- Editor's Rating
- It's Madden
- Variety of gameplay tweaks give good balance between accessible and technical styles of play
- Faithful imitation of NFL broadcasts
- It's Madden
- Same nagging technical problems from years past
- Owner mode feels half-hearted
Madden is Madden. If you're already buying what EA's selling, Madden NFL 25's revamped physics engine and tighter feel will make it worth picking up. If you're not on the bandwagon, take a look, but you'll probably want to move along.
Here’s an inflammatory statement: America doesn’t really like football. Football, and especially the NFL’s brand of football, is painful. It’s violent. Difficult. Messy. It’s filled with broken dreams, broken legs, and young men who are willing to incur brain damage and take strange drugs just to stay employed until they’re 35. Even then the vast majority of its players last less than a couple of years. Some of them end up turning to crime, others fall into bankruptcy, most fade into obscurity. Nobody likes any of that.
Football, like capitalism, is Machiavellian. Those who can hack it are revered; those who can’t are forgotten. So maybe we do appreciate that in some base way. But the NFL is governed by perverse logic, the kind where everyone nods in agreement when a one-percenter is deemed selfless for only settling for $27 million in his latest contract. It’s a place where image is everything, corporate sponsors are everywhere, and those who dissent are fined and hushed until they fall in line. It isn’t a land of the free. It’s a business.
No, what we really like is being a football fan. That’s what’s fun. You get to wear funny face paint, chant silly songs, eat buffalo wings, and dance like a goof when your favorite collection of strangers defeats someone else’s favorite collection of strangers. You get access to those strangers’ personal lives, and you get to judge what they should be doing in their own time. You get to indulge–when another man goes down in the field of battle, it’s okay for you to worry about what this means for your team more than what it means for the brute in pain. You get to use the skilled men for your enjoyment, and you get to act like a kid while doing so. The football stadium becomes your Colosseum.
For two and a half decades, the Madden NFL series has been the premier simulator of football, presented through this lens of being a football fan. It’s the only NFL video game allowed to exist on the market, and as such it’s an interactive commercial for the image the NFL loves to peddle. So it goes with Madden NFL 25, EA Sports’ latest iteration on the dynastic franchise.
In Madden, players are not people, they’re chess pieces in colorful outfits. They’re designed to be commanded with your handy playbook, whisked around with your juke and dive commands, and pounded with your “hit stick” flicks. If they get hurt, you decide their fate with a swift button press–maybe you kick them into the free agency ether if their injuries are too severe. Here, this mindset is okay, because it’s all make believe.
Since the NFL’s ideal image is primarily piped in through TV broadcasts, that’s the experience Madden seeks to distil. It’s good at making you marvel at the pomp and pageantry of an NFL game, to take in all the colors and touchdown dances and Guns N’ Roses riffs that boom through the stadium before big plays. It’s good at imitating an expensive program with high production values, what with its frequent, well-shot replays, fancy stats graphics, and pretend sideline reporter (who, in what’s likely another NFL wet dream detail, is often shut down when she asks for info from the pretend coaches).
It’s unintentionally good at replicating the commentary of people like Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, who make some insightful points but soon start to repeat themselves–because how many ways can you spin a sport like this? And it’s really good at stuffing as much product placement in your face as possible, because Madden is the NFL’s fantasy world, and Verizon, GMC, Snickers, Gatorade and Nike are nothing more than benevolent providers of gridiron goodness within it.
There’s no need to think about all the consequences of real football here, because there’s touchdowns to score and fun to be had. Yes, in a weird way, Madden’s warped version of the NFL is more fantastical than your everyday space marine shooter or action-RPG. And since this is still a capital-v Video Game, it shouldn’t be surprising to see the same list of technical oddities rear its head again in this year’s edition.
Playing offense is still infinitely more enjoyable than playing defense. Run blocking is still a mess. Defending the run is still a cinch. Defending the pass still feels like it’s left up to dumb luck. Calling audibles at the line and running lots of screens and slant routes will still let you carve up any defense. Your players still get injured all the time. Penalties are still rarities. The computer still acts silly when it comes to calling timeouts. And the crowd still looks like a hyperactive gang of fuzzy lemmings. It goes on and on.
