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‘Madden NFL 20’ is finally understanding its audience. Here’s our complete review

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After a period of stagnation, ‘Madden’ continues to improve in ways that make it worth your time.

Last year, I recommended the latest iteration of the Madden NFL franchise, calling it the first one in a long time that I could recommend as a complete $60 package. After spending time with Madden NFL 20, which releases for all major platforms on Aug. 2, I can again say that EA is getting pretty good at making tangible improvements that go beyond a simple roster update.

That said, Madden NFL 20 is not without its flaws. There’s a growing disconnect between fans of the more realistic, almost sanitized Madden of today, and fans who prefer the minigame-packed, looser-feeling Madden of yesteryear.

EA has tried to bridge that gap in recent games with the introduction of “arcade” style play vs. “simulation”, which aims to create a faster-paced game with more big plays. It’s a noticeable difference, and now EA has added development traits like Superstar X Factors and Zone Abilities, which elevate the highest-rated players beyond mere mortals.

From the new Face of the Franchise story mode to the graphic upgrades, I’ll run you through all you need to know about Madden NFL 20.

Gameplay

The biggest difference that will affect every mode is the sweeping changes made to Madden’s ratings. EA drew criticism in the past for big-name players being too easy to replace with lower-rated backups, and tackled that this year by creating a much bigger disparity in the ratings.

The result is that more players are rated in the 60s (out of 99), while many starters don’t even break 80. It can look alarming to longtime Madden players, especially fans of teams who aren’t particularly good, like me (hello, 49ers). Still, players in the mid-to-high 70s don’t feel worse than they did in previous games, though the AI does feel worse in that regard.

As far as the on-the-field action, I love it. With the ball in your hands, everything is smooth. Stick moves feel better than ever, and I’ve noticed many new unique animations in tackles and catches, along with more signature celebrations for star players like Patrick Mahomes (the cover athlete).

On the defensive side of the ball, the on-screen prompts for jumping the snap and rushing the passer have been tweaked. EA changed some of the terminology to make it clearer what types of pass-rush moves you’re using and are appropriate for the situation.

I play on “simulation,” which for some people is too slow, and I get that. Sometimes you just want to sling the ball around, and the “arcade” setting helps with that. More tackles get broken. More balls get intercepted. Stick moves play a huge factor. Throwing motions seem to be faster. Simulation is more methodical, and that leads to fewer bigger plays.

In either setting, I think this year’s game feels great to play. Breaking tackles has never felt better.

Superstar X Factor/Zone Abilities

Here is the big one. Players can now be defined as Superstar or Superstar X Factor. The latter is the highest level of development for a player that includes one game-changing X Factor trait, in addition to multiple lesser Zone Abilities. Players with Superstar development can still earn new Zone Abilities, but not X Factor abilities.

The X Factors require meeting specific criteria to activate, be it completing consecutive passes or defending two passes on one drive. There are many of them in the game, and they’re built into the other modes, including Face of the Franchise and the classic Franchise mode.

The lesser abilities are similar to traits that have been in the game previously, but there are quite a few new ones. Clutch is one example. Before, it was more of a nebulous trait that was harder to define. But now we know exactly what it does and how it’s activated: It kicks in halfway through the fourth quarter in close games and prevents players who are “in the zone” from being knocked out of the zone for the remainder of regulation.

Ben Roethlisberger has Pro Reads X Factor, which highlights the first open receiver. He also has five abilities that make sense if you’re familiar with his style of play. The same is true for several other well-known players. EA did a good breakdown of the many abilities and X Factors earlier.

So how does it affect the game?

I spent a good amount of time trying to determine exactly how the X Factors and abilities can impact a game.

In arcade mode, I noticed X Factor players doing better than the others, but how much of that was simply because they’re rated higher than the rest of the guys on the field?

To test this, I chose Adam Thielen, wide receiver for the Vikings, who comes with the X Factor and abilities listed in the image above. I am targeting Slot-O-Matic, which increases the receiver’s ability to make faster cuts and have better hands on short routes when lined up in the slot.

I then created a new player with the same ratings at Thielen, but without the Superstar X Factor development trait or any extra abilities. I dubbed my creation Tdam Ahielen.

I went into an arcade exhibition game, and ran the same three slot routes (slant, a shallow out with a double move, and a deep cross with a double move) multiple times with each player, and it did feel like Thielen’s cuts were sharper. I can’t say whether or not he caught the ball better, because both receivers caught the passes thrown their way. But his cuts were tighter, especially when reversing direction.

I did the same for Aaron Donald. It seemed — though it’s hard to know for sure — that Donald was beating his man with more regularity than my copycat player with matching stats on both modes.

The Run Pass Option

There are specific playbook additions, like the Philly Special, but there is also an emphasis on the run-pass option in Madden NFL 20. There are more ways than ever to trick a defense, with several new option plays and well-made tutorials explaining how they work and how to identify the defense’s read on the play.

