This year's annual offering from EA Sports doesn't just boast Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes on the cover, as if signaling big things. It's the second release on next-generation platforms, which creates an air of expectation that the series will finally make a big leap.
Oh, and upgrades to franchise mode after fan-led movements to see improvement.
Upgrades there, plus important tweaks to presentation and gameplay that create a sense of variety, hint at a much better offering. But even the best-laid rosters and plays require proper execution on the field.
At first glance, Madden doesn't look much different on the field.
And that's not such a bad thing. Within the confines of the Frostbite engine, EA Sports has annually produced a gameplay experience resembling the real thing that works well for both casual and hardcore players.
It's when picking up the controller (and having played the last few iterations) that some of the changes really start show.
There is an improved real-life feel to lots of small things. Toe-drags on the sidelines are better and so is a defender's ability to turn his head and locate the ball before making a play on it. Run-blocking, while not perfect, is improved and pockets around a quarterback seem to form deeper and faster.
Maybe the most notable are the shakeups to catching and tackling. Things feel more natural when the ball is in the air this time out, and it's easier than usual to properly time when to hit a button. Like with catching the ball, tackling as a whole is less reliant on pre-determined animations and more likely to lean into things that matter such as player size and momentum.
It's far from perfect, and the odd that guy's hand just went through my player's head to swat away a pass pops up sometimes, especially when taking the time to watch a slow-motion replay. But while things can feel sluggish because the Frostbite engine remains, gameplay has been upgraded.
This is helped by the addition of Gameday Atmosphere, which throws in bonuses for home teams based on the circumstances of the team and stadium. It's a fun experience that adds some variety.
One of the most important features of all is Gameday Momentum. A persistent bar that can swing in either direction based on the current matchup (with a bonus factor favoring home teams) can play a big role in games. Visiting teams, for example, could have an audible fail.
On an individual level, star players continue to differentiate themselves from the rest. Not because of some souped-up extra trait tacked onto their skill set, but because of the advanced metrics working behind the scenes to better dictate the speed of player cuts or breaks. EA Sports has said momentum based on player size and power is a bigger factor in how collisions play out this year, and that's also at work.
Playing against the computer, something like Star-Driven A.I. might just seem like a smooth marketing term for A.I. upgrades. But it will feel very different to play against a pass-heavy team compared to say, the Derrick Henry-led Tennessee Titans. The A.I. tweaks that dictate how each team behaves gives personality to each.
While the features themselves don't feel overtly new, they boost the on-field action and help make one game feel different from the next.
Graphics and Presentation
Madden 22 is quite the looker.
The game is a presentation treat with the way it has nailed down a broadcast-style experience, both in and around faithfully recreated stadiums.
Creative camera angles, and even cameras that follow quarterbacks out of the tunnel to the sideline make for an engrossing view, especially when flanked by chatter from players and announcers that feel a little more natural than in past years. The broadcast-style feel gets a bump with the halftime updates provided by Jonathan Coachman.
Madden has used face scans of important players. Zach Wilson, second overall pick by the New York Jets, for example, looks dead-on and could fool an onlooker who didn't know any better.
In Face of the Franchise, something immersive like a podcast hosted by Rich Eisen starting to play while scrolling the menus is a big plus. And the continued rollout of next-gen stats (such as showing air yards on a pass during a highlight) keep things more modern and immersive.
However, Madden isn't without its hiccups. There were times, especially during the College Football Playoff in Face of the Franchise, that the names on the back of jerseys wouldn't match up with what the announcer called. The field goal nets shift through solid objects and minor details that hardcore fans will notice (like Tua Tagovailoa throwing with his right hand in warmups) stick out and crush the immersion and broadcast feel.
Thematically speaking, Madden still tries a little too hard to be hip, including asking a player to pick a celebration after every single play. The soundtrack is an iffy offering too (though we're finally free of that throw it in rotation song from last year).
Still, even a short bit of time with this year's game reveals extensive improvements in areas like player collision, even on the sidelines as players dart out of bounds.
Face of the Franchise, Ultimate Team and More
Face of the Franchise tackles the one big thing that has made the NFL a year-round juggernaut—the draft journey.
This year's single-player campaign feels like a solid upgrade in terms of presentation, but it's a little one-note and cheesy at times.
Players create their potential future Hall of Famer, select from a handful of positions and classes and then roll through a story that starts with the prospect training for the NFL draft. In a fun narrative twist, flashbacks serve to flesh out the story of the prospect's collegiate experience, albeit briefly.
