Madden NFL 15 review: Getting defensive

For years, EA has presented its flag-bearing sports series as an attempt at a pixel-for-pixel simulation of professional football. It has consistently billed the latest game in the annual series as "the most authentic Madden," leaving the door open a crack for anyone outside its PR department to point out all the ways Madden is not a mirror image of the sport that dominates America's Sundays.

As the NFL continues its slide towards a future where defenders that side-eye a star receiver may very well be tagged with an illegal contact penalty (it's okay folks, it's just the preseason), Madden stopped at the fork in the road this year to do a little soul-searching. The man on Madden 15's cover, Richard Sherman, made headlines for calling out the league's mandates after his team's defense shut down a league-best offense in the Super Bowl, and he's emblematic of the game's renewed focus on defense.

Madden 15 is a big step in carving out the series' identity as a video game first and a football simulator second, driving a much-needed wedge between the game and the sport, while retaining what fans crave from both sides.
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Madden NFL 15 (8/28/2014)

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Madden NFL 15 (Moving Pictures)

The most obvious change in the game's formula is on the side of the ball that the NFL cares less about these days, defense. Whether on offense or defense, players can use the d-pad to switch to various camera angles before the snap, but those on defense have an extra angle to toy with, set at a point behind the defense from the sideline. Similar to the camera angle used in Road to Glory mode in the NCAA Football series, players don't get a full view of the entire field, but a closer look at their defender while keeping the ball in view. It's a great angle to use when rushing to the quarterback or tackling a runner, but compromising when expected to cover a tight end or receiver, so you'll want to judge your situation and position accordingly.

Having a tighter view of your defender is beneficial when using the new defensive mechanics. The pass rushing tools mapped to the right stick have been replaced with face buttons and on-screen indicators (which can be turned off) that offer a window of time to bull rush, swim or spin past a blocker. As you approach a runner, a small cone of light stretches out on the ground, turning with your defender, indicating the distance you need to close before attempting to take the runner down. Pulling the right trigger at the snap of the ball to get a jump at the line, accurately timing a bull rush move and then patiently picking my spot to lunge at a ball-carrier was fluid, and after a little practice became second nature.

Of course, a vicious pass rush means the short game is more important on offense. Human opponents with a good grip on the new blitzing mechanics will often have the upper hand at the outset, though Madden 15's new Coach Stick feature helps alleviate the pressure. With it, passers can spot advantageous matchups between their wide receivers and their respective defenders before the snap, comparing traits such as height and speed to highlight a player's better options for the upcoming play. With all the weapons and assists at your disposal, you're given the power to combat an adept defense; even a deep bomb in a one-on-one matchup is regularly caught by your speedy receivers with just a little practice.

Madden 15 brushes up a few presentation elements as well, including well-detailed player models with exceptional likenesses given to the more popular athletes. The slick half-time show package pulls highlights from the first half of matches with spliced-together voiceover descriptions. More importantly, players are more lively after the whistle, as they jump, fist-pump and celebrate after each play, both collectively and individually, all of which is animated in the game's engine to make the visual experience much more lifelike.

While presentation elements like the half-time and pre-game broadcasts aren't all truly "skippable " until you're practically half-way through the videos, they do help make up for lackluster commentary and the often robotic nature of players on the field following collisions (not to mention some occasionally strange rag-doll physics during tackles). In general, Madden 15 offers a great view of football, particularly when you stop to smell the roses a little and take in the cut-scene-style materials.

Even so, Madden 15 doesn't pretend to be a pound-for-pound duplicate of a television broadcast. It actually falls more in line with John Madden's original vision for the video game series that bears his name; he wanted it to complement the TV product and become an instructional tool that would spread his passion for the sport. In addition to a more informative playcalling system that hoards a bigger piece of screen real estate (in which you'll frequently bypass the choices you want, as the cursor is touchy and the menus move a touch slow), EA bolsters its Skills Trainer mode with a heavier focus on educating players on the basics of football strategy and tactics.

The tutorials and accompanying drills in Skills Trainer help players understand the differences between, say, Cover 3 and Cover 4 defenses while also encouraging more realistic quarterbacking behavior with passing concepts and progression training. Even as a dedicated football fan and amateur strategist, there's some enlightenment to be had in the training mode. It also encourages sound playing habits as opposed to the back-pocket, trick-play-spamming you might find with other players. Skills Trainer also features a fun, arcade-style challenge called The Gauntlet, in which players beat as many drills as possible before failing five times. The Gauntlet includes some wacky "boss battles, " like kicking a field goal from the opposite end zone in hurricane-force winds. Even if you attempt The Gauntlet just a few times, it's still a great inclusion that brings a little levity to the game.

The card-collecting Madden Ultimate Team returns, and it's been tidied up this year. EA trimmed away some of the unnecessary sorting players had to do with their digital cards in the past and opted for a simpler, easier-to-manage binder and sets system, in which players can efficiently send cards to collections from their binder menu. EA also discarded its injury items, so players that get hurt during a MUT match will only be hurt for that game. And while MUT was streamlined, Connected Franchise mode got a tad clunkier by replacing its practice sessions with Skills Trainer drills and study sessions designed to increase individual athletes' experience and confidence, respectively. The changes to player progression and improvement in the career mode work fine, but there are a lot of menus to plod through.

Finally, while Madden 15 plays splendidly most of the time, it does cope with some noticeable problems. Online matches have been pain-free so far, but I've encountered significant frame rate issues in single-player Madden Ultimate Team games, offline exhibition matches and Skills Trainer. Curiously, the game didn't drop any frames during its replays and cut-scenes, and the on-field problems were alleviated once I reset the console (I played the PS4 version for this review). This only happened to me twice, and only after the console had been on for several hours, but it's certainly worrisome to see the occasional offline game behaving like an online match with a poor Internet connection.

Even with the infrequent hiccup, unavoidable video segment or occasionally tiresome menu, Madden 15 has taken major strides in defining its place in the series. Hammering QBs after slipping past a blocker is all the more invigorating thanks to a flattering, defense-minded camera. Indicators like Coach Stick help you find an edge while the strategic parts of Skills Trainer offer some excellent guidance. The whole package comes together with the best overall presentation Madden has ever seen (save for the droning play-by-play commentary). Madden 15 may not be an "authentic " football experience, but it proves that it doesn't need to be.

This review is based on a pre-release retail copy of the PS4 version of Madden NFL 15, provided by EA. Images: EA.

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