Sports video games have advanced to a place where annual upgrades are often difficult to identify. At the height of the genre in the mid-2000s, the games were marketed with their flashy new features and dramatic graphical improvements.
Now graphics are so good that visual enhancements can go unnoticed. Gameplay engines are so refined that improvements seemingly are limited to addressing exploits from the previous year. The games are so content-rich that incremental additions are made to what’s already in place rather than innovative features.
With that in mind, “Madden NFL 19” does not feel dramatically different than “Madden NFL 18” or “Madden NFL 17.” But some subtle additions enhance the gameplay experience, and the new game looks phenomenal, particularly on upgraded hardware capable of 4K and HDR (Xbox One X, PS4 Pro, PC). Franchise Mode also feels like it finally received some long-overdue care.
EA Sports this year is debuting a new animation technology known as Real Player Motion (RPM) in its entire suite of sports games. RPM delivers on increased responsiveness and generates a more authentic look to player movement. Overall, there are better natural movements from players both pre-play and during the play. Post-play interactions and movement, however, still frequently looks awkward.
RPM provides some dynamic moments with that improved control. Athletic players are especially dangerous in the open field with jukes and spins, and powerful ballcarriers are more effective in traffic after making a single cut. Runners also respond better to their blockers, including letting them guide them through a hole with a hand on their back.
What does not seem to have carried over is a sense of momentum and weight. There’s a lack of driving or falling forward for ballcarriers. Sometimes, power backs with full heads of steam are met head-on by cornerbacks who stand them straight up and take them down with ease. The Truck Stick is especially ineffective. Whether that’s a side effect of RPM is unclear.
The biggest gameplay issue otherwise is a lack of sideline awareness. Even cover athlete Antonio Brown often fails to get his feet down when attempting to make a catch near the sideline at full speed. Runners and receivers can also have their momentum push them out of bounds prematurely.
Another sloppy area is defenders failing to touch down ballcarriers who are already on the ground. Instead of reaching or jumping on them, the defenders just run by and, apparently in the process, brush against their body.
On the plus side, the CPU is a more challenging opponent. Ratings and schemes seem to have bigger roles, and it’s necessary to approach each matchup with a game plan based on team styles and personnel. Running against the Dolphins with the Titans, for example, might seem easy. Running against the Rams with the Seahawks will seem futile. Facing an excellent QB is a much different task than a low-rated one that will struggle with accuracy. And don’t bother trying to throw the ball around on the Jaguars. While the CPU is somewhat inconsistent with its own running game and will make a few boneheaded interceptions, overall it’s competent.
Several depth chart positions have been added, including slot wide receiver, power running back, slot corner and rush defensive tackle. This represents a tremendous development for the game. It reduces the need to make situational substitutions manually.
Never a true area of strength for the “Madden” series, the presentation made some advances this year, but still lags behind that of several other sports video games. There are some new broadcast graphics to go along with updated pregame and halftime shows, now hosted by Jonathan Coachman.
Commentary is one area in which “Madden” has taken big steps forward in recent years after bringing in Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis. Updating the commentary weekly with references to both real NFL news and extra lines for Franchise Mode has paid dividends. This year, the commentary attempts to make more callbacks to events and discussions from earlier in the games while also tying in news and statistics from around the Franchise.
While it does a solid job in that regard, the commentary, unfortunately, still is not able to adjust to the unexpected.
In one Franchise game playing as the Titans, Marcus Mariota was knocked out on the first drive of the game with an injury. Sixth-round draft pick Luke Falk took over. Not only did the commentary fail to acknowledge the injury or say anything about Falk, but it did not even mention anything generic about the difficulty for a rookie or how the team would have to adjust. Then, at halftime, Coachman said Mariota had a strong first half. Mariota could be seen on the sidelines and running onto the field at times, too.
Replays remain atrocious, often shown from poor angles or zoomed in too far. Injuries that occur away from the ball leave the player wondering what player got hurt, as no notification is given until a few plays later. Reviews are also troubled, with questionable outcomes not always being viewed automatically by the booth on turnovers or scoring plays.
The presentation does ramp up its relevancy in Franchise Mode. The score ticker and new halftime presentation, which checks on scores and stats from games around the league, make the most impact.
Franchise Mode fundamentally is the same as it has been for six years now, but some additions in “Madden NFL 19” have revitalized it.
One of the best changes is in the way player progression is handled. The XP earned is no longer spent on individual ratings categories, which was tedious and boring because, generally, there would only be a few attributes worth upgrading for each position. The difference rarely was noticeable afterward.
Now it’s based on Skill Points. When one is earned, it represents a full Overall rating point. The decision is presented to put that point toward a bucket of attributes that are based on positional archetypes. For example, improving an RB as a power back might mean boosts in strength and stiff arm, while a receiving back might get boosts in agility and catching. It’s a smart way to streamline the process and make the results of the upgrades more evident.
Also introduced this year are Scheme Fits. A player who fits within the scheme of a given team will receive bonus XP points. The schemes can be changed at any time, and based on progression, the players can see their styles change to fit different systems. It’s easy to identify what players are scheme fits, which helps for free agent, trade and draft targets.
