Madden NFL 19, the latest edition of EA Sports’ popular football franchise, is here and after spending around 30 hours in the game, I’m ready to make a judgment on its quality. Each year, the big question is always one of value: are there enough improvements to justify another $60 purchase right out the gate?
For the first time in a long time, I think so.
I’m going to go over everything you need to know about the latest football game. For the purposes of this review, I have played only on PC, and can only attest to the performance of that version, though it sounds like the game features similar technical improvements on console versions.
Since EA Sports attempted to remove canned animations in favor of a more realistic physics model with its Frostbite engine, there have been a few stumbling blocks — literally. Players get stuck on one another before, during, and after plays, but it happens less than it did a year ago.
What works: The “real player motion” promised in the game really does feel great after taking some time getting used to it. It’s still not a perfect simulation of football, but what I initially perceived as a more difficult game was actually a better-defined set of rules around its gameplay that is the most rewarding and true-to-life the franchise has ever offered. EA Sports has propped up nothing-features with fancy names in the past (remember vision cones?), but there’s a lot more meat on the bone with this one.
There are still many animations that you will see over and over, but the collision and responsiveness feels better than ever. During my time playing the game, I have experienced the occasional glitch when running the ball too close to my own teammates, and there are still troubling bugs with specific plays (such as the infamous fake FB handoff to HB toss, where the quarterback starts the animation, then stops and stands there waiting to be sacked). But they seem to happen a lot less than they did in Madden NFL 18.
Changes to gameplay include a heavier focus on finding the hole as a running back, with indicators letting you know if you did it well or not, and a larger focus on individual 1-on-1 interactions.
As a run defender, you can now press either bumper while engaged with a blocker to reach in a direction to make a tackle without fully shedding said blocker. As a receiver, there is a big focus on moves directly before and after catching the football, with the “real player motion” really shining in these interactions. Good players have better control and awareness of their own body, in particular when making sideline catches on either side of the ball. It works a lot more often than it doesn’t.
Essentially everything else the feel — hitting the gap, spinning around defenders, making interceptions, and having immediate, fluid control over the defender after the fact — is top notch.
What still needs work: Other gameplay-related changes include the ability to influence what kind of celebrations your team has after scoring a touchdown or making a big defensive play. This allows for individual “signature” celebrations as well as team-wide celebrations. The latter brings up an EA Sports transition screen to hide the loading of all the players in the right spots to do those celebrations — but it’s blatantly obvious that’s what it’s doing.
The celebrations were fun and interesting for about two games I played, and now I don’t bother. It’s an area that should be a focus for improving in future games.
This year’s game comes with the usual modes of Franchise and Ultimate Team, with notable improvements for both. The expected online play modes are also available, and I managed to play a handful of lag-free games without issues.
Franchise now allows for a much more streamlined experience in downloading and importing custom draft classes into your franchise for future years. Many people JUST play Franchise Mode, and this is a crucial quality-of-life feature that helps with immersion.
Also, the way you upgrade players in the mode has changed.
Rather than dumping a whole bunch of XP on you, players gradually earn skill points that you then apply to traits that define the type of player you want. You can spend one point to upgrade, say, Richard Sherman’s man-to-man skills, which results in small increases to stats like awareness, man-to-man finesse, and press coverage.
Ultimate Team isn’t a mode I particularly enjoy, but it is getting bigger and better. Unfortunately, that’s also where the extra monetization of the game comes in play: They want you to buy points to spend on upgrading player cards in the mode, though they have revamped the system to try to make it friendlier to casual players and less of a grind.
You can also earn these points by selling unwanted player cards and through training gameplay, but those unwilling to spend money will be in for a longer grind to make the team they want. Fortunately, the mode also introduced solo challenge tournaments against teams created by developers, athletes, and other celebrities, so it’s something I may be spending some more time with. Fans of the mode should enjoy the additions and improvements.
Finally, there’s the Longshot: Homecoming story mode, a follow-up to the Longshot story mode introduced in last year’s game. It wasn’t a perfect mode last year, but for the first proper story mode in a Madden game, it was actually well done and engaging throughout, with perhaps a bit too many cliches and a lacking ending.
This year, Colt Cruise and Devin Wade return, now in the NFL, and all of the cliches remain. It’s a step down from last year’s in all but presentation. It does, however, include more actual gameplay throughout its three or so hours — a lack of which was a problem in Madden NFL 18. Some may enjoy it, as people enjoy Madden for all kinds of different reasons. I like franchise, and the improvements there are enough to have me happy.
Perhaps my biggest complaint with the last few Madden games has been the overall sluggishness and presentation of everything outside of gameplay. I’m not a fan of the tile-based menus, and while those are still here, they’re much speedier to navigate this time around, and look a lot sharper. The whole game is cleaner and visually pleasant to look at and move through.
Long load times have also been an issue, but those are improved as well. They’re still not where they should be — seeing your franchise coach pop in randomly after not loading as fast as the menus can be rather jarring. The game still puts its offers and advertisements front and center to try to upsell you on Ultimate Team packs and the like, but the time it takes to get away from that and to whatever mode you want is reduced considerably.
While small graphics updates are the norm for yearly sports titles, I have to say that this year’s Madden takes a bigger jump in quality than you’d expect. I’ve played the Xbox One X-enhanced version of Madden NFL 18, and it is quite pretty, but Madden 19 features much better lighting, improved textures all-around, and renders NFL stadiums as faithfully as possible. It’s gorgeous on PC, running at 4K with HDR at 60FPS. I spent a lot of time trying to adjust the brightness on my TV before I realized the game was simply rendering the shadows/shaded areas of the field more realistically.
It takes a lot of time and a lot of money to create accurate 3D models, and there are a whole lot of them EA Sports has to make each year — though nobody would argue they don’t have the funds to model everybody authentically. Typically, the game will have 15-20 big-name players who have excellent likenesses, a few who have passable likenesses, and way more who are so far removed from reality that it’s hilarious.
The models are improved this time around — by a lot — but they still miss on many likenesses. Here’s a few I’ve assembled in a gallery (with the latest patch at the time of capture, including the “launch” patch).
As noted, I have only played the PC version, and I have a rather powerful machine, which could compensate for a lack of optimization. Though the system requirements are reasonable, there are moments where the frame rate drops considerably, but this hasn’t happened to me during an actual play as of yet.
Instead, the drops occur around the game presentation: panning overhead views of the crowd between quarters, during timeouts, and things of that nature. I get a steady 60FPS in gameplay running at 4K resolution with HDR (though all captures in this article are at 1080p and without HDR), so those transition-related frame drops are particularly noticeable when they happen.
How much of the gameplay running smoothly is owed to my strong PC is unclear, but as someone sensitive to frame drops, the fact that I haven’t noticed them during gameplay is a great sign.
Each year, the Madden franchise is a question of value proposition for every potential buyer: is it worth the $60 upgrade?
For me, I was always going to buy in to a new PC version after a decade off the platform, but the improvements, both large and iterative, have finally hit the right balance. I firmly believe it’s worth the upgrade over the previous game. If you haven’t upgraded in a couple years, it’s an even better deal.
“Real player motion” isn’t perfect, but it’s an honest improvement that feels better and better the longer I play the game. I consider this the best version of Madden to date, and I’ve been playing the franchise since I could hold a controller in my hand. In true Madden form, I’ll be assigning an overall (OVR) ranking for this year’s game.