The wait is finally over. "Madden NFL 15" hit store shelves on Tuesday, August 26, giving football fans and gamers across the country reasons to rejoice. Cynical fans of EA Sports' long-running franchise might feel "rejoice" is a bit of an overstatement, as the franchise has had its fair share of underwhelming editions. That being said, "Madden NFL 15" is not one of those. It is instead a smart step forward that could be the building blocks for an even more addicting, realistic and challenging future for football gaming.
On the surface, the game looks beautiful. Running on an Xbox One the graphics were breathtaking. Player movements were photorealistic, especially when running backs were fighting for extra yards, or defensive linemen were trying to shed blocks. The field and player jerseys show great wear and tear over the course of a game better than I can ever remember. Of course, the same eight fans are still attending every game and filling in a surprising amount of seats, but that's a minor gripe. Overall, the look and feel of this game is what one would expect from a visual standpoint for a next-gen entry in the Madden franchise.
If you've read or watched anything about this game yet, you've likely heard about the defensive improvements. I was skeptical at first, but was all for the developers making defense more fun, playable and effective. Because, come on. When you were playing a friend at home, or some random kid online, defense was typically about waiting for the offense to make a mistake. Not any more. The developers now allow gamers to take control of defensive players like never before with improved controls and playability.
The first key change is that you can now switch the camera angle to behind the defense, instead of always having it behind the offense. It's now more organic (and fun) to try and shut down the offense. Of course, there is also an added level of difficulty as it relies on you actually reading the play. I was playing as the Green Bay Packers last night, and misread my gap assignment with Brad Jones, allowing Ryan Mathews to break free for a 12-yard gain. It felt just like Sundays (mostly because Jones was out of place). Each position across the defense (linemen, linebackers, defensive backs) has different moves they can employ that make the game feel more like Sundays. The new camera angle and control of the defense also makes it easier to make the transition from a lineman to a defensive back, which was a great relief to me. Nothing was more maddening than being a split second from a sack, only to switch to the defensive back and have him still be running downfield as if he was chasing the quarterback, leaving his wide receiver all alone. Interceptions aren't a walk in the park, but the act of getting in position for one is more fluid and addicting. All in all, these defensive additions are a game-changer, and something I hope EA Sports builds on in the future. The only downside is that you can't take on this new angle when you're playing a buddy locally (on the same system), but then again, those matches are never about defense anyway, are they?
In addition to the improved player controls, computer A.I. has been improved greatly with Player Sense 2.0. I was as surprised as I was frustrated to see Harrison Smith correctly crash into the box and shut down my run after he read the play. It was great sitting on the defensive line as opposing quarterbacks tried to draw me offsides. The controller would vibrate just as if it was a real snap, although I was savvy enough to watch the ball and not trust the controller. The players read and react much like an actual football player or intelligent Madden player would, helping give the game a more realistic feel.
On the flipside, the main improvement on offense is that playcalling has been streamlined. The suggested plays, now more than ever, take into account the tendencies of the defense as well as what would be a smart play call given the down and distance. More seasoned players still have the option to pick plays by formation, type, etc., but after exclusively using the suggested plays feature for awhile I can say it's rock solid.
There are a plethora of other additions worth mentioning quickly, like Pass Innaccuracy. It's not as finicky as Precision Passing first was back in the day, which is great. Still, if your timing is off or you try to zip the ball in there when you should have lofted it (or vice versa) your accuracy will suffer. Even with great quarterbacks this holds true, as I was playing with Aaron Rodgers and managed a few off-target passes. The popular Connected Franchise mode has been revamped and sounds great as has Ultimate Team, however, I didn't have time for a deep dive into either of these before delivering this review. Rest assured, I'll be getting into both soon.
So far, this is the most fun I've had playing a "Madden" game in awhile, and that doesn't figure to change. I just scratched the surface of all "Madden NFL 15" had to offer in time for this review, and the new defensive gameplay gives this edition endless replay-ability. It's refreshing to see the franchise taking a big step forward after listening to the fans, and hopefully this step forward is on a new path to continuous improvement. For now, I'm going to be thoroughly enjoying "Madden NFL 15" and all it has to offer, but a little part of me already can't wait to see what they do next year.
-- Alex writes fantasy and features for NFL.com. Follow him on Twitter @AlexGelhar. If you're nice enough to him, he may even let you beat him in a game of Madden on the Xbox One.