A speedier gameday experience

When you get a game like Madden, the expectation is that you’ll play it off and on until next year’s version comes out. That means the little things that are interesting at first — the stadium presentation, new intros and setups for their “broadcasts,” celebrations, and the like — become repetitive and annoying.

I haven’t spent much time waiting around in Madden NFL 20, and games seem to be moving more quickly. It’s now easier to skip pregame, halftime, and postgame shenanigans.

The biggest difference is when you run the no-huddle offense. Instead of having to watch your players get back into formation, the screen quickly fades out then back in with your team lined up.

Game modes

QB1: Face of the Franchise

The big new mode is Face of the Franchise. It replaces the Longshot story mode from the previous two games. You begin by creating and naming your quarterback, who then joins one of 10 college football teams in the game that EA got the license to.

Then your coach tells you that the top quarterback recruit in the nation just joined the same school. Time jumps forward four years to the College Football Playoff semifinal. Your team is playing and that top recruit is injured. You’re the next man up.

You are joined by star wide receiver Isaiah Streets, whose brother passed away from cancer. He uses that as his motivation, and it’s a theme throughout the story mode.

Early in the story, you meet a little girl named Emily, with the same disease Streets’ brother had, and she asks you to throw four touchdowns in the national championship game. She also asks you what color mane you’d want on your unicorn — pink or purple. I went with pink, but apparently the right answer was neither.

You then play in the semifinal and, presuming you lead the team to a win, the national championship. Your coach gives you a limited playbook, which includes nothing under center (or perhaps that was a function of me picking LSU, I’m not sure).

You are given dialogue choices early on that are usually somewhere between confident and being grateful for the opportunity. My quarterback, named Butts Carlton (because I am a child), was fairly confident and for good reason: I led my team to a national championship and then proceeded to kick ass at the NFL Scouting Combine.

The NFL Combine is where it gets funny (and real)

Where the mode got entertaining is the combine interview process, which was almost too realistic. The first to interview me was someone with the Giants, who basically big-timed me. Then I met with a rep from the Dolphins, who asked to see my cell phone. I gave it to him, and then he berated me for giving my cell phone to a stranger. Fair enough.

Washington’s interviewer was intense. He asked me a hypothetical: if I were on a bus in Alaska driving high speed downhill, would I be in the front or back of the bus? I answered “front,” and he went off on a tirade, asking me if I checked the tire pressure and inspected the engine myself before I got on board. My character was, understandably, confused. The interviewer then implied that such a question is unanswerable, and my character didn’t know how to handle that, either.

I also acquired an agent, who came up to me at the combine and pretty much told me that he’s my agent now. It was entertaining for a bit, but his shtick, as far as I can tell, is that he’s not a very good agent.

The mode is more familiar after the draft

I was eventually drafted by the Miami Dolphins near the end of the first round.

On my way to the team facility, my character encountered an Uber driver who wanted to talk to me about how he played JUCO ball and how the Dolphins really need to fix their offense. I laughed — he was funnier than my agent — and my character shut the door on him when he started to get too enthusiastic about the conversation.

Once you are drafted, you are taken to what is essentially franchise mode, with some added depth. There are engagements to manage and relations to build, including more dialogue choices, texts from reporters and your head coach, and the ultimate goal of building a legacy. After your first year, you get one of four endings depending on how you performed throughout the mode. You can continue after that through the modified franchise mode.

So is Face of the Franchise good?

I found it to be entertaining enough, and much better than Longshot, which was full of cliches and offensive stereotypes (though there are still plenty of cliches in this mode). It’s a mostly fun playthrough with good performances from the voice-actors and effective cutscenes. You shouldn’t buy the game just for this mode, but it’s worth playing.

Ultimate Team

Cards on the table (pun not intended but kept), I’ve never been a fan of Ultimate Team, even though it’s a hugely popular mode.

If you’re unfamiliar, in Ultimate Team, you open card packs and build your roster out of a deck. The cards have limited uses and can be sold/scrapped for currency to buy more packs or increase the abilities of another card. You play football with that lineup, earning more points and currencies. As with all games with microtransaction-based elements, there are several currencies, all of which are used to buy card packs. You get some of them from completing challenges, selling cards, or paying outright for them.

I received a ton of card packs as a result of having a press copy and Origin Access Premier, so I opened 25+ packs (about six of which were 49ers packs). I came out with a team that looks pretty good, but if I didn’t have all those extra packs, I imagine it would look fairly dire. You can see my offense and defense lineups above and below.

The mode seems similar to past games, and it feels like EA is trying to get you to earn currency rather than simply purchase card packs. But of course, the option to purchase is still there, and the fact will always remain that those with deeper pockets can have an advantage in building a more complete team.

