own rosters correctly, this is a minor improvement.
The one positive facet of Franchise mode is that scouting is more interesting due to a stretch in player ratings (meaning even players rated in the 70s are useful) and the fact that players can develop into superstars and X-Factors with appropriate abilities. These players’ development trait is hidden during the draft, and since the A.I. scouts more in line with users’ own tendencies, there’s more competition for the good players.
I like aspects of Madden 20 like the addictiveness and slightly easier progression of Ultimate Team, the way players feel, and the new abilities. But too much remains stagnant and unchanged. It’s like expecting a few free agents to change the course of an entire organization when there are key areas the franchise needs to have addressed yesterday. Instead, its roster has gotten old fast and the problems are mounting.