The classes are where things get a little more interesting this year. There are three for quarterbacks, for example, with one being a pocket commander, another being a sort of escape artist and another just being a straight-up speedster.
The mode is a good story, but it does miss the mark at points and is quite brief. There's effort, for example, to showcase a playable cutscene with a dialogue option when receiving a skill bonus for extra work performed by the player. But the scene isn't voiced and the NPCs mouths just jaw all over the place awkwardly. It's nice what would have otherwise just been a menu interaction gets an upgrade, but the drawback is notable.
Madden's single-player campaign has previously trotted out memorable fictional characters and scenarios amid seemingly a much bigger production budget. This year's brief offering has other problems, from non-synced dialogue to tired character models in cutscenes and the fact it mostly feels like another franchise mode after the player gets drafted. Compared to story modes in certain baseball and basketball offerings, it's a bit of a letdown.
That said, it's worth a quick once-through and nice that the progress made there with a player's avatar carries over to The Yard.
There, players can take an avatar through a four-part campaign complete with ever-changing rules, goals and bosses that players can end up recruiting. Besides the recruits, apparel and other items are up for grabs as rewards.
As a whole, fleshing out an Avatar over a pair of game modes is fun. There is enough in the way of classes and traits to earn that it has a slight RPG feel to it, even if there are only so many positions actually available. The Yard itself doesn't feel too different, but there's room for players to enjoy leveling the avatar up and taking it online.
Franchise mode itself has seen some big tweaks for the first time in years.
A staff page lets players customize a handful of coordinators under the head coach, complete with RPG-like skill trees. It feels like something out of EA Sports' NHL game, which is a positive.
Players can also dictate how intense practices are in a given week but must take into account the health risks that come with it. Game-planning is different on a week-to-week basis thanks to the characteristics of the upcoming opponent.
Positives aside, those who want features like scouting will have to wait until the game gets an update at a later date. And while updates are great, they mean players will have to start franchise mode over to have them applied to a new save.
Some of the more glaring issues remain. Trades and free agency are similar, which still doesn't allow customized deals midseason. The cool podcast experience found in Face of the Franchise isn't present when it would be perfect, and the cinematic shots of coaches in their respective offices still has visual bugs.
While the touted upgrades to franchise mode don't classify as amazing, the fact something like scouting is still on the way says EA Sports knows this. Something is better than nothing for a mode that has been ignored for such a long time. It's not nearly as in-depth as some of the franchise modes in the series from long ago, but it's a start—and it appears to have come at the expense of its big money-maker.
Ultimate Team has a nice onboarding process in the form of tutorials to help new players along, but navigating the menus remains clunky. There is again an overwhelming number of options, with the avalanche of added cards only just beginning to rumble and give off the feeling of being left behind if you're not there from the beginning.
That's not to say the mode isn't fun. Past innovations like letting players be free to earn their team however they want remain, as does the de-emphasis on encouraging players to spend real cash. The hard work to improve Ultimate Team further has to restart again with the next installment in the series.
One detail to keep in mind is the archaic depth charts with outdated positions. Madden took a good step this year in doing things like implementing advanced metrics, but it's still disappointing to see no true edge designation and players out of position on new teams in modes like franchise (long snappers are still tight ends, too).
Madden has worked hard to make star players stick out more than ever in realistic ways, not overpowered ones. Each team feels somewhat different. No two weeks of franchise are the same, as are no two stadium atmospheres. That matches up nicely with the game's cover, given the stark differences in how Mahomes and Brady go about playing the quarterback position.
Madden NFL 22 is the best recent game in the series, though the bar to clear wasn't especially high. It's disappointing to not see a bigger leap across the board with the game running on next-generation consoles. Call it an Andy Dalton effect—it can get the job done, but it's hard not to wonder if EA Sports could be more ambitious.
Still, it's nice to see that Madden has listened to fans and started to address problematic areas like franchise mode. It's a full-blown rebuild that needs several consecutive years of good drafting (ahem, feature additions) to work, but something is better than nothing.
Equipped with strong presentation, improving gameplay and tweaks that made things feel different on a game-to-game basis, Madden NFL 22 is a perfect entry point for new players. Longtime players might understandably wait to see if the attention given to franchise mode continues.
As it stands, Madden offers a wide spectrum of experiences, from simulation right on to arcade and does it all to a high standard. The foundation for a much bigger leap while utilizing strong hardware remains intact for another year.