For some, the biggest new feature will be the Draft Class Creator. Not only can custom draft classes be made, but they’re shareable and easy for others to download. The process involves reaching Week 3 of the regular season when draft classes are generated (or downloaded), and then they can be edited from within the Scouting area. There’s a lot of potential for creativity with the Draft Class Creator, and it’ll be fun to see the projects that come about in the weeks and months ahead.
Having simulated a handful of seasons, the player stats appear on point with the real NFL. Almost every category came close to mirroring the final numbers from the 2017 season, at least in terms of league leaders and those near the top. Injuries might need some tweaking, as most teams only had a couple players on the injury report at any given time, and they tended to be long-term injuries rather than the day-to-day or shorter-term injuries.
The number of tie games appears to be much higher than it should be. In my first season sim, five regular-season games ended in ties. The score ticker also seems to have trouble with records that include ties, making it look as though those teams have played one fewer game than they actually have.
Last year’s game introduced the first story mode to the series. “Longshot” provided some much-needed drama in an accessible form. It offered a compelling story, included strong performances and even acted as a teaching tool for those inexperienced with “Madden” and unfamiliar with general football concepts.
The follow-up, “Longshot: Homecoming,” comes up short in every measurable way.
It feels as though “Homecoming” was rushed. The first “Longshot” was a multiyear project going into “Madden 18,” and the turnaround this year — even with the advantage of having the infrastructure in place — might not have allowed it to be fleshed out as well.
Gone are the dialogue interactions that shaped the characters and the way the story progressed. Gone are many of the instructional, tutorial-like elements that assisted those new to the game in learning different techniques and strategies. Gone is some of the accuracy on the football side of things — for example, the process of signings to and from practice squads is represented inaccurately. It’s also missing the powerful, grounded performance from Rus Blackwell as coach Jack Ford that made him the standout of the original season.
Last year’s story followed main characters Devin Wade and Colt Cruise as they pursued their dreams of being drafted. In “Homecoming,” the two essentially have gone their own ways and have their own storylines to navigate. Wade is fighting for a roster spot in the NFL, while Cruise finds himself conflicted over his pursuit of catching on with an NFL team and becoming the coach of his high school team.
Unfortunately, the majority of the time is spent with Cruise, and it’s the weaker of the two storylines. One of the biggest complaints last year was that “Longshot” never actually involved playing in the NFL, and, again, most of the story is focused on high school this year. I wanted to tune out nearly every time the story switched from Wade’s side over to Cruise’s side.
It’s possible there is not a compelling story to be told through a player’s day-to-day life in an NFL season, but what hurts is that the writing falls into traps of cliches and hard-to-believe character actions. Why is this girl so upset that the half-brother she didn’t even know existed a few days before might have to move to join an NFL team? There really are two different coaches with health problems as plot points?
The events on the field — to the credit of “Homecoming,” there’s more time practicing and playing in games — also don’t impact the story in any noticeable way. In fact, when tasks are failed, they’re simply replayed until successful. The player is simply a passenger in “Homecoming” rather than an engaged driver picking up valuable skills along the way while influencing the events and ultimate outcome.
Upon the conclusion of “Homecoming,” the options are to continue the story in Franchise Mode or move into Ultimate Team and receive a number of cards based on the characters from “Homecoming,” including a decently rated Brown. It’s a strong way to give a boost to an Ultimate Team before any grinding with solos or spending money on packs.
WATCH: ‘Madden NFL 19’ trailer
The disparity between “Madden” and other major sports video game franchises in terms of different ways to play is evident in the home screen. “Madden” includes only four main tiles from which to choose: Exhibition, Franchise, Longshot and Ultimate Team. Thankfully, Franchise has improved, and Ultimate Team continues to expand. But Longshot lasts only a few hours, and Exhibition is just for throwaway games.
The value in this game will be found with Franchise and Ultimate Team, and the latter does feature a couple new unique ways to play. The first involves MUT Squads, an online co-op 3 vs. 3 mode that debuted last year and was well-received. This time around, it is also playable against the CPU.
The other is Solo Battles, which brings a competitive element to playing against the CPU in Ultimate Team. Those are nice additions for players who invest considerable time (and potentially money) in Ultimate Team, but they won’t matter to those who have no interest in venturing into the card-collecting mode.
“Madden NFL 19” feels like an adequate edition in the series, but not a special one. Additions to Franchise Mode and the RPM animation system have proven worthwhile, but the second year of the story mode comes up short of expectations.
The changes this year might not be exciting on the surface, but the longevity of the game could benefit greatly from what they provide — more strategy in building teams and more control of players on the field.
“Madden NFL 19” will be available on Aug. 7 for the special edition and Aug. 10 for the standard edition. It is playable now with a subscription to EA Access on Xbox One or Origin Access on PC. A digital code for the game on Xbox One was provided by publisher Electronic Arts for the purposes of review.
Bryan Wiedey posts sports gaming news and analysis daily at Pastapadre.com, is co-founder of the sports gaming site HitThePass.com, hosts the “Press Row Podcast” and can be reached on Twitter @Pastapadre.