There’s a wind blowing through the trees of gaming. You can feel it in licensing deals switching around (college football and EA), and how often we use our phones to play games, and even how immersive fantasy football apps are becoming. The Xbox One’s promise of instantly integrated sports video and stats at our fingertips continues a future blur of second screens and windows to the real -- where live sports and games could, perhaps, blend.
EA’s new Madden 25 -- “Madden NFL 2014” to you and me -- has no real part of that, at least in its current Xbox 360/PS3 iteration. It’s an update to 2012’s Madden game, which was an update to 2011’s, and so on. Madden 25, celebrating 25 years of Madden game iterations, shows you how the game has evolved via little screens as you load the current version.
Madden 25 doesn’t feel like the large step Madden 13 was. Madden 13 was one of my favorite recent Maddens, but after playing a bunch of games of Madden 25, I found myself drifting into imagining this was still Madden 13. It’s more like a bumped-up version of last year’s game, with tweaked physics, an extra-tweaked running-game system, and an added Owner Mode to the expansive soup-to-nuts Connected Franchise mode. You can simulate nearly everything in Madden 25, and there are more ways to play than you’ll ever get to in a calendar year.
But it’s missing that next-gen step: it’s still not a reflection of the actual NFL season as much as it could be.
I use Madden like an armchair quarterback and weekly Jets therapy session. I replay bad moments (usually there are more of those than good ones) and try to make them better, or play a preview of the week to come as an educational scouting session. It’s my Monday morning quarterback and pregame show. I rely on it as part of my appreciation of the season.
Yet, Madden isn’t great at integrating more of what’s actually going on in the season. There are roster updates, sure, but what about accessing full rundowns of last week’s games? How about real-time replaying -- in Madden -- of plays on games being broadcast?
These types of dreams require data from the NFL, or incredibly diligent worker bees ready to transcribe the week’s entire games into Madden-ified scripts. Madden Moments, a brief greatest-hits series of challenges of the week’s most interesting scenarios, offers a tease of this idea. It could go further.
Connected Careers, introduced last year, has returned as Connected Franchise. It's got a lot more owner-based minutiae, like older versions of Madden in years past. In its sprawling totality, Connected Franchise offers an online virtual fantasy season of sorts, a sports MMORPG that acts like a parallel sports universe. What it isn't is a true reflection of the NFL season at hand, a companion piece for NFL fans.
I’d love a different type of connected gameplay: having my family call plays as the coaching staff on their phones while a friend and I execute those plays on controllers, or finding ways to play along without having to know every move. With second-screen phones and tablets, you could turn a whole living room into a football organization. Look at what Ubisoft has planned for Watch Dogs, a game that lets someone use a tablet to view the map and make tactical hacks while somebody else plays the game on the TV.
Incidentally, Madden 25 also lacks the sort of throwback material you might expect from a game with Barry Sanders on the cover. A smattering of classic players and coaches are available to you, but as always, classic teams and players aren't featured. It's a licensing issue, but I'd love to be able to turn back the clock and play seasons from 15 years ago, or classic Super Bowls. That's not happening this year.
Madden emerges at an odd time for console games: the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are in their twilight years, and new consoles emerge in November, midway through the NFL season. The true promises of the PS4 and Xbox One are fuzzy: maybe the next-gen versions of Madden 25 coming later this year will feel more advanced. Maybe sports games will evolve after this year, on those platforms, to become something more immediate, more immersive, connected to and reflecting real broadcast sports and becoming another facet of it. Maybe mobile will fold into console games in a more fascinating way. But, right now, those are all maybes. Madden needs to explore these options in versions to come to take the next step. Madden the video game is hitting a wall; Madden as an NFL experience has a lot more it could offer.