The Madden series aims to be a true-to-life representation of the popular American sport, and Madden 19 is a refined step forward with advancements across the board. There are some issues hanging over from past games, and the Franchise updates are not as big and exciting as you might expect, but Madden 19, with its capable Frostbite engine and its compelling Longshot story mode, remains the best, most complete Madden game to date.
On the field, Madden's gameplay has never looked or handled better, and this is due in part to a new system EA calls Real Player Motion. One of the biggest pieces of this is the new "one-cut" feature for ball-carriers that allows them to change direction quickly and with a burst of speed to get around a defender. An appropriately timed cut, coupled with an acceleration boost, lets you make tight, fast, and precise turns that help you get through the line or to the edge when making runs. You can also perform hesitation moves that can make a big difference in those crucial moments when you see an opening or a gap, and it's thrilling to successfully execute a run, even if it's only for marginal yardage. Establishing the run game can be critical, and it's nice to see Madden 19 make running responsive, fun, and representative of what you see in real NFL games.
To balance out the new tactics for ball-carriers, Madden 19 adds a new strafe burst mechanic for defense. If timed appropriately, this can help you get into position faster than normal and improve your chances of stopping a big run. EA has always strived to give players more control and better responsiveness on the field, and the advancements this year are nice, even if they are only granular in nature. And in a further step towards emulating actual NFL games, Madden 19 lets you choose a custom celebration after a touchdown or a big defensive play with individual and team-based celebrations. Whether you're performing a simple spike on your own or doing the spoon-to-mouth dance with your team, it gives Madden a more authentic feel.
This is the second year of Madden using EA's Frostbite engine, and it has indeed made strides to make the game look better. Character models are now more lifelike, while small things like player sweat (yes, really), the way bodies crunch and recoil after big hits, sunspots pouring onto the field at dusk, and weather elements like rain and snow get even closer to replicating an actual NFL broadcast. While the graphics looks better, the physics can still be really weird at times. I saw things like arms bending in ways they absolutely should not, mid-air collisions causing the ball to launch through the air at an angle and speed that makes no physical sense, and balls that disappear into the ground for no reason. Crowd animations can also be odd at times. The Madden franchise has always been replete with bugs and weirdness, and I tend to agree that this is part of the charm; none of the issues I encountered were enough to completely break the immersion. Also new in the presentation department are the menus, which now look sleeker and are less cluttered.
Madden 19's commentating is a big bright spot. The play-by-play/color duo of Brandon Gaudin and Charles Davis return, and they have an excellent rapport. Their banter succeeds thanks to their football acumen, as well as their willingness and ability to emulate real NFL broadcast booths and shoot the breeze on topics like stadium food and Seinfeld references. While Gaudin and Davis turn in excellent performances, the Texas high school commentators from Longshot mode really steal the show with their over-the-top, homer play-by-play calls that left me laughing and wanting more. Another commentating update this year is former ESPN anchor Jonathan Coachman as the pre-game/halftime host; he replaces Larry Ridley. Coachman is enthusiastic and fun to listen to, but most Madden players are likely to skip these segments. Madden 19's commentary will be updated on a regular basis with new dialogue lines that reflect what happens in the real NFL once the season kicks off later this month, though it remains to be seen if the commentators will tackle controversial subjects.
One of the deepest modes in Madden 19 is Franchise. Last year's game was frustratingly light on advancements and improvements, but the new Madden thankfully adds more to the mix to give you a different kind of control over shaping your franchise--and the individual players on your team. One of the more notable new features is what's called the Archetype Progression system which adds different styles to positions and lets you continue to build and expand your players over the course of one or multiple seasons. The XP you earn in games gives you skill points that you can then spend to upgrade one of the archetypes for your player instead of assigning them to specific attributes. This can feel frustrating as it effectively limits the amount of fine control you have to shape your players as specifically as you were able to previously. This might have been done to help balance teams in online play, but whatever the case, it's a bit of a bummer to have that kind of precise control taken away.
Madden 19's new custom draft class creator for Franchise is another welcome addition. At launch, you'll be able to download draft classes made by the community, so you can expect some dedicated player to create the latest real-world NFL mock drafts in real time.
Another way to play Madden is through the card-based Madden Ultimate Team mode, which remains Madden's deepest pursuit--and it's stocked with things to do this year. In addition to the standard challenges, of which there are more than 100, there are Solo Battles where you can go up against other fan-created MUT squads in weekly tournaments, while there will also be a playlist for MUT squads made by EA Sports developers, NFL players, and celebrities. It's a thrill to take on a different squad each playthrough in Solo Battles, and I can see myself returning again and again to this mode to see how my team stacks up. Already a deep and robust mode, MUT adds the brand-new MUT Squads Challenges, where you and two others take on the CPU in a series of football challenges. Provided your teammates know what they're doing this is a mode that delivers yet another compelling reason to play MUT online and keep coming back. Yet another online mode, MUT Champions, goes live on August 13.
MUT still pushes you towards microtransactions, and that may be a concern for some. But it remains as exciting and satisfying as ever to put together a fantasy team where Tom Brady can throw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice.
Returning from Madden 18 is the Longshot mode, which was arguably the biggest, most impressive, and fleshed out new feature that the franchise had ever seen. It wasn't perfect, and neither is this year's version, Longshot: Homecoming. The story picks up with Devin Wade having a tough time in the Dallas Cowboys training camp, with Colt Cruise struggling through life in Mathis and getting blindsided by a major life event that puts his entire life and career into question. The voice acting and performances of all the major characters, Wade in particular, are solid. EA also recruited celebrities like frequent Adam Sandler collaborator Rob Schneider, Ron Cephas Jones (This Is Us), Jimmy Tatro (American Vandal), and Joey King (The Kissing Booth) for the mode, and they turn in memorable performances.
Homecoming's story is one of pain and struggle, loss and redemption, and how football really doesn't matter when compared to issues at home and in life. Homecoming, like Longshot before it, has bold ambitions in terms of the story it tells and the feelings it wants to evoke, but it doesn't always work. At one point early in the story, Cruise remarks to a character about "some of the most cliched stuff I've ever seen," and this could also apply to Homecoming's story. At times, it can be uneven and inconsistent in its tone, coming across as very hokey and ham-handed.
And in what is a surprising move, EA (almost) completely dropped the Telltale-style dialogue options from the first iteration. It was fun to make choices and steer the conversation in the original Longshot, even if the story never really branched, so it's a real shame that EA moved away from this in favour of a more traditionally structured story. That being said, the narrative will pull you through and, at just about four hours in length, you may finish it in one sitting. Unfortunately, I experienced a significant difficulty spike at the end of Devin's story where he goes up against a much better team and has to make all the right plays to get the win. A lack of variety in this sequence and the upswing in difficulty made what should have been a climactic conclusion a boring and frustrating affair. Those issues aside, I had a fun time playing through Devin and Colt's story, which reached a satisfying and heart-warming end.
Madden 19 is an excellent football game that improves on last year's entry in almost every way. There are problems, but there has never been a football game that more authentically represents the NFL than this in terms of presentation, controls, and depth.