Lots of people grew up learning the intricacies of football by playing various renditions Madden. Current players still use the game as a simulation of sorts when they're not practicing. But the newest version, Madden NFL 15 (hitting stores August 26), is the smartest version yet.
In a nod to the ever expanding interest in the X's and O's of football and the rise of film-watching from casual fans, EA Sports added significant improvements in player control and tutorials designed to teach fans and gamers about the game.
This, more than anything else, was the biggest difference in the game for me. And it's a very welcome improvement -- my son's not old enough to play but I would give him this game because it could teach him about various coverages, defensive schemes and ways offenses attack those schemes.
So it's kind of seriously that I point out how EA didn't try and go overboard with the addition of something like a hit stick, etc., and instead -- as they transitioned the game to new consoles (XBox 1 and Playstation 4) -- tweaked some things on defense and offense while to make the game more educational.
The game opens, of course, with a shot of cover athlete Richard Sherman. But it follows quickly with love for the Legion of Boom (a.k.a. #LOB) on the opening screen.
From there, Cam Newton shows up! The Panthers quarterback is the "voice" of Madden; perhaps this is a new thing: the winner of the cover vote is the "face" and runner up "gets" to voice 10,000 different lines?
It's actually nice because he points you in the direction of various additions and, if you're playing the game for the first time, how to start things off. (It feels weird suggesting someone might be playing Madden for the first time, but I guess everyone wasn't born in 1981. Sigh.)
Cam's first instruction is to hit up the "Skills Training" section. Confession: I loved the old skills training games, back when you could throw through rings with Brett Favre to try and unlock players. But my initial reaction to the news skills section was "ehhhhh" at best: learning how to accelerate while running or how to throw lob passes? No thanks.
After breezing through the offensive section, though, I was glad I stuck around.
Defensively there are changes, particularly in pass rush. Different buttons control pass rush now and it's borderline critical to figure it out. For years I've just used the power whip move to bust around offensive tackles, now there's more subtly-timed usage of buttons to beat offensive linemen.
Tackling's different too; wisely smarter with a various buttons for aggressive versus conservative tackling and then the hit stick to boot.
Once you get through there is when the fun starts for would-be football nerds.
You spend a set of offensive drills running against various defenses, with those defenses explained.
But not just explained, either. Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 3 all get broken down with explanations of what areas of the field are vulnerable and what routes to use in order to attack those areas of the field.
Additionally, the tutorial teaches you, as a virtual quarterback, how to identify coverages.
Very cool stuff. Offense gets the same treatment too, with a breakdown of various passing concepts.
Is all of this entirely necessary if you're already a football junkie (or a football player)? Maybe not. But the idea of plunking my kid down in front of the TV is suddenly a lot more appealing if he's learning basic and next-level concepts about the game of football.
And the game is "smarter" inside of itself as well.
As mentioned, rushing the passer is substantially different. You can't just bang on the right trigger button until your swim move gets you into the backfield. (Insert sad emoji here...)
Now rushing the passer requires timing and a decision based on speed or power. You can jump the snap, though it's timing dependent and could cost you five yards. And when you engage a blocker either using a power or speed move will draw results from your player circle, letting know you know what works and what doesn't. It's much harder, to be honest, but it's also more realistic.
Defensive lineman can also use the triggers to determine which way they'll move once a block is shed, making run-stuffing an increasingly important feature.
Tackling in the open field features (on non All-Madden levels) a "tackle cone" which is larger or smaller depending on who you're tackling with.
Once the offensive player's inside the cone, you can choose to be aggressive or more conservative with your tackling.
Offensively there are plenty of changes as well. Pre-snap play-calling is more realistic (and slower, thankfully). You can't just rattle of 19 different audibles in three seconds every single play. It requires Peyton Manning-level work at the line to get the calls and protections out.
"Pass inaccuracy" might sound like a bug but it's now a feature: the idea being the less accurate a quarterback is in real life, the less accurate they should be in virtual life. Jake Locker is going to miss on short passes more often than Russell Wilson in real life and that's now reflected in the game, no matter how good a player you might be.
As a "Franchise Mode" traditionalist (and someone on pace to be a complete curmudgeon in five years) the "Connected Career" is still frustrating. But once you realize all you need to do is fire up "Coach" mode (or "Owner" if you want to deal with the financials, stadium stuff, etc., as well) it's really not hard to navigate.
There's also an addition I absolutely love to it: when you play games, the better a player does, the more XP (read: points) he earns. Once the game is over, you can choose how to spend points earned to improve the player who earned them. Boosting ratings isn't always my cup of tea, but cranking up someone's ratings is pretty expensive; you'd need a strong performance over the course of a season to truly improve someone.
In that sense it's quite realistic.
As a whole, the game pops. It feels different even though it's Madden; those people who need/want change every year should feel like they got it. Those folks who want the reliable performance of EA's franchise title will get it as well.
And everyone involved should be a little bit smarter when it comes to football as well.