Before we get into my actual review of the game, I'd like to start by noting that this is still in many ways a review in progress. While I've now spent a good amount of time with the game and feel comfortable talking about the gameplay, graphics and animations, I haven't poked through every mode.
Far from it, in fact. So no, you won't be hearing anything about Ultimate Team, for example. I can't help myself—I instantly jump into a Connected Franchise and do a fantasy draft.
Okay, with that caveat out of the way, let's start with what I haven't particularly loved about the game. For starters, the announcing is again poor and fairly bland. At one point, I was lining up to go for it on a 4th-and-goal at the 1-yard line while Jim Nantz was announcing that the kicking team had come out on the field to attempt a field goal.
Now, I know these things will happen from time to time. And as a longtime veteran of sports video games, I learned long ago how to tune out the announcers. They simply become background noise. But Madden has a long and inglorious history when it comes to these sort of announcing foibles, so I was hardly surprised when the above example happened during the very first game I played.
If you want great announcing, go play an NBA 2K game or some FIFA.
I'm not a huge fan of the new playcalling menus, either. Yes, all of the new data presented and the various options for selecting a play are nice. But the whole system is also a bit clunky and takes me more time to navigate than I'd like. Perhaps this is a function of adjusting to the new vertical layout rather than the previous horizontal, but far too often I find myself having a play chosen for me on defense because I couldn't scroll over to the play I wanted in time.
That shouldn't happen with such regularity. For players who use the enhanced menu and very strategically go through the various formations to call their play, the playcalling menu is going to frustrate at times.
And it's indicative of a larger issue at play in Madden—the organization of the game's layout is again a bit clunky. It's an aesthetic critique and doesn't affect the gameplay, sure, but you are going to spend a lot of time scrolling through all of the blocky menus.
Per the gameplay, the main gripe I have thus far is that, yes, defenders again drop too many interceptions that hit them right in the hands. It's a relief when I'm playing quarterback, sure, but incredibly frustrating on defense.
And yes, there are some glitchy animations. Too often, the whistle to signify the end of a play is delayed because a player is sliding around over top of the defender who tackled him. It's a small thing, but it provides with a bit too much consistency a reminder that you are playing a video game, ruining the immersion of the experience.
So those are the weak points that I've unearthed thus far. But I'm happy to report that they aren't enough to ruin the experience. Far from it.
The first improvement to the game deals with the passing game, from quarterbacks behaving more realistically to the secondary AI being dramatically improved. Players are no longer glued to their zones, for example, but rather watch the ball and react realistically to the pass.
I can't tell you how many times I was pleasantly surprised when a corner broke from his zone to break up a pass I thought was about to come open, or how many times linebackers realistically dropped into coverage and seemed capable of reacting to any of the possibilities happening in front of them.
Passing windows are smaller in Madden 15 and timing is more important than ever, but for fans of the NFL game, it feels far more like a nice slice of realism and a welcome challenge than it does an unbalanced and unfair tweak to the game's difficulty.
Quarterbacks who struggle with accuracy will often, you guessed it, struggle with accuracy in the game. Several times with Cam Newton I overthrew a shorter receiver on crossing routes when I tried to zip it into a window, for example. With Peyton Manning, I'm completing those passes.
Certain quarterbacks will also be far less accurate on the move, as they should be. And with an added emphasis on aiming your passes—be it leading a receiver or hitting down as you throw it to keep a receiver sitting in a passing window rather than running through it—passing has never felt as realistic as it does in this year's game.
Last year's improvement for current-gen systems—a more realistic pocket that forms on passing plays than in years past—also returns and is generally done well. So yes, if you don't recognize the blitz or decide to drop 20 yards every time you throw, you will be punished.
The running game is generally done pretty well, especially all of the read-option plays. If running those plays often confounds you—or you just want to learn about the mechanics of Madden and some general principles of football—be sure to check out the skills trainer. In fact, do that before you do anything else. It's really well done and it will educate you on everything from running the read-option to secondary coverages to route concepts.
Okay, that's the offense. What about the new tweaks to play on the defensive side of the ball?
Admittedly, I'm still adjusting to the new camera perspective and playing with a defensive lineman rushing the passer by trying to jump the snap and either use power or finesse moves to get to the quarterback, so I'm going to reserve some judgement here.
The first thing I've really noticed is that it is pretty jarring switching between players in this new setting if you don't lock into one player for the entire play. You don't quite know who you will be switching to and adjusting your angles when you are trying to go in for a tackle, for example, can be confusing.
That might also simply be the case of me adjusting to a new setting after playing defense in Madden from the offensive camera perspective since the '90s. And to this point, I've mostly played as a defensive lineman, so as I tinker with different positions, my opinion on the new mode might change.
What I like is the ambition it's shown, however. With such an emphasis placed on the improvements in defense this year, the new mode shows great promise. I'm hoping I find enough depth in the experience that it becomes an essential cog in the Madden machine going forward. The jury is still out on that, however.
Finally, to the graphics and animations. Here I should note that I've been playing on a PS4 and, man, the game looks good. The stadiums are rendered wonderfully, the player models up close are fantastic—if you play a bit zoomed-out like I do, they get a bit stringier, but that's the tiniest of gripes—and even the coaches look a little better.
I mean, they still don't look great, but it's better than the cartoonish versions of coaches from last year.
The game runs pretty darn smooth, too. The first time your offense breaks the huddle and heads to the line, you are going to be impressed.
So what's the verdict? Well, compared to last year's stale and disappointing offering, this year's game has improved in a number of key areas, has added depth and taken a chance on the defensive side of the ball and is far more polished than in years past. The first true year of the PS4 and Xbox One development cycle is evident here.
This is not a perfect game. It's still not quite on the level of the NBA 2K, FIFA and MLB the Show series in the pantheon of great sports video games. But it's a very strong offering for Madden and a game that football fans are going to enjoy more than recent iterations.
For that, it's earned my recommendation. I'll give it an 8.4 out of 10. But you don't have to take my word for it—here are a few more reviews from around the Web.
Reviewer: Alex Rubens
Score: 8.7 out of 10
Reviewer: Ray Carsillo
Score: 7.5 out of 10
Key Passage: "Madden NFL 15 is still more of a step forward for the franchise than a step back. I’m glad to see EA Tiburon is trying to do more every year than just giving the game a roster update, and they’re putting real effort into the yearly adjustments with the franchise. It’s just regrettable that some of the changes they’ve made here clearly need to go back to the Xs and Os on the drawing board."
Reviewer: Brian Mazique
Score: 8.25 out of 10
Reviewer: Matthew Kato
Score: 8 out of 10
Key Passage: "Sports games like Madden are often chided for being too iterative, but in this case I hope we're witnessing the first steps in a larger progression. Future Maddens need to support Madden 15's additions so we don't wonder why once-prominent features haven't evolved. The series can't withstand another rebuilding year or worse—an entire console generation thrown away."