Review: Madden 25 (360, PS3)

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It goes without saying that the video game business has been in a constant state of evolution since the art form was invented. There is no better reflection of this perpetual growth than the Madden franchise. Birthed back in 1988 and starting its humble life on the Commodore 64, the brand has gone on to become one of the world’s biggest annual titles and a crown jewel in the cap of Electronic Arts’ highly touted sports stable. Twenty five years later it is still going strong and on the doorstep of making the jump to next generation console technology. Has the team over at Tiburon crafted a memorable send off for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 era, or have shifting development priorities resulted in things going out to more of a whimper?

If you are reading this review and thinking to yourself, “Did I accidentally slip into a cryogenic sleep and wake up in 2025?” or more importantly, “why the hell is Madden still being released on the Xbox 360, 12 years later?” rest assured that it is still 2013. In an effort to highlight the twenty fifth anniversary of the Madden franchise, they opted to adopt the name Madden 25. Clever marketing ploy? Perhaps. If nothing else, it should make for an interesting naming discussion when the 2025 season rolls around. Naming conventions aside, rest assured that this is the same frenetic pigskin action that legions have grown to love, with plenty of new tweaks to the formula just for good measure.

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The core of this year’s Madden installment is more about refinement than it is about reinvention. Modifications to the game’s core Infinity Engine have vastly improved, if not nearly eradicated, many of the physics and collision detection issues that players complained about in 2013’s title. The result is a more tightly tuned ground game that is best exploited using the newly introduced “precision modifier.” Just be sure to take full advantage of the training simulations in order to make the most of the improved ball-carrier controls. It might take a while for the changes to sink in, but with time it will become just as second nature as bellowing at the TV in disgust when a play doesn’t pan out.

Another interesting by-product of the Infinity Engine upgrades are on the presentation side. While last year did away with many of the canned animations that plagued the franchise, this year the moment-to-moment animations look far more natural. For example, this time around tackles seem to transfer the flow of energy from pursuer to ball-carrier with far less of the rigidity that had been present preciously. Every player bounces naturally from collision to collision, with very few exceptions. The result is a far more convincing visual experience that further blurs the line between simulation and reality.

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One area that still needs a significant amount of refinement are the pre-play audible menus. What was once a streamlined last ditch effort to salvage a play, has turned into a convoluted series of submenus that are extremely inaccessible to folks that don’t follow the series year-over-year. Sure, it might give power users more control to make changes at the line, but god help the poor newbie that is just trying to keep from running a play that was selected by accident. There comes a point where less is more, and that threshold has been breached, tenfold.

As nice as the gridiron level enhancements are in Madden 25, they still pale in comparison to the work that has been done on the simulation aspects of the meta-game. Features like the ability to play the connected franchise mode as an owner is another substantial step forward for the aspiring Jerry Jones’ of the world. But don’t celebrate too soon, because it doesn’t prove to be quite as all-encompassing as one might hope. Essentially ownership boils down to most of the controls contained in the franchise mode, with a few amplifications thrown in here and there. Unfortunately, what is new content doesn’t do enough to set the mode apart from what is already available in the core suite.

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Along with the created player franchise mode reprising its role as the most enjoyable way to consume the football lifestyle, the Madden Ultimate Team also heads back to the huddle for another season. This time out the game’s trading card mechanic once again seems hell-bent on bilking bucks from an unsuspecting audience. Sadly, Ultimate Teams seem to be the growing trend in most EA Sports games, and one that is favored very heavily in the menu’s interface design. It is downright impossible to miss, even if you wanted to. Criticisms aside, the strategic aspects of the lineup design, playbook selection, and roster improvement, all make for an extremely compelling way to dip a toe into the waters of franchise management, without the commitment of setting the prices for concessions and other unappealing minutia that takes attention away from the pigskin play. Also, it is worth noting that the glorified tutorial, also known as the Skills Trainer, ties back into Ultimate Team by offering up rare card drops upon completion of pre-defined challenges. After all, learning is always a bit more fun when there is a treat on the other end of a lesson.

What is probably the most surprising aspect of Madden 25 is its lack of self-celebration. For a title that changed its naming convention just to highlight twenty five years’ worth of evolution, it sure doesn’t do much to highlight the achievement. There should have been far more than just nostalgic loading screens if they really wanted to justify the naming deviation. The truth of that matter is that the game feels more like it is stalling for a new console than reliving the prior glories of a storied franchise. Digital football has come a long way in the last two and a half decades. Too bad the growth over the off season wasn’t nearly substantial enough to validate its special moniker. Let’s hope that Madden’s next gen introduction proves a bit more redefining than this current gen retread.

A review copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

Gridiron action may have already peaked for this console generation, because Madden 25 feels like slight variations on an extremely familiar theme.

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