Who you callin’ special?
Like clockwork, EA’s Madden franchise has come with great expectations, but this time, it has met them solidly. Immediately, you can feel the difference between Madden NFL 17 and prior Madden titles. Some years, Madden fans question our own decision on whether it’s a good idea to move to the next installment or simply stick with the one we’ve got. Other years, Madden delivers unexpected surprises none of us should ignore, and this is one of those years. Madden NFL 17 comes with a handful of necessary added surprises.
Mostly, the issue with the Madden franchise has been finding that perfect balance between gameplay and game features. Last year, major focus was put on the passing game, as the NFL has gradually become a passing league, with teams looking to stretch the field more often. This year, passing of course is still very pertinent to the success of the offense, but we are now fortunate to see a strong shift towards the run game as well.
In past titles, running modifiers were added to the run game to give a slightly larger variety of available moves to utilize against the defense. These same modifiers are still present but with a touch of flair. Now it’s not so much how many buttons you press, but how well you can string the right moves together. The feeling you get when chaining together a well-timed spin, followed by a juke, and stiff arm to finish off a long run is extremely satisfying.
The game's mechanics demonstrate each spectacular run to the fullest. The gap between real life and simulation has come that much closer together. There’s more upside to using teams who may not be top-tier but still can dominate in small areas depending on your skill. A squad like the Bills, by no means strikes fear in their opponent's eyes when it comes to overall victories, but one thing they can do well is pound the rock, thanks in large part to play-calling, a balanced backfield, and the most underrated but solid offensive line. There have been too many times when using a top-rated team like the Patriots, that running was almost always successful, even though statistically and strategically they have one of the worst ground games.
With the diversity of offensive schemes and personnel in the NFL, it is highly important to illustrate how different teams achieve success. This is just as important when it comes to the other side of the ball. Defense also takes a step forward with the new gap assignments technique. While waiting for the offensive to snap the ball, you can check out your protection assignments with a flick of the analog stick where you see which defender is guarding each specific offensive line gap. This new detail helps assist players in correctly identifying weak areas in the front seven as well as getting run and pass rushers to the right spots.
Of Madden NFL 17's few surprises, one of them comes in the form of special teams. When it comes to the Madden franchise as a whole, it’s a bit like being at a family barbeque. You have your favorite cousins making their yearly appearance, you see grandparents you haven’t seen in years, and then there’s that one drunken uncle who everyone tries to ignore. Special teams is a bit like that drunk uncle—off in the corner, bugging random people, talking about the same ol’ stories.
This year's version of special teams, now mostly sober with a new story, has added a new twist. Now when defending against field goals and punts, defenders, if timing the jump right, can bull through or around the protective line and block said kicks. After countless games and attempts, I successfully blocked one field goal try and had my own punt halted. This mechanic can create multiple blocks per game, making things that more interesting. Looks like Unc brought shots to the park, after all.
Actually adding to the drama of special teams, the new kick power and accuracy meter does bring in a level of difficulty for kickers. Before, you would just angle your kicks to the desired area of the field/through the uprights and power up your meter. Now, after your meter is powered, the needle swings back down, prompting for the accuracy portion of the kick. The higher rated your kicker is, the easier it will be to stay true to perfect form; have a Blair Walsh on your team and you might be in trouble. Just like when the NFL implemented the rule of pushing back extra point attempts from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line, going for a 2-point conversion might actually be a safer bet.
Regardless of your poison of choice, all things Madden are made learnable by not only the specific skills trainer but the handful of games modes that have returned, with Franchise mode taking on the newest of additions. When taking the helm as GM for a team of your choosing, control over all aspects of the game has never been so prevalent. From day one, you are judge, jury, and executioner. When building a franchise, you will scout, draft, sign, develop, release, trade, and waive players as you see fit. You can even add players to the newly available practice squad for further development.
Months can be spent just playing this mode. One way you can speed up process is using the “Play the Moments” option. It’s basically a super sim to get through each game except you’ll play mostly key moments—crucial third downs, redzone situations, 2-minute drives, and important defensive stops. While in game, you can always change the pace at which you prefer to play and jump in at different times. Weekly game planning has also taken on a mind of its own. When facing a certain opponent, you can set your team up as best as possible to combat your rival’s strengths. With specific player- and team-focused practice strategies, your team will earn in-game boosts reflecting how well they performed during that week’s practice.
Back again, both Draft Champions and Madden Ultimate Team bring much of the same features from last year's title. MUT bolsters a slight deeper style in mode and offers continual challenges for weekly players. Still following the fantasy theme, you play through games and challenges in order to collect coins, unlock player cards, and items for strengthen your team. Ratings rewards and attribute boosts are possible when forming a team with chemistry. So putting similarly skilled and like-minded players together warrants great benefit.
As for Draft Champions, it’s unfortunately unchanged. Also fantasy-themed, you’ll draft a team of current stars, with a late round inclusion of a past legend. I see this mode holding very little interest, especially with the now updated franchise mode. Sure, you can play solo or online against others; there’s just little motivation to stick with a bunch of random players for multiple games.
Finally, fresh to the scene are commentators Charles Davis and Brandon Gaudin. EA felt it important to try and shake things up as much as possible in the booth. However,, commentary feels just as stale as usual. To be fair, it is extremely tough to have two men read lines for a game that has a million scenarios throughout any given Sunday, and make it sound new and refreshing every time. Both Davis and Gaudin are highly skilled at what they do but having these two as partners sound faintly unnatural. Still it’s nice to hear different voices and it at least shows progression.
Overall, Madden NFL ’17 is a breath of fresh air. The new running features give life to a stagnant aspect of the field, forcing players to play a more balanced style of game and highlighting game schemes many have forgotten about. EA has done a whole lot with the little they have. This year certainly has been one of the best in recent memory and it would be a shame to see a drop of in the future.