There are new “Ultimate Challenges” that replace “Solos,” and they can be played with friends to complete. More rewards are given out for milestones within challenges, unlike previous games where you got nothing if you didn’t complete a (sometimes long) challenge.

EA has also brought over player archetypes from the Franchise mode, allowing you to lightly modify the type of player they are, within the same position group. By changing a linebacker’s archetype from speed rusher to run stopper, the rating adjusts accordingly. There’s enough here to keep the mode fresh.

Franchise

Not much has changed with Franchise.

As you progress through a season, you have all the usual options: building your roster, doing a fantasy draft, playing as an owner and setting concessions prices, importing draft classes, relocating your team, and drafting rookies. With the new development traits and X Factors that you can pick and customize as you acquire and level up players, you have a small added layer of management that helps keep it fresh.

The week-to-week progression is still very much that Franchise mode, and there isn’t a lot else to say about it. I have enjoyed recent Franchise modes, and I enjoy this one.

Online play and exhibition

When you first load up Madden NFL 20, you’re greeted with the 2019 Pro Bowl, which is to help showcase many of the Superstar X Factor traits. It’s a good introduction, and I recommend playing through it rather than quitting out, as some tend to do when they don’t feel like playing the guided tutorial.

There is also Skills Trainer, with effective tutorials of the game’s various systems for both sides of the ball and special teams. It comes with commentary from Jonathan Coachman, and it does a decent job of explaining the many, many mechanics of Madden.

Online play is a major part of Madden and the experience remains relatively unchanged. I played a few online matches against folks who had access to the game pre-release, and I had no connection issues — though as always, your mileage may vary. Last year’s game had some lag problems at launch, and only time will tell if the servers take a beating on launch day again.

Presentation

The presentation of the game is pretty familiar. It’s the same tile-based menus, a couple dozen well-made player likenesses, beautiful renderings of stadiums, a solid soundtrack, official touches from the NFL Network, and good commentary provided by Charles David and Brandon Gaudin.

I am not a lover of commentary, because I play so much that it wears thin, but EA has at least put in the effort. The people who splice audio together for video game commentary are wizards, and it’s never sounded more natural. That said, you’ll hear repeated anecdotes and more cliches than during actual football broadcast.

User interface and graphics

While I think football games lag behind other sports — probably due to larger roster sizes — when it comes to the sharpness of player models, Madden continues to improve its look every year. The animations are more fluid, and the menus are sharp with new font treatments that feel inspired by NFL Films. The PC version, which is the one I played, looks amazing in-game, running at 4K.

What a handsome pass.

There are the usual caveats. Sometimes the menus can be a bit slow to navigate. The newest presentation of the depth chart is particularly awful, though there is a button for automatically optimizing it. Thankfully, the classic way of organizing the depth chart is also available — it’s just not the default.

The menus in general are concise, helpful, and mostly unchanged from last year, save for the colors and fonts. The on-screen tips and prompts when you’re playing — whether it be an explanation of the run-pass option or notifying you of your timing when trying to jump the snap — are all effective.

Player likenesses

It would be cost-prohibitive for EA to model over 1,000 individual players for the game, but it’s jarring when a famous player doesn’t look like himself. It can also be a bummer when several players on the same team have the same player model. Many players choose not to get scanned, but it’s disappointing that EA hasn’t added enough customization options to at least approximate on a more consistent basis.

I’ve picked 3-4 players from each team, and you can see their likenesses in the gallery below. Some are accurate. Some are default models. Some look like somebody tried and gave up.

Performance

For this review, I used the PC version of Madden NFL 20, running on ultra settings, at 4K with HDR (screenshots from this article do not contain the HDR effect). In my experience, it ran great. I’m running a pretty beefy rig that handled the game at a constant 60fps with no noticeable drops, with the lone exception being when the game shifts to certain broadcast-oriented angles, such as the helicopter view of the stadium. For some reason, the frame rate dips bad at that part, same as it did with Madden NFL 19.

Overall, it runs well, load times are speedy off of my SSD, and I experienced no crashes in my time with the game.


I miss when Madden crammed in as much extra nonsense as possible (please come back to us, Rushing Attack). The lack of those fun minigames has made every Madden worse off since EA took them out.

But I do find that the arcade setting, along with the extra abilities and X Factors, combine for a looser experience that fans of the early-aughts releases will appreciate.

Every year we talk about what’s changed and what hasn’t, but lost is the fact that Madden is a complex game. EA put in work to make so many moving parts — everything you’d need to make a realistic football game — feel unique and useful to the player.

There are a lot of mechanics working underneath the surface to make each position feel different to play, and it’s my opinion that those continue to evolve in ways that move the franchise forward.

In true Madden spirit, I’ll once again assign the game an overall rating and give it a slight bump from Madden NFL 19.

Madden NFL 20 Rating: 96 OVR