Some of these hitches can be annoying, but at this point they’re just part of Madden’s brand of video game football. They’re not “broken,” and they don’t make the game any less enjoyable. You just have to adapt to it, and the six people who haven’t played Madden can always turn to a helpful set of tutorials to get acclimated to the way things work. Pure playability has always been this series’ modus operandi; it’s never seriously tried to be the Gran Turismo of football sims, just like it’s never seriously tried to address some of the harsher realities of the NFL. That doesn’t change here.
Besides, Madden NFL 25 actually does take steps towards being more flexible for both newbies and fanatics. It starts with the tweaks that EA has made to its underlying physics engine, which give tackles and general movements a much more reliable and natural feel.
Madden NFL 13 became known for its cartoonish animations, in which players would sometimes go flying 15 yards after a hit or comically trip over downed opponents, but those are largely gone here. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s nice to see your running back stop and refocus his momentum when you try running through a pile of linemen, and it’s nice to see your linebacker fall on his face when you try abusing the hit stick to make forceful tackles too many times. This kind of stuff isn’t exactly realistic (you’re still using a “hit stick,” after all), but knowing that your squad won’t be splaying around all willy nilly gives off a greater sense of comfort.
The other major under-the-hood tweaks come to the running game, where a new “Precision Modifier” mechanic gives your backs an expanded array of spin moves, jukes, dives, stiff-arms, hurdles and truck moves out on the field. They exemplify Madden’s style well. They’re not difficult to pull off (just use the left trigger and flick away at your right analog stick), and those who want more precise control can use them to their advantage, but by no means are they necessary to racking up wins.
This balance of hardcore intricacy and pick-up-and-play accessibility is Madden’s greatest strength, and it’s a mindset that’s constantly being balanced throughout the game. If you want your team to run the new option plays, go right ahead. If you want to spend hours in franchise mode running practice drills and manually upgrading your roster’s stats, you can do that too. If you want to use the highly simplified “GameFlow” play calling interface instead of its more complicated counterpart, go for it. And if you’d rather just play some football, that’s perfectly fine too, and you won’t be penalized for it. This is something Madden has to do as the only NFL game in the world, but EA deserves credit for crafting a formula that can appeal to almost anyone in its massive audience.
But make no mistake, Madden NFL 25 is still following a well-worn formula. They’ve been fine-tuned, but most of the modes and features in here are the same ones you’ve seen before.
The franchise mode is still the meat of the experience. It’s now dubbed Connected Franchise, and it essentially lets you play through the traditional setup from three different perspectives: player, coach and owner. You’ll be able to play through a season no matter what, you can take your league online and let others control each team, and you’ll always have the choice of creating your own NFL star or choosing an existing one. But the extra dressing that comes on top of all that depends on which angle you decide to take.
The player and coach options are mostly recycled from what’s been before–the former doesn’t provide the level of depth of similar modes like those in the NBA 2K series, while the latter is more or less the same franchise mode that’s been in every sports game for the past decade. They’re fine.
The owner mode, meanwhile, may be where Madden NFL 25’s alternate NFL reality becomes the most absurd. There, you get to live out the wild fantasy of being an actual rich person, with your own team of clean-shaven financial advisers and the hopes of an entire fanbase resting in your hands. Then you find yourself adjusting the prices of chicken salad at the concession stands, scoping out whether or not you have enough room for a second parking lot at the stadium, and giving canned responses to press questions every couple of months, among other minutiae. Being able to relocate your team is amusing (hello, Mexico City Raiders), but being a billionaire shouldn’t be this blase.
There are some other things to note. The new tile-based interface is sexy but strangely laggy. The online multiplayer is fun but stutters occasionally. The Ultimate Team mode popularized by FIFA is still an addictive mix of tactical sports sim and Pokemon-esque trading card game. And the game’s attempt at celebrating the 25th anniversary of Madden is weak, relegated to some legend players and a handful of loading screens that briefly pay tribute to past titles.
But let’s be honest: it’s Madden. Getting scrupulous with its new features is like freaking out over whichever new thing Coors Light is applying to “enhance” its beer cans. You know what you’re getting by this point, and if you’re not already on the NFL’s dream machine, Madden NFL 25 isn’t concerned with converting you. But if you are, you’ll be in for an installment that looks a little better, plays a little better, and is a little deeper than last year’s game. If you love being a football fan, that should be good enough.