Since it isn't every day that a game franchise marks its silver anniversary, you expect something sublime from Madden NFL 25. This may be the most respected series in all of gaming, with a pedigree that goes back to before Ronald Reagan left the White House, so it isn't unreasonable to expect the developers at EA Tiburon to do things up right this year with something really special. They haven't. Despite the name, you get the same old story with the traditional roster update, a few tweaks to the graphics engine, new control schemes to rev you up, and a teensy bit of feature creep. Instead of closing out the current generation of consoles with a big bash, this year's Madden just plays out the string.
Not much distinguishes Madden NFL 25 from last year's Madden 13. The game has been refined overall, but not in enough ways to make a measurable impact on how it plays on the gridiron. With that said, the core of the game remains Sunday afternoon in a box. This is a remarkably full-featured NFL simulation where you can play, coach, and manage in just about every way possible through a range of single-player and multiplayer modes. If you have ever fantasized about what you could do with your favorite NFL team, player, or owner, chances are very good that you will be able to do it here. And if you can't do it here right out of the box, you can peruse the files available in the new Madden Share online feature, since it allows easy access to rosters and tweak files uploaded by fellow players that adjust the game in a variety of ways. Of course, the exact same comments about everything save the new sharing option could have been made about virtually every Madden game released in the last decade.
The one big feature addition is being able to play in the Connected Franchise mode as an owner. This completes the trifecta; you can now take on franchise play as a player (a made-up rookie, an existing NFLer, or a rookie version of a legend like Joe Montana or Sammy Baugh), a coach (fictional, one of the real guys wearing a headset on the sidelines this fall, or a legend such as Tom Landry or Madden himself), or an owner (also fictional or a real-life tycoon like Jerry Jones or Robert Kraft). There isn't enough difference between these options, however. You're stuck doing too many of the same things for any of them to stand out. It's strange, for example, that you need to run practice challenges to earn XP when playing as an owner. It's rather unlikely that Jim Irsay takes time away from his luxurious office in Indianapolis to head down to the practice dome and run scrimmages.
You would expect the owner mode to function like a sports management sim, but it really works as a traditional franchise option with a couple of actions grafted on, such as answering the odd media question, setting the price on merchandise like autographed footballs and stadium snow cones, and even deciding to leave town (here come the Rams, Toronto). There just isn't enough depth here. At least the developers have added back in franchise features like draft class imports from NCAA 14 and full offline 32-team control. And they have bolstered the long-term appeal of the collectible-card, multiplayer-focused Madden Ultimate Team mode, with player chemistry affecting team performance, and head-to-head season play. Madden Ultimate Team isn't for everyone given its odd complexity and focus on collecting player cards to field top lineups, but it now almost rivals more traditional franchise play with these added features.
The presentation has been spruced up in some ways. The Infinity engine first introduced last year has been smoothed out with more natural-flowing animations, so the weird broken-back tackles and impossible contortions are now (mostly) a thing of the past. Canned animations have been all but removed from the field during the action, so you never see the same play twice. This adds more realism to everything from pitchouts to Hail Marys, and at times you can get carried away with the illusion that this is real football. Get into a big drive, balance smart running plays with a dynamic passing attack, and you soon start feeling like a real field general who can do just about anything on any given Sunday.
But Madden still lags behind sister EA Sports series like NHL and FIFA when it comes to visual and audio impact. The interface is awkward and slow. It takes too many button presses to reach many frequently accessed functions, and the game pauses with fairly lengthy loads whenever you move from one menu window to another. There isn't much glitz or attention to fine detail, either. Players and coaches often look nothing like their real-life counterparts. Stadiums are sterile and lifeless, with static graphics, jaggy architecture, and generic jack-in-the-box fans who look like cardboard cutouts mounted on springs.
Further contributing to the visual inconsistencies are animations that are repeated over and over again, like the trainer squirting water into a player's mouth as he comes off the field when a time-out is called. Touchdown celebrations are constantly reused, too. There is also an overall softness to everything after snaps. It's as if the game is just slightly out of focus as you're playing, which is frustrating since the zoomed-in replays shown between plays are typically sharp and gorgeous.
The music is very dated and primitive sounding for an EA Sports game. All you hear are old stadium tracks like the Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow" and Joe Satriani's "Crowd Chant," along with the odd bit of classic rock like AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" and Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle." The booth duo of Jim Nantz and Phil Simms is atrocious. They offer nothing but inanities, generic observations about the "offense" and the "defense" that rarely refer to players by name, and loads of those obnoxious "I'll tell you what" tics that make Simms so insufferable. Neither of them is watching the game that you're playing. They constantly contradict one another and make mistakes like saying how strong the pass protection has been today just after a QB has been sacked for the fourth time.
Madden 25's gameplay is also focused more on the SportsCenter stuff than what really happens in the NFL trenches. Passing remains too easy. Even the top defensive lines in the game can't mount much of a rush, giving you ages to get the ball to your receivers. Artificial intelligence is spotty when it comes to pass coverage, too. Both zone and man defenses give receivers way too much of a cushion. Crossing routes seem almost unstoppable, with every computer-controlled team weak over the middle when it comes to picking up receivers. As a result of all this, you can frequently finish games with completion percentages well into the 70s.
Admittedly, pass-focused games are pretty exciting. Get into a gunslinging frame of mind, and you can turn any QB in the game into Drew Brees. The sheer fun of being able to pump the ball into impossible spots is such a blast that you don't care how little the game resembles real NFL football on these occasions. Still, even though you can have a lot of fun in spots, the long-term appeal is tenuous. The more you play, the more it seems like you're taking advantage of exploits, not stepping into the cleats of a legendary quarterback.
The only thing that really limits you is an absurd number of receiver drops and virtually no penalties being called on the default slider settings governing when flags are thrown. To compensate for the weak coverage, there are extra moments when the ball just slips through fingers, and defensive backs and safeties frequently get away with incidental contact. So you'll see a good seven or eight drops in each and every game on what would be clean completions in the real NFL, and lots of moments where receivers get bumped before the ball arrives or are even abused with hits like horse-collar tackles that knock the ball out of the receiver's hands. Even the best receivers in the league make mistakes, of course, and refs have their issues, but there are way too many cases of butterfingers and blindness here.
New controls are one plus in Madden NFL 25. The run free mechanic enhances the running game with what's being called precision modifiers. This is really just a fancy name for the special jukes, spins, dives, stiff arms, trucks, and more that are pulled off by holding down the left trigger/L2 button and then hitting the button that controls the standard versions of these maneuvers. The result is applying more force or finesse to the traditional motions, so you can really wallop a defender with a truck or spin. You can even string moves together into combos, allowing you to practically dance around the field. Run free seems kind of gimmicky at first, but it's a useful addition to the arsenal that lets you turn three-yard runs into five-yard runs on a regular basis and occasionally turn an impressive 10-yard gainer into a sprint for six. It's complicated at first, although at least you can work on your moves with the new skills trainer feature. There, you head to the practice facility to run tutorials and drills that hammer home the how, why, and when of the new control rhythm.
Defensive controls have been enhanced as well. You can now lock on to enemy ball carriers with the heat-seeker tackling mechanic. Just hold down the hit stick when in range of an opponent with the ball to square up on him. This can be a real help in the open field, especially when the camera angle is off-line just enough to throw off your tackling efforts. Still, it's not all that necessary in most occasions, especially if you're already a pretty adept tackler. You also can't line up huge hits with heat-seeker; it's more about wrapping up the opposition than leveling them. So tackling with other methods remains the most satisfying way to play defense here.
It's a shame that EA Sports decided to make such a big deal out of the Madden anniversary this year. Putting that big "25" on the box cover ramps up expectations and may well make a standard baby-steps Madden sequel seem more disappointing. The heart of how the game plays on the field has been transplanted from its predecessor, making this a small shuffle forward that settles for subtle enhancements while leaving a lot of long-standing flaws intact for another year. This just isn't a fitting way to celebrate a milestone in the long life of one of the biggest and best franchises in gaming history.