In Madden 15, defense wins championships

It's commonly agreed that Richard Sherman is the best cornerback in the NFL. The Seattle Seahawks player was voted by fans as the star of Madden NFL 15 late last week, making him one of a few rare exceptions in a long line of offensive players like quarterbacks and running backs to grace the game's cover. He also may wind up being one of the most fitting cover stars.

Madden is typically an offensive player's game. The football sim traditionally favors bold spins and jukes or strong-armed throws over the understated defensive player's actions, and Creative Director of Gameplay Rex Dickson knows that well. In a phone conversation with Joystiq, Dickson recalled choice quotes from fans on how playing defense in Madden was previously "boring," or that players would opt to simulate their snaps on that side of the ball.

"One of the worst ones that I hate hearing is, 'I'm a detriment to my team when I play defense,'" he said. "Effectively, defense is 50 percent of the game, and while everybody loves offense and loves scoring, you can't have 50 percent of your game be boring and not fun."

Dickson and the rest of the Madden development team at EA Tiburon wants to change that, starting with Madden 15. What he frequently called an "overhaul" of the game's defensive mechanics has been in the cards for a few years: "We've actually had a plan to go after defense since I got here in Madden 13," he added.

Madden 15's changes are led by revamped controls. Prior games mapped pass-rushing skills to the right stick. Now, a lineman's power and finesse block-beating moves are fitted to the X and A buttons (for Xbox players), respectively. Players will earn a burst of speed, propelling them toward the passer as the ball is snapped with the right trigger's "jump snap" mechanic. Should they choose to wait for a ball-carrier dash to past them, they can also disengage from their blocker or reach an arm out to slow or stop the runner. Lastly, the developer opted to tie conservative and wrap-up tackles to the A button as well as diving tackles and bruising, risky hits to the X button (though it will retain the popular "hit stick" mechanic on the right joystick).

Additionally, EA Tiburon added new text and button icons to display over the circular "player ring" indicators to aid players in understanding when these moves are available and whether they were successful. "Now you have feedback systems in the game that are giving you information so that you understand what's happening, and it just makes things a lot more smooth and more effective," Dickson said.

Roaming the middle of the field with a linebacker was also an issue for players in the past. "The biggest problem we saw was that people had trouble managing spacial relationships," Dickson said, referring to players' frequent issues gauging the distance between their defender and the ball-carrier. The developer added a visual aid called "proximity cones," which projects out in front of the player as they close in on a ball-carrier, offering a better sense of how close they need to be before attempting a tackle.

Madden 15 will take a new approach to defense in its camera angles, viewing the action from that side of the ball, much like the NCAA Football series' Road to Glory mode. "It feels a lot more like you're on the field," Dickson said, painting the picture of a near-sack by a closing linebacker, shown from behind the would-be tackler, in which the camera pulls back as the ball is thrown and the player switches to a new defender to attempt an interception. The over-the-shoulder camera is undoubtedly a "totally different way to play Madden." Players on offense aren't completely left out here; the developer gave players the ability to move the camera about to five new angles before they hike the ball as well.

All of these additions would be meaningless if your teammates on defense didn't do their jobs. "Probably the biggest push this year was on completely rewriting zone and man coverage," Dickson said. In fact, the developer hosted Stevenson Sylvester and Cortez Allen from the Pittsburgh Steelers for a week to help with the game's man and zone coverage AI. "It's night and day from what it was in Madden 25 [on Xbox 360 and PS3]," Dickson added. Even with its new methods to strengthen your effectiveness on defense, Madden 15 doesn't expect you to carry your team.

Regardless, it's difficult to master any facet of Madden without having a basic understanding of football's "X's and O's." Sports games aren't normally good at being accessible for a broader audience, an issue that EA Sports' own NHL series demonstrated well. Falling in line with Coach John Madden's vision for the series, Madden 15 wants to teach newcomers and casual fans more about the sport, starting with its Skills Trainer section.

The training mode, which spans nearly 50 tutorials and drills, will include several that focus on "realistic football concepts" and strategy, not just video game skills. Curious which schemes and plays will beat a Cover 3 or Tampa 2 defensive alignment? If Skills Trainer doesn't help, the game's reimagined play selection options mid-game might, as a new crowd-sourced section compiles data from millions of online Madden bouts to offer players the most commonly used plays for a given situation. While the community play-call option regularly updates for online players, though offline-only footballers will receive data from Madden 15's closed alpha and beta phases. Players can also test their knowledge and abilities in The Gauntlet, a mode strewn with challenges and "boss battles" of sorts.

The traditional sports mantra that "defense wins championships" might be no more applicable to the Madden series than with EA's upcoming game. Ball-hawks, heat-seeking tacklers and students of the game alike will get the opportunity to put that theory to the test when Madden NFL 15 launches August 26 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

[Images: EA Sports]