Like a lot of shy, introverted nerds, I don’t know anything about football.
So when publisher EA Sports sent us a review copy of Madden NFL 16, the latest entry in its juggernaut annual football game franchise, I experienced a roller-coaster ride of emotions: Fear, shame, and anxiety.
Here’s a sense of my experience with the sport:
- I got talked into playing in a fantasy football league with friends last year, where I drafted six kickers. I figured the more kickers the better, because…you know. “Foot”-ball. I still don’t fully understand why I was wrong.
- I played NFL 2K for the Sega Dreamcast at a friend’s house once. I somehow managed to call a field goal on the first play. It did not work out, and we quickly switched back to Sonic Adventure.
- A lot of people are mad at Tom Brady, for either inflating balls that were deflated, or deflating balls that were inflated. It is not clear to me.
But a friend of mine made a good point: I may not know anything about football, but I do know a lot about video games.
Lots of games, from Mario to Assassin’s Creed, start from the assumption that you’ve never played before, and gradually introduce you to the core concepts and mechanics as you go.
So I can’t tell you if Madden NFL 16 is an accurate representation of professional football, though our friends at Tech Insider say it’s the most realistic portrayal yet. But can I tell you if it’s any good, especially for new players?
It turns out that I can, and that Madden is a legitimately fun game. Plus, it gave me a whole new respect for the sport.
Here’s how it went down:
When you first turn on Madden NFL 16 for Xbox One, it drops you straight into a simulated, cinematic version of next February's Super Bowl 50, which it apparently guesses will be between Pittsburgh and Arizona, with no warning. This is the video game version of that dream where you're back in high school and there's an exam that you didn't study for and also you're naked.
After that, it prompts you to choose a team. I went with my hometown San Francisco 49ers, because Levi's Stadium is down the street from this place where I once got an amazing Belgian waffle that was fried and sugared like a churro. Sadly, that place is not simulated in this game.
Fortunately, Madden offers a series of tutorials that introduce even the novice player to some fundamentals. Unfortunately, they assume you already have a working knowledge of basic stuff, like how many points a touchdown is worth, or what a 'down' is. (It's how many tries you have to move the ball 10 yards. You're welcome.)
Seriously, even the loading screens are full of 'advice' that's a lot of meaningless gibberish to anybody not intimately familiar with the language of football.
The first thing I noticed in gameplay: This game is really pretty. EA includes a bunch of licensed player likenesses in the game, and has been releasing more as free downloadable upgrades.
No, seriously, it's really pretty. Even if the soundtrack, featuring artists like Method Man & Redman and Twenty One Pilots, sounds like a frat house threw up on a Spotify playlist.
Also, there's a lot of bizarre real-world advertising in the game. Gatorade sponsors the in-game tutorials, and sometimes it just straight-up shows you a Papa John's commercial in game.
Eventually, I decided to learn by doing with the game's Franchise mode, where you get to take a team from the pre-season (apparently you play football before the wins and losses count?) all the way through the Super Bowl and the following year's draft (which is where you pick new players).
At first, I didn't really get the 'flow' of the game. I just kind of went with it. My base assumptions: If I have the ball, I need to get it as far away from me as possible, which is made more difficult by the haters on the other team.
Madden comes with dozens upon dozens of complicated plays, theoretically taken from real NFL playbooks. Luckily, the game gives you suggestions on what to run, largely based on what other Madden players do in the same situation -- a neat bit of online functionality that EA Sports seems to update constantly. I'd be totally lost otherwise.
Eventually, I started thinking about calling plays like Pokemon: Try to match your strengths to their weaknesses, make your move, watch how it plays out, and then adjust your strategy accordingly for the next time.
With that as my baseline, I started to get a deeper understanding of how football is supposed to be played. Once I grasped just how important it was to place my passes where they can do the most good, I developed an all-new appreciation for the quarterback.
As the quarterback, you have to be aware of everything on the field at once. You have to figure out who's open, and who's well-positioned. But if you take too long, you get sacked. Hard.
I still don't grasp all of the intricacies. The controls are obscenely complicated: Carrying the ball on a running play requires pushing the right trigger to run, the right bumper to protect the ball, the A button to do something called a 'stiff arm,' B to spin, which is a good trick, and the right analogue stick to dodge, strafe, or hustle. On defence, I counted at least four different types of tackles.
Plus, the game throws lots and lots of information at you. It's in the name of making it look more like a sports broadcast, but it can get overwhelming. Especially with the announcers shouting the same few inanities at you, including the immortal 'Things are about to get started at this one' at the kickoff of almost every game, which is the pinnacle of nonsense-talk.
Under the hood, it's ridiculously complicated. You can manage each and every one of your players, including how they're developing any one of their 50 different stats, from speed to reach to strength. You also need to manage stuff like your team's salary cap, and scouting new players coming up from college leagues. Speaking as a one-time Final Fantasy nerd, it's seriously the most intricate stats-based game I've ever played.
I started learning how to make bigger, bolder plays, and figuring out when it was time to run, pass, or even fake a field goal, which Business Insider West Coast Bureau Chief Matt Rosoff had to explain to me why that's even a thing. It worked! Once.
Even those bizarre running controls started making sense to me, and I was able to start punching through the defensive line. Also, I learned what a 'defensive line' is.
Madden NFL 16 also includes a fantasy football mode called 'Madden Ultimate Team,' which provides a series of bite-sized challenges that earn you virtual packs of trading cards that unlock players of the past and present for your dream team.
Those challenges are actually really fun, and take a lot less time than the hour-plus it can take to play through an entire game. They're drawn from real-life highlights from the 2014 season: The first level is reversing the Seahawks' catastrophic last-minute mistake at the Super Bowl, which I fixed first time out. Take that, Tom Brady, whatever it is you did or didn't do.
The real issue with Madden Ultimate Team is that it works kind of like an iPhone game: You can (but don't have to) spend real money to get in-game players. It's a little more acceptable in a smartphone release, but Madden NFL 16 costs $59.99 at retail, making this a little hard to swallow.
Still, on the lowest difficulty setting, I've so far been able to ignore or have the game automatically handle a lot of the complexity, and I've actually had fun! I may not be a total football freak, but at least I feel like I finally understand the sport's appeal.
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