Madden NFL 20 review – it's Ultimate Team or nothing

The 31st release of EA Sports’ oldest franchise has some interesting new features but is it real innovation or just superficial change?

To cut EA Sports some slack before we begin, it is getting harder and harder to appease fans of sports games.Tune into any Internet discussion and you’ll be forgiven for thinking the likes of Madden and FIFA are developed by chimps, considering how much their work is critcised.

They’re not, we don’t think, but the problem is borne from being obliged to produce an annual release of a series many fans have been playing for decades. It is unquestionably a difficult job to innovate each year but your sympathy only extends to the point at which you discover that so many features, except Madden Ultimate Team (MUT), have been left virtually untouched.

So where to begin? Let’s start with the positives. Undoubtedly the biggest change in Madden 20 is the introduction of X-factors and superstar abilities. It’s no mean feat introducing a completely new game mechanic to an established series and this is an ambitious move from EA. 

The premise is fairly straightforward: players now fall under one of numerous archetypes, which then house superstar abilities that are ranked in tiers. If you hit certain targets on the field, these tiers and abilities are activated, making your star players even more devastating, especially when X-factors are in use. As an example, if you’re prone to throwing interceptions, using a quarterback with the ‘Gambler’ ability means defenders can’t intercept your passes when active. There are counters to each X-factor, hopefully ensuring none of them are game-breaking, but we’ll wait and see about that. 

EA is committed to this new feature and you’re met with a database of X-factor stars on the main menu, while every loading screen cycles through players, their traits, and a line of praise from the Madden Ratings Adjuster.

Whether you like this new addition may well depend on your general stance on role-playing elements in sports games. 2K has been doing this for almost a decade, to great success, whilst PES leans on it more than FIFA. Some fans like it, others think it over-complicates matters and abilities should only be defined by player attributes. A few clever souls have pointed out that this supposedly new feature is a rip off of All-Pro Football 2K8, but is that such a bad thing? Using a popular feature from a defunct game makes sense to us, especially one that is still revered now. Of course it’s nearly impossible to conclude if this will be a success – time will tell. 

Moving on to presentation, the product is a huge deal in U.S. sport, much more than in the UK, and we see this reflected impressively well in the game. Madden has led the way for a long time now and small improvements to lighting and presentation leaves it feeling as authentic as ever. There’s also been a noticeable tune-up with the audio – you hear the chatter between players, big hits sound as soul-crushing as they look, and dynamic crowd noises add to the drama of a game. 

On the field you can immediately feel like work has gone into fine-tuning the gameplay. Running the ball feels more responsive and smooth – a genuine godsend after last year – while the passing game seems to have been re-balanced. If you don’t set your feet with your quarterback, good luck firing a dot to your wide-open receiver. It takes some adjustment and that’s welcome, especially at the early stage of this edition’s cycle. 

There are some fairly obvious issues though, namely the frequency of fumbles, currently at over one a game; bizarre player animation glitches on the field (we’ve seen a wide receiver in the endzone go to celebrate and instead zoom vertically up and out of the stadium); and others beyond that. These are patchable though, so no need to panic just yet. 

Perhaps the most frustrating change has been to the ‘hurry up’ mechanics. All of a sudden on defence you’re reduced to having about half a second to match up to the opposition, which for the uninitiated is incredibly overwhelming. In fact, pre-snap adjustments have been made harder across the board on defence, so good luck if you’re anything other than an expert. Maybe that’s no bad thing though, again we’ll wait to see how it plays out.

As for the game modes, Face of the Franchise is a thoughtful, immersive take on career mode, and for our money an improvement on Longshot from the last two years. Incorporating your create-a-character into the franchise is a stroke of genius and the story itself is engaging for as long as it lasts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last much longer than a few hours and once you’re in the NFL it falls away to a few ‘scenarios’ that arrive by text message pre-game. It’s a missed opportunity.  

And then there’s Franchise mode, dearly beloved by longtime fans of the series and yet deeply overlooked once again. It’s a common theme across the sports game market: career modes are falling by the wayside and Madden is no different. When the only noticeable change is the addition of scenarios you have to wonder if anything beyond Ultimate Team is being cared for. 

So, onto the wider point. We’re at the stage where it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Ultimate Team is hindering the evolution of sports video games. Madden admittedly has led the way here, consistently finding new and innovative ways to keep people playing and this year is no different. Even at launch there’s endless content offline and multiple modes to play online, with challenges and their rewards scaling at a satisfying rate. If you don’t spend money on microtransactions MUT doesn’t stop you from building a strong team, even if you’ll be lagging behind those that love ripping open packs – but that’s true of every Ultimate Team mode in every franchise. It’s a choice you need to make as a consumer.

And so it’s beginning to feel like we’re stuck at a crossroads. EA has three franchises it releases annually, two of which are stuck in a cycle largely dictated by the inordinate sums of money they generate (NHL did innovate with World of CHEL). Recently released figures on profits earned from Ultimate Team paint a bleak picture for the consumer. It makes economic sense to focus on the most profitable area of the business and that is reflected in this release. 

If Ultimate Team is the reason you play Madden then you’ll probably be pretty content. A large amount of focus is put into this mode and Madden particularly reflects this – you only have to look at the depth of challenges available already – and that’s without even discussing the daily content releases through the year. It’s thorough and it’s geared towards keeping you invested all year long, in the hope of also extracting cash from your wallet.

A casual fan that just wants an American football game will find plenty to get on with in MUT and enjoy elements of Face of the Franchise. But it’s hard to say to hardcore Madden fans that you’re getting much more than glorified DLC with a gameplay patch. But then again, maybe that’s all you were after. 

Whichever category you fall into there needs to be a discussion about charging £50 annually for a product that is mostly tweaks and updates. Given 28% of EA’s revenues last year came from Ultimate Team transactions, you’d assume they could absorb the hit of reducing the price of a retail copy. 

Madden NFL 20 won’t shake up the world of sports games but did EA ever plan on that? Their product is the best on the market and a cash cow, so as long as that remains the case their annual releases will follow this trend.

Madden NFL 20

In Short: The casual fan will find plenty to enjoy but diehards will see Madden 20 as just another facelift to a franchise that knows how to succeed but struggles to innovate.

Pros: Presentation is, as always, top notch. Very welcome gameplay improvements and yet another year of Ultimate Team that feels fresh and full of depth. 

Cons: Missed opportunity with Face of the Franchise, Franchise mode overlooked again, and hurry up mechanics could pose a lasting problem. 

Score: 7/10

Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Price: £59.99
Publisher: EA Sports
Developer: EA Tiburon
Release Date: 2nd August 2019
Age Rating